The Alt Right: Trump and Terrorism in the Digital Age (Part One)

In November 2016, former real-estate millionaire and reality television personality Donald J. Trump was announced as the 45th President of the United States. During the Presidential campaign, Trump faced off against Hillary Clinton, the intended Democrat successor to Barack Obama. However, Trump usurped Clinton after an unexpected surge of support came from what Clinton termed “…the basket of deplorables—the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it” [1]. In acknowledging, and denouncing, the emerging Alternate Right – Clinton unknowingly bolstered their campaigns in support of Trump, as scholar Niko Heikkilä writes: “Rather than serve as a nail in the ideology’s coffin, Clinton’s speech instead catapulted the Alt-Right from obscurity into the national spotlight and its supporters could not have been more thrilled” [2].

Only a year later, in August of 2017, it became clear that Trump’s Presidency had legitimised the growing faction of ‘deplorables’; the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia saw hundreds of protesters chant such sentiments as “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” and “Black Lives Splatter!” [3]. In an attempt to make some sense of the turmoil in America right now, this long read, formed of two parts, will examine the emergence of the social movement which calls itself the Alternative Right (Alt-Right), and trace its roots through American history into the digital age – this phenomenon is not as unique, unprecedented, or unexpected as it may seem.

As the political landscape across the UK, Europe and the United States continues to veer rightwards, it is crucial to analyse the hard-right dissent that is sweeping these countries in response to globalisation, multiculturalism, and progressiveness of social values, and their virulent online presence. The politics of the Alt-Right can be effectively compared to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, America’s past traditions of racism, sexism and xenophobia, and the emboldening of such sentiments when white supremacists feel that their cherished American ideals of democracy, freedom, equality and opportunity are threatened. However, such ideals have only ever been circumscribed, excluding those considered by white supremacists to be incapable of self-government – indigenous people, African Americans, and colonised subjects overseas – and have more often than not functioned as an illusion to prop up a white supremacist and settler-colonial government.

The perceived expansion of the rights of modern nation states (that is, voting, officeholding, and protest) to immigrants and people of colour within the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, has prompted a fierce response from the right. The conservative resurgence in American politics dates from this period and was infused with renewed vigour during Reagan’s campaigns of the 1980s, but this new chapter, which has resurrected the vitriolic language of white supremacy once rendered openly unspeakable by the Civil Rights Movement (only to be replaced with the obfuscating discourse of states’ rights and individual choice), has been accompanied by waves of extremist violence. Historian David Levering Lewis has written that this cycle of dissent is an American tradition: “Americans bid good riddance to serial aberrations in the civic and social life of our republic repeatedly, only to learn that these phenomena are as American as apple pie” [4]. This essay will argue, by examining the methodologies of the Alt-Right, that the digital age has helped significantly to radicalise and embolden the chronic ills of American society, and that by utilising the internet, the Alt-Right as a social movement has successfully infiltrated the American political sphere.

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In any discussion of a group which favours white supremacy in America, there can be no dismissal of the first organisation which offered the blueprint that the Alt-Right follows today. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is emblematic of an American racism and their legacy endures. Historian William Katz, in his 1986 book Invisible Empire: The KKK’s Impact on History, traced the origins of the KKK from the Reconstruction Era up until the Civil Rights Era; the Alt-Right represents a new evolution of this ‘invisible empire’, one which is no longer disguised by white hoods. It instead exists online, cloaked in the anonymity of usernames and forums. The KKK formed in 1865 as a social club in response to the emancipation of enslaved people at the end of the American Civil War; according to Nathan Eckstrand, a philosopher at Fort Hays University, it promoted white brotherhood, and members formulated their “own codes, secrets, and traditions” [5]. Today, the online Alt-Right functions in much a similar manner, as memes, coded punctuation, and symbols are used to subvert regular online discourse.

