The discourse of democracy is turning into a dialogue of the deaf. Each side — liberals and conservatives — claims moral high ground, while disparaging the other as nothing better than medieval barbarians. But the question before us is not one of good versus evil, right versus wrong. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his bestselling 2012 novel The Righteous Mind that we must challenge ourselves to be pushed beyond the boundaries of our own beliefs, to understand the opposing side. We must learn to speak across a widening chasm of belief.
Walking a tightrope across, I ventured into a territory shunned by many on the left: the virtual community of the alt-right. Here are the outposts of the Internet’s Wild West, the places teachers warn students to avoid at all costs. Why subject myself to page after page of racist, anti-Semitic homophobic posts? Because we do not have a right to claim the superiority of our opinions unless we can fully understand competing sides. Because — in the Stanford community and in broader society — we cannot continue to deny the voices of our opponents. Constructing psychological barriers to insulate the like-minded only obscures wide swathes of American society who believe as firmly in their values as we do and who will continue to play a critical role in politics. There is little denying the alt-right has become a prominent feature of the civic sphere. Its rising national presence seemingly legitimizes, and will likely continue to legitimize, the actions of individuals who agree with its ideology. We would do ourselves and each other a disservice by writing off the movement as a scourge, for even diseases must be treated with care.
Before continuing, as the author of this article, I must say that I in no way condone the ideology or actions of the alt-right. Rather, as a woman and as a Jew — two identities not exactly embraced by the alt-right — I believe I have a responsibility to understand them. In exploring seemingly hate-filled online message boards, I hoped to step beyond the confines of a liberal righteous mind and into the very heart of darkness.
Defining the Alt-Right
What is the alt-right? You might say neo-Nazis, white nationalists, racists, or scum of the earth, and you would probably be accurate with any of those descriptors. In the wake of the its resurgence in the public eye, Ben Shreckinger of POLITICO Magazine describes the alt-right as a “dispersed movement that encompasses a range of right-wing figures who are…addicted to provocation” and as a “loose confederacy of meme-generating internet trolls, provocateurs and self-appointed custodians of Trumpism.” Surveying user comments on Donald Trump’s Facebook page, Atlantic writer Jonathon Morgan characterizes the alt-right as a “radicalized subculture” and a “hate group.” Morgan links the “racist or anti-Semitic” comments found on Trump’s page to established white supremacist rhetoric, leading him to conclude that this “ideology is becoming normalized in a large community of Trump supporters.” While some journalists and pundits worry about the advent of the alt-right under a Trump presidency, others continue to debate over the proper definition for this “radicalized subculture.” Kristine Phillips of the Washington Post described the alt-right as being “known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.” Mincing no words in the debate over how to describe the group, Guardian columnist Lindy West writes, “it’s a bunch of straight-up neo-Nazis,” and urges her readers, “if you see a Nazi, say a Nazi.”
Each of these terms carries emotional and political baggage. “Neo-Nazi” conjures up images of massive parades at the Hindenburg Gate in 1939 Berlin. “Radicalized subculture” sounds like disgruntled teens hunkered down in a darkened room spewing venom on the deep web. And the term “hate group” practically speaks for itself. While each of these terms carries a measure of truth, they all permit the audience to easily write off the alt-right as a simple nuisance or a great scourge. However, one might ask, why should we even entertain their ideology in our political discourse? Events of the very recent past are evidence enough.
For his chief strategist, President Donald Trump chose Steve Bannon, executive chair of the news media company Breitbart, an outlet Bannon himself describes as “the platform for the alt-right.” Just ten days after the 2016 election, Richard Spencer, leader of a white nationalist group, convened a meeting of self-described alt-right members in Washington, D.C., less than a mile from the White House. The meeting was dressed in the shadows of 1933 Berlin. Proudly making the Hitler salute, attendees pledged their allegiance to Trump, and cried out for the death of the lugenpresse, or “the lying press,” a term used by the Nazis to silence the media. Post-election analysis has linked the rise of the alt-right largely to Trump’s rhetoric during campaign season. BBC journalist James Cook writes, “populist rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has energised a disparate American movement that is accused of racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny.” Figures like former Breitbart editor and social media pundit Milo Yiannopoulos, before seemingly disappearing in disgrace, joined Richard Spencer in becoming political celebrities. To top it off, the advent of a prominent alt-right has coincided with a new wave of hate crimes in the United States. NBC/Reuters report a greater than 20 percent increase in hate crimes in major metropolitan cities last year. The Southern Poverty Law Center released statistics on 867 hate crimes reported in the ten days following the election, including incidents from every single state. Of those 867, striking figures included 187 incidents linked to anti-black sentiment, 280 anti-immigrant, and 100 anti-Semitic. While it is unjust to link every incident to the alt-right, the recent political climate has undoubtedly empowered a specific hateful sentiment in an unprecedented way.
