Donald Trump’s election has led to an upsurge in Alt-Right politics, characterizing a political ideology of far-right white nationalism. This article discusses the power of language and why it is crucial we use the term Alt-right in our political conversations. “Alt-Right” is considered the mainstream neo-Nazi political belief of the United States. Because it is not presently and universally signified as a harmful ideology (like Nazism), media pundits hastily argued that we shouldn’t use the term at all. As someone coming from an anti-fascist stance, I am quick to disagree. In fact, it is irresponsible to not call them the Alt-Right. By make sure Alt-Right is acknowledged as a neo-Nazi viewpoint, we are making a huge impact on their ability to mobilize and cause further damage. We should be using the phrase as much as possible to reclaim the term in order to work against and reveal their white supremacist agenda.
Richard Spencer, the director of the white nationalist think tank The National Policy Institute (NPI), coined the term Alt-Right in 2008 to encompass a loose set of nationalist ideologies that believe “white identity” is under attack. You may be familiar with Spencer after he received viral attention for his “Hail Trump” keynote and Nazi salute at the NPI conference in late 2016 or when he was punched in the face following Trump’s inauguration.
His high-profile public speeches preach racist violence: “No one will honor us for losing gracefully. No one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die. This is a unique burden for the white man, that our fate is entirely in our hands” he proclaimed during his keynote. While he is clearly an extremist, his political thoughts have a broad influence on the right and on all of us. In the past few years, his concept of an expansive white nationalist philosophy may have changed political history after the Alt-Right was able to mobilize and get Trump elected through pushing their extremist ideas to the mainstream. How did they manage to do this? In part, because it was completely socially acceptable to identify as Alt-Right and collaborate with other people with similar beliefs of racism, xenophobia, and fascism.
When journalists began reporting on the Alt-Right, they were quick to face backlash from readers about their use of the term. In a recent op-ed, Sydney Ember of The New York Times recalls seeing a barrage of comments critiquing the use of Alt-Right by writers, noting many passionate pleas to end the use of the term altogether. “STOP CALLING THEM ‘ALT-RIGHT.’ THEY ARE RACISTS, WHITE SUPREMICISTS, NAZIS” one commenter added to a profile on Spencer. The issue with this remark in particular is that this is precisely what Alt-Right believes in. They are fundamentally racist white supremacists, and we need to be using this term analogously to neo-Nazi, Klansman, or skinhead. Using Alt-Right allows us to bridge the gap between these ideologies and understand them as part of and contingent upon an overlapping philosophy that got Trump elected.
It is understandable that the Alt-Right sounds like a benign euphemism (or rock subgenre) for their inexcusable beliefs. However, when words like Nazi first emerged in the English language, it took people years to develop such intense emotional reactions to it. We must do the same for Alt-Right. If we let the Alt-Right maintain their own term, then they win and are able to use it freely to mobilize through. They instead should feel the stigma and shame that comes with white supremacist beliefs, as part of their individual paths to dropping these views. Understanding that one’s viewpoint is disgraceful to the public may lead a person to be more critical of it and develop less harmful politics.
When we see an Alt-Right speaker or discussion, we can shut it down. This has proven successful in cases like UC Davis preventing racist Internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking just weeks after he harassed and made sexual comments about a trans woman at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, leading her to fear for her safety on campus. We are undeniably safer when fascists don’t have a platform, which makes it more difficult for them to pass on their beliefs and rally others around their ideas.
It is necessary to reclaim Alt-Right in order to fight fascism. It is our responsibility to use the term and use it correctly. If we’re going to call these white supremacists what they are then let’s call them the Alt-Right. If we are going to undo their racism, xenophobia, sexism, queerphobia, and other oppressive ideologies, we must make it clear that the Alt-Right have no place in our politics, philosophies, or lives.