The Confederacy’s defeat saw the social landscape of the United States change overnight, and white Americans were forced to accept Abraham Lincoln’s “more perfect union.” [6] However, as historian Aline Helg writes, the elimination of slavery did little to drive away the attitudes that had allowed slavery to exist in the first place. Simply put, “slavery left a social structure based on race” that was never truly addressed [7]. The Reconstruction era ushered in a period of terror for newly emancipated African Americans. Lynching became a means of social control, and white fears of racial equality were the catalyst for campaigns of widespread violence throughout the South. As Republicans began to ‘reconstruct’ the U.S., William Katz explains, new laws created “a new socio-political order in the South, including increased rights for women and blacks, a higher tax burden on the wealthy, integrated schools and workplaces, and the enfranchisement of the poor” [8]. These changes revolutionized Southern society against the power white Southerners had previously enjoyed, and the KKK’s response, as Nathan Eckstrand writes, was to change its identity “from an adventurous social club to a band of militants dedicated to protecting the South” [9]. The Klan was “mostly decentralized, with bands operating independently yet unified by purpose”, much like the cluster of groups which form the Alt-Right [10]. This purpose was, of course, to maintain white supremacy over black Americans with the use of violence – inspired by conspiracy theories and racial stereotyping. Glenda E. Gilmore supports this notion, detailing that:

By positing lust for refined white women as a universal trait in black men, whites explained away black Best Men’s [middle-class blacks’] good behavior by arguing that they sought success simply to get close to white women. Likewise, when a poor black man stood accused of rape, the New White Men argued that the rapist had been stimulated by the black Best Man’s elevated position. Black progress of any sort meant a move toward social equality, a code word for sexual equality. [11]

While the function of lynching during and after Reconstruction was to terrorize African Americans, the Alt-Right of the 21st Century has as its targets almost all ethnic minorities and non-white immigrants. In this respect it more closely resembles the Second Klan of the 1920s, which expanded its violence to encompass not only African Americans, but also Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Alt-Right rhetoric today similarly relies on a deep reservoir of anti-Semitism. Historians have posited that the economic depression of the 1890s exacerbated the violence of the KKK, as black men became a scapegoat for the frustration of poverty. Aline Helg draws the following comparison: as “…white males’ condition became more precarious, both the destitute black and the more successful black became more threatening” [12].

Violence, however, was not the only means of social control, and more subversive methods of control, which persist today, have been made clear by progressive protests which highlight the symbolic power of Confederate statues and monuments throughout the Old South. Indeed, the ‘Unite the Right’ rally was supposedly organized to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville. It is therefore worth tracing the origins of Confederate statues to understand what their function has been and continues to be, and to underscore their centrality to recent far-right politics. Historian Kirk Savage writes that the goal of pro-Confederacy supporters of late 19th century was to “…commemorate their slaveholding secession without commemorating slavery, as if their whole war had nothing to do with it” [13].

Savage goes on to explain the ideology of Confederate sympathisers, and in so doing helps to explains how Confederate statues have stoked the fires of racism and bigotry in recent years: “If the winners were trying to rewrite the future into the past, the losers were trying to rewrite the past to change their future” [14]. As hundreds more monuments appeared across the 20th century, the statues were no longer a mere commemoration of the past, and instead became a means of reminding ethnic minorities, and Black people in particular, of the white supremacy which maintains its stranglehold over every facet of daily life in the United States – from law enforcement, to education, housing and finances. A 2019 Southern Poverty Law Center report of the chronology of Confederate monuments is proof of this, as the Civil Rights Movement is shown as clear impetus for the prevalence of statues erected all over the South in the 1950s and onwards. [15]

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The Civil Rights Movement was a watershed moment that, temporarily at least, purged the most explicit racist discourse from the public square; at the same time, sentiments of “we shall overcome” from Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 seemed to echo the dewy-eyed statements of Lincoln and his “more perfect union” [16]. Overt anti-Black racism was no longer to be accepted as an open societal norm. Yet as the most virulent white supremacy was marginalized in public forums – on network television, in the remarks of elected representatives, and so on — racists simply coded their language in much the same ways the Alt-Right does today. The 1970s ushered in the era of the War on Drugs and Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ – both of which were dog-whistles to white supremacy without naming it. The Republican party strategist Lee Atwater was infamously caught explaining this change from explicitly racist rhetoric to a coded language of racism that upheld – and often advanced — structural policies that furthered racial inequality:

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger… By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites [17].

