The Alt Right: Trump, Terrorism and the Digital Age: Part Two

The globalizing effect of the internet and its influence in contemporary politics has undoubtedly contributed to the rise of the Alt-Right in the 21st century. Abetted by this influence, Donald Trump initially appeared as a joke candidate – his lack of political experience and penchant for scandal are well-documented – so it seemed he stood little chance against Clinton’s lengthy political career. However, when Trump embraced extreme right-wing sentiments – denouncing immigration, feminism, and instead addressing what some white Americans considered their critical concerns (including elevating and maintaining the economic position of white people) , the Alt-Right embraced him. Alt-Right forums, as will be explored, rallied support for Trump, and in return, prominent Alt-Right figures like Steve Bannon have since had significant impact on the first term of his administration . The result has been the mainstreaming of the Alt-Right in civil and political discourse. The further digitalisation of white supremacist enclaves has accelerated the rhetoric and actions of some of the right-wings most fervent white identity extremists, who have elevated Trump as the leader of their revolution, which seeks to eradicate non-white and Jewish presence in the United States as its ultimate goal.

Studies of white nationalist movements conducted by Sociologists Pete Simi and Robert Futrell – who co-authored American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movements Hidden Spaces of Hate (2010) – argue that the internet has become a fully-realized vehicle for radicalization of the hard right in the US.[1] The rise of the movement has sometimes been linked to the decline of rural American life: as Writer Jonathon Morgan argues that the Alt-Right seems most effective at recruiting from communities “at the center of a growing social and cultural crisis.” Morgan contends that such groups have been “rocked by a dramatic uptick in divorce, rampant drug overdoses, rising rural death rates and a suicide epidemic.”[3] This is all exacerbated by “increasing political irrelevance resulting from rural population decline and outright contempt from the wealthy.”[4]

During his presidency, Barack Obama became a scapegoat for the ensuing diversity and Affirmative Action-style policies ushered in by the Democratic Party’s agenda of the 1990s, and as a result is now frequently blamed for what the Alt-Right perceive as the disenfranchisement of large swathes of white American society. Because groups of white Americans who identify with the Alt-Right share its goal of harkening back to a ‘traditional’ and culturally white nation, a vision which is directly challenged by the expansion of rights for non-white, non-heterosexual and immigrant people, the appropriation and inversion of the slogans of progressive America has been at the center of right-wing activism in recent years. Slogans like “All Lives Matter” — an appropriation of #BlackLivesMatter, the chant of the eponymous movement — and “Blue Lives Matter”, which centers police rather than victims of the police, have been used in an effort to loudly drown out protests advocating for Black and ethnic minorities in the United States. Yet, in obfuscating and misleading rhetoric, the Alt-Right — when attacked by counter-protestors like Antifa, the name given to a very loose and leaderless coalition of anti-fascist protestors – moved to denounce violence, drawing sympathy from middle-class white Americans  with what online content creator and activist Natalie Wynn termed the “camaraderie of the accused.”[5]

By employing fluid terminology and innocuous-looking memes, and by gas-lighting other groups, the Alt-Right has continuously shifted the Overton window of acceptable public discourse, normalizing what is now violent and consequential language under the guise of free speech, and eliding its own violent actions in the process. Obama’s re-election fuelled an uptick in white supremacist sentiments, which are now unabashedly shared in mainstream online venues. Nathan Eckstrand – Philosopher at Fort Hays University – for example, found that:

‘On November 19, 2013, Everest Wilhelmsen, a man associated with the Christian American Patriots Militia, wrote on Facebook that his group has the ‘authority to shoot Obama, i.e., to kill him’, while in November of 2014 another Alt-Right troll wrote a series of threats on Facebook, saying “I think we all need to get our guns and shoot all of these out of control congressmen and senators and Obama!” [6] He went on to call for their bodies to be hung in the street for a week, a clear reference to lynching.’

The Alt-Right and its sympathisers once again showed that comparisons to the KKK are in no way unfounded. Where the Black Lives Matter movement focuses on the affirmation of life in a world where the disenfranchisement and disposability of Black people are the norm, the Alt-Right weaponizes the notion that equality for others directly leads to the stripping of white rights, freedoms, and opportunities. Moreover, as websites like Breitbart, the Daily Stormer, 4Chan, and Alt Right.com have become more accessible through mainstream publicity, so too have their leaders. Steve Bannon, founder of Breitbart, ascended to Chief Strategist of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. Professor Lee Marsden states in The Trump Presidency that:

‘Breitbart provided a platform for white nationalist views that had been largely confined to far-right websites, chat rooms and social media. This online movement of mainly young white men opposed to multiculturalism, immigration, feminism, and political correctness used memes to spread a white nationalist message which owed much to the teachings of Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer.’[7]

