In the summer of 2016, I was online doing some research on early 20th-century eugenics and immigration restriction when I stumbled across the centenary edition of Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race. It was about one month after Donald Trump had won the Republican primary, and the prospect that someone who had called Mexicans “rapists,” pushed “birtherism,” and demanded a “massive border wall” would become the next president of the United States seemed remote, if not impossible. As a scholar interested in the intersections of racial and reproductive politics, I was acutely aware of the history of white nationalism in America. I had studied and taught about organizations, old and new, such as the Immigration Restriction League, the Ku Klux Klan, and American Renaissance.
Now eugenics was rearing its bigoted head in a celebratory reissue of a racist classic brought out by Ostara Publications. This press was founded in 1999 to disseminate Arthur Kemp’s March of the Titans: The Complete History of the White Race, its “flagship work,” which appeared in its fourth edition in 2011. This massive text, which seems geared to homeschoolers, proposes that “a civilization ‘rises and falls’ by its racial homogeneity and nothing else. As long as it maintains its racial homogeneity, it will last—if it loses its racial homogeneity, and changes its racial makeup, it will ‘fall’ or be replaced by a new culture.” A little more online digging revealed that Ostara, with its commitment to “Eurocentric history,” is one of a handful of publishing ventures that produces on-demand books with titles that scream Islamophobia and white supremacy, and glorify Western civilization. According to its website, Ostara is named after the Old High German goddess of spring, “Ēostre,” who represents the “rebirth and fertility of ancient Europe”—a trope redolent of “blood and soil” nationalism.
Ostara easily fit the profile of a publisher that would make The Passing of the Great Race newly available to its readers. The first edition of this tendentious book aimed to rank “European races in history” as groups according to physical, mental, and personality traits, and proposed three European races—Teutonics or Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans—anointing the first as the most advanced and comely. Beyond racist taxonomy, however, it sounded off eugenic warnings: of the degenerate immigrant masses, of impending white race suicide, and of the disharmonies of miscegenation. Alongside a plethora of early 20th-century tracts about the biological inferiority of every racial and ethnic group save Northern Europeans, The Passing of the Great Race served as fodder for the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which set racial quotas on immigrants based on nationality. This legislation hardened existing bans on Asian immigrants, placed strict limits on arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, and facilitated the formation of the US Border Patrol.
On the back cover of the centenary edition, Ostara praises The Passing of the Great Race as a “sweeping and classic study of racial anthropology and history” that stands as a “call to American whites to counter the dangers both from non-white and non-north Western European immigration.” Today white nationalists are updating this Eurocentric and xenophobic script. Indeed, Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” is an adherent of Madison Grant. In a lengthy essay, “Madison Grant and the American Nation,” Spencer admires another one of Grant’s books, The Conquest of a Continent, published in 1933, calling it a “great history” and a “grand vision of bio-cultural struggle and evolution, in which demography comes alive.”
The Conquest of a Continent recounts the story of how America became a “Nordic country” through a combination of “individualism, Protestantism, uprightness, and the pioneer spirit.” Unlike The Passing of the Great Race, which Theodore Roosevelt called a “capital book” and had a large following, Conquest was panned by reviewers, who by the mid-1930s were looking askance at such unbridled racism. Now, more than eight decades later, Spencer wants to rescue Grant’s later work, lamenting what he views as the unfair dismissal of the book as blunderheaded eugenic thinking associated with the Third Reich. He commends Grant’s entire corpus as a guiding compass for assessing racial degeneration in 21st-century America and a masterful model of how to deploy science to promote white nationalism.
As it turns out, the rehabilitation of American eugenicists is a pastime of the alt-right. Four years earlier, in 2012, Palingenesis Press, based in the UK, published an edition (now out of print) of The Passing of the Great Race, with a forward written by Jared Taylor, the head of American Renaissance, an organization focused on so-called “race realism” and an entrenched pillar of white nationalism. Grant and his contemporary Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (1920), are enduring darlings of the alt-right. The highbrow white nationalist webzine Counter-Currents Publishing (which also has a book-publishing arm) annually commemorates Grant’s birthday, lauding his multipronged white advocacy. In the words of Counter-Currents, Grant was an “American aristocrat and pioneering advocate of white racial preservationism, immigration restriction, eugenics, anti-miscegenation laws, and the conservation of wildlife and wilderness.”
Counter-Currents praises Grant as an exemplary environmentalist who, alongside Stanford University’s first president, David Starr Jordan, and Sacramento philanthropist Charles M. Goethe, were “race realists and eugenicists.” Counter-Currents also memorializes Stoddard’s birthday, extolling the virtues of his racist study of the Haitian revolution and his more widely known The Revolt Against Civilization (1922). Although Counter-Currents concedes that some of Stoddard’s ideas seem trite today, it emphasizes the contemporary relevance of his contention that a “nation’s breeding policy is at least as essential a factor in geopolitical strategy as trade policy or defense.”