In 2016, Donald Trump echoed Nixon’s calls for ‘Law and Order’, which in both Nixon’s era and Trump’s, has meant a tightening of law enforcement to disproportionately target ethnic minorities and Black people. Trump again stole a page from the Presidential playbook as he repeated Ronald Reagan’s calls to “Make America Great Again” – which is now a phrase entirely co-opted by the Alt-Right and Trump followers [18]. Reagan, however, insisted “we want a color blind society” in 1986, despite his extension of Nixon’s War on Drugs and greater focus on strengthening the prison industrial complex. The historian Iwan Morgan writes in this respect that “there was nothing to suggest pre-presidential Donald

Trump had an ideological core within his political self” [19]. Despite lacking such depth, by emulating the same ‘Southern strategy’ that had effectively secured Nixon’s election in 1968, “what he developed instead was a bite-sized and intuitively emotive message that showed marketing genius in targeting disaffected blue-collar democrats in key states” [20].

In 1990, prominent white nationalist Jared Taylor founded American Renaissance – an online magazine that described itself as “the best source on the Internet for race-realist information and perspectives.” [21] The 1990s saw a wash of white nationalist websites crop up online, where the anonymity of forums ironically offered a ‘safe space’ to congregate and discuss and develop their ideology. In defence of the slurs, racial epithets and overtly white supremacist writings found on these websites, the Alt-Right often say they are merely expressing their viewpoints in the ‘free marketplace of ideas’, using their right to free speech, and as such are vindicated by the whims of this so-called discourse economy. Eckstrand writes that these initial forums quickly came to resemble the kinds of rhetoric found on sites like 4chan today, as “trolling began on online bulletin board systems in the 1990s with the practice of flaming” – engaging in online arguments using profane language and ad hominem attacks [22]. Now a primary method of Alt-Right protest, members’ “transgressive trolling is valuable for its ‘shock and awe’ effect that throws adversaries off balance” – and instead of dismissing them, many in the online world and the real world engage with their rhetoric, only publicizing their actions further and spreading their message to anyone who may be convinced to sympathise with Alt-Right goals [23].

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As the Internet Age ushered in a greater capacity for online interaction, 9/11 was also a notable turning point in rising xenophobia and increased organizing. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that “US hate groups have increased since 9/11 with significant increases following the 2008 election and 2012 re-election of Barack Obama” [24]. The Obama era was a crucial period of Alt-Right mobilization, despite how many liberals heralded Obama’s Presidency as the ushering in of a post-racial society and the crumbling of America’s historical foundations of white supremacy. However, Author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that Obama’s success “assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries. And it was this fear that gave the symbols Donald Trump deployed – the symbols of racism – enough potency to make him president” [25].

The emergence of this new, internet-organised front is an expansion of white supremacy into the 21st century. As the legacy of the Civil Rights movement relegated overt racism to the side-lines of common discourse, elected officials nonetheless dog-whistled to certain groups of white voters with a coded rhetoric that allowed white supremacists to continue their discussions in the safety of their private, often online spaces. The internet has allowed the transfer of (mis)information across counties, countries, and continents, bringing with it the opportunity for social development and globalization. However, it also enabled white supremacist thought to ferment, hidden from mainstream society in forums online, and in recent years the ever-growing results of this across the American political landscape are everywhere visible. The next part of this article series will explore the Trump presidency and its bolstering of the Alt-Right, who have elevated Trump to the level of a stochastic terrorist who directly influences the horrific acts of violence against non-white Americans. The list of real-life tragedies continues to grow, now that overt white supremacy has once again come to the fore of American political discourse.