During his 2016 election campaign, Trump openly gave credence to burgeoning support from hard-right groups who fall under the umbrella of the Alt-Right. As Dr. Nancy Love writes: “When Trump referred to Mexicans as rapists, called democratic senator Elizabeth  Warren Pocahontas, and refused to denounce David Duke […] he was reaffirming the history of white supremacy in American politics and culture, or the racial formation of the United States as a white nation.”[8]

It is no surprise, then, that once elected, President Trump further legitimized this goal of affirming the US as a white nationalist country with a speech in Warsaw, Poland, prior to a G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Trump parroted Alt-Right talking points, saying:

‘The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive? […] Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it’?[9]

This speech further encouraged links between the Alt-Right and the Trump  administration, as did his refusal to denounce the Alt-Right at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Speaking after the event, during which one white supremacist protestor drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one woman, Trump said – in a now infamous phrase — that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict.[10] There has since been a visible resurgence of American Fascist groups, many of which have united with mainstream Alt-Right rallies. Nazi symbolism littered the protest in Charlottesville in 2017 and, despite its seeming contradictions with America-First patriotism, Alt-Right nationalism has since been emboldened beyond borders of America and is absorbing the radical right politics of Europe and the UK. As recently as June 2020, Journalist Daniel De Simone demonstrated in Panorama: Hunting the Neo-Nazi’s the deliberate attempts by American Alt-Right activists to recruit online from the UK and Europe – which is deemed ripe for a white nationalist revolution. As a movement which began in the borderless universe of online forums, the ideas of the Alt-Right can be easily accessed worldwide by those looking to identify with the disenfranchisement of working-class white Americans.

 

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One of the most potent examples of this rhetoric within the Alt-Right comes from radio presenter Alex Jones. Although Jones has been somewhat of a right-wing celebrity since the 1990s, notably for his ‘9/11 truther’ conspiracy theories and infamous court case for alleging that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was a staged shooting with paid child actors, Jones has come to the forefront of the Alt-Right digital sphere in recent years. Headlining his daily show InfoWars, Alex Jones’ lengthy diatribes about the New World Order and “Globalist takeover” has long been an allegory for Jewish bankers and other anti-Semitic tropes. However, his influence has expanded since 2016, as the Alt-Right gained momentum online. Journalists Aaron Sankin and Will Carless state that Jones has proffered himself as the gateway to the Alt-Right online as “seeing the whole world as a massive conspiracy is a foundational part of the white nationalist mindset.”[13] Jones hosts friendly segments with well-known white nationalists like Nick Fuentes, and in 2015 Donald Trump himself called in to congratulate Alex on his online success.[14] In amplifying racist and anti-Semitic tropes, Alex Jones has radicalized his audience of thousands to vehemently oppose racial diversity in the United States. Christina Greer, author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream (2013) says:

“I think that Alex Jones is able to tap into some real deep, dark fears that white Americans explicitly have about the future of their country, who’s in it, who’s controlling it, and their placement in it.”[15]

From 2016 onwards, after winning the Presidency, Trump himself seemed to echo Jones’ conspiratorial speeches, claiming to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, likening opposing politicians to inhuman creatures who seek to corrupt the ideals of traditional white American society. Jones himself stated that “It is surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later.”[16]

In addition, the eco-system of the Alt-Right leads further down into a full-blown cult surrounding President Trump, named QAnon. Supposedly led by an anonymous user “Q”, the QAnon conspiracy theorists echo Trumps claim that he is fighting ‘the Deep State’, a cabal of powerful Satanist figures who uphold a large network of child sex-traffickers responsible for all of the corruption in the United States. With roots in deeply anti-Semitic writings like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the QAnon conspiracy venerates Trump as the leader of the resistance, who will bring about an apocalypse – “The Great Awakening” – in which all opposing journalists, mass media figures and politicians will be executed en masse.[17] Much like Jones and his ‘Infowarriors’, Q appeals to white Americans’ deepest fears, as Cult expert Rachel Bernstein predicted in 2018:

“What a movement such as QAnon has going for it, and why it will catch on like wildfire, is that it makes people feel connected to something that other people don’t yet know about…All cults will provide this feeling of being special.”[18]

The impact of these internet forums and websites as Alt-Right tools of radicalization have also been noticeably buttressed by the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. An article published in The Guardian in June of 2018 found that Facebook’s dedication to maintaining site traffic meant its moderators enforced arbitrary hate speech rules that contributed to radicalization by providing a platform for Alt-Right figures and sympathisers: “According to Facebook, moderators should delete phrases like “I’m racist and proud,” or “I’m proud to be a Nazi,” while leaving statements like “I’m a proud white nationalist,” and “White separatism is the perfect solution to America’s problems.”[19] Meanwhile Twitter refused, until recently, to moderate the presence of  hate speech figures like David Duke, who, thanks to the Alt-Right, now enjoys an elevated level of publicity.[20] A Public Integrity report titled Hate In America found that:

