When President-elect Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, as his incoming chief strategist and senior counselor, there was a spike in interest in the white nationalist movement called the alt-right. That largely stemmed from an interview Bannon did with Mother Jones in July, in which he said Breitbart was “the platform for the alt-right.” But Bannon didn’t coin the term. That claim to “fame” belongs to Dallas native Richard Spencer.
Spencer’s term, which he minted with the website alternativeright.com in 2010, is a new word for a very old idea: white supremacy. The website now hosts Radix, a journal and online magazine that publishes work on “culture, race, tradition, meta-politics, and critical theory” that Spencer edits. Specifically, the pieces on Radix argue for white nationalism. The National Policy Institute, which owns Radix and counts Spencer as its president and director, describes itself as “an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States.” Thus, the alt-right has become a friendlier word for a deeply troubling issue.
But the danger of that rebranding often seems to get lost in media reports in favor of how, well, normal Spencer and other alt-right affiliates look. In one of the more prominent profiles of Spencer, Mother Jones noted that he was “an articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks” and called him “dapper” in the profile’s original headline. After some backlash, the word “dapper” was removed, but the idea that Spencer’s looks rather than his movement for white nationalism should be his lead characterization is alarming.
Other profiles, including ones in the Dallas Morning News and the Los Angeles Times, demonstrate a weird struggle to reconcile how the alt-right defines themselves with the ideologies they uphold. The Los Angeles Times did, however, point out how the alt-right doesn’t look like your grandfather’s white supremacism:
Sitting around conference tables, the formally dressed men more resembled Washington lobbyists than the robed Ku Klux Klansmen or skinhead toughs that often represent white supremacists, though they share many familiar views.
At the end of the article, they finally note that part of the group’s agenda includes “requiring immigrants in the country illegally to leave and giving preference to white arrivals from Europe.” The Dallas Morning News tried to balance the Southern Poverty Law Center’s views on Spencer with his own personal identification:
The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled Spencer an “academic racist” who takes a “quasi-intellectual approach to white separatism.”
Spencer prefers to call himself an “identitarian” but will accept white nationalist. He is adamant that he’s not a white supremacist, which implies a desire for whites to rule over nonwhites. Such a hierarchy would be “disastrous,” he said.
What Spencer wants, according to the Morning News, is “a white ethno-state utopia, devoid of black people, Muslims, Jews, Asians or anyone else without a common European heritage and culture.” We don’t need to get caught up the nuances of how Spencer identifies to know that such goals and ideals are racist. But according to a report by the Austin American-Statesmen, it quite literally took Spencer and other members of the alt-right ending a meeting with Nazi salutes and cries of “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” for supporters and outlets to understand that the alt-right is just the new face of white supremacy. Up until then, Spencer’s attempt to dress up white supremacy and white nationalism to make them seem more presentable for the general public was all too effective.
In fact, Spencer’s visual rebranding was nothing more than a twisted version of respectability politics. Respectability politics refers to the idea that a marginalized person can earn respect from mainstream society if he or she just present themselves politely and respectably, preferably in nice suits. A well known example of the unfairness and failure of respectability politics is that of the attempts of the black community to adopt them. If Martin Luther King Jr., a young pastor who wore nothing but suits and advocated for peaceful protests in the name of equality, can still be terrorized and murdered, then who does respectability actually work for?
Well, white supremacists, apparently.
The odd fascination with how “dapper” the alt-right’s appearance is with their “hipster” haircuts is what give members larger platforms to spread and normalize their racist propaganda. Would these outlets be so enthralled with more “traditional” looking racists? Things are already in a dire state with Spencer and the alt-right becoming political figures and lobbying the White House, so there’s no need to further participate in their marketing strategy. But already, Spencer’s elevated status has gained him speaking opportunities, including one on Tuesday at Texas A&M that ended with hundreds of protestors facing off with riot police.
Thankfully, there’s already pushback against the normalization of the movement. An advertising professional going by George Zola has created the Google Chrome extension to change the phrase “alt-right” to “white supremacists.” But if you’re still not sure how to handle the alt-right, the Associated Press recommends using the term with a definition to make it clear that the beliefs of the movement are “racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.” This is the AP’s final note on writing about the alt-right and other similar groups:
Finally, when writing on extreme groups, be precise and provide evidence to support the characterization.
We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.
Let’s focus on that rather than how nicely they’re dressed.