“Alt-Right” is a Convenient Fiction: It’s Just the Right With A Modem
Many people have apparently forgotten that haplessly ignorant and hopelessly angry conspiracy theorists who sometimes couch their white supremacist leanings in obscurantist academic language have been included within the “big tent” of the Republican Party since 1965. This is simply an observation of fact, if one is to give any countenance to what most within the “alt-right” say they believe. How are their feckless ideas fundamentally different from those within the John Birch Society? Or the more important rhetorical question: How are their beliefs fundamentally different from the average mainstream Conservative who only repeats them as off-the-record whispers into the hairy ears of his peers at the country club bar?
There are a million ways to slice and dice the “real” reason Donald J. Trump got elected, and impressive efforts have been made to attribute it to third party candidates, white middle class angst, a fundamentally misguided Clinton campaign, fake news stories, the archaic electoral college model, and many others. It of course could have been any of these things individually, and more likely a combination of some or all of these things, but without the “alt-right” and their preposterous, simplistic but easily digestible memes aimed at the ignorati, it is hard to see how Trump could have been elected. Could Trump have won without the “alt-right”? Sure, and for any of the above reasons. But the “alt-right” were game-changers in ways that none of the other competing theories are.
The “alt-right” doesn’t have anything new to contribute, and they don’t have any coherent political philosophy. They just learned how to use a computer.
Yes, I make the not-so-bold claim that the influence of the “alt-right” got their guy and their party elected, or, as this claim can never be empirically verified, it was enormously influential.
And their guy and their party must now dance with them that brung ‘um.
Realize, too, and equally importantly, that the very term “alt-right” is a misnomer, which is why I put it in quotes. Since Obama’s election in 2008 the “alt-right” became the “actual-Right” – the Right of reality, and let’s not insult everyone’s intelligence by pretending otherwise, that their ideas are somehow new, or important, or intelligible. And let’s not also pretend that this is some kind of new mutation of a virus infecting Conservative politics. If anything, it is simply an extension of old ideas by a social media medium that easily reaches people without requiring them to do anything so strenuous as to read a book.
The “alt-right” moniker used to describe Trump supporters should be discarded for simple “the Right,” or if you prefer, “Conservative.” You could even do the Prince thing and say, “The party formerly known as the Conservative Party,” but that’s a mouthful, and it wouldn’t clarify anything. (As Bill Maher once noted, “survival seeds” are really just “seeds.”)
The “alt-right” label does not procure us with any new insight, does not enlighten us, and it does not provide any new, particularly useful information. There’s simply no need to complicate things with a further descriptive. It’s been tried before. These reckless ideologues and irresponsible fakirs have been called the “far right,” “neoconservatives,” “paleoconservatives,” among other names, none of which stuck. Why? As I said, there’s simply no need for a new name. Certainly there’s a want for a new name, as it could have the effect of decoupling the racist kooks from mainstream Republicans, giving them political cover from being too closely associated with the the mentally ill and the shameless liars who spout the silly shibboleth “cuckservatives” (more on who those people are below), but it would be superfluous.
I think that too many people really don’t get this, and I feel the strange need to belabor the point somewhat, so please indulge me. By way of analogy, when you tell someone that you’re an American, do they ask you, “Really, from what country?” It might be a pedantically correct question because Mexicans (the ones actually living Mexico) are also Americans, if geography and history are to be considered. But it would also be an embarrassingly scholastic question. In the real world, when you tell someone that you are an American, they are not confused about what country you’re from. And in the real world when someone tells you that they’re a Conservative, there should be no confusion that they are from the party that supports Know-Nothing nativism, and has done so for more than a century. Now, though, they (Conservatives) have become so dumb that they’ve lost any pretense of diplomatic subtlety. Perhaps this was a result of having a sophisticated, educated scholar, gentleman, and black bon vivant in the White House for 8 years instead of a monosyllabic borderline moron from Connecticut who pretended to be a Texas Wildcatter and chews with his mouth open. Nobody knows. But this is, in my view, a good thing. It is always better to deal with open racists and people wearing tinfoil hats than people who pretend not to be racists, or sane, hiding their tinfoil hat under waves of orange comb overs.