‘On Twitter, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes tweets more than 30 times a day to nearly 50,000 followers, recently calling for the “chasing down” of specific Black Americans and claiming the LGBTQ community is in need of “intensive psychiatric treatment.”‘[21]

Thus, corporations like Facebook and Twitter have monumentally contributed to the rise of white supremacy, as protestors are no longer confined to the obscurity of secret forums that existed in the 1990s and have now effectively gone mainstream. The real-world consequences of allowing this kind of “free speech” to proliferate online are very much in evidence today. While the Alt-Right readily demonizes ordinary Muslims in the US as potential ISIS radicals, it shows the extent of its goals when members fail to denounce white terrorists who explicitly cite Alt-Right radicalization as the cause of their actions. In 2015, 17-year-old Dylann Roof killed 9 people in a Church in Charleston, South Carolina. When asked by law enforcement why he had carried out his brutal attack, Roof replied: “Well I had to do it because somebody had to do something because, you know, Black people are killing white people every day on the streets, and they rape white women, 100 white women a day […] The fact of the matter is what I did is so minuscule to what they’re doing to white people every day, all the time.”[22] Roof’s explanation parallels Aline Helg’s explanation of Black lynching in America’s Reconstruction era, and again solidifies the Alt-Right as an evolution of KKK-style terrorism that initially cloaked itself online in the modern era.

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Initially appealing to its sympathisers as a haven to simply chat with likeminded individuals, participation in the Alt-Right has now been termed an actionable ‘pipeline’, in which young, white, (mostly) male contributors find themselves riled up into a state of practical organisation – their torches lit as they march in the street against their perceived enemies. For those who have not yet discovered Alex Jones, something as simple as an internet meme can be an introduction to the pipeline. Studies from Media Scholar Scholar Nicolle Lamerichs et al. are one of many which deconstruct the machinations of Alt-Right memes, showing the direct path from political jokes to public discourse. Lamerichs writes that images captioned with normally shocking, offensive and ultimately violent ideas are posted as parody or irony, however, “by mentioning certain conventions or discourses – whiteness, sexism, anti-Islamic thought – the parody also confirms them. In other words, by making these notions transparent and poking fun at them, they are also reified.”

By reinforcing these prejudices, and being rewarded within Alt-Right communities with friendship and acceptance, these ideas are normalized. When pictures of mass shooter Dylann Roof emerged wearing the flag of South Africa under Apartheid, and the Rhodesian flag – both  are part of the white nationalist ideologies of the Alt-Right – it became abundantly clear that Alt-Right ‘satire’ has real world consequences. Satire killed in Charlottesville, as  Natalie Wynn stated – Heather Heyer was killed because an Alt-Right protester “hilariously meme-d his car into a crowd of people.”[25] Furthermore, the most recent attack on the Christchurch Mosque in New Zealand in March of 2019 showed that Alt-Right humor as a radicalization tool had been raised to dystopian levels when the shooter stated: “subscribe to PewDiePie” before slaughtering Muslim worshippers inside the Mosque. Investigations afterwards found the Christchurch shooter had been radicalized online, and in the horrific shooting’s livestream said, “I have provided links to my writings below, please do your part by spreading my message, making memes and shitposting as you usually do.”[27] The so-called meme culture of the Alt-Right is now ubiquitous in digital spaces – and the cycle is continued by the flagrant encouragement of those who take their political ideology to the masses – with fatal results.

In conclusion, the world is now watching as America seems once again at the peak of political mobilisation from both the left and right, as Black Lives Matter rebels against the white supremacy embedded within the State and its institutions, and the Alt-Right seems a major catalyst in much of the vitriol coming from the President and his supporters in response. The narcissism and suggestibility of President Trump has led to the Alt-Right successfully finding a seat at the table in discussions of America’s trajectory, as its sycophantic pandering to Trump’s ego has led to his direct support of its white nationalist agenda. Whilst the Alt-Right is by no means a homogenous group, its ideology has seeped into almost every level of public discourse. Its influence online and offline has been insidious, and at this point there is a career to be made by becoming a prominent figure at the forefront of extremist right-wing circles – from hardliners like Richard Spencer and InfoWars pundit Alex Jones, to the office of the Presidency – the latter is made all the more contentious as we anxiously await the results of the 2020 election. In 1967, Martin Luther King stated that “to live with the pretence that racism is a doctrine of very few is to disarm us in fighting it frontally as scientifically unsound, morally repugnant and socially destructive. The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease.”[28] This two-part special has shown that in the twenty-first century, the United States is far from treating this disease. But, by analysing the current administration’s insidious success through digital channels, and the Alt-Right communities comprised within said channels, we can begin to better understand how hateful rhetoric assumes form, evolving from a tweet to a Presidential address, from post to policy.

