On The 'Alt-Right' and 'Alt-Lite'

In many ways, since the inauguration of Joe Biden to the office of President of the United States (POTUS) on January 20th 2021, it may indeed seem as if the groups that vocally labelled themselves as ‘Alt-Right’ (Alternative Right) may have retreated somewhat.[1] Despite this, the January 6th ‘Storming of the Capitol’ illustrated the potential impact of such groups, even if on this occasion they were unable to manifest any potential to take and hold power; gaining access to the Capitol, filming their misdemeanours, then retreating with a cocksure pride and a feeling that they had done something to enact change. It must be stated that those who constituted the mob should not be simply identified as a single unified group, be it Alt-Right, Alt-Lite, Nationalists, Identitarians, Libertarians, and so on. Indeed, the only unifying factor that can be deduced is that they were supportive of two notions: (a) that Donald Trump had indeed won the 2020 election, with this win being ‘stolen’ from him, and (b) that forcible access to the Capitol building was required. Aside from this, it would be a disserve to our critical faculties to ‘lump them all in together’, so to speak. Nonetheless, one of the noticeable features of the mob that underscore and aid such a claim – that indeed the crowd cannot be simply lumped together – were the flags hoisted by its members. Amidst the sea of ‘Trump 2020’ or ‘Stop the Steal’ banners were a number of insignia and standards of the Far Right, Alt-Right and Alt-Lite.

By this point, there is a plethora of conceptualisations for these terms. As far as the term ‘Alt-Right’ is concerned, researchers emphasise different elements of its many qualities in conceptualisation. For instance, the noted scholar of right-wing and extremist populist parties, Cas Mudde, contends with the ‘Southern Poverty Law Centre’ that the ‘Alt-Right’ is: “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization”.[2]

In this regard, the Alt-Right can be defined by Mudde as occupying some of the space he categorises as ‘far right’, as a combination of both ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’ tendencies. In Mudde’s framework, the ‘radical right’ is defined as: “ideologies that believe that inequalities between people are natural and positive and that accept the essence of democracy but oppose fundamental elements of liberal democracy”.[3] This is distinguishable from the ‘extreme right’, identified as: “Ideologies that believe that inequalities between people are natural and positive and that reject the essence of democracy”.[4] This is significant, as what we see is that Mudde separates his dual categories on the basis of their attitude to democracy broadly. The Alt-Right may be considered as ‘far right’ because of internal variations in regards to democratic attitudes, where some Alt-Right groups promote a notion of illiberal democracy and others simple non-democracy in regards to their identitarianism. This being said, other scholars, naturally, centre their focus on different criteria to that of Mudde in order to pin down how the Alt-Right may be understood. George Hawley, for instance, emphasises the movement’s internal dialectic with a particular mode of white nationalism and identitarian thought as an umbrella movement, where the alt-right label does not commit the individual to any particular political philosophy.[5]

Equally, other definitions emphasise the strictly active qualities of the Alt-Right Phenomenon; the way in which it manifests and acts in the political world . The greatest example of this, I think, rests with the work of Angela Nagle. Although Angela Nagle’s work has been thought to cause some stir[6], it is my contention that Nagle’s conceptualisation of the Alt-Right uniquely keeps it coupled with the intrinsically distinct phenomenon that makes it what it politically is – the way it acts. In her ‘Kill All Normies’, Nagle states that the Alt-Right signifier, in its strictest definition, became an inclusive retroactive hailing of political position in online circles, absorbing the then newest wave of online white Identitarian nationalist movements and subcultures.[7] Here, we see Nagle return definition to the phenomenon’s crystallisation in our contemporary political milieu – its crypto-ontology – the fact that the movement itself (a) generated from the digital public arena, and, saliently, (b) is reflexively self-conscious of that ontological condition to the point at which it is insisted as being an integral quality, part of the eidos, of the phenomenon itself.

