The angst over a more black and brown America, coupled with a widespread frustration with the political system, is the driving force behind the juggernaut of Donald Trump.
For some white folks on the right, America is on the verge of a racial apocalypse. They're horrified because they feel the country is slipping away from them, into the hands of black and brown savages. Whites are already a minority among children under the age of five; interracial marriage is at an all-time high ; and there's a black man living in the White House who wants at least 10,000 Syrian refugees settled in the United States by the end of September. That same president even had the bold-faced audacity to try to shield nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Not to mention, there's a popular movement advocating for protecting the lives of black thugs against law enforcement that has spread across the country, infecting everything from college campuses to national pastimes like the Super Bowl.
According to Ian Haney-Lopez, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and an expert on racism in the post–civil rights era, it's trends like these that have created an environment ripe for a sort of white revanchism. "In the face of social change that has declared people of color are equally human with whites, that women are equally human with men and deserve the same rights of self-determination, that multiple religions and even non-religions ought to be respected," he told VICE, "there are segments of the population who are driven to reclaim their prior superior position in unjust hierarchies."
It's this angst over a more black and brown America, coupled with a widespread frustration with the political system, that is the driving force behind the juggernaut of Donald Trump—the motor fuel that propelled him from reality television to the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Unencumbered by tired conservative talking points about cutting taxes and restoring family values, Trump has declared to this disaffected segment of the white population that he is here to "Make America Great Again"—or rather, to "Make America White Again." And the sentiment has clearly resonated with the Republican electorate.
So it perhaps makes sense that Trump's ascendance as the GOP's standard-bearer has brought out of the shadows those voters who are defined by their white identity politics. A few years ago, the seeds of white nationalism were spread disparately across the web, from the recesses of 4Chan forums fired up about Gamergate to the YouTube pickup artists extolling the virtues of white masculinity to the anti-Semitic memes of neo-Nazis on Daily Stormer.
Since Trump came on the scene, though, many of the right-wing groups focused on the preservation of white status in America have congealed into a broad new movement, collectively known as the "alternative right."
"Donald Trump has been able to communicate and reach average white people who are facing a very difficult future," said Richard Spencer, one of the alt-right's most prominent voices, who leads the National Policy Institute, a white separatist think tank.
"The alt-right was developing on it's own," he said in a recent interview with VICE. "We had our own discussions and disputes and ideas and terms. But because of the Trump movement, we've been brought to a new level. I never would've predicted that we would've been able to ride this wave. I'm used to despising most politicians, particularly Republicans. But with Trump, it's really been different, and that's an amazing thing."
Spencer is credited with coining the term "alternative right" in 2008, and says that the "alt" part signifies a "break away from the constraints of mainstream conservatism." He calls the movement "the intellectual force [behind] Trump," explaining that when mainstream conservatives initially mocked Trump's 2016 candidacy as a joke, it left an opening for the alt-right to fill the void. Although Trump has at least tepidly rejected the kind of overt white nationalism embraced by the movement, he has brought what Spencer described as a kind of "existential quality to politics," particularly around the idea of white identity in a country that is becoming less and less white.
"Essentially, you choose the red pill of truth as opposed to the blue pill of delusion. That is, the truth about race, the truth about America, the truth about the Jewish influence, the truth about women... These are hard truths, and these are truths that go against the grain of liberal ideology and wishful thinking." —Richard Spencer
To Spencer and others on the alt-right, it's not just that Trump has emboldened the movement to come out of the shadows; it's that, with his overtly xenophobic message, he's made more and more mainstream conservatives open to their way of thinking—a process that's referred to by alt-right youth on internet forums and social media as getting "red pilled." A nod to The Matrix the "red pill" can signify anything from feeling angst over GamerGate to stumbling on a men's rights forum to finally recognizing the "cuckservatives" in the Republican Establishment who refuse to embrace their white identity.
"Essentially, you choose the red pill of truth as opposed to the blue pill of delusion," Spencer said. "That is, the truth about race, the truth about America, the truth about the Jewish influence, the truth about women... These are hard truths, and these are truths that go against the grain of liberal ideology and wishful thinking."
For those who've embraced these questionable "truths," the solution is usually clear, involving the establishment of what Spencer calls an "ethno-state" for whites, absent the diversity that the alt-right believes has dragged the country down economically, socially, and culturally. Why you'd want to live in a place with bland food and shitty music is beyond me—but among the slew of different groups under the alt-right umbrella, from the red-pilled libertarians and men's righters to internet trolls, the idea is a unifying theme, a sort of campaign promise used to proselytize and bring new followers into the fold.
"Most whites do not want to have grown up in the United States and end their days in an outpost of Guatemala or Haiti." —Jared Taylor
In that sense, the alt-right and Trump are sort of symbiotic. Trump provides a populist gateway into the ethno-politics of the alt-right, and the movement provides a pseudo-intellectual pathway for ideologically experimental young conservatives to embrace Trump.
This back-and-forth has given the alt-right a cultural profile and awareness that has eluded white-identity politics for decades. Today, the movement is a powerful, if controversial, force in conservative politics, championed by right-wing provocateurs, like Ann Coulter and the writers at Breitbart, and reviled by other Republican commentators for sowing discord in the party. Even publications like the New Yorker and Time have given the alt-right some ink.