 

[1] N., Heikkilä, “Online Antagonism of The Alt-Right In The 2016 Election”, European Journal Of American Studies, 12.2 (2017)

[2] E., Hodge and H., Hallgrimsdottir, “Networks Of Hate: The Alt-Right, “Troll Culture”, And The Cultural Geography Of Social Movement Spaces Online”, Journal Of Borderlands Studies, 2019, 1-18, pg.1

[3] “Charlottesville: The True Alt-Right”, Youtube, 2018.

[4] D. L., Lewis, in review of L.,Gordon, “The Second Coming Of The KKK | W. W. Norton & Company”, Books.Wwnorton.Com, 2018

[5] N., Eckstrand, “The Ugliness Of Trolls: Comparing The Methodologies Of The Alt-Right And The Ku Klux Klan”, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 10.3 (2018), pg.47

[6] A., Lincoln, “Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address”, <Abrahamlincolnonline.org>, 2018

[7] A., Helg, “Black Men, Racial Stereotyping, And Violence In The U.S. South And Cuba At The Turn Of The Century”, Comparative Studies In Society And History, 42.3 (2000), pg.579

[8] W., Katz in N., Eckstrand, “The Ugliness Of Trolls: Comparing The Methodologies Of The Alt-Right And The Ku Klux Klan”, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 10.3 (2018), pg.45

[9] Ibid, pg.45

[10] Eckstrand, pg.45.

[11]G., Gilmore in A., Helg, “Black Men, Racial Stereotyping, And Violence In The U.S. South And Cuba At The Turn Of The Century”, Comparative Studies In Society And History, 42.3 (2000), pg.584

[12] Ibid, pg.589

[13] K., Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, And Monument In Nineteenth-Century America, 3rd edn (Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2018), pg.18

[14] Ibid, pg.18

[15] “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols Of The Confederacy”, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019

[16] L.B., Johnson quoted in J., Zelizer, “How LBJ’s Speech On Voting Rights Was Inspired By Grassroots Activism”, The Atlantic, 2015

[17] L. Atwater quoted in M. Yglesias, “Atwater’s Strategy”, The Atlantic, 2007

[18] R. Reagan quoted in K. Parker, “‘Make America Great Again’ Is Not Longer Just A Slogan. It’s A Symbol Of Rebellion.”, The Washington Post, 2019

[19] I., Morgan, in M., Oliva and M., Shanahan, The Trump Presidency (Springer International Publishing (Springer eBooks), 2019), pg.62

[20] Ibid, pg.62

[21] J., Taylor, “Amren.Com”, Web.Archive.Org – “Race Realism” is essentially coded language for the new generation of scientific racism posited by The Bell Curve and other publications. It refers to the idea that ethnic minorities have lower IQ than whites, and whites have lower IQ’s than Asians ´- which is often cited by white supremacists as proof that, if anything, they are ‘Asian supremacists’ by admitting whites are less intelligent. However, this does not detract from calls for individual ethno-states for each race, which by its logical conclusion, is white supremacy. For a detailed explanation see: G., Evans, “The Unwelcome Revival Of ‘Race Science’”, The Guardian, 2018

[22] Eckstrand, pg.51

[23] Ibid, pg.49

[24] N.S, Love, “Back To The Future: Trendy Fascism, The Trump Effect, And The Alt-Right”, New Political Science, 39.2 (2017), pg.264

[25] T., Coates, We Were Eight Years In Power (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2017), pg.14

 

About Tionne Parris

Tionne Parris is a PhD student in History at the University of Hertfordshire, and holds an MA Honours Undergraduate, and Masters degree in History from the University of Dundee. Specialising in African American history, specifically the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Parris has focused on American society's response to race-based political protests. As the last 4 years have seen a resurgence of organised white supremacist protests throughout the United States, Tionne Parris now researches the provenance and impact of these movements, speculating on the trajectory of US politics in the future. Please contact her at TionneAParris@Gmail.com for any research queries or comments. "
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