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Donald Trump and the rise of the alt-right

Pro-Trump with a big side of lulz.


Amrita Khalid


Posted on Sep 1, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 3:06 am CDT

There’s a world of a difference between the average Donald Trump supporter and the average member of the alt-right. 

Hillary Clinton warned in her speech this month in Reno, Nevada, that opponent Donald Trump was “taking hate groups mainstream” and helping a “radical fringe take over the Republican party.” She called Trump’s recent hiring of Breitbart Report’s Stephen Bannon “a landmark achievement for the alt-right.” But what exactly is the alt-right

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has extensively tracked the movement over the years:

The Alt-Right is a loose set of far-right ideologies at the core of which is a belief that “white identity” is under attack through policies prioritizing multiculturalism, political correctness and social justice, and must be preserved, usually through white-identified online communities and physical ethno-states.

Like many online social movements, the alt-right congregates on 8chan, 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter. The movement consists of both thought leaders and countless trolls. 

Breitbart Report’s Milo Yiannapoulos is perhaps the most well-known “influencer” outside of the alt-right movement thanks to his choice of targets. Yiannapoulos led the charge in the alt-right’s attack on actress Leslie Jones on Twitter, for example, resulting in his eventual ban from the platform altogether. However, many do not consider him to be a member of the alt-right for a variety of reasons we’ll get to below.

(Disclosure: Yiannopoulous was the founder of the Kernel, a publication the Daily Dot acquired in January 2014.)

The “real” thought leaders of the alt-right include Richard B. Spencer of the National Policy Institute, alt-right psychology professor Kevin McDonald, and Jared Taylor of New Century Foundation, a think tank that publishes pseudo-scientific studies on the racial superiority of whites. 

“The alt-right is definitely a re-branding of white supremacy for the digital generation,” Mark Potok, an expert in extremist groups at the SPLC, said in a phone interview with the Daily Dot. 

Potok says SPLC expects the number of hate groups, which rose by 14 percent last year, to rise again in 2016. The organization tracks the number of active hate groups in the United States in its Hate Map

The expected rise in hate groups “is largely because of Trump’s legitimizing of many of their views, opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, and building anger at Muslims caused both by right-wing propaganda and by actual Islamist atrocities like the Orlando, Fla., massacre,” wrote Potok in an email. 

Following Clinton’s Reno speech, the hashtag #AltRightMeans began to trend on Twitter. As the definition of alt-right meme-ified before our eyes, it became clear that many were unaware of the movement’s white supremacist origins. Some Trump supporters and “normies” saw the alt-right as a younger, ballsier rejection of the GOP establishment and political correctness as a whole—think the Tea Party meets Pepe the Frog

It’s worth adding that the alt-right is not a purely Millenial movement; a Washington Post analysis of tweets under the #AltRightMeans hashtag, which was used in earnest and in jest, found that the majority came from white married men between the ages of 40 and 60 years old.

The difference between the alt-right and mainstream Trump supporters is the former’s outright embrace of white supremacy. It’s easy to see why the media, and Trump supporters themselves, confuse the two. Both groups lurk in the same corners of the Conservative Internet. Both could be members of the r/The_Donald Reddit community, 4chan’s /pol/ board, frequent right-wing news sites like Townhall and Breitbart, and retweet each other’s Donald Trump Pepe memes. Neither group is likely to bat an eyelash at terms like “woman card” or “black-on-black” crime. Both may roll their eyes at fawning coverage of the  or Leslie Jones, distrust the mainstream media, and feel our society has become “too pc.” 

The alt-right and the rest of Trump’s supporters may hate a lot of the same things: undocumented immigrants, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Black Lives Matter, to name some of the big ones. Both may support building a wall along the U.S.–Mexico border and a ban on Muslim immigration. But the former is a member of a hate group rooted in white nationalism. For the alt-right, “Make America White Again” is not an ironic dismissal of Trump’s campaign slogan but the entire point of a Trump presidency. 

Pepe the Frog, a once-innocuous meme spawned from 4chan, has been reinvented as a favorite racist meme of the alt-right. The Daily Beast reported that a group on 4chan launched an effort this year to save Pepe from mainstream death. 4chan’s anecdote? Revive Pepe as a white nationalist icon. They were largely successful. 

“The campaign to reclaim Pepe from normies was an effort to prevent this sort of death, but it also had the effect of desensitizing swaths of the internet to racist, but mostly anti-Semitic, ideas supported by the so-called alt-right movement,” wrote Olivia Nuzzi at the Daily Beast. 

Another favorite past-time of the alt-right is trolling, targeting everyone from Jewish journalists to black actresses. After the media discovered that white nationalists and neo-Nazis were using triple parentheses to label Jewish targets for harassment on Twitter and other social media platforms, many began affixing them to their own Twitter handles as a sign of solidarity. Vocativ reported that racist trolls have figured out a new way to identify themselves online: outward-facing parentheses. 

Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that calls itself “The World’s Most Visited Alt-Right Website,” recently posted a list of trolling guidelines in the wake of the surge of curiosity over the alt-right following Clinton’s speech.

Wrote Anglin: 

1) Your target is the millions of silent lurkers and NOT necessarily the comment-ors [sic].
2) Do not get bogged down arguing with one or two people. Hit someone once, then hit them again and no more. Move on, the goal is to make MANY comments, not to spend hours on a single stellar one. Remember your silent audience. Make them laugh. Win their admiration. Give them a present (video, photo or link). Place your comments strategically within the top comments.
3) If you see another red-piller, jump-in and offer support: “Brilliant”, “Wow. I never knew that.” “100 percent correct”, ” Exactly” , “Great link!”, Upvote him, etc.
4) And this is crucial – Leave breadcrumbs back to the real Alt-Right. Links or videos that people can follow and learn for themselves.

Alt-righters will sometimes refer to themselves as “red pillers,” a reference from The Matrix that other online movements, like Gamergate, have also co-opted. To swallow the “red pill” means to accept the painful reality. In the case of Gamergate, the “red pill” was that men had to reclaim their dominance over women or risk their downfall. In the case of the alt-right, the “red pill” is that all races were meant to exist separately. 

The 1488 or the “real alt-right”

As is the case with many online movements, it’s hard to separate the real white supremacists from the trolls who are just saying things for shock value. The “real” alt-right is known as the 1488.  

According to Breitbart, the term “1488” has neo-Nazi origins

It’s a reference to two well-known Neo Nazi slogans, the first being the so-called 14 Words: “We Must Secure The Existence Of Our People And A Future For White Children.” The second part of the number, 88, is a reference to the 8th letter of the alphabet – H. Thus, “88” becomes “HH” which becomes “Heil Hitler.”

“The alt-right, as we all know, is not just a group of people who are pissed off at the GOP establishment. This is not the Tea Party,” said Marcus Halberstram in an episode of alt-right podcast Fash the Nation

Halberstram and co-host Jazzyhands McFeels use their weekly podcast to offer a breezy, informative take on the week’s political news with a heaping side of white supremacy. Think Slate’s Political Gabfest meets Stormfront. 

McFeels blogs for The Right Stuff, an alt-right site whose About Us section states that it welcomes comments from “intelligent and civil people across the political spectrum,” and “Also we’re white and we’re not sorry.” A recent post of McFeel’s, where he argues that blacks have a natural inclination towards crime, is entitled “Black Lives Don’t Matter.”

In an episode entitled “Alt-Right vs. Alt-Light,” Halberstram and McFeels guess at why some recent GOP-authored polls are showing an uptick in support for Trump among blacks and Hispanics. They conclude that since “blacks and Hispanics don’t have landlines,” it’s the more “accountable ones” who are picking up the phone and polling for Trump. (Note: While minorities, young people, and the poor have been statistically less likely to own landlines, landline use is falling nationwide. Slightly less than half of Americans were found to own a landline in 2015, an all-time low.) 

The Fash the Nation hosts also called Trump a “cuck” for a recent meeting with the National Hispanic Advisory Council and threaten to pull their support if the Republican presidential candidate drops his plans to build a wall along the southern U.S. border. 

The term “cuck” or “cuckservative” is widely used by both white supremacists and the alt-right to refer to Republican politicians who have “sold out” to the liberal agenda. It’s a reference to a popular genre of porn where a white man watches as his white wife has sex with another (usually black) man. 

For the alt-right, backing Trump is not about Obamacare, Hillary’s emails, or transgender bathrooms. It’s not about the former The Apprentice host’s personality or wealth. The alt-right backs Trump because his border wall and Muslim ban is the most extreme immigration proposal to come out of a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.

If Trump backs out on the wall, the alt-right hosts predict, he’ll likely lose 20 percent of his support, including the alt-right. This may be a modest estimate. No other Trump policy proposal is as popular with his voters; a Pew poll found that 79 percent of Trump voters support building a border wall, which the candidate doubled down on in a fiery immigration speech in Arizona on Aug. 31.

“We’re using Trump. Trump’s not using us. We said that at the very beginning,” said McFeels in one episode. 

The alt-right is full of factions. While the alt-right movement is often associated with Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulous, this is much to the chagrin of neo-Nazis and devotees. While Breitbart considers itself a “platform for the alt-right,” many white nationalists consider it to be “alt-right light”. 

The openly-gay Yiannopolous in particular is hated by many in the alt-right, who dismiss him as a “Jewish homosexual.” Yiannopoulous authored a guide to the alt-right for establishment conservatives that was heatedly criticized by the alt-right for reducing a serious cause to just a bunch of Millenials trolling. 

According to the “pro-white, pro-South” news site Occidental Dissent, Breitbart has figured out how to re-package white rage into content that can appeal to the mainstream:

Most of Trump’s supporters now fully accept our critique of Conservatism, Inc. Few of these people grasp where the Alt-Right is coming from or have even heard of the Alt-Right. They are more accurately called “Alt-Right Lite” or “Nationalist Lite.” is now the main purveyor of “Alt-Right Lite.”

My sense is that they are doing this because our message strikes a chord and most importantly it sells and has amassed a large audience. It generates clicks and shares which generates a lucrative revenue stream for them. Stephen Bannon is a smart businessman and something of a bomb thrower by reputation, but I have never seen any evidence he is Alt-Right.

Alt-right origins

Richard B. Spencer is often seen as the founder of the modern-day alt-right online movement. Spencer is the current president of the Arlington-based National Policy Institute, a registered non-profit that hosts conferences and churns out videos and podcasts dedicated to “the heritage of the European people.” In 2010, Spencer created in 2010, which hosts the online journal RADIX, a bastion of alt-right thought. 

Spencer, who narrates NPI’s “Who Are We?” video below, is both educated and well-spoken. According to his Linkedin profile, he graduated with high distinction from the University of Virginia in 2001. After graduate school at University of Chicago and Duke University, Spencer went on to work for the American Conservative, a bi-monthly magazine launched by Patrick Buchanan

According to SPLC, the number of hate groups began rising in America after the year 2000, but fell for the first time in 2014. SPLC listed 784 hate groups in its 2015 report, a decline from the 939 groups that were active in the previous year. But that’s not necessarily good news. 

First off, the number of active groups has risen in 2016 to 892 groups. The SPLC only counts hate groups with physical headquarters; entities with an online-only presence are not counted in the report. 

“Entities that appear to exist only in cyberspace are not included because they are likely to be individual Web publishers who falsely portray themselves as powerful, organized groups,” states SPLC on its site.

SPLC’s Potok says he thinks the decline of hate groups in 2014 is due to many white supremacists and extremists moving their efforts online. 

“We think we’re seeing a building migration of white supremacists and other extremists from organized hate groups to online activism unconnected to actual groups,” said Potok.

Young alt-right white supremacists aren’t donning Klan robes or shaving their heads. They’re rejecting labels such as “neo-Nazi” or “anti-Semite,” which come with their own baggage. Instead, they’re reading Buzzfeed-style listicles on the Daily Stormer, retweeting concentration camp memes, and trolling women and minorities on Twitter. 

Potok said that Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old who last year allegedly murdered nine black churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is a good example of this type of online radical. 

“Roof had no connection to any actual hate group. He was radicalized online, simply by reading racist web pages about black-on-white crime, and then acted completely on his own, as a ‘lone wolf,’ and without aid from any group,” said Potok. 

Roof was specifically obsessed with the death of Trayvon Martin. The 2012 murder of Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager, by white neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, has been credited with spawning the Black Lives Matter movement. Even today, conspiracy theories involving Martin’s death are a favorite topic of many alt-right news sites, as well as countless threads on Reddit and 4chan. 

The alt-right and the ‘Trump effect’

As of now, it’s impossible to truly gauge the overall size and influence of the alt-right movement. Alt-right leaders were gleeful following Clinton’s Reno speech due to the renewed interest in their movement. The ability of the alt-right to unite as a group and infiltrate the political mainstream beyond the rise of Trump remains doubtful. 

It’s unlikely a mainstream political candidate will ever embrace the alt-right entirely. But for now, it seems that Trump’s hate-filled campaign rhetoric has done a good enough job of injecting the alt-right’s ideas into the mainstream. Schools this year reported an increase in bullying and harassment, which the SPLC calls “the Trump Effect”. 

Meanwhile, Trump has done little to discourage the wave of support from white nationalists. Trump’s company was involved in one of the biggest housing discrimination cases in the 1970s, according to the Washington Post. His campaign earlier this year failed to screen a white supremacist delegate in California. Trump has retweeted white supremacists several times throughout his campaign. He once retweeted a user with the handle WhiteGenocideTM and has retweeted a Dutch white supremacist a total of six times, according to the Hill. Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke launched a robo call in support of Trump, which Trump only recently denounced

“I am far less worried about the alt-right on its own breaking in the political mainstream,” said Potok, “than Donald Trump wolfwhistling it into the mainstream.”

Correction: Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., retweeted Kevin McDonald, not the candidate himself. We regret the error.

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*First Published: Sep 1, 2016, 12:36 pm CDT