The Dangers of the Alt-Right, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump
There seems to be confusion and misunderstanding about what the “alt-right” is, and why some of us oppose it. Frankly, it is quite demoralizing that it has become necessary to explain the latter. But then I remember that the Abarbanel did not see the Inquisition coming; nor did the world truly understand the dangers of Nazism until it was too late. So here we are.
Some Trump apologists have even gone so far as to claim the existence of a nefariously antisemitic “alt-left.” Shamelessly pivoting from the violence and white supremacy of certain Trump voters, these apologists hope to shine a spotlight on the real enemy: the fanatical Left. This is reckless and disturbing.
I am no stranger to antisemitism on the Left. My current doctoral research focuses on anti-Judaism in the Marxist tradition. Furthermore, while living in France as a public high school teacher, I was forced to confront a manic state secularism that severely obstructs Jewish practice and creates a public culture aggressively antagonistic to Jewish identity. There is antisemitism on the Left, and I know it.
But to fantasize about an “alt-left” — a nonexistent movement — irresponsibly distracts from the imperative task facing Jews: resisting the white supremacy energized by President-elect Trump’s campaign and victory. I find appalling the suggestion that liberal “thought-policing and debate-stifling,” as one writer calls it, has any equivalency whatsoever with the white nationalist resurgence of the self-described alt-right.
So what exactly is the alt-right?
Richard Spencer launched the website Alternative Right in 2010, creating an online home for what had been a loose set of white nationalist Internet subcultures. He also serves as president of the National Policy Institute, a think tank whose former chairman stated, “I want to see the Republican Party…reborn as a party representing the interests of white people.” This past weekend, Spencer hosted a conference in Washington, quoting Nazi propaganda in German and ending with a group Nazi salute.
Every word of the above is true. Feel free to research it yourself if you don’t believe me.
It is a matter of record that Spencer envisions a white ethno-state as the alt-right’s ultimate goal; in an interview taped last week on NPR, Spencer described the alt-right’s “ideal of a safe space, effectively for Europeans.”
Where do Jews fit into the alt-right schematics? Of course, only European Jews — Ashkenazi Jews — would qualify for Spencer’s careful consideration. On his blog, Radix, Spencer graciously clarifies: “Pigmentation really is ‘just skin deep.’ it’s [sic] a significant, but by no means definitive element of race…And Ashkenazi Jews have an identity apart from Europeans.”
And suddenly we are flung back to 19th century Europe and its dizzying mania of pseudo-scientific race theory.
What we are facing is nothing new; it is white supremacy. Spencer and his followers know this — but they want influence, and white supremacy is not a publicly viable platform. So, as Spencer chillingly sneered on NPR, “Sometimes influence can be invisible.”
“Invisible influence” comes by way of rebranding (see: Goebbels). The white supremacist Right soon becomes the “alternative right.” When Spencer gloats that “the swastika is an ancient symbol,” and says, “One wonders if these people [Jews] are people at all, or instead soulless golem,” we should pause and consider.
White supremacists’ numerical influence on the outcome of the election seems neither here nor there. To which voters we can attribute Trump’s ultimate victory in the Electoral College is an empirical question for political scientists; it is not an editorial position. Those of us deeply concerned about white supremacy’s growth in the future Trump administration are not quibbling over statistical, demographic matters. And we do not deny that millions of Trump’s voters gave him their support because of issues like insurance premiums and manufacturing jobs (though Hitler, of course, campaigned on the same promises).
But the president-elect has consistently refused to rebuke the alt-right. Instead, he has explicitly and implicitly stoked its white supremacist ideologies, policies and reach.
And what of Bannon?
The president-elect elevated Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News Network, to the position of chief strategist. Ben Shapiro, former editor-at-large at Breitbart, candidly wrote in August, “Under Bannon’s Leadership, Breitbart Openly Embraced The White Supremacist Alt-Right.” In July, Bannon himself declared, “We are the platform for the alt-right.”
To all those shouting, “Bannon is not an antisemite,” as if antisemitism were a temperament or a personality: I do not know if Bannon hates me or not. Nor do I care.
I do know that anyone with a remote understanding of history can recognize that he presided over a massive legitimation and amplification of white supremacist ideologies, policies and organization.
I do know that this amplified white supremacy has already had hundreds of violent consequences reported across the country, including hate crimes committed against Jews. I do know he told The Hollywood Reporter, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” And I do know that Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart News Network, described Bannon as the “Leni Reifenstahl of the Tea Party Movement.” Reifenstahl was Hitler’s filmmaker.
Likewise, I do not know if Trump hates me or not. But I do know that even with all his Jewish children, grandchildren, advisers, lawyers and friends, he has failed to disavow and reproach in the harshest of terms the white supremacy that has trailed his campaign.
I do know that his adviser, Kris Kobach, suggested creating a registry for immigrants based on their religion. I do know that prominent Trump supporter Carl Higbie and former chairman of the Great America Super PAC defended the registry by (a) citing the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese American citizens during World War II, and (b) arguing we need to put “Americans First.” This phrase was coined by the antisemitic Charles Lindbergh and made famous by the enormous America First Committee, vociferous opponents of American intervention in World War II on behalf of the Jews.
And so, many conservatives are desperately trying to dissociate themselves from this white supremacy, first downplaying its influence, then trying to find hard and fast lines between “mainstream” conservatism and white supremacy — before admitting that some ideas (like nationalism) bleed across these lines — but then making sure to show that it is not the racist kind of nationalism but rather the good kind. Then they shout: “LIBERALS ARE THE PROBLEM!” I understand. It’s a tough dance.
But we Jews must be clear and honest about white supremacy and its dangers without deflecting and creating intra-Jewish discord. If not now, when?