For 'alt-right', read 'white supremacy'

For 'alt-right', read 'white supremacy'
Comment: Discussion of the 'alt right' and a fixation on figures like Spencer is distracting from more pressing threats on the horizon, writes Hilary Aked
4 min read
30 Nov, 2016
Enough social pressure caused Trump to distance himself from the "alt right" [Getty]

Donald Trump's appointment of Steve Bannon as his campaign chair and now chief White House strategist has provoked a wave of discussion around the term "alt right".

But how much does the fact that Bannon described his tabloid, arch-right media outfit Breitbart News as the "alt right's mouthpiece" actually tell us about the politics the Trump administration will be advancing?

The phrase "alt right" was coined by white supremacist ideologue Richard Spencer who was recently filmed making Nazi allusions and declaring "Hail Trump" at the end of a speech, prompting some audience members to deliver Hitler salutes. Some commentators argue that evidence like this shows the phrase merely re-brands pre-existing racist political ideologies.

Packaging is important in politics and this argument is very convincing, but it's not too clear precisely what form of hard right ideology or movement the "alt right" is said to have re-named and rejuvenated. Some say straightforward Nazism. Others say its age-old white supremacy.

Let's not quibble too much. Trump's victory and Bannon's appointment certainly should strike terror - and the determination to resist - into the hearts of all anti-racists. But, discussion of the "alt right" and a fixation on figures like Spencer may to be a distraction from the foremost threats on the horizon.

There has been little incentive for Trump to row back substantially on comments made about Muslims

Trump has disavowed the "alt right". Pointing this out is not to say that we should ignore the clear signs of anti-black racism among those in his inner circles, from Jeff Sessions to Bannon himself. Nor should anyone overlook the credible evidence that Bannon is comfortable with antisemitism provided the author is also pro-Israel. But it is significant that there is enough social pressure to cause Trump to distance himself from the "alt right".

In contrast, there has been little incentive for him to row back substantially on comments made about Muslims. Though the press reported that Trump had softened his stance or even back-pedalled on his early plan for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US, ideas fuelled by anti-Muslim bigotry of this type appear to exert a dogged tenacity.

We know, for instance, that Kris Kobach - who may be a contender for the top job in the Department of Homeland Security - has drawn up relatively concrete plans for what is essentially a Muslims registry. Talk of "extreme-vetting" of Muslims could very soon become a reality.

Read More: American white supremacy rears its ugly head

Similarly, Trump has talked up his anti-immigration politics rather than downplayed this aspect of his policy platform. Shortly after his election victory he even mentioned a figure of up to 3 million people, suggesting that this many potential deportations was a serious proposition.

Latino communities have led the way in protesting such declarations. But wider public outcry over these Islamophobic and xenophobic proposals has been markedly muted. Why?

Because they would not constitute a radical change of direction, just an acceleration. They would merely extend and deepen discriminatory structures that are already in place. Hard line border controls, ethnic profiling and institutionalised racism are already part of the framework of America.

Rabidly anti-Muslim statements are implicitly deemed less shocking and newsworthy

The same pattern emerges even if we insist on using Breitbart as an indicator of what the Trump administration's politics will be. The most pronounced form of racism, by far, is Islamophobia. The fact that criticism of Breitbart has focused on the far fewer - though equally serious - instances of anti-Semitsim, only demonstrates again that the latter is known to have considerable stigma attached to it, whereas rabidly anti-Muslim statements are implicitly deemed less shocking and newsworthy.

In fact, the ideology Breitbart promotes is closer to that of the "counterjihad movement" - a post 9/11 strand of the far right primarily opposed to immigration and to Islam. Counterjihad activists seek credibility and distinguish themselves from "old" fascism by declaring themselves pro-Israel (even if in reality this is no guarantee of being free from antisemitism).

Breitbart has published prominent op-eds and fawning interviews with some of the counterjihad movement's leading figures, such as Dutch politician Geert Wilders and former English Defence League leader - now PEGIDA UK spokesman - Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon).

It even acts as an echo chamber for neoconservative-cum-counterjihad think tank the Gatestone Institute which publishes the work of Norway's Peder "Fjordman" Jensen, the blogger who most inspired mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

In the end, as Martin Niemoller's famous quotation reminds us, fascism opens the door to attacks on all minorities. But let's be clear and specific about where the immediate threat to democracy will come from and who its first targets, in need of our solidarity, will be: first they will come for migrants and for Muslims.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.