Against the Alt-Right: An Interview with Shane Burley

Interviewer: Josh Robinson

JR: Much of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It focuses in on the Alt-Right manifesting as a sort of dominant appearance of fascism in the US over the past four years. How did the Alt-Right come to dominate the fascist political scene in the States over the past few years, and how does it fit within how fascist ideas have developed in the US since the Second World War?

SB: It came to dominate the fascist movement in the US largely through the historic failure of the far-right to create a revolutionary white ethnostate. There really has not been a dominant intellectual fascist movement in the US for decades. By and large, white nationalism, which as a term did not really dominate until the 1990s, has always been hindered by its inability to create a philosophical underpinning to justify its racial animus. This has a few distinct causes.

First, American white nationalism’s largely blue-collar organizations during the second half of the twentieth century has always primed action over conversation, with little focus on intellectual coherence or effective organizing. Second, its guttural race hatred has made white sovereignty the key issue, which, on its own, is not a fully realized ideology that is able to interpret a variety of aspects of society. Instead, it doesn’t actually make an argument about ideas as much as simply casting blame on people of color and Jews for whatever ills they seem to identify at the time, from crime to liberalism to economic injustice. Third, the heavy Americana that US organizations tend to inflect has also kept them out of the continuity of European fascist philosophers and movements, creating a reasonably petty version of fascist politics. Fourth, and maybe most importantly, white nationalist violence over the past fifty years has always made them outcasts; they are the dominant threat of terrorist bloodshed in the US.

What the Alt-Right wanted to do was to build an intellectually coherent fascist movement, at least in the beginning. Building from the European New Right, the conservative revolution in Germany, German idealist philosophy, romanticist art movements, perennial traditionalist writing, and other trends, they wanted to make arguments against equality and in favor of essentialist concepts of identity. The only real intellectual core of most of the US white nationalist movement focused on what is called “race realism,” which essentially boils down to neo-eugenicists’ arguments about race and IQ, criminality, sexual restraint, and other personality features. While this is obviously ideologically motivated and completely discredited pseudoscience, it does not necessarily present itself as ideological. Instead, the Alt-Right wanted to make ideological arguments, of which “race realism” was only one component.

So, when Richard Spencer started the now-defunct AlternativeRight.com in 2010, he was pulling from a “big tent” of far-right theorists and ideologues who were going to inject nationalism with the appearance of depth. He invited a variety of people to write for the site, including paleoconserative writers he had been mingling with at Taki’s Magazine and Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative, European New Right authors he had begun conversing with, open racialists who used heavy pseudoscience like American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor, “folkish” pagans who used ancestral European religions as an identitarian vessel, and others who were challenging the basic assumptions of liberal society.

As the years went on, and Spencer took over the National Policy Institute and Washington Summit Publishers and founded the Radix Journal, he further crystalized his fascist ideas, added some authors to the Alt-Right canon while deleting others, and he created a full-spectrum ideological catalogue. While it certainly centered on race and the belief in inequality between races, his fascism was intersectional. It touched on gender, sexuality, social hierarchy, religious traditions, philosophy, aesthetics, and economics. It was this full spectrum character that brought Spencer more in line with the European fascist movements he idolized, and really helped the Alt-Right become the best example of a generic or categorical fascist movement we have today.

This thought creation linked up with the growing internet troll culture, expanded through blogs and podcasts, allowing it to grow to the capacity we see today. Spencer brought the philosophy, 4Chan brought the personality, and podcasts like The Daily Shoah synthesized the two. The new face of the Alt-Right also hit American culture at just the right time, when a “whitelash” was happening against growing multiculturalism in America and the right populism that had been sweeping Europe made its way to the US. In that way, the “coherent fascism” that Spencer built was boiled down to its essence, turned into snarky blog posts and memes, and served up to an audience that had become more racially angry through the stoking of nativist populist institutions like Breitbart and candidates like Donald Trump.

 

JR: Now that we are seeing a lot of the consequences for the Alt-Right, such as the elimination of their web platforms and the shutdown of their public organizations, can you predict what the next couple of years will look like for them?

I would be remiss to make a prediction of exactly what will happen with the Alt-Right. I have done this in the past and been proven incorrect. It is sort of my hubris to look at signs and determine how they will play out. Instead, what I can speak to are the challenges faced and what seems like the likely direction for both the Alt-Right and its opposition.

