What was most intriguing about Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, following his unprecedented success in the primaries, was the subtle shift nationalist ideology has undergone to prove more popular with a 21st century audience. I do not wish to suggest that the staggering political events of 2016 – the decision from Britain to withdraw from the European Union or Trump being victorious in securing the presidency – mark the return of the totalitarian personality witnessed in the 1930s and 40s. Naïve commentators regularly publicise this misleading idea of the resurrection of an old Hitlerite fascism when they miss out the essential and elusive details that comprise this contemporary and cyber-political character of nationalism.
In his speech at the national convention, Trump promised that, as America’s president, he would do “everything in [his] power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of the hateful foreign ideology”. At first glance this assurance seems unusually socially liberal for a Republican candidate and Trump himself acknowledges this a moment later: “And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said”. Yet he still frames this entirely malicious belief system of anti-gay rights as a ‘foreign’ agency regardless of the fact that much of the hatred towards America’s LGBTQ residents originates from natives as well as from immigrants in roughly equal measure. Nationalism, taken from its ideological foundation, emphasises most problems within a social system as the devious work of an alien intruder, impishly destabilising the indigenous national structure.
The Alt-Right are a partisan crowd of internet trolls, provocative users of social media exercising their brash reactionary influence from the boundless depths of the online world.
Of course, the disruptive outsider has not been Trump’s only selling point from his campaign. The Democrats were never able to disassociate themselves from the predominant populist depiction of their administration as an aloof, self-serving elite, upholding business interests before public priority, and Trump did profit from this undoubtedly home-grown social disparity. But the paranoid external vision of nation-state singularity remains between the lines of Trump’s rhetoric. This contemporary nationalism, allied with cultural libertarian thought, is prepared to give up traditional Conservative stances on gay rights in order to capture the attention of the modern liberal public.
The current notoriety of this libertarian-nationalist phenomenon derives largely from the Alt-Right ‘movement’, made out of a disparate cluster of popular internet figures and personas. The title of this movement originates more from the ‘Alt’ key on the computer keyboard, in the sense of it being a product of online activity, rather than a physical movement with coherent alternative political aims. The Alt-Right are a partisan crowd of internet trolls, provocative users of social media exercising their brash reactionary influence from the boundless depths of the online world.
The movement’s presence and impact on the political mainstream can be roughly seen as originating from a frustration with moderate liberal Conservatism as too soft on immigration and infected with ‘Cultural Marxist’, politically correct thinking, which they see as undermining traditional western values and institutions. A fixed ambition for this movement, however, is often unclear in the Alt-Right’s confrontational and inflammatory discourse, articulated mostly through memes and seen most prominently in the writing of Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos, designed more to goad a reaction than an effective blueprint of political motivation. In fact, even Yiannopoulos, who played a productive role in placing the term Alt-Right on the political map, has refused to associate with the movement. How then do we define this obscure 4chan revolution that has restyled nationalism for the contemporary audience, when it is lacking in leadership figures who assert tangible direction and confidently identify with this indefinite social cause?
Various critics have attempted to address this dramatic increase of right-wing libertarian appeal. But too often they miss the fundamental questions which could help us to begin to understand these new patriotic movements. In a video for his Youtube channel, The Guardian columnist Owen Jones branded the Alt-Right as a grouping of “white nationalists and fascists” and highlighted Richard Spencer, a prominent American nationalist, as the representative of the Alt-Right as a movement of neo-Nazis. Jones is evidently correct to call Spencer individually a white nationalist and anti-Semite. In a well-publicised conference soon after Trump’s successes in the Primaries, Spencer attacked the mainstream “lying press”, or Lügenpresse, borrowing a term used by German racialist movements at the beginning of the 20th century and then characterised the media as a “golem”, a demonic being animated from clay in Jewish folklore. He then enthusiastically glorified centuries of brutality and suffering from white European imperial missions: “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror.” Amid scattered chants of “Hail Trump! Hail our leader!” from the 200 members of the audience, Spencer also appropriates a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche displayed on the PowerPoint (perhaps not being aware of Nietzsche’s anti-nationalism): “Become Who We Are”.
Spencer is undoubtedly a fervent white nationalist, inspired by the fascistic personality of the twentieth century. But it is counter-productive to dismiss the contemporary and politically wide-ranging Alt-Right phenomenon as a narrow creed of dogmatic Nazis. The movement contains some of the most rabid white nationalist elements, but Jones’ sweeping generalisation is precisely what is empowering the Alt-Right’s anti-Leftist influence. Their recurring message is that many alternative reactionary Conservatives outside of the political mainstream, such as Ben Shapiro or Ann Coulter (who are inclined more towards the free-market doctrine of Milton Friedman than Hitler’s national socialism) are marginalised from taking part in free speech. Figures who endorse alternative right-wing libertarianism (as opposed to Richard Spencer’s totalitarianism) are accused of race-based Nazism even when they are minimally critical of certain procedures of immigration or PC culture. If the Left are to free themselves from these accusations of stifling freedom of public debate, they must draw these crucial distinctions in what is not a solid mass of fascism but is in fact a fractured and diverse right-wing movement.
nationalism, in union with free-market and libertarian dogma, is seeking nuanced and online methods to claim an increasing loyal attention from the 21st century public.
In the documentary-film Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis exposes the endemic inauthenticity of our everyday lives, regulated ever more stringently by social media and the network of our performative guises online. Curtis then relates this normalised lifestyle of online fakery to the deceitful world of politics. We know the stories and narratives politicians tell us are lies. We know the economic structure they help to stabilise is built on corruption and corporate greed. We know that capitalist globalisation is struggling against new and insurmountable problems such as climate change and refugee crises. But we still experience this fabricated reality as natural, the normal way-of-things with no possibility of a political alternative. Curtis then reviews Trump’s presidential campaign as a force that defeated reliable journalism because of Trump’s flagrant disregard for any responsible account of the truth, whether in his speeches or his avid use of Twitter and its short-text capability. But Curtis does not go far enough in exploring this new nationalism. Perhaps the reason why people in their droves are choosing these reactionary (in the political Conservative sense) movements is because they want a political vision that feels authentic and promises a tightening of order and identity after decades of economic instability and political faithlessness. Paradoxically, much of this authentic promise comes from the virtual online world, in the form of the incongruous yet curiously persuasive Alt-Right.
None of this means I am a defender or sympathiser with what can only be conveniently labelled as an Alt-Right movement. My point is that nationalism, in union with free-market and libertarian dogma, is seeking nuanced and online methods to claim an increasing loyal attention from the 21st century public. In a time of an unprecedented refugee and economic crisis with impending ecological catastrophe, this withdrawal into nation-state particularity is not the solution for these global concerns which transcend national borders. If we are to defeat this temptation of nationalism in the face of an uncertain world, a diagnosis that is free of the fascistic pre-conceptions is necessary if the Left is to understand this contemporary state of nationalism and challenge it with its own political alternative.