Present at the Disruption
How Trump Unmade U.S. Foreign Policy
During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a small right-wing movement known as the alt-right forced itself into the national political discussion. The alt-right, which a few years ago was a tiny, marginal, and almost exclusively Internet-based phenomenon, achieved mainstream attention thanks in part to its connection with the presidential campaign, and then administration, of Donald Trump. (Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, once called his Breitbart website a “platform for the alt-right.”) Although the alt-right’s real influence is debatable, the mayhem that occurred during an alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, in which one counterprotester was killed and dozens more were injured, has assured that the movement will remain in the news for some time.
Yet for all its notoriety, the alt-right is poorly understood. The movement is disorganized and mostly anonymous, making it difficult to study systematically, and until recently its definition was up for grabs. Throughout 2016, the term “alt-right” was often applied to a much broader group than it is today; at times, it seemed to refer to the entirety of Trump’s right-wing populist base. Since the U.S. presidential election, however, the alt-right’s nature has become clearer: it is a white nationalist movement that focuses on white identity politics and downplays most other issues. As the alt-right’s views became better known, many people who had flirted with the movement broke ranks, leaving it smaller but more ideologically cohesive.
Some have argued that the alt-right is simply the latest iteration of an old, racist strain of U.S. politics. And indeed, as a white nationalist movement, the alt-right’s ultimate vision—a racially homogeneous white ethnostate—is similar to that of earlier groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, and the National Alliance. Yet the alt-right considers itself new and distinct, in terms of both style and intellectual substance. Stylistically, it has attempted to distance itself from the ineffectual violence and pageantry of what it derisively calls “white nationalism 1.0,” instead preferring a modern aesthetic that targets cynical millennials on social media and online message boards. And ideologically, the movement represents a break from American racist movements of the past, looking not to U.S. history but to the European far right for ideas and strategies.
Any discussion of the intellectual elements of the alt-right should clarify one point. The alt-right is not a highbrow, sophisticated academic movement—it is still mostly an online mob of white nationalist trolls. Yet it would also be wrong to say that the alt-right possesses no philosophical foundation. It rests, first and foremost, on a Nietzschean rejection of democracy and egalitarianism. The alt-right is fighting (and sometimes winning) in the realm of ideas, and successfully combating it requires knowing what those ideas are.
THE NEW RIGHT
The United States has had no shortage of racist ideologues and intellectuals. These include apologists for slavery such as John Calhoun, progressive eugenicists such as Lothrop Stoddard, and white nationalist agitators such as William Pierce. Yet alt-right personalities such as Richard Spencer, who are attempting to formulate and promote a coherent white nationalist political theory, are often inspired by ideas that are alien to most Americans—especially those of the so-called European New Right.
The ENR first emerged in France in the late 1960s, at a time when the radical left was at its apogee and the country looked to be on the brink of revolution. In 1968, a group led by the young right-wing journalist Alain de Benoist founded the Research and Study Group for European Civilization (known by its French acronym, GRECE). This new think tank sought to provide a philosophical foundation for a new political order, one that rejected liberalism, communism, and the excesses of fascism.
The ENR was an unusual amalgamation of ideas from the beginning. Although it repudiated fascism and Nazism, the ENR drew inspiration from many of the same intellectual sources. Particularly important to the ENR were the so-called conservative revolutionary writers of Weimar-era Germany, including the legal theorist Carl Schmitt and the historian Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. Like these figures, the ENR envisioned a new path for Europe that rejected both Soviet communism and Anglo-American liberalism.
The ENR sought to provide a philosophical foundation for a new political order, one that rejected liberalism, communism, and the excesses of fascism.
The ENR flirted with, but eventually rejected, a politics based on overt racism. Instead, the movement grounded its arguments in culture. ENR thinkers rejected the idea that all human beings are generally interchangeable and posited instead that every individual views the world from a particular cultural lens; inherited culture, that is, is a vital part of every person’s identity. They further argued that all cultures have a “right to difference,” or a right to maintain their sovereignty and cultural identity, free from the homogenizing influence of global capitalism and multiculturalism. The right of cultures to preserve their identity in turn implied their right to exclude or expel groups and ideas that threatened their cohesion and continuity.
Although de Benoist claimed that his movement stood outside the traditional left-right dichotomy, its rejection of egalitarianism and its far-right intellectual antecedents clearly indicate its right-wing orientation. Yet the ENR also used left-wing theories and rhetoric. It adopted the New Left’s opposition to global financial capitalism and borrowed arguments about cultural particularity from anticolonial movements, concluding, for instance, that European colonial projects had been a mistake and that the United States was trying to Americanize every corner of the globe, destroying distinct cultures along the way. The ENR even supported anti-American populist uprisings in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa—de Benoist, for example, viewed the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a blow against U.S. cultural imperialism. The ENR was also strongly influenced by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, whose views on metapolitics and cultural hegemony contended that a political philosophy will attain lasting power only after it has won the battle of ideas, at least among elites. The ENR was pro–environmental conservation, as well.