When looking to explore what underlies this emergent ideology, I focused on two major alt-right web forums: 4chan’s /pol/ or “Politically Incorrect” board, and Stormfront, which touts itself as the “voice of the new, embattled white minority.” The core of the alt-right’s community was driven online after facing resistance from mainstream media. United by a desire for change and stigmatized by the outside world, online users began to form their own communities. Both Stormfront and 4chan outline rules of engagement, and urge new members to read and adhere. Newcomers to Stormfront are led to the 2004 New Orleans Protocol, a set of rules first proposed by David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. The protocol opens by reaffirming the commitment of the white nationalist body to “a pan-European outlook, recognizing national and ethnic allegiance, but stressing the value of all European peoples.”
The /pol/ board has its own conception of “good public discourse.” An introductory post on the board warns, “Unless they are quality, well thought out, well written posts,” they will be deleted, and the user possibly removed from the site. The moderators stress, in a vein close to their Stormfront colleagues, “The variety of threads allowed here are very flexible and we believe in freedom of speech, but we expect a high level of discourse befitting of the board.” The rules of conduct created by the moderators of Stormfront and 4chan would academically be classified as de jureprocedures, meaning they are treated as formal laws or regulations by which users must be abide. In addition to these de jure regulations, the alt-right community is also delineated by de facto elements, or those that are not formally defined but to which users closely adhere for practical reasons.Because the alt-right was driven online through marginalization and stigma, members are acutely sensitive to newcomers in the online community. Members on both Stormfront and 4chan have effectively established a set of words and phrases that mark a user as “clued in” to the culture of the site.
What I cared most about was that these structures, both de facto and de jure, seemed to lay the groundwork for ideology creation. This ideology, born in the virtual sphere, provides the desire and the agenda for change in the physical community. At first glance, the ideology of the alt-right appears as a venomous clutter of anti-Semitism, homophobia, Holocaust denial, Islamophobia and every other prejudice known to man. While each of these tenets is indeed ingrained in the conscience of the alt-right, the group fundamentally understands itself through a certain, distorted historical consciousness. Members of the alt-right see themselves as part of a vast historical tapestry, composed of interweaving threads of progress and degeneracy. They believe their mission is to tie up the ends and right what was wronged. But just what do they think went wrong?
The answer is found in the most charged conversations on Stormfront and 4chan, centered not around current politics or spontaneous bursts of racism but around political theory, historical events, and scholarly texts. Reading through these posts reveals a process of historical interpretation, practiced and refined by the users themselves. One Italian member on /pol/ asks, rhetorically, “Why is Rome such a shithole?” Apparently, “Rome has always been a shithole.” He describes its decline, placing the blame on the actions of rulers like Caesar, who “oppose[d]the obsolete senate and start[ed]giving citizenship to anyone…Basically, any time there was a major crisis, citizenship was extended to foreigners in order to fix the politics, armies, and finances of the Roman world.” In case the parallel to modern Europe wasn’t clear enough, the user rages, “DOES THIS SOUND FUCKING FAMILIAR?” The historical pseudo-analysis is underscored by drawing parallels to contemporary problems across the world. Another conversationon /pol/ is based around the question, “Should the Holy Roman Empire be reestablished?” After explaining the foundations of the Holy Roman Empire in religious warfare, one user comments, “Daily reminder that we are in a Holy War as we speak.”
Members believe the white race has a long history of accomplishment but is slipping into degeneracy owing largely to minority groups and immigrants. On Stormfront, each page is headed by a banner showcasing the achievements of white people (whether or not these people were white nationalists). These include images of writer Edgar Allan Poe and physicist André-Marie Ampère, as well as historical locations such as the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England and the Parthenon in Rome. Each banner is coupled with the phrase “Every month is White history month,” composing a mosaic of the best the white race has to offer. The antidote to contemporary degeneracy is the long history of progress. The who, what, where, when and why of this historical progress is worked out in dozens of conversations on the site. Users can choose from forums entitled “Ideology and Philosophy,” “Nature and Environment,” “History and Revisionism,” “Science and Technology” and even “The Women’s Forum,” to name just a few. Posts in a forum can range from around 3,000 to over one million. Under these headers, one can find conversations such as “The Enlightenment and the Jews,” which includes extensive citations from works by Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau; “Early History of Race/Racism;” “How the ancient Spartans learnt to hate money and wealth” and “PLE Theory on Georg W.F. Hegel & WW2.” Judging by alt-right coverage by The Atlantic, The Guardian or CNN, a vibrant discussion about the merits of Hegel is the last thing one might expect to find on an alt-right forum. And yet the presence of the posts is not unusual for the website described as the face of the white nationalist movement.