It is important to analyze one key component of the Alt-Right’s success. All fascist movements need a crossover point to make it into the larger culture. Even in an intensely racist and unequal society like the contemporary US, open racialism and fascist politics are vastly unpopular when they are presented openly and honestly. Americans like their racism implicit, not explicit. So, what they need is a slightly more moderate and mainstream institution to help them repackage their ideas to a mass audience. All fascist movements have had some version of this operation, from the America First model, which hid open fascists, to the White Citizen’s Council’s connection to the Third Era Ku Klux Klan. In the 1980s and 1990s, this was largely done through paleoconservatism, with figures like Pat Buchanan and publications like Chronicles (which actually did publish fascist European New Right philosophers like Alain de Benoist).

Today, this has happened with what is called the Alt-Light or New Right, which is comprised of punchy, populist, nativist figures that exist largely online and who make up a cultural, rather than electoral, base. Mike Cernovich, Alex Jones, Lauren Southern, Milo Yiannoupoulos, Ann Coulter, Gavin McInnis, Breitbart, InfoWars, and Rebel Media all have a role in this, as do some “patriot”-type militia organizations. Since the beginning of 2015, the actual Alt-Right, which is openly fascist and defined by its white nationalism, has cozied up to these institutions, who do not commit to openly fascist ideas, to help get ideas about Islamophobia, nativism, immigration, and patriarchy out to the public. This has helped along their massive growth, since they have a much larger recruitment base to pull from.

The problem with this partnership is that it was always tenuous and never fit perfectly. The Alt-Light is better described as civic nationalist rather than ethnic nationalist: their nationalism isn’t necessarily rooted in genetics, but culture. Now, we can easily look at this and see it for the coded racism that it is, but the Alt-Right isn’t coded racism, it is explicit racism. So, while people like Lauren Southern or the Proud Boys have created massive organizing spaces for the white nationalists of the Alt-Right, figures like Richard Spencer or Jared Taylor have always had a certain discomfort with the Alt-Light. In the Alt-Light’s denial of racism, they sort of reaffirm that racism is, as a concept, important, and Spencer and the Alt-Right would like to destigmatize open white supremacy.

So, after Trump was elected, the allegiances between the Alt-Light and Alt-Right began to fracture heavily, and after the murder of Heather Heyer and the disaster at Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, they were severed permanently. Today, the Alt-Light wants nothing to do with the actual Alt-Right, and the Alt-Right feels betrayed by the Alt-Light. This is also a common feature of these tacit alliances: the more moderate figures always abandon the radicals. So, with August 12, the white nationalists of the Alt-Right wanted to have a “coming out” party for the open racialist wing, and they were not only going to include the middle-class Alt-Right intellectuals, but also the KKK and neo-Nazi organizations that they share most of their ideas with.

Post-Charlottesville, the largest recruitment strategy of the Alt-Right has been severed. Starting during the year prior to Charlottesville, and intensifying after the tragedy, they began to see mass platform denial. One of the things that allowed the Alt-Right to flourish was that they were essentially on the same platforms as major media and political figures. Social media and easy web hosting was a major boost to them and allowed them to create a massive propaganda infrastructure, which is all but gone today. After Charlottesville, most Alt-Right institutions lost web hosting, payment services, web cataloguing services, social media accounts, podcast hosting, email services, and even dating apps. They have had to start from scratch to create their own infrastructure, but the bottom line is, now that they have been kicked off all the platforms used by most of the country, they simply don’t have the same reach for recruitment and influence they once did. More than this, the financial severing has destroyed their monetary base, and their choice to use “pay walls” for subscriptions to most of their websites is further limiting their outreach beyond their racist echo chamber.

Their growth has also been limited by the mass opposition they have faced. It took a while, but a mass antifascist movement has formed to confront the Alt-Right. They cannot have a public event without overwhelming opposition. Shortly after Charlottesville, a group of Proud Boys and other Alt-Right hangers-on tried to have a public event in Boston. Their 150 participants were met by an opposition of 40,000. Spencer, trying to exploit the rules that govern public universities, has targeted colleges as a location he can coerce into hosting him. Students and community members are creating strategies for mass resistance to either force the speech to be canceled entirely or derail it so effectively that it cannot be used for recruitment.

On top of that, the doxing of major Alt-Right figures, the revelation of their personal information, has created a web of personal and professional consequences. This is dissuading a large portion of potential recruits from wanting to join for fear of giving up their entire life. It is also limiting the stability and finances of those involved, since they become unemployable and their families disown them.

All of this is a long way of saying that they have become heavily limited and it is difficult to see a pathway for them to regain the momentum they had in 2016 over the next couple of years. They will likely further radicalize, since they will become more insular, which is evidenced by their descent into more traditional colonialist and genocidal public arguments. Even their key institutions are in conflict, debating over whether they should continue into “real world activism” or continue building meta-politics through philosophy and art. And with that pattern of peaks and decline you have demagoguery, strong personalities with a lot to lose who are battling for hegemony within their insular subculture.

