It smells like fascism sometimes but the odour also makes you think of a seminar dominated by not-quite-bright freshmen who have been instructed to spill out their silliest political ideas. It's at best a fringe movement, without leaders, membership cards or for that matter many followers.
But in the riotous, anger-drenched hothouse of the internet, alt-right somehow became a digital success. Its adherents have nothing in common but the concepts they love to hate -- liberalism, multiculturalism, free trade and political correctness. Alt-right was rarely even mentioned two years ago but now it's a rare day when it doesn't show up somewhere on our computer screens.
Where did this phenomenon begin its life? The godfather of alt-right, a major source of its ideas and attitudes, has been identified as Paul Gottfried, a philosophy professor emeritus at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. For years he nourished thoughts that seemed at best eccentric but now form everyday conversation online. He was against globalism, the "therapeutic welfare state," the Civil Rights Act and most of the other obsessions of the left. He's obviously an elitist, but at the same time he favours the populist revolt, though he doesn't see that as a contradiction.
As a man of right-wing views, why wouldn't he join the traditionally right-wing Republican Party? His answer reveals the hurt feelings that explain part of alt-right's appeal: "It has treated us, in contrast to such worthies as black nationalists, radical feminists, and open-border advocates, as being unfit for admittance into the political conversation. We are not viewed as honourable dissenters but depicted as subhuman infidels or ignored in the same way as one would a senile uncle who occasionally wanders into one's living room."
Gottfried is one of those few intellectuals who support Donald Trump. Before Trump appeared, people who read books and yet held right-of-right opinions were spiritually homeless.
Richard Spencer wasn't homeless when he met Gottfried, but they recognized each other as natural allies. Gottfried became Spencer's mentor, and Spencer, much younger and more energetic, became a star in the firmament he'd created. As Spencer's eminence increased, they agreed to call their movement alt-right because they believed the world needed an alternative to the Republicans. Conservative or not, Spencer is no admirer of such heroes as William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan.
For an advocate anxious to get his theories across, Spencer has a snotty way of talking to people who disagree with him. On YouTube we see him telling an African-American that Africans have benefited from white supremacy. "How can you deny that?" he says, clearly annoyed. What he wants to say, we can tell, is something like: "Don't you know I'm much smarter than you?" Spencer claims not to be what many call him -- a white supremacist. Instead, he insists he's a member of "the identitarian movement." Since hardly anyone has even heard of that, we have to assume he wants to create something less threatening than white supremacy. He recommends instead a future nation for a "dispossessed white race" -- the term for it is white ethnostate.
He can become a geeky bore when he sets out to explain that in the U.S., white men are the victims of frightful prejudice in the job market. His complaints also reach other shores. He's called for "peaceful ethnic cleansing" of non-whites in Europe to avoid what he claims is the coming destruction of European culture. Europe is less interested in him than he is in Europe. He's been banned from the U.K. and from 22 of 28 European Union member states.
Spencer was a major speaker last August at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., when far-right extremists battled with counter-protesters (called antifa, meaning antifascists) and one woman was killed. White nationalists, neo-Confederates, Klansmen and neo-Nazis were there, apparently on Spencer's side. Marchers chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and carried swastikas, Confederate battle flags, and anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic banners. Since then Spencer's speaking engagements have been cancelled by universities that complained they couldn't afford to hire security guards to deal with riots he might provoke.
Trump's remarks on Charlottesville attracted attention when he claimed there were "very fine people on both sides" of the conflict. He seemed to be saying that Klan members and neo-Nazis were morally equivalent to those who protested against them. If Spencer later realized that alt-right had reached a highly dangerous place, one he couldn't control, he said nothing about it. On the other hand, he's been relatively quiet lately. Perhaps he's thinking things over.