Although outside the scope of what I would like to discuss here, its interesting that at the moments when the Alt-Right have engaged with ontological shifts – attempting to manifest on a non-digital, material, plane – such as the 2017 Charlottesville ‘Unite The Right’ Rally, or indeed the January 6th storming of the Capitol, such a shift becomes the chief factor towards the movement’s collapse and debilitation in the moment; falling short of the potential to have conjured a genuine political rupture or event [Ereignis]. The inability for the Alt-Right to coordinate itself outside of its crypto-habitat, to synchronise itself with a material ontology, has, so far, thus proved to function as a modality of trip switch or fuse. Thus, to ignore such a quality in conceptualisation of the movement is to ignore something wholly integral to its functioning.

Nonetheless, Nagle’s work never veers particularly far from the Alt-Right as a predominantly online political movement, as a questionable cultural, or sub-cultural, counter-hegemonic movement. This is a theme that continually recurs. For instance, in a 2019 paper, Viveca Greene highlights the essential connection between the alt-right, its digital ontological condition, and its cultural connection to far-right satire, parody and irony, totally decoupling the popular narrative assumption that these actions work only in favour of progressive causes.[8] The same can be said for the Alt-Right’s connection to cultural masculinity, being innately bonded to the Alt-Right’s online culture. Although perhaps more closely related to the ‘Meninism’ and anti-feminism oft associated with ‘Alt-Lite’ groups such as The Proud Boys, some contend that its digital ontology lends agency to the movement, allowing it to have become a chief actor in a growing culture of violent sexism and extremism.[9]

This brings us neatly to the ‘Alt-Lite’, which is distinct from the Alt-Right and yet somehow subsumed by it, conflated in popular narrative at very least. How are we to distinguish ‘Alt-Lite’ from ‘Alt-Right’? Indeed, the two are distinguishable by the prism through which they view what they agree are the key contemporary issues. This is most coherently laid out in ‘The International Alt-Right’ by Patrik Hermansson, David Lawrence, Joe Mulhall, and Simon Murdoch. Here they state:

“While both reject left/liberal democratic hegemony, and the rights, freedoms and/or affiliated movements associated with it and both concerned with the same set of issues – the left, globalisation, gender, the West, equality, and so on – they view these issues through fundamentally different lenses. While both are deeply critical of the conception of equality derived from the liberal consensus, the core concern of the alt-right is the threat it supposedly poses to the existence of white people, and so they advocate for the protection of their ‘race’, usually through the creation of white ethnostates. As such, race forms the basis of its worldview…In contrast, the alt-lite perceives the liberal consensus as a threat to traditional Western culture and so is in favour of a Western chauvinist nationalism…The alt-lite bemoans notions such as ‘white guilt’ or ‘white privilege’, while the alt-right frequently talks of  pan-European civilisation and venerates classical western  culture.”[10]

Thus, following this, we can see that, although similar or related, the alt-lite and alt-right are distinct entities in contemporary politics. Hence, movements like Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance Group and the Boogaloo Boys, although wholly distinguishable in relation to their praxis, can both be considered Alt-Right because of the dominant racial themes their politics engage with. Nonetheless, although perhaps as equally aggressive in their postulate LARPing as the Boogaloo Boys, The Proud Boys should be considered Alt-Lite, fundamentally employing a distinctive lens to the Alt-Right, even if they do indeed display surface similarities. Therefore, although they frequently appear together, at rallies and events, but this distinction between them is to be ignored at one’s own interpretive peril.

