Dave Kerns says Hillary Clinton’s effort this week to paint Donald Trump as a bigot because of his association with members of America’s nationalist “alt-right” movement was disingenuous and unfair, mostly because the allegations assumed guilt by association.
The injection of the alt-right into the broader American conversation came after Mr. Trump brought in alt-right-leaning Breitbart News publisher, Stephen Bannon, to lead his campaign, and as Hillary Clinton, in Reno, Nev., on Thursday, lambasted Trump for handing a megaphone to white nationalists – and released a campaign video making the case.
Trump has repeatedly disavowed such connections, having in the past said, “Hate groups are not for me.” And Mr. Kerns, a woodworker visiting Atlanta for the country’s largest woodworking conference, doesn’t formally count himself as a member of the ephemeral “alt-right,” which operates largely anonymously on the internet and whose true numbers are unknown.
Yet he does share some alt-right notions – including admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin – as well as a common lament: He doesn’t understand why black people keep voting for the Democrats when it’s obvious to him that the party is only using them to get elected. “I’m with Trump: Give something else a try,” he says. “The truth is, if we keep going this way, this country will be destroyed.”
As such, Kerns illuminates at least part of the working dynamics of Trump’s theoretical “silent majority” that he says will take him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in November. Whether it’s racial, economic or cultural, the alt-right believes in a fundamental transformation of American society, one which will guarantee the primacy of what some in the movement call the original “kith and kin” – white Christians – who founded the country.
Whether it’s a working electoral strategy or not is far from certain, given that polls show Trump shedding, not gaining, key supporters, including white suburban women.
But even critics say the emergence of the alt-right may have its functions, as well – informing primarily the Republican Party to embolden, and perhaps widen, its search for how to remain nationally relevant.
“Like my grandma said when her pressure cooker exploded: ‘You’ve got to vent that thing or it’s going to blow,’” says Michael Hill, the president of the secessionist League of the South, who counts himself as a member of America’s alt-right community. Politics, as well, “needs a little relief valve.”
Historians trace the movement’s roots to the 1950s, when the GOP establishment began ousting extreme elements such as racists, anti-Semites, and members of the John Birch Society. The term itself was coined as recently as 2008 in a speech to the H.L. Mencken Club by political philosopher Paul Gottfried, who defined the alt-right in part as those who are “convinced that we are right in our historical and cultural observations while those who have quarantined us are wrong.”
"My reading of the alt-right is that they go beyond saying ‘liberals’ in the narrow sense of the left-wing of the American political spectrum,” adds Thomas Main, a Baruch College, School of Public and International Affairs, CUNY public affairs professor who is writing a book about the alt-right. “I think [the alt-right has] a problem with the whole shebang of democratic liberalism. They’re saying: ‘It’s not true that people are created equal.’ That’s when things start spiraling out of control because then a moderate alt-right position might be that white people are going to rise to the top if you stand back and allow things to happen. But if they don’t rise to the top, then another step is necessary: ‘We better make sure that they stay at the top.’ That’s when we get into really hairy stuff.”
What’s new and undeniably powerful is that there’s a youthful prankster component that revels in punking the establishment, whether Democrat or Republican, primarily through viral memes that have been successfully used to sway everything from online polling to what’s trending on Twitter.
Toying with fascist rhetoric while hailing pop singer Taylor Swift as an “Aryan goddess,” many of those in the alt-right paint their efforts as obviously ironic pranksterism. But the joke, for many Americans, wears thin pretty fast.
“I’ve never met an alt-right individual in person,” Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the conservative TownHall.com website, wrote on Twitter after Mrs. Clinton’s Reno speech this week. “But then, I don’t break into Doritos fragment-strewn basements.”
Indeed, the alt-right “is in the ether where it’s hard to identify actual faces,” says Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and co-author of “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.”“But it still does have effects, and the effects are mostly negative. What these alt-right memes are doing is making it seem more legitimate to express [racist] views. The outcome of that is that a country that’s already pretty racially polarized will become somewhat more so.
Yet the alt-right’s roots, at least according to some, can be traced all the way back to the antebellum South, when the Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, an aide-de-camp to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, began writing about fundamental fissures within American conservatism – largely the epic struggle between traditionalism, the vision of a America as a country of people over principles, and liberalism, improving lives by hewing closer to the Constitution’s core principle, that “all men are created equal.”
“I think the original alt-right-ers in America were Southern nationalists,” says Mr. Hill, a Killen, Ala.-based former history professor at a historically black college who is listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Watch” project. He points to the Reverend Dabney, who after the Civil War wrote, presciently: “The meaning of northern conservatism is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit with a respectable amount of growling but always acquiesces at last in the innovation of the progressives.”
Dabney’s antebellum observation, says Hill, “is a perfect picture of what the alt-right has come to call ‘cuckservatives,’ [a sexual and racial pejorative based on the word cuckold.] So, I think there’s little doubt that Southern nationalism is the original strain. It’s always been blood and soil, kith and kin for people down here, and that’s what the alt-right pushes, is this idea of a true nation … that happens to be white and European.”
This week, many in the alt-right movement huzzah-ed Clinton’s admonitions, calling it validation. “I think [Clinton's critique] only strengthen its appeal,” says Mr. Kerns, the woodworker.
One alt-right Twitter user who only wanted to be known by his handle, #JaredTSwift. told The Daily Beast that the alt-right’s online support for Trump has “managed to push white nationalism into a very mainstream position …. People have adopted our rhetoric, sometimes without even realizing it. We’re setting up for a massive cultural shift.”
One of the movement’s intellectual leaders, a 30-something journalist named Richard Spencer, has said, "There are races who, on average, are going to be superior."
Similarly, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke said “I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years,” he said in a video, in July announcing his candidacy for a Louisiana seat in the US Senate.
Dylan Sly, a Kansas City woodworker, voted for Trump in the primary. He says he doesn't believe in white supremacy, but also doesn't believe that society should try to vilify unpopular opinions to the point where people no longer feel free to express themselves. At the same time, when Trump won the nomination, he got a sinking feeling, “like, oops, what have we done?”
That buyer’s remorse may be in part why the alt-right has gained a wider prominence as Trump’s core. As the New York mogul has driven some of his base away – including, significantly, suburban white women – he has had to reach deeper and deeper into the conservative movement for fans. He has landed on a strain of American politics that may be as vexing as it is apparently ascendant. That became obvious as Trump struggled to ease his tough immigration rhetoric this week – key to the alt-right's support – while not seeming to ease it.
“Trump isn't really part of the alt-right, even if he has gotten closer to it than most politicians,” writes Bloomberg View’s Rannesh Ponnuru. “His recent moves and Clinton's … speech suggest that both candidates understand that the alt-right is a leaden anchor rather than a rising force.”
But whether it ultimately plays into Trump’s gambit, the alt-right’s emergence on the political scene is indisputably having an influence, one which will be hard to ignore as the country gets ready to retire its first black president.
The movement “is playing it for all it’s worth, and they have succeeded in getting the ear of a major party presidential candidate,” says Professor Main, at Baruch College.
Still, there are “serious limits” to the alt-right movement, says Professor Hetherington, “Trump’s rallies may be huge and really intense, but if you add all of those rallies up it’s probably going to be 1 or 2 percent of what he needs to win an election.”
“In the end, there might not be enough of us,” acknowledges Kerns, the woodworker.