Users will even critique each other’s interpretations of a historical event and go so far as to call others out for using quotations out of context. One Stormfront user asks for more links on a particular topic, noting “I’d like more information on this before I comment.” Bemoaning his lack of knowledge, a 4chan member writes, “I am no expert of course just philosophizing.” A fellow user replies back, “I concur, wish we had some more people to discuss with, perhaps more knowledgeable.” During a conversation about the movie Hidden Figures, one Stormfront member writes to another, in a comment reminiscent of a stern college professor, “That’s a weak foundation [upon which]to make that conclusion.” Stormfront members are especially concerned with current perceptions of National Socialism, and will write extensive essays on the site to explain national socialist philosophy, and combat what they consider to be popular misconceptions.
What really fascinated me was that these observations I made are all elements of historical interpretation, as practiced by students and scholars of history, albeit more revisionist. By making claims through historical interpretation, alt-right members cultivate a desire for change. And through the dialogues found on sites like Stormfront and 4chan, they are able to crowdsource an agenda for achieving that change. The historical tapestry, spun from progress and degeneracy, does not end in a neatly embroidered border. Burning in the minds of many alt-right users is the vision of a final battle, between the powerful and the righteous. A Stormfront user writes, “it is a war, and this is a fight to the death.” It is a war that has been waged since the earliest days of white civilization, reaching its zenith in the Crusades, and flying its triumphant colors in the accomplishments of white people. With the rise of liberal ideology — and its corresponding vices of diversity and political correctness — the alt-right believes it is preparing for the next stage of this war. Another Stormfront member implores white nationalists, “Please don’t dump on Christianity. It is the only ideology that united Europeans under one flag as Christendom, and they went out and fought…during the Crusades or against the Moors and the Turks…There is nothing historically better than the Christian flag…for uniting Europe.”
The alt-right’s virtual community is preoccupied foremost with creating an ideological template for their cause. Understanding history allows them to prepare for the future. And, to them, invoking history gives their mission legitimacy. The power of history, and the urgency of the conflict to-be, has also been reflected in the alt-right’s physical presence. Just a day after Trump’s inauguration, populist leaders from across Europe, including Marine Le Pen, met in Koblenz, Germany, a city of around 100,000 people. But this was no random choice of location: Koblenz has been a symbol of political countercurrents ever since aristocrats fearing for their heads fled here during the French Revolution. Le Pen and her fellow nationalists see themselves as inheriting the legacy of political countercurrents, not because they’re aristocrats, but because they’re resisting the dominant, liberal order.
The slogans, marches and speeches seen in the mainstream media — CNN, the New York Times and the like — are only the final products of a much longer process of ideology creation. This is hardly a spontaneous cry, or a transient moment of nationalist rhetoric. The virtual marketplace of ideas provides a template for the alt-right’s own understandings of perceived injustice committed towards an embattled white minority, how a history of progress turned into a narrative of decay and what steps need to be taken to restore the white race. It is no longer enough to simply gripe or rail against minority groups, the government, immigrants or the mainstream media. A leading 4chan moderator rallies his supporters to action, writing, “Though we may rest now in our hour of peace we must stay vigilant for the enemy is always at large. Our enemy are [sic]large in number but they are weak [sic]structured and disorganized. Our strength in our arms and knowledge has shown to be triumphant regardless.”
In order to fully confront the realities of today’s political landscape, one must seek to comprehend the underpinnings of ideology. George Orwell’s 1984 reminds us that “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” The alt-right is more than alternative facts, fake news or wild conspiracy theories. It is a group who, like many others, seeks to establish a cohesive identity, project its version of historical truth and recover what it sees as unjustly taken away its members, the supposed progenitors of civilization. The alt-right seeks to control the past, present and future.
Engaging with the alt-right should not be dependent on whether one sympathizes with their philosophy or finds it abhorrent. It is an act of intellectual honesty to understand the philosophies with which you might not agree. And more importantly, understanding the alt-right reaffirms the need for unity. This unity does not mean accepting the ideology of the alt-right, but rejecting the division between “us” and “them,” the “right” and the “wrong.” Neo-Nazis, homphobes, Islamophobes, Holocaust deniers, and white supremacists are alive and well in 2017 America. The self-righteousness of the Left only emboldens these groups: we will not heal the divisions of this country by turning a blind eye. Let us attempt to understand where these people are coming from and what role they play in this civic sphere.
Lena Zlock is a sophomore studying history.
This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine.