The media is really confusing the hell out of everyone right now.
So many pundits keep saying Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is a white nationalist or white supremacist. On television, this rhetoric is interspersed with a video of less than 200 white guys cheering a racist speaker, with a few even doing Nazi salutes.
This is all part of the alt-right, the media keeps telling us. This is the movement President Trump will usher in, pundits say.
They left is eager to tell everyone this because it makes Trump look bad, and they already believe it’s what everyone on the right really is; actual white nationalists are eager to tell everyone this because it makes them look like a bigger deal than they actually are, and the media just loves titillating stories.
All of these groups are wrong.
The core tenet of the alt-right is unquestionably white nationalism — straight up racism as bad as you could possibly imagine. Yes, Stephen Bannon has said his former publication Breitbart is a “platform” for the alt-right.
But to leave the story there and conclude that Bannon is a white nationalist intent on promoting hate from his presidential cabinet post is not only inaccurate, but irresponsible, particularly right now when there is justified fear about what President Trump might bring.
George Hawley is a political science professor at the University of Alabama who is currently writing a book on the alt-right. In an interview with the Washington Post, he makes an important distinction between the movement and figures like Bannon that so many seem to be missing.
Hawley describes the alt-right as “a predominantly an online phenomenon, and amorphous and somewhat diverse in terms of what the people who associate with the movement want, but really the core of the alt-right is white nationalism — or, at least, white identity politics.”
“When the new racial right started to grow in 2015,” Hawley says, “a term was needed for it, and ‘white nationalism’ was not a particularly compelling brand. And alt-right was available.” Hawley continues, “That’s what the people who are really pushing that movement forward stand for, even if not everyone who identifies with the alt-right or is an alt-right fellow traveler is fully on board with that message,” Hawley notes.
This is where more commentators need to be clear about what Stephen Bannon is and isn’t.
Bannon recently told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist.”
“I’m an economic nationalist. I am an America first guy,” Bannon said. “The black working and middle class and the Hispanic working and middle class, just like whites, have been severely hurt by the policies of globalism,” he said.
This is not white nationalism. It also sounds like some of the conversations I have had with conservatives or libertarians who consider themselves anti-globalist or even nationalist, yet are not racist and have wondered if the alt-right label applies to them.
It doesn’t. Many of them honestly don’t realize this. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has done little to make any of this clearer. If you’re on the left, a white nationalist or a producer concerned with television ratings, it’s mutually beneficial for all parties to keep this story muddled and the current narrative going.
Being against globalism or even self-identifying as a nationalist is something most racists might also believe, but belief in either does not also categorize one as an alt-right racist. Leftist Bernie Sanders is anti-globalist. Progressive Ralph Nader could be considered a nationalist. It seems some on the right who have clumsily used the term “alt-right” — including Bannon, apparently — are just as confused about what it actually means as the mainstream media.
Separating these types of anti-establishment views from racism is important.
Ben Shapiro, an ex-Breitbart editor who is no fan of Bannon, said of his former boss last week, “I have no evidence that Bannon’s a racist or that he’s an anti-Semite; the Huffington Post’s blaring headline ‘WHITE NATIONALIST IN THE WHITE HOUSE’ is overstated, at the very least.” More than a few conservatives, even those who were #NeverTrump, who have known Bannon personally or professionally, have said that whatever else he might be, he’s not a white supremacist. Reince Priebus and others who will be working in the new administration say the same.
This has also been my experience. As I recalled our few encounters at London’s The Spectator in August, “I’ve only met Stephen Bannon a few times. […] And based on my limited experience, he has always seemed more transfixed on taking on the political establishment, particularly Republicans, rather than raising a White Power fist.”
Apparently, this is how Bannon sees himself, Breitbart, and even, mistakenly, the alt-right. Bannon has said, “Our definition of the alt-right is younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment.”
George Hawley told the Washington Post forthright, “I do not think Steve Bannon qualifies as part of the alt-right.”
Hawley continues, “It’s true that Breitbart has flirted with the alt-right more than any other mainstream conservative publication, but its ultimate editorial line tends to be fairly generically conservative.” “It shares a lot of the alt-right style and tone, but not that much of its substance,” Hawley observes.
Hawley says of Breitbart, “Its main beef with the more mainstream conservatives, like those at the National Review or the Weekly Standard, is that they’re weak, and that they are not fighters willing to get their hands dirty, and that they capitulate too easily.”
Challenging the mainstream conservative movement or the neoconservatives (Weekly Standard) in particular is something libertarian-friendly or non-conventional conservative publications have done for years — examples include Rare, Reason, The American Conservative and The Federalist, none of which could fairly be described as alt-right.
Arguably the closest substantive linkage you will find between white nationalists and Bannon is the fact that Breitbart has hosted and promoted provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, an outspoken advocate of the alt-right. Milo knows full well the movement is racist, has said so explicitly in a 3000-word manifesto, and has enthusiastically shared stages with white nationalist leaders (Milo insists he’s not really part of the alt-right, while simultaneously saying every opportunity he gets that here’s why everyone should think it’s wonderful — aka having cake and eating it).
The beauty of the term “alt-right” from a white nationalist perspective — and people like Milo who say they eschew racism yet find social value in promoting white nationalists — is that it gives extremists cover. Racists hope the confusion has the greater effect of mainstreaming racism. Thanks to an irresponsible media, they have reason at the moment to be hopeful.
Still, white nationalists and supremacists are a small group who don’t represent the overwhelming majority of Americans who voted for Trump. Hawley observes, “If we’re talking about the really big-picture stuff and the most radical white-nationalist element, I don’t think there is a lot of support among ordinary conservatives. If you were to ask them, they would probably say that they reject that particular vision.”
“A lot of ordinary conservatives are not in favor of multiculturalism, not in favor of immigration, not in favor of affirmative action, not in favor of a lot of the things that are happening in American society right now,” he adds.
“But that’s different from actually supporting the creation of a white ethno-state.”
I could be completely wrong — and perhaps I’m being fooled by Stephen Bannon and Donald Trump, who are currently plotting a white nationalist agenda. In the meantime, the media would do well not to haplessly promote extremists we know would enact such an agenda if given the chance.