Despite the ENR’s left-wing elements, critics of the movement claim that its politics are little more than a rebranding of fascism. Whatever its philosophical underpinnings, the ENR’s hostility to immigration and multiculturalism is, practically speaking, similar to that of other, more explicitly racist far-right movements. This similarity has exposed the ENR to the critique that its support for a universal right to difference is rhetorical cover for a right-wing policy of exclusion.
Some figures once associated with the ENR have attacked it for a similar reason, but from the right rather than the left. These critics, most prominent among them the journalist Guillaume Faye, believe that the ENR’s high-minded, universalistic rhetoric about difference is a sham. Faye rejects the idea that the movement should fight, as de Benoist put it, for “the cause of peoples,” urging it to instead be honest that it really cares only about the fate of Europe—especially as it relates to Muslim immigration, which Faye sees as a mortal threat. In Faye’s view, dancing around this uncomfortable truth with talk of an abstract right to difference serves only to water down the ENR’s message and weaken its impact.
Faye has also rejected de Benoist’s preference for abstract metapolitics designed to persuade elites and change the culture. He has argued that because of Europe’s demographic trajectory, which points toward a steadily declining white share of the population throughout the twenty-first century, Europeans do not have time to wait for the cultural landscape to change; instead, practical politics must begin today. Faye’s manifesto Why We Fight calls for a “fight with a sense of urgency, to stop the invasion and reverse Europe’s biocultural destruction.” The book is now a mainstay on the alt-right in the United States and is promoted by alt-right groups such as Identity Evropa.
THE FRENCH INVASION
From its birth until the recent past, the ENR received little attention from the American right, despite making waves in France and other European countries. The lack of interest on the mainstream right is easy to understand. The ENR rejects nearly every element of U.S. conservatism, including capitalism, Christianity, and support for the United States’ international hegemony. It is thus unsurprising that the movement long received only cursory attention from mainstream U.S. conservative outlets such as National Review.
The radical right in the United States similarly showed little awareness of the ENR until quite recently. This was also understandable, given the language barrier—the writings of de Benoist and others were mostly untranslated—and the ENR’s lack of interest in U.S. domestic politics. De Benoist’s careful avoidance of transparent racism also put him at odds with white nationalists in the United States, who wore their racism on their sleeves.
Over the last decade, however, the ENR’s ideas have become better known in the United States, thanks largely to the movement’s discovery by influential figures on the U.S. far right. Faye has spoken at the American Renaissance conference, organized by the prominent white nationalist Jared Taylor, and in 2013, de Benoist addressed a conference hosted by Richard Spencer’s think tank, the National Policy Institute.
Institutions affiliated with the alt-right are now working to translate books from ENR thinkers into English. The publishing company Arktos Media has put out a large catalog of these translations and is now part of the recently formed AltRight Corporation, which has become a significant hub of alt-right propaganda. Arktos has published works by de Benoist and Faye, the French-German ENR ideologue Pierre Krebs, and earlier right-wing radicals such as the Italian philosopher Julius Evola.
Over the last decade, the ENR’s ideas have become better known in the United States.
These European ideas are finding a receptive audience in the United States for many reasons. One is the declining legitimacy of mainstream U.S. conservatism, which has prompted a search for right-wing alternatives to what is increasingly perceived as a calcified and anachronistic ideology. Ideas taken from the ENR are also useful for those who wish to provide an intellectual gloss to crude racist attitudes.
AN ALT-RIGHT INTERNATIONAL?
The European far right’s influence on its U.S. counterparts now extends beyond works of political theory. The use of the term “identitarian” to describe American white nationalists—a rhetorical device that is increasingly common among alt-right ideologues and serves to soften the movement’s image—is similarly adopted from Europe.
The alt-right is also borrowing activism tactics honed by the European far right. Having apparently learned a lesson from the Charlottesville rally—which was a major propaganda defeat for the alt-right—the movement is increasingly turning to so-called flash mobs. Rather than announcing their activities months in advance and giving their opponents time to organize, alt-right supporters rapidly assemble, declare their message, and disperse before counterprotesters can mobilize—a method that the European identitarian movement has used for years. The European far right has in turn adopted tactics pioneered in the United States, such as online trolling.
One should not overestimate the significance of these growing similarities, and it would be an exaggeration at this point to speak of a unified, global far-right movement. Yet members of the radical right on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly adept at borrowing each other’s ideas and learning from each other’s successes and failures. Those who study these phenomena must maintain an international perspective. If a right-wing idea, tactic, or meme proves successful in one context, it will probably appear in others.