Steve Bannon’s move to the West Wing signals a shift in the American far right’s operational field, from closed chat-rooms into mainstream American society
Who are the alt-righters?
“Alt-Right” was one of the most commonly used terms during the 2016 election campaign. Numerous pundits and analysts mentioned the term and the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton went as far as devoting a long speech to denouncing the group, associating it with her Republican rival.
Despite the prevalent employment of the term, it became increasingly evident that “alt-right” did not convey a single clear meaning. Simply put, there was no consensus about what it meant. This is exemplified in the term’s rapid evolution on Wikipedia, referring to a myriad of groups ranging from Neo-Nazis to Anti-Feminists, from social-media savvy teens to extremist proponents of racial ideologies.
While the exact definition of the term Alt-Right may be vague, it is rather clear that the “chief strategist” behind its systematic propagation is Steve Bannon. Bannon, who up until recently served as Executive Chair of the right wing American Breitbart News Network, later became Trump’s presidential campaign Chief Executive and now serves as the White House Chief Strategist. While at Breitbart, to which he himself referred as “the platform for the alt-right”, Bannon had nurtured the new right-wing movement and helped to define it.
Bannon has often been accused of being a racist and an anti-Semite, but such accusations, which Bannon has continuously denied, fail to appreciate the complexity of Bannon’s political thought. Recent reports, which examined his main sources of influence, provide a more thorough and nuanced understanding of his world view.
Thus, a glimpse at the philosophers and political theorists favored by Bannon, as featured in one report on Politico, reveals a plethora of fairly unknown thinkers with rather unorthodox political views, to say the least. One such thinker is Curtis Yarvin, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former blogger, who laid the foundations of the contemporary intellectual anti-democratic movement in the US. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq and the financial crisis of 2009, under the pen name of Mencius Moldbug, Yarvin promoted authoritarian ideas in his writings with fascist and racist undertones. He repeatedly rejected the notion of democracy as a desirable governing principle and went as far as to doubting the necessity of truth itself as a compass for political action.
Through his writings, Yarvin managed to establish himself as a niche thought leader, with a small but loyal group of adherents on the right-wing fringe, one of which was Bannon. Although Yarvin quickly denied any formal affiliation with the White House, it is clear that Bannon is no stranger to Yarvin’s writings given the publicity the right-wing intellectual used to receive on Breitbart News. One of Yarvin’s company investors is Peter Thiel, Pay-Pal and Palantir founder, an avid supporter of, and adviser to President Trump.
From Libertarian to Alt-Right to “Full-on Nazi”
Yarvin, however, is not a name that used to be associated with the extreme right in the US, over the years, it was rather politicians like George Wallace or David Duke that were considered to be the face of the US far-right. During the presidential election campaign, Trump was even attacked for not disavowing Duke and for claiming he did not even knowwho he was. However, despite the media attention given to Duke, it seems that he is less relevant today while others like Yarvin or even more radical and provocative figures have found a way to appeal to young audiences, slowly normalizing anti-Democratic agendas across the country.
As described by a young student from Florida in a closed Facebook group, his radicalization process was a result of several factors. He states, “I became a Libertarian when I was 17 […] after being schooled several times on the economic side of Liberalism […] What really got me into Nationalism […] I started watching people like Gavin Mccines, and Tarl Warwick on YouTube, and I also had some conservative family members that influenced me to become a Trump supporter […] In late 2015, I considered myself Alt-right”.
The first phases of radicalization as described above show a distrust of the government and a disappointment with the Libertarian movement. It is such notions that have been channeled into an anti-establishment movement embodied in the Alt-Right. But the radicalization has not stopped there. “The more I delved into the alt-right, the more people like Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer started speaking volumes to me”, the young man continued, later mentioning a Neo-Nazi movie he watched on YouTube about the Nazis’ defeat, which “drilled home the point to me”.
Just like many others, this young man identifies himself as a nationalist. While other members of the alt-right prefer terms such as “monarchists”, “white nationalists” or even “paleo-conservatives”, all of the above fail to convey the degree of racist sentiment, sexism and contempt towards the democratic system by large swaths of the US youth that perceive themselves as part of the new right-wing communities.
But just how big is this movement?
While it is difficult to gauge the extent of the far right’s growth, data suggests that US Neo-Nazi websites such as the Daily Stormer or therightstuff have experienced an increase in popularity following the elections. Increasingly, supporters are attempting to translate the rise in popularity over the web into organized political activities into “real life”, i.e., to campuses around the country and to “forgotten people” across the Mid-West.
Whitewashing White Supremacism?
Bannon’s influence in the White house is yet to be determined, yet it is already clear that the renewed momentum of radical fascist and racist streams hardly came to a halt in the aftermath of the elections, but have rather gotten significantly more tangible.
Bannon’s move to the West Wing may signal a shift in the American far right’s operational field, namely from social-media and closed chat-rooms into mainstream American society. Given the implied blessing from the high chambers in D.C. and increased motivation in the face of political victories in the US, the UK, and possibly in the near future, also in France and the Netherlands, this phenomenon in the US could very well expand further and move towards more practical steps, including attempts to increasingly penetrate the political apparatus in the hope to change the “system” from the inside.
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