The dog whistles are gone now, or at least now both dogs and humans can hear them.
How can I be so sure that the “alt-right” and the Conservative Right are just slightly different curings of the same beef? For a very simple reason. Those “cuckservatives” who so indignantly, righteously, and correctly, excoriated Donald J. Trump with unambiguous recursives throughout the long campaign, are now glad-handing him in the hope of serving in his administration. What Conservative among them refused to meet with him on principle? Who among them stood by their faux egalitarian, pluralist principles and denounced him? I haven’t been able to find a single one. The oft-repeated refrain from Trump supporters is, “He says what I am thinking.” Indeed, you’re thinking at a primary school level and you’re newly-anointed leader is speaking at the same level, often lower. And the shameless pilgrimage of newly-reformed, born-again acolytes to the Mecca of all that is wrong with the world – the Trump Tower – is proof that Conservative leaders agreed with Trump all along too, but because they were politicians, they just couldn’t say so, and like Trump himself, they thought he would lose anyway. But now that the game has changed, they no longer have to speak in code about their insidious ideas, and what a relief it must be to shed the heavy and false raiment of reason and say what you think, as grotesque as it is.
I could be wrong of course – I am, after all, imputing motives to the actions of desperate aspirants that they themselves deny, and therefore this is circumstantial evidence to be sure. It could be that they disagree with Trump but still think they can be instrumental in their respective roles in public service. But one might find it worth considering that their boss has never shown even the remotest interest in public service through the course of his silk-pajamad life, unless you count his fake charity or fake university. Or perhaps they think they will be serving the country and not the man running it. One doesn’t have to be completely politically jaded to dismiss that theory, though. Let’s be serious.
More broadly, this political amalgam of mostly poorly educated jingoists and xenophobes calling themselves Conservatives must always remain under the “big tent” of the Republican party for the very simple reason that if they split into different factions they would cancel out any real political influence they have held as a group; if they split into a Old-Conservative (pre-Tea Party) party and a New-Conservative (post-Breitbart) party, the big circus tent would collapse on itself and competing carnival barkers would drown themselves out. The internecine wars would not be survivable. I wouldn’t complain, but I’m not credulous enough to think it will happen. After all, we saw how politically ineffective Conservatives were when they found themselves between the two (politically) geologic periods of Obama’s election in 2008 and his reelection in 2012, which very nearly became the Permian-Triassic “dying out” for the Republican Party – but was saved by a little known organisms, like rural toothless hillbillies teaming up with resentful post-industrial Rust Belt garret-dwellers, who in turn developed symbiotic relationships with wealthy neoliberals, internationalists and the primordial slime of simpletons of all demographic groups, to create a more diverse and complex system which allowed it to survive, and apparently thrive. But like all complex systems, its survival comes with a price – inherent instability.
Conservatives are mad at the world, but their members can’t completely agree as to why they should be: minorities are taking their jobs (especially Mexicans), America was tricked into electing a secret Muslim from Kenya, manmade global climate disruption is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and the ultimate goal of Liberals is to see America become a communist fagtopia arm of the United Nations by taking away our guns (or any combination of the above, or all of the above, and many more absurdities as well).
As it turns out, these new Conservatives should be justly angry about many things. They should be angry that their Conservative leader for 8 years, a man so dumb he has become somewhat of a cult figure within the movement (and now spends his time finger painting wounded soldiers in his garage), sent young men and women into senseless wars of choice having much more to do with neoliberalist economic theology than its (much more effective) branding as “freedom” – because we don’t want average publicly-educated children to bothered with any author as scary and confusing as George Orwell. They should be mad that they have been conned for decades into voting against their own interests. They should be mad that the very same Conservative leaders who they worship openly, also despise them and ridicule them, openly. Indeed they should be angry at both major political parties for selling the snake oil of silly side issues like political correctness, identity politics, terrorist cells infiltrating the Homeland by parading as Syrian refugees, and the clear and imminent danger of transgender people using a restroom different from what their God-assigned individual genitalia told them their assigned restroom should be.
