Calling an Alt-Right an Alt-Right

I’m seeing a lot of call in the liberal social media community for media outlets and others to stop referring to the online racist force behind Trump’s support as “alt-right” and start calling them white nationalists, or white supremacists, or Nazis, or Neo-Nazis, or really anything but what they call themselves. ThinkProgress offers this explanation for their policy:

Spencer and Bannon are of course free to describe themselves however they’d like, but journalists are not obliged to uncritically accept their framing. A reporter’s job is to describe the world as it is, with clarity and accuracy. Use of the term “alt-right,” by concealing overt racism, makes that job harder.

With that in mind, ThinkProgress will no longer treat “alt-right” as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members. We will only use the name when quoting others. When appending our own description to men like Spencer and groups like NPI, we will use terms we consider more accurate, such as “white nationalist” or “white supremacist.”

“Alt-right” only conceals overt racism to people who didn’t know they existed before two weeks ago, and it won’t for long. Meanwhile, I see each of these alternative descriptions as being either inaccurate or not sufficiently specific. White nationalism and white supremacy are much broader categories, and white supremacy in particular is somewhat fuzzy in definition; if we include everyone who supports institutional structures which benefit whites at the expense of others, virtually every nationally elected official is a white supremacist, including a great many Democrats. This is a huge problem, but it doesn’t help if we don’t distinguish the alt-righters from that huge group.

“Nazi” and “Neo-Nazi” have also been suggested, and while their symbology and some of their attitudes are reflective of the alt-right movement, there are issues with this as well. Nazis were racists and white nationalists, but they also were effective administrators, builders, and scientists. Neo-Nazis have mostly been the opposite: usually local, in-person hobby organizations who don’t accomplish anything and aren’t worth taking seriously. Neither of these things are reflective of the alt-right.

It seems to me that alt-right is a new category: racists of convenience. While white nationalism is a key focus of their activities right now, I have difficulty buying into the idea that they’re thoroughly committed to it. Their behavior, both on the Breitbart News side and the internet forum side, strikes me as a weaponized version of a familiar online archetype: alt-righters are griefers.

For a griefer, white supremacy is a tool, not a philosophy. It gives them something to center the graffiti, property damage, harassment, and greater crimes that they want to do. They’re not going from white supremacy to drawing a swastika, they’re going from wanting to draw something offensive to adopting the swastika and giving lip-service to the philosophy behind it.

This racism-as-meme can still be immensely dangerous. Perhaps even more so. It’s a moving target for those of us fighting it, because if white supremacy becomes untenable or even unfashionable, they can simply move on to the next meme, the next excuse.

So we should be careful not to lump the alt-right into white supremacy, because they have no reason to stay there. They can make the world miserable under the auspices of any number of philosophical systems, and if we let them, they’ll be happy to do so.

Go ahead and call them alt-right. And make sure everyone knows what they are.