"I am delighted that Trump has ridden this wave of instinctive feelings that white Americans have about their country slipping through their fingers," said Jared Taylor, founder of American Renaissance, a think tank that promotes scientific racism, or what Taylor likes to call "race realism." Taylor's been hosting conferences and publishing studies about the genetic differences between races since the early 1990s, helping lay the foundation for the white separatist ideology of the alt-right today.
Although not an outright Trump supporter like Spencer, Taylor thinks the real-estate mogul is the only presidential candidate who might share his views on race in the US. "I think Donald Trump, like most Americans, is annoyed to have to press one for English when he is on hold or to go into a convenience store and be the only white person there—the only person speaking English," he said. "Most whites do not want to have grown up in the United States and end their days in an outpost of Guatemala or Haiti."
"Why should whites want to become a minority?" Taylor added. "Donald Trump has never [asked this question], but, of all of the candidates, he is the only one that I can even imagine saying such a thing."
Of course, Trump is far from the first Republican politician to galvanize voters by appealing to the idea of white identity. The GOP has been employing that tactic since at least the 1960s, when party leaders realized that they could pull white working-class votes away from the Democratic Party by exploiting rising racial anxiety. The tactic, first employed by the anti-Establishment Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, eventually became known as the GOP's "Southern Strategy."
"Conservatives since the Goldwater years have been manipulating these folks," said Haney-Lopez, the UC Berkeley law professor who wrote the 2014 book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class . "They have assumed that they could always control them. But what we've seen is a process of Republicans getting dragged further and further to the right, to more and more extreme positions, because this base of disaffected whites is always available to be mobilized by the next demagogue.
"This is what I think Donald Trump symbolizes," he added. "[That] conservatives cannot control these forces."
But while race-baiting has been a fixture of Republican politics for the last half-century, it mostly existed below the surface, manifesting in thinly veiled references to "states' rights"; those who embraced more overt versions of white nationalism and white-identity politics were driven underground. In the last 15 years, however, those voters have reemerged as part of the GOP rank-and-file, under the banner of the alt-right, gradually draining the Party Establishment of its influence and power.
"Conservatism has been a kind of white-identity politics that dare not speak its name," Spencer said. "The vast majority of people who vote for Republicans are white. Yet if you mention that to most conservatives, they would blush or deny that and say, 'Oh, it's not really about identity or race.'"
"A medium-term goal that we really can achieve, one that I think I'm going to see in my lifetime," he continued, "is the formation of an identity politics, an ethno-politics, for white people in the United States."
One fascinating aspect of the alt-right is that while they've carried the torch of white identity politics, they've done it largely without the classic trappings of white supremacy in America. Though websites like the Daily Stormer and the Right Stuff will use epithets like "nigger" and "faggot" in headlines, and spread memes denying the Holocaust, alt-right leaders like Spencer have, for the most part, put a new, more urbane veneer on white politics. Spencer, who dropped out of Duke University while studying for a doctorate, is depicted in photos rocking the slicked-back hairstyle of a Brooklyn mixologist, and his website Radix Journal dishes on pop culture almost as much almost as much as politics.
This hipster elan is by design, aimed at separating those who identify with the alt-right from the yokels in the white sheets and brutes with swastika tattoos. Indeed, many of the guys who identify with the alt-right even balk at the term "supremacist." Instead of outright racism, Taylor slyly reasons that, "white people just want to be left alone to let their own destiny unfold in a way that is unhindered by the embrace of people unlike themselves who arrive in large numbers to change their culture and change the texture of life for them."
This desire to "be left alone," which gets its ultimate expression in Spencer's idea of the ethno-state, is driven by the idea that race is more than just a social construct. Instead, the alt-right sees race as being rooted in genetics, creating populations that are inherently unequal in everything from IQ to propensity for violence; according to alt-right theories, these genetically based racial differences play a far greater role in determining individual behaviors and outcomes than things like socioeconomic status, education, or institutional oppression. And so the alt-right see the growth in minority populations in the US as a sort of existential threat to American prosperity, because those black and brown individuals are perceived as genetically—and therefore irrevocably—inferior to the whites that they are fast outnumbering.
"Sorry Mr. Trump, but you can't make America great with a third-world population—we are going to be stuck with what our population is capable of," Taylor said. "If this continues, maybe fifty years from now, there could be a real catastrophic breakdown. However, if the United States had maintained the ninety percent white population it had in the 1960s, we would not be facing any of this. We would be living in a much happier, more egalitarian, richer, and much more peaceful society in which people felt like they belonged."
Needless to say, this kind of scientific racism has been resoundingly dismissed by the international science community as just a rationalization for a racist ideology. But Haney-Lopez notes that that's part of what makes the rise of the alt-right so dangerous, particularly at a moment when the country appears to be at a political tipping point.
"We are changing demographically, we are changing racially—we're becoming a truly multiracial society. In the context of this change, we always need to guard against appeals to our worst selves," he said. "The risk with the alt-right movement and Donald Trump is that in the midst of this social transformation, which of course generates anxiety, we are turning toward a movement that encourages us to find some sort of perverse joy in putting other people down and dehumanizing them."
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