Like many Americans, I was disconcerted and spooked by the alt-right’s breakthrough into politics, media, and culture. Now it was surfacing in my research. I recognized its catchphrases, such as “white genocide,” and its recycling of stereotypes about people of color, crime rates, and IQ scores. Struck by both the familiarity and the strangeness of the alt-right, I decided to bear witness to it in real time.
Was the alt-right simply old wine in new bottles, the latest incarnation of American eugenics, racism, and anti-egalitarianism? Was it something novel, with the potential to reshape politics and discourse, abetted by a sympathetic Republican presidential administration, an upsurge in national populism, and a context of simmering “white rage”? Could the alt-right appeal to younger generations of white Americans, who might be swayed by anxieties over demographic despair and tantalizing visions of racially homogenous homelands? What were the cultural and political implications of the circulation of the alt-right lexicon—as terms such as “ethnostate,” “human biodiversity,” “cuckservative,” and “snowflake” entered the American vocabulary?
To answer these questions, I began to spend hours and hours online, taking deep dives in an ever-expanding sea of URLs, exploring sites such as Counter-Currents, Radix Journal, and that of Ostara Publications. Some of these sites had been actively posting without interruption for years, others distributing on-demand books and offering occasional posts, and some were moribund webzines with archived content. In order to mine the intellectual bedrock of the alt-right, I set out to read and analyze its quasi-scholarly work as a formidable form of knowledge production in an era of rising authoritarianism and ultranationalism across the globe.
I began to amass my archive, concentrating on long-form essays, like Spencer’s article on Madison Grant, as well as monographs, anthologies, and manifestos published by alt-right publishing enterprises such as Counter-Currents, American Renaissance, and the Budapest-based Arktos. Although unlikely to ever survive academic peer review, this sizable body of literature strategically adheres to scholarly conventions, reflecting the graduate training of a good many of the alt-right mandarins.The alt-righters agreed that to have any modicum of success they would have to cultivate a fresh image and shed the Nazi insignias and KKK white hoods associated with white supremacy.
I knew that to unearth this history of the present, I also needed to get under—to excavate—the alt-right memes and tropes that had erupted online. Thus, I delved into virtual communities on Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan; visited the long-standing white nationalist message board Stormfront; read thousands of comments on YouTube and Twitter; and knocked around in the dark corners of the ugly, unmoderated virtual realms of Gab and BitChute. This unwieldy collection of sources—most born digital—constitutes the archive for my book. Drawing from this unconventional archive, I wrote in tandem with the alt-right’s crescendo before and after Trump’s 2016 victory, its dispersal in the wake of Charlottesville in 2017, and its subsequent attempts to reassemble and normalize.
Due to the ongoing if inconsistent wave of deplatforming of some white nationalists, like Jared Taylor, and alt-light conspiracy pushers, such as Alex Jones, some of the content that I accessed online has been blocked, removed, or suspended. Scattered fragments can be plumbed from the depths of the Wayback Machine, an internet archive that has captured digital materials since 1996. This makes the screenshots I captured, and the video and audio content I transcribed, crucial and evanescent evidence of the alt-right’s recent history.
The term “alt-right” dates to 2008, when paleoconservative Paul Gottfried, an emeritus professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College, used “alternative right” in a lecture to the H. L. Mencken Society. Since the 1990s, paleoconservatives, mostly affiliated with right-wing politician and pundit Patrick Buchanan, had roared about their abhorrence of liberals and distinguished themselves sharply from neoconservatives; a good many made up the right flank of libertarian Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. After this electoral effort fizzled out, this contingent was eager for a political alternative outside the partisan mainstream. Gottfried channeled this yearning in his speech, declaring “we are part of an attempt to put together an independent intellectual right, one that exists without movement establishment funding and one that our opponents would be delighted not to have to deal with.” Soon after, Spencer, then an editor at Taki’s Magazine, cleverly shortened Gottfried’s talk title, “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” to “alt-right.”
Over the next few years, a motley crew of disaffected libertarians, paleoconservatives, racialists of varying stripes (white separatists, supremacists, nationalists, and ethnonationalists), men’s rights activists and misogynists (like MGTOW—Men Going Their Own Way), neo-reactionaries, anti-Semites, and xenophobes with conspicuous animus against Latina/os and Muslims gravitated to the alt-right mantle, finding common cause in the fledgling movement’s rejection of establishment conservatism and its antipathy toward feminism and multiculturalism. A notably decentralized movement, the alt-right was decidedly white, male, and aggrieved. Its key figures feuded about many things, but almost to a man, the alt-righters agreed that to have any modicum of success they would have to cultivate a fresh image and shed the Nazi insignias and KKK white hoods associated with white supremacy. As the popular vlogger RamZPaul (Paul Ramsey) explained in early 2016, the alt-right “was fundamentally identity politics for our people without the neo-nazi [sic] baggage.”