As Hawley states, “There is no Alt-Right pope with the ability to declare what is or is not an Alt-Right position”, and as such, conceptualising the Alt-Right will always be a hermeneutic attempt at conceptual phenomenology, endeavouring to interpret and re-interpret an umbrella movement in a constant condition of flux, without gospel, unity, or common manifesto.[11] In this regard, the Alt-Right should be considered as no more than an assemblage that, perhaps, could be in contention for classification as a Deleuzian Body without Organs, as “crisscrossed with axes and thresholds, with latitudes and longitudes and geodesic lines, traversed by gradients marking the transitions and the becomings, the destinations of the subject developing along these particular vectors…Nothing but bands of intensity, thresholds, and gradients”.[12]

So, in regards to all of this, how should the Alt-Right be understood? What should at least a rough conceptualisation look like? Following this discussion, a conceptualisation of the Alt-Right can only be thought of as comprehensive, even if to the slightest degree, if it allows for: (1) distinction from the Alt-Lite, (2) an emphasis on the racial and self-described counter-hegemonic lens through which the Alt-Right views contemporary politico-cultural dialogue, (3) an account of its internet-based or digital political ontology, and (4) an appreciation of its conceptual complexity as an assemblage. With this criterion in mind therefore, the broad conceptualisation offered by Hermansson (et.al.) hits closest to the bullseye. Here, Hermansson (et.al.) claim that the ‘Alternative Right’ is:

“[A] set of groups and individuals, operating primarily online though with offline outlets, whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack from pro-multicultural and liberal elites as so called ‘social justice warriors’ (SJWs) who allegedly use ‘political correctness’ to undermine western civilisation and the rights of white males. Put simply, the ‘Alternative Right’ is a far right, anti-globalist grouping that offers a radical ‘alternative’ to traditional/establishment conservatism. The eclectic and disparate nature of its constituent parts makes for large areas of disagreement yet, together, they are united around a core set of beliefs”.[13]

This definition, alongside their distinguishing from the Alt-Lite, gets to the nub of what we can consider to be the conceptual phenomenon of the Alt-Right, broadly. Equally, this permits space for enough conceptual ambiguity to allow for future groups to fall into such a categorisation, and for those for whom the shoe currently fits to splinter away from it, forming part of an already existing or as yet unseen phenomena.

[1] The term ‘Alt-Right’ was coined by the President and Director of the White Supremacist ‘National Policy Institute’, Richard Spencer; although it can be argued that the term was inspired by the thought of the paleoconservative scholar Paul Gottfried. See: George Hawley (2017) Making Sense of The Alt-Right. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 51. As for a discussion of the extent to which the Alt-Right were in retreat, see: Jack Thompson and George Hawley (2021) ‘Does the Alt-Right still matter? An examination of Alt-Right influence between 2016 and 2018’, Nations and Nationalism, 27(4), pp. 1165-1180.

[2] Cas Mudde (2019) The Far Right Today. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 191.

[3] Ibid, p. 193.

[4] Ibid, p. 192.

[5] George Hawley (2019) The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 7 – 11.

[6] For instance: Dustin Guastella (2020, May 25th) ‘We Need a Class War, Not a Culture War’, jacobinmag.com. Available at: https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/we-need-a-class-war-not-a-cultural-war.

[7] Angela Nagle (2017) Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. London: Zero Books, p. 11.

[8] Viveca S. Greene (2019) ‘“Deplorable” Satire: Alt-Right Memes, White Genocide Tweets, and Redpilling Normies’, Studies in American Humor, 5(1): 31-69.

[9] Samantha Kutner (2020) Swiping Right: The Allure of Hyper Masculinity and Cryptofascism for Men Who Join the Proud Boys. Research Paper. The Hague: International Centre for Counter Terrorism.

[10] Patrik Hermansson, David Lawrence, Joe Mulhall and Simon Murdoch (2020) The International Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century?. Abingdon: Routledge, p. 2.

[11] George Hawley (2017) Making Sense of The Alt-Right. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 140.

[12] Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari (2004) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Helen R. Lane, Mark Seem and Robert Hurley (Trans.), London: Continuum, p. 21.

[13] Patrik Hermansson, David Lawrence, Joe Mulhall and Simon Murdoch (2020) The International Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century?. Abingdon: Routledge, p. 2.

Image: Unite The Right Rally, 2017,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charlottesville_%22Unite_the_Right%22_Rally_(35780274914).jpg