It is from this cauldron of failure that seemingly random acts of violence often emerge, out of desperation and rage fueled by increasingly radical rhetoric. As we are seeing a flurry of Alt-Right motivated attacks and murders, this trend seems as though it is on its way in. And that may be the most frightening part of where we are now, and why organizers are thinking of ways to defend their communities from racist violence.

 

JR: What kind of antifascist strategies have been uniquely successful when dealing with the Alt-Right? Have new strategies emerged over the last couple of years?

SB: The first thing to remember is that the Alt-Right is in continuity with fascist movements of the past. Many of the major figures and institutions that helped prop up the Alt-Right were also prominent in the 1990s white nationalism scene. Some of the antifascist groups that were fighting earlier forms of white nationalism are still here fighting the Alt-Right, so the skills and tools they developed in earlier struggles are relevant and applicable when it comes to the new breed of racist.

That said, the intensely online nature of the Alt-Right has meant that going online and ensuring an information exchange is critical. The online nature has created a layer of anonymity for Alt-Right participants that antifascists have had to penetrate. This has been done by working effectively on doxing, making sure that no figure in the Alt-Right could permanently maintain their anonymity. This has two effects, as mentioned before. It severs major figures from the broader community and often robs them of their income source, but it also serves as a warning to less committed members who do not want to sacrifice their livelihood and social standing to participate in a white supremacist movement.

The next thing that has been very effective is the focus on pressure campaigns on web platforms to drop Alt-Right publications and people. Since the Alt-Right relies almost exclusively on web outreach and propaganda, having them removed from common platforms has been incredibly effective. Antifascists have found that this is especially effective when communities focus on pressuring the companies with potential backlash, rather than simply trying to have them strengthen regulations, which could also be used against leftist activists.

Traditional militant antifascism has also been incredibly effective as the Alt-Right moves out into the streets. They are unable to have regular events at this point, whether it be public rallies or private conferences. In this new world, any appearance of the Alt-Right brings such a massive wave of opposition that it is next to impossible for them to exist.

A focus on campus organizing has also been critical since the Alt-Right has focused heavily on building a base on campus. As Richard Spencer continues to try to appear on college campuses, like the University of Michigan, antifascist campus projects like the Campus Antifascist Network are holding him back. As Identity Europa and Turning Point USA continue recruitment of dissident campus conservatives, a mass antifascist student movement is proving a critical juncture to stop their progression through the universities.

One of the most important components is to look at the composition of the antifascist struggle right now and to integrate ongoing anti-racist and anti-oppression projects.

 

JR: What role do intersecting movements have in antifascism? Is there a place for tenant organizing, labor unions, feminist collectives, and other projects?

SB: They are critically important. As mentioned above, we need to see that antifascism is not just a singular struggle uninformed by the various ways that oppression hits people’s lives. This is especially true of anti-racist, post-colonial, anti-queerphobia, anti-transphobia, and feminist organizing, all of which are specifically targeted by reactionary nationalist movements. Antifascists acknowledge the necessity of intersecting with those struggles, and not allowing singular white male perspectives to inform antifascist analysis and priorities. Part of this is to see community self-defense as a component of antifascism, confronting police violence, and the all-out assault on women and gender non-conforming people.

Fascism is, in and of itself, the process of making implicit inequality explicit. Within that, the process of confronting class institutions that perpetuate this inequality is necessary, not only for building the power needed to take on fascist insurgencies, but to confront the hierarchical class society that birthed them in the first place. Labor, as the largest social movement, has built a base in worker organizing, and has the institutional and financial weight to really give antifascist movements a shot in the arm. Tenant struggles are hit by the intersectional oppression of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors, and so part of creating safe and vibrant neighborhoods means linking up with antifascist movements that see racial scapegoating as a key component of the rental crisis. There is no social movement today that is not touched by reactionary violence, and if there is to be some degree of consciousness and unity in the working class, which is necessary for larger institutional overhaul, then we have to confront street-level bigotry, oppression, and violence.

 

Author Bios:

Josh Robinson is an organizer and writer based in New England. His work has been featured in Anti-Fascist News and It’s Going Down.

Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. His work has appeared in Jacobin, Al Jazeera, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, Alternet, ThinkProgress, Upping the Anti, and Roar Magazine. He can be found on Twitter at @Shane_Burley1.

 

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