The accelerant for the alt-right was the internet. It is impossible to grasp the alt-right prairie fire leading up to the 2016 election without taking stock of the pitched volume of activity that unfolded in chat rooms, message boards, and tweet storms in those months. Most notoriously, Pepe the Frog, once an anthropomorphized frat boy depicted hanging with his video-playing buddies in the “Boy’s Life” comics, became corrupted in the digital corridors of 4chan and 8chan, claimed by Trump supporters, and later identified by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate symbol. The alt-right was introduced on the national electoral stage in Reno, Nevada, in August 2016. At a campaign event, the Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton decried the latest incarnation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” she had assailed two decades earlier.
After providing examples of fake news, racist remarks, and conspiracy theories emanating from the “dark reaches of the internet,” Clinton asserted, “These are race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman––all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.’” She was absolutely correct, although in hindsight, this speech, along with her subsequent “basket of deplorables” jab, ended up galvanizing the Trumpian trollers and tweeters who took to the public square of the internet to amplify the alt-right’s raucous, mischievous, and vicious memes and messages.
Trump emboldened this amorphous online army further. And once he won the election, the alt-right gloated on a triumphant high. Even if the new commander in chief was not as extreme as many alt-righters would have liked, they heralded him as “a step towards this new normal” of white nationalism and the ineluctable demise of liberal America. One proclaimed that Trump “may just unlock the future we have all been striving for.” And Spencer celebrated Trump’s win as, “at its root, a victory of identity politics.” This high was deflated partially by the post-election “Hailgate” episode, when about two hundred attendees at a meeting held at the Virginia-based white nationalist think tank, the National Policy Institute, led by Spencer, raised their arms and shouted, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
While this spectacle, caught on video and spread with viral speed, might have sent shivers down the spines of most Americans, many on the alt-right shrugged it off as another ironic jest that “normies” just could not grasp. If Hailgate caused troublesome “optics” for the alt-right, the events that transpired at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, punctured the bubble. “C-ville” was a disaster that shattered a coalescing critical mass of white nationalists and tarnished the alt-right label. It also proved that as the visibility of the alt-right increased, its ability to control its image decreased. The alt-right easily could succumb to its loudest, angriest, neo-Nazi denominator.Identity Evropa, rebranded in 2019 as the American Identity Movement, reports it is adding chapters and members at a fast clip.
Today the alt-right is in an uncharted phase, facing media scrutiny, legal prosecution, and negative press, exacerbated by its penchant for eating its own, internecine backstabbing, and testosterone-charged power plays. Alt-righters themselves complain about the movement’s tendency to “purity spiral,” or insist on increasingly absolutist positions, usually related to the Jewish Question (JQ) or the Women Question (WQ), which induces paranoia and ideological claustrophobia. To a great extent, the fall-out from Charlottesville has forced a return to the alt-right’s initial form of decentralization. At the same time, many sympathizers have become wary of the moniker “alt-right” and are now trying out labels such as “dissident right,” “affirmative right,” “ethnonationalist,” and “identitarian,” or simply opting for “nationalist.”
“Alt-right,” however, has become a household term, used in media coverage and accepted, if begrudgingly, by nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, the prefix “alt” connects the term to a family of movements in Europe, such as Alternative for Germany and Alternative for Sweden, to which the alt-right is allied. There have been shake-ups in the alt-right pantheon too. Once atop his Hailgate high horse, Spencer has been sidelined and often is disparaged by prominent alt-righters and ideological allies. For example, in summer 2018 Gottfried roasted Spencer, saying that he “went off the deep end” trying to “become some kind of a guru to a white nationalist right which had no way of succeeding as an alternative to anything.”
Spencer’s demotion bodes well for the future of the alt-right. Without him sucking all the air out of the room, the alt-right landscape is being populated by a growing cast of minor actors and activists who produce media content every day and are making efforts to build a white nationalist community in real life (IRL). Identity Evropa, rebranded in 2019 as the American Identity Movement, reports it is adding chapters and members at a fast clip. The movement also has spread its international wings, forging and deepening ties with nationalist and identitarian groups across Europe. At the ethnonationalist Scandza Forum in September 2018 in Copenhagen, the American and European speakers were sanguine about the future, noting an uptick in interest of people “waiting for a way forward” and reminding the audience that “the problems that are driving people towards us” are “not going away anytime soon.”
On the five-hour Yule web TV marathon broadcasted by the alt-right channel Red Ice in December 2018, white nationalists voiced similar sentiments. During his cameo, James Edwards, host of the popular syndicated radio show Political Cesspool, exuded optimism, stating even though white nationalists in America might have to suffer a bit more, “our best days are ahead of us” and “tribalism is ascendant.” The regrouping of the alt-right is not happening in isolation, and it benefits from a political and media environment hospitable to its message. Conservative media hosts like Tucker Carlson of Fox News parrot the alt-right’s rhetoric, and Trump tweets white nationalist tropes. Paradoxically, the intense criticism of the alt-right has encouraged the circulation of its icons and slogans. Alt-right ideas that previously lurked in the shadows of the unspeakable have migrated into everyday discourse, becoming imaginable and utterable.
Excerpted from Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination by Alexandra Minna Stern, (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission by Beacon Press.