[1] N.S,. Love, “Back To The Future: Trendy Fascism, The Trump Effect, And The Alt-Right”, New Political Science, 39.2 (2017), pg.268

[2] J., Morgan, “These Charts Show Exactly How Racist And Radical The Alt-Right Has Gotten This Year”, The Washington Post, 2016

[3] Ibid, 2016

[4] Ibid, 2016

[5] N., Wynn, “Decrypting The Alt-Right: How To Recognize A F@Scist | Contrapoints”, Youtube, 2017

[6] 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.52

[7] L., Marsden, in M., Oliva and M., Shanahan, The Trump Presidency (Springer International Publishing (Springer eBooks), 2019, pg.90

[8] N.S,. Love, “Back To The Future: Trendy Fascism, The Trump Effect, And The Alt-Right”, New Political Science, 39.2 (2017), pg.263-4

[9] A., Wilson, “#Whitegenocide, The Alt-Right And Conspiracy Theory: How Secrecy And Suspicion Contributed To The Mainstreaming Of Hate”, College Of Applied Sciences And Arts: School Of Information: Secrecy And Society, Vol. 1.No. 2 (2018), pg.39

[10]A., Karni, E., Johnson, and N., McCaskill , “Full Text: Trump’s Comments On White Supremacists, ‘Alt-Left’ In Charlottesville”, POLITICO, 2019

[11] D., De Simone, Panorama: Hunting the Neo-Nazis, BBC, 2020

[12] For a greater exploration of Europe’s growing turn rightwards, begin here: Europe and Right-Wing Nationalism, BBC News, 2019

[13] A., Sankin and W.,Carless,  “The Hate Report: Infowars Is The Gateway Drug For White Supremacists”, Reveal, 2018

[14] J., Holt, Freshman, “Infowars Host Keeps Booking White Nationalists And They Sound Just Like Him”, Right Wing Watch, 2018

[15] C., Greer, “How Conspiracy Theorists Have Tapped Into Race and Racism to Further Their Message”, Frontline: PBS, 2020

[16] “Alex Jones and Donald Trump”, United States of Conspiracy, Frontline: PBS, 2020

[17] J., Doward, ‘Quite frankly terrifying’: How the QAnon conspiracy theory is taking root in the UK, The Guardian, 2020

[18] R., Bernstein, ”Online Conspiracy Groups Are a Lot Like Cults”, WIRED, 2018

[19]E., Shugerman, “White Nationalists Welcome On Facebook, According To Leaked Internal Policies”, The Independent, 2018

[20] Recently, they did take action against Duke in July 2020, and among others, Katie Hopkins – a notorious British figure who has been co-opted by the Alt-Right in America. Others now banned from Twitter include Alex Jones, although he has created his own platform Banned.Video to host a number of other deplatformed Alt-Right spokespeople.

[21] “Social Media: Where Voices Of Hate Find A Place To Preach – Center For Public Integrity”, Center For Public Integrity, 2018

[22] D., Roof in K., Sack and A., Blinder, “Jurors Hear Dylann Roof Explain Shooting In Video: ‘I Had To Do It’”, The New York Times, 2016

[23] N., Lamerichs et al, “Elite Male Bodies: The Circulation Of Alt-Right Memes, And Framing Of Politicians On Social Media”, Journal Of Audience & Reception Studies, 15.1 (2018), pg.186

[24] Z., Beauchamp, “The Racist Flags On Dylann Roof’s Jacket, Explained”, Vox, 2015

[25] N., Wynn, “Decrypting The Alt-Right: How To Recognize A F@Scist | Contrapoints”, Youtube, 2017

[26] PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg from Sweden, is one of YouTube’s most subscribed creators with over 90 million followers. At multiple points in the last 5 years, Kjellberg has been embroiled in race related scandals, and has recently been embraced by the Alt-Right. Kjellberg has not formally denounced their connection. For more information see: P., MacInnes, “What’s Up Pewdiepie? The Troubling Content Of Youtube’s Biggest Star”, The Guardian, 2018

[27] A., Cuthbertson, “Why Did Christchurch Mosque Shooter Tell Viewers To ‘Subscribe To Pewdiepie’?”, The Independent, 2019

[28] M.L., King, quoted in K.G., Muhammad, “How The Alt-Right Uses Social Science To Make Racism Respectable”, The Nation, 2018

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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