How the Alt-Right Grew From an Obscure Racist Cabal
The term “alt-right” probably makes you think of Twitter or a dark subreddit, or 4chan, or some social medium occupied by meme-slinging, Trump-supporting, unapologetically bigoted provocateurs. You probably don’t think of a PO box in Whitefish, Montana. But that’s the alt-right’s street address.
More precisely, it’s where you send mail to the National Policy Institute, the think tank that built the movement. The president is Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alternative right” in 2008 in an article he wrote for a far-right website. And when you follow the alt-right back home, the movement’s goofy, social media-friendly trappings fall away. NPI doesn’t actually traffic in cartoon frogs and fedoras. The people who run it are just white supremacists.
On paper, NPI doesn’t look influential. It’s a website, a PO box, a Google Voice number, and—according to its last available tax forms—$16,000 worth of assets and an annual income that barely cracks six figures. NPI publishes research papers and books—classics like “Racial Differences in Intelligence, Personality, and Behavior” and The Red Pill. (The phrase “red pill” has mutated from a Matrix reference about embracing painful truths to a shorthand for supporting racism and misogyny.) NPI’s mission statement describes its members as “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.” They’re serious: Spencer himself was denounced by and deported from Hungary—a famously xenophobic country—for organizing a pan-European white supremacist event.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups in the US, NPI is one of the four most influential organizations of academic racists in the country. Its companions on that list include the Charles Martel Society, run by NPI’s founder, millionaire publisher William Regnery. Also on the list: the New Century Foundation, which is run by Jared Taylor, one of the founding members of NPI’s board. It’s a small pond, and just about everything you fish out of it has some connection to NPI.
But now that clique’s ideas, the ideological tentpoles of the alt-right movement, have swum out into the mainstream.
NPI’s moves come from a well-worn playbook. “The alt-right is just a rebranding of white supremacism for the digital age,” says Mark Potok, senior fellow at SPLC.
Here’s how it works: First, get a likable, accessible frontman. “There’s been a major effort for the last 30 years to make the radical right more respectable, and Spencer is a part of that tradition,” says Potok. Another example would be the KKK’s David Duke, who famously encouraged Klansmen to get “out of the cow pasture and into the hotel meeting room.”
The comparison tracks. NPI held an official press conference in a hotel meeting room just last month. Spencer is polite and square-jawed, with a neat high-and-tight haircut. He doesn’t sneer or curse, and he pitches big ideas about the future—like NPI becoming the alt-right equivalent of the Heritage Foundation, a lynchpin of mainstream conservative thought. “I’m very optimistic about the future of our movement,” he says. “The Heritage Foundation has big physical buildings and scholars, but if you measure dollars to impact, it’s shockingly low. The alt-right’s is shockingly high. It’s low-end disruption.” Very Silicon Valley.
Step two: Clad yourself in the trappings of academia. “People have always tried to give an intellectual foundation to euronationalism,” says Brian Levin, director of CSU San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Remember phrenology, the bogus science of studying the size and shape of someone’s skull as a predictor of intelligence and character? And how it was really just a bunch of racists poking at people’s heads? Same idea.
Package your most controversial ideas in pseudo-academic arguments, using ornate, polysyllabic, racial-slur free language. It makes people more willing to hear it. And if you do so on a bland website—as NPI has—so much the better. “The ruling, non-discriminatory ideology, that we’ll be a little stronger for the more piquancy of the sauce, is a suicidal ideology,” Spencer says. “The races are not equivalent or interchangeable. The prevailing ideology is one that will lead to the ultimate dispossession of my people and my culture.”
That bland website is a real key to step three: You have to make the web work for you. “Extremism has been using the Internet since it was just dial-up bulletin boards,” says Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a criminal justice professor at CSU Stanislaus who has studied extremist groups on the Internet. Fringe ideologies—and groups like ISIS—can acquire new followers on the Internet passively and actively. The passive version happens when people land on the sites by happenstance, or by searching for generally hateful stuff. (Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof searched for “black on white crime” and ended up on the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens’ website. According to Potok, “Roof radicalized himself.”)
The active version of recruitment is a bit more assertive. Like most of the alt-right, Spencer is very Internet-savvy. He knows that most of his target audience isn’t going to sit down with a tome on the “biological reality of race,” one of Spencer’s recurring phrases. That’s why he has a Twitter account and runs sites like AlternativeRight.com to deliver his ideology in bite-sized chunks. “It only takes a few influencers to make these things take off,” Potok says. “There’s been a major effort from people like Richard Spencer to push out memes like Pepe the Frog or #whitegenocide.”
And the cycle perpetuates. You start seeing posts using Pepe (who has recently joined the swastika and the burning cross on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of hate symbols) or #whitegenocide, and you do some Googling. If you keep at it, you’ll get to articles written by people like the New Century Foundation’s Taylor. “It’s how they downplay how extreme they are,” Gerstenfeld says. “Most people who get interested in these groups aren’t drawn in by the rhetoric. They work their way there slowly.” So while not everyone shouting about cucks on Twitter is a Richard Spencer in the making, a proportion of them probably are.
The New Right
Spencer says that NPI isn’t only for building a movement; it’s for sustaining and legitimizing one that already exists. “Having our own institutions is going to take us beyond just being trolls or Trump fans,” he says. “We need to destroy traditional conservatism. We’re going to displace them, and we are going to be the right.”
That has been NPI’s plan since the beginning. One of the organization’s founders, the white nationalism advocate Louis Andrews (who died in 2011) claimed to have voted for Obama in order to destroy the GOP “so it can be reborn as a party representing the interests of white people.” As far as Spencer is concerned, the GOP can “Go manage a Pizza Hut.”
Now, the alt-right and NPI are nowhere near achieving that goal. Spencer brought up the Heritage Foundation, but that think tank has an enormous endowment, physical buildings in Washington DC, direct connections with legislators, and policy recommendations based on principles like limited government and free enterprise. NPI doesn’t have any of those things.
Whether because of economic stagnation, a culture of xenophobia and fear, growing distrust for traditional institutions, or—more likely—all of that and more, people’s loyalties are up for grabs. Some of them will be drawn to fringe groups like the alt-right, and how that happens is both explainable and understandable. Maybe more importantly: It has happened on purpose, part of the plan of a group of longtime, unabashed white supremacists. That’s who’s behind the Twitter eggs and Breitbart provocateurs. That cartoon frog is a Trojan horse.
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