But the important issues do not anger them, because they’re not largely aware of them, or if aware of them, only vaguely. And their animosities are so easily misdirected by more emotional and visceral manufactured threats.
Things like economic theory or political philosophy are obscured by the grime on the lenses of perfectly serviceable reading glasses, and yes, I know that I am risking taking this analogy too far to imply that they cannot read. Of course they can read. They just cannot see well. The reason for their myopia is not their own doing, it is the result of the disease that was given to them by the very people who benefit from their legal blindness – the “alt-right” – the new Conservatives.
It did not used to be this way of course. There was a time when Conservatives were not bat-shit crazy, angry, confused nut jobs from an alternate universe, or kids with so little moral character or emotional intelligence that they value shock value over all else. Sure, some of their base tendencies were similar with their bad seed offspring – they tended to be white and privileged, slightly racist, fearful of change, and subject to unquestioning belief in dogma. But they weren’t crazy. They were part of an intellectual movement, a movement like all intellectual movements before and since, struggling to make sense of the world, and in doing so providing a framework in which one could hope to decipher reality, filtering out both the observable and non-observable objective facts that were superfluous and distracting to true human understanding of how a good human society could be achieved. They were people like William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will. Of course Buckley is dead and Will has been sidelined with most the rest of his reasonable, intellectual brethren, in the face of a movement that they themselves inspired, but has now cannibalized their leaders’ once respectable, if not at least intelligible, ideas, and shat them out as transmogrified demagogic slogans and memes, never having fully digested them. The stench is overpowering. But like a dog eating its own vomit, the stink is apparently overpoweringly seductive for the semi-sentient. To complete this offal scatology analogy – if for no other reason than to shock sensitive readers – one might remember the quote from Gabriel García Márquez, “…the day shit is worth money poor people will be born without an asshole.”
Never mind. While I never agreed with most of the arguments of the (now dead or well into the final death-rattle) intellectual conservative movement, but in the heady days in the marketplace of ideas, you could argue with them about economic policy, about social policy, and any number of other things like philosophy and sociology, and they would be well-versed in the arcane theories of Keynes and Kant and Nietzsche, and we could even agree on many objective facts in the process, of course differing on interpretation and details. They were passionate and persuasive debaters, and their arguments often made intuitive sense. The closest one can come now to any Conservative who is in power and can speak in complete sentences is the automaton in the form of Paul Davis Ryan (R-Wis), the current Speaker of the House whose apparatchiks think of him as some kind of policy wonk when he is in reality a gym rat man-boy who fell in love with Ayn Rand and never got over her.
But then something happened. Many of their policy ideas were put into practice. And time passed. And everyone could see without the need of intellectualizing that their theories just didn’t work, at least for the average American.
Out of many possible examples, let me just give the most obvious one. The sine qua non of economic policy for Conservatives like Paul Ryan, to put it in its most sanitized form, is “supply-side” – reducing taxes for the wealthy and reducing regulations for corporations, which, as the story goes, would result in higher growth and higher investment, and the economic benefits that the wealthy would obviously filter down to the less rich, the workers, and to society as a whole (hence this theory’s more pungent name of “trickle down” economics). Economists like Milton Friedman and many others built whole careers on this fallacy. It was implemented in earnest with Ronald Reagan’s economic policies in 1980. The problem was of course that nothing trickled down. It didn’t even dribble. Almost four decades later, after being applied liberally (no pun intended), it became increasingly more difficult to convince people that it was working, or that it simply was never given a fair chance at working, or had been ruined by the sabotage of another competing party in power with a different theory. Even the congenitally or willfully ignorant could see that this was the case, without having to think too hard about it – it was felt in everyday life. Our grey post-apocalyptic industrial cities and towns are here, the homeless encampments are here, the food banks who turn hungry people away because there is no food are here, the record breaking Dow is here, and the full employment rate at crappy service industry jobs are here too. One need only open her eyes to see these things.
