Alt-right small but influential, prof says

Members of the alternative right may be few in number, but their ideology has outsized influence and disturbing similarities to fascism, a Montana State University Billings professor said here this week.

Paul Pope, a political science professor, spoke on “American Democracy and the Rise of the Alternative Right” in the “Frontiers in Democracy” lecture series at MSU Billings. He drew parallels between the ascendance of Donald Trump in American politics and the spread of alt-right ideology around the world.

Pope did not charge that Trump thinks of himself as a member of the alt-right, but he said that some of Trump’s policies appeal to alt-right adherents.

Pope noted that Trump managed to win the Republican nomination for president over more than a dozen opponents with longer political resumes and more conventional Republican beliefs.

“He went after Republicans as much as he did Democrats,” Pope said.

Trump swept into office with broad support from the older white male working class, the Americans who are the subject of sociologist Michael Kimmel’s “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.” Kimmel’s book, published in 2015, did not mention Trump, Kimmel said in an interview with the Guardian last month.

Paul Pope

“Essentially, I wrote a book about his followers – for whom the leader hadn’t showed up yet,” Kimmel said. An updated edition is due out next year.

Support for Trump was driven in part by perceptions that white males have lost status to women and racial minorities, Pope said. The alt-right helped fuel those perceptions with a “diet of manufactured outrage,” a narrative of restoring traditional American values and nostalgia for a time when things were supposedly better, Pope said.

Trump capitalized on those perceptions with a series of campaign statements promising to make America great again, attacking the media, denigrating women and racial minorities, and inflaming fears of terrorist attacks, Pope said.

Trump’s chief strategist is now Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, which has billed itself as the “platform for the alt-right.”

As a Breitbart article put it last year, “Although initially small in number, the alt-right has a youthful energy and jarring, taboo-defying rhetoric that have boosted its membership and made it impossible to ignore.”

One of the authors of that article, Milo Yiannopoulos, has been permanently banned from Twitter because of abusive comments. He resigned from Breitbart in February after a video surfaced in which he appeared to endorse sexual relationships between 13-year-old boys and adults.

Bannon himself has said that he wants to “destroy all of today’s establishment” just as Lenin destroyed the czarist establishment in Russia, according to the Daily Beast. Bannon has denied that he is a racist but his appointment has been praised by acknowledged racists, such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer.

While the alt-right movement remains small, it has produced a roster of luminaries, Pope said. They include Richard Spencer, a sometime resident of Whitefish who founded the National Policy Institute and coined the term “alt-right”; Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, which describes itself as the internet’s “premier race-realist site”; Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents Publishing, which promotes the idea that “we live in a Dark Age, in which decadence reigns and all natural and healthy values are inverted”; and Kevin MacDonald, a retired psychology professor who is a proponent of social Darwinism.

The alt-right also is prominent on social media, particularly on sites that don’t carefully monitor postings for offensive content, Pope said. The alt-right’s contributions are particularly noted for poor grammar and bad spelling, he said.

“Social media is kind of their playground,” he said.

The movement also has adopted a variety of symbols, slogans and code words, including the cartoon character Pepe the Frog; the Othala rune (pictured above); “cuckservative,” a word derived from “cuckold” to describe establishment conservatives (see image at top); “normie,” a term that describes those who are not part of the alt-right; “white genocide,” denoting the supposed destruction of the white race; “snowflake,” which describes those who are offended by bigoted language; sets of parentheses used to indicate Jews; and “Lügenpresse,” a German word for “lying press” popular during the Nazi era, to describe what Trump calls “fake news.”

Generally, Pope said, members of the alt-right favor creation of an ethno-state for Europeans, economic and social nationalism based on white heritage, racial segregation, and a fanatical attraction to conflict, including violence. They oppose immigration, the Enlightenment, traditional conservatism, homosexuality and drug use.

Taken together, the alt-right’s beliefs resemble those of fascism, the ideology adopted by Adolph Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy in the 1930s. Characteristics of fascism, he said, include belief in a strong leader, subordination of the individual, an emphasis on military strength, sexism, censorship, violence and a one-party state with religion, industry and government closely intertwined. Fascists typically favor traditional gender roles, run fraudulent elections and show disdain for intellectuals, the arts and academia.

While Trump’s ideology is difficult to nail down, Pope said, he has an authoritarian style, and he has adopted positions that appeal to the alt-right, including building a border wall, restricting Muslim integration and altering the federal budget to increase spending on security and cut spending on administration, education and the arts. Trump also has taken positions that violate human rights, such as calling for torture and for attacks on family members of terrorists.

While political groups that could be described as alt-left also exist, Pope said, there has been a shift in authoritarianism from the left to the right over the last decade. That shift is causing a fracture in the Republican Party, he said, and it also has created a huge backlash against the Trump administration.

The unsettled state of American politics has had international ramifications. Beliefs similar to those of Trump voters influenced the Brexit vote in England, Pope said, and Vladimir Putin has imposed neo-fascist policies on Russia. In a recent election in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders of the nationalist Party for Freedom billed himself as the Dutch Donald Trump. That may have cost him the election, Pope said, but his party gained seats in the Dutch House of Representatives, and he finished second to the winning incumbent.

Asked if the rise of the alt-right might have been due in part to “overwhelming political correctness,” Pope agreed but said the alt-right had overreacted.

“Their response is like swatting flies with a bazooka,” he said.

Tuesday night’s talk was the second in the “Frontiers in Democracy” series. Last week, Professor Tom Rust spoke on “Full of Variety and Disorder: The Birth, Death and Rebirth of Athenian Democracy.”

Rust said that Athenian democracy took various forms over the centuries but generally included an assembly of male citizens and smaller bodies that proposed legislation and exercised executive powers. The legal system did not include judges, legal experts or jury deliberations.

Strengths of the system were that it opened political life to a large talent pool and fueled development of the arts. Weaknesses were that it was vulnerable to demagogues and could make outlandish decisions, such as demolishing whole towns, executing even successful generals and even voting democracy itself out of existence.

Those weaknesses explained why America’s founding fathers were skeptical of pure democracies and took steps to establish a republic rather than a democracy. He noted that under the original design of the Constitution, only members of the House of Representatives were directly elected by voters.

On April 4, political science Professor Nisha Bellinger speaks on “The Global Spread of Democracy in the Post-World War II Era.” On April 11, sociology Professor Joy Honea speaks on “Nasty Women: The Political Becomes Personal.”

All lectures are at 6:30 p.m. in Library Room 148 in the Liberal Arts Building. There is no admission charge.

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