Conservatism

Towards an Intellectual History of the Alt-Right?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz
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Richard Spencer, a popular alt-right leader, leads the crowd in performing a Nazi salute at his National Policy Institute’s convention this past November (picture (c) Occupy Democrats)

As the alt-right has gained ascendance in American politics and cultural consciousness over the past 24 months, American intellectuals have been scrambling to try and understand its roots and what makes it tick. The media has even been at odds about how to refer to the movement. Most treatments of the alt-right in the news media have been more descriptive than interpretive, but a few very interesting articles have sought to explain the intellectual history and ideology of the movement.

In particular, two articles that I’ve come across stand out. The first is is piece that was published at the end of November in the Jewish online Tablet Magazine written by Jacob Siegel, a reporter for the Daily Beast. Siegel uses Paul Gottfried, a conservative intellectual and historian, as a window into alt-right ideology. A child of German-Jewish refugees, Gottfried is an ardent opponent of Nazism but argues, in much of his scholarship, that other, truer forms of fascism were actually quite successful and morally justified. “If someone were to ask me what distinguishes the right from the left,” Siegel quotes one of Gottfried’s books, “the difference that comes to mind most readily centers on equality. The left favors that principle, while the right regards it as an unhealthy obsession.” To Gottfried, since what he considers the economic failure of socialism the Western left has taken on equality as its raison d’etre. This orientation stymies actual progress and individual liberties, allowing what he calls the “therapeutic managerial state” to accumulate power unchecked by healthy nationalism. Siegel thus interprets Gottfried as a “Nietzschean American Nationalist.”
Gottfried is an erstwhile mentor of Richard Spencer, the most visible leader of the alt-right movement and head of its National Policy Institute. Gottfried has since parted ways with Spencer over the latter’s white nationalism. However, as Siegel discusses in this and another article, what figures like Gottfried reveal about the alt-right is that it is unique from many older nationalist and racialist movements in its embrace of grand historical theories, academic jargon and a keen interest in history and metahistory. It is also at once highly populist, with many of its leaders urging a white populist revolution, as well as, like he fascist movements figures like Gottfried and Spencer identify as their forbears, highly elitist and skeptical of democracy.
The white nationalist component of the alt-right is the subject of a longer article by historian Timothy Shenk that appeared last August in The Guardian. Interestingly, the Guardian has taken much more of a keen interest in the American alt-right and began reporting on the movement earlier than many American newspapers. Perhaps the threat of ethnic nationalism looms larger in Europe than in the United States. Shenk orients his article around Samuel Francis (d. 1995), a dissident conservative intellectual and journalist ousted from the conservative establishment for his racialist views. Like Gottfried, Francis, according to Shenk,  sees contemporary society as dominated by a managerial class that threatens the values of most Americans such as morality, nationalism and racial integrity. In his magnum opus, Leviathan and Its Enemies, posthumously-published by a team of editors that includes Gottfried, Francis argues that the Leviathan of the managerial state can be successfully bought down by a white national revolution.  If Gottfried advocates for a new right based in fascism and nationalism, Francis and his protege Jared Taylor, the founder of the online journal American Renaissanceare much more explicitly white supremacist. Much of the Alt-Right today in both Siegel and Shenk’s accounts see themselves at once as a Nietzschean, social-Darwinist vanguard as well as defenders of racial integrity in the United States.
What emerges from both of these articles is an understanding of the alt right that would suggest that its particular brand of right-wing thought is as much a product of intellectual trends developed in the name of left causes — Gramscian Marxism, Frankfurt school critiques of mass society, studies of therapeutic culture —  as much as it is of conservatism. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the alt-right can tout a radical moral relativism to justify exclusionary nationalism; the origins of relativism in early twentieth century German thought were never far from various iterations of social Darwinism. What also emerges from these articles is an understanding of the alt right that places it, and American conservatism, firmly within American intellectual history.
This framing should make historians reevaluate a lot of the historiography on the right and conservatism written over the past decade. Historians who are part of the current wave of scholarship on the right generally focus on the rise of the Reagan Republicans in the mid-to-late twentieth century. They thus approach the movement as a social phenomena, rooted in popular racist backlash over civil rights on the one hand and corporate-backed efforts to restore pre-New Deal economic policies by popularizing free market economics. Most of these works frame themselves as a corrective to Richard Hofstadter’sconsensus” approach to American history. In his 1948 The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter argued that rather than class conflict agreement on central ideas such as individualism, free market and liberal democracy is what most characterized American politics and under-girded American success. Today’s historians of conservatism seek to disrupt the consensus narrative by exposing the prevalence of racism in American history and understanding conservative ideology as a force in American culture. However, they often  ultimately echo Hofstadter in seeing Americans who joined the republican coalition int the late 1960s-70s as dupes mislead by party elites keen on achieving economic gains.
What follows from the ascendancy of alt right is what many conservatives have been saying all along, namely that whether their critics on the left like their ideologies they indeed have very pronounced ideologies that lead them to take the political positions they do. These ideologies  do not exist in a vacuum either. They dialogue with critical theory and they exhibit nuanced continuities with once very popular ideas of social Darwinism and American nationalism.  In other words, our histories of conservatism may still be tilted  far too much towards Hofstadter consensus narrative: Rather than seeing conservatism in material terms as an aberration based on backlash to Civil Rights without an intellectual history, we ought to be much more explicit with regard to the roots of some conservative ideologies in very prominent , if troubling–and less easily brushed off as reactionary or ignorant– American intellectual traditions. These are intellectual traditions that we perhaps would like to believe long-extinct but the sympathy the alt-right has garnered from many corners suggests that they still occupy a trenchant place in the American national consciousness.  To grapple with and understand the alt-right and its ideas, we, as historians and as citizens, have to take a long hard look at their ideas and their context in our shared history.