But when one invests a lifetime of intellectual energy propagating an argument, or as in this case be, a beautiful but dangerous illusion (neoliberal theology), it is a dreadfully hard habit to give up. So the passion for the argument has not abated, at least within the circles of conservative economic ideas, and neither did its sophistic leanings, or perhaps even its dogmatic principles. But at some point the all-powerful force of dogmatic belief had to eventually come in some sort of contact with the immovable object of economic reality. So conservatives simply gave up on reasoned argument and began selling fear and loathing, which have very good historical records of moving public opinion in one’s favor, as it requires no thought or analysis, only an amygdala and consciousness.
Progressives like very much to demonize Conservatives as being dimwitted knuckle-draggers too dumb to consider facts and too dumb to accept the realities of objective truth. Conservatives, likewise, very much like to demonize Progressives as pie-in-the-sky “knee-jerk” educated-beyond-their-means Liberals, who have no hard-felt ideological roots and will take them to wherever their interest-based political winds will blow them. Both of these absolutes are wrong, but if there were not some seed of truth to these generalizations, these stereotypes could never have taken root.
Conservatism, in principle, isn’t a bad thing. Teddy Roosevelt was a conservative, and he wanted, mostly, to conserve the natural environment. He almost single-handedly created our national park system and was the forerunner of our environmental protection laws. And Progressives love him for this. Yes, Liberal Progressives can love a Conservative. And Conservatives can love a Liberal right back. After all, none other than Richard Millhouse Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave us the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Yet Progressives excoriate Teddy for being a war-mongering, racist populist, as perhaps they should. And Conservatives excoriate Nixon as being a race-baiting political opportunist, as perhaps they should. Conservatives want to conserve – our democracy, our heritage, our way of life, our hopes and our dreams for a better future. Progressives want to progress beyond conservation, into the bold new world of possibilities, where all men being created equal is not just an aphorism. The instincts of these two groups have found common ground in the past, and if history is any guide, will again in the future. Their ideas need not become a diametrically opposed zero-sum game. Regressive dreamers of a golden-white Norman Rockwell past that never really existed but want to make it re-exist with the hocus-pocus of hyper-free market capitalism and white pride vs. progressive dreamers that a brave new world of equality can be created using the same magic.
Pragmatists, consigned to the bench, sit on sidelines, scratching their heads, writing essays like this, adjusting their jocks, and smelling their fingers.
It has been widely reported that coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News – the milquetoast powerhouses of basic news dissemination, spent a total of 32 minutes of airtime on coverage of public policy issues – crime, abortion, civil rights, the environment, poverty, etc. – compared to 220 minutes in 2008. During the Republican primary season, the networks spent 333 minutes on Donald Trump alone. Of course they did – facts and issues are mostly depressing, and talking about them when there is man who looks like an immolated orangutan with a bad wig would kill ratings. The major networks are not dumb. They’re just sycophantic followers of money at any cost, not unlike the racist they gave so much coverage to and helped to elect.
But I digress. The Conservative parties, both here and abroad, are parties of feckless white nationalists, blinded by a failed ideology of individualism and neoliberalism. Liberal parties, both here and abroad, are rainbow coalition parties guided by the failed ideology of what’s-in-it-for-me idealism, and neoliberalism too. The only people talking sense, the Bernie Sanders’s of the world, are not being listened to because the gatekeepers of ideas won’t let them be heard.
Conservatives can try to surgically excise deplorables from their platform by calling them “alt-right,” but that’s just an obvious ploy to distance themselves from the very people who elected them, and by extension, who will govern all of us. Why Liberals have accepted this labeling game is less clear. They would be better off to put all of them into the same sack and just call them Conservatives; of course they have differences, but it is a mistake to focus on those differences instead of their commonalities. Clinton was half-right to call half of Trump supporters “deplorables.” Half-right because they are all deplorables. You, Trump supporter, might be the most honest morally upright example of a hominid in the world, and supported the President-elect for a legitimate reason (e.g., he doesn’t like the Trans-Pacific Partnership), but in doing so you had have to have ignored every other deplorable thing he stood for, which is a moral failing if there ever was one.
I’m just calling a duck a duck.