A victory for Donald Trump is a victory for his supporters. Among them are voters who feel disenfranchised and overlooked, who fear their way of life is disappearing. But they also include a noisy minority of misogynist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic racists who made ubiquitous on social media during the campaign. This group, known as the alt-right, grew from an obscure white supremacist think tank. Now the candidate they embraced is about to become the most powerful politician in the world.
Yet perhaps paradoxically, their future looks iffy.
When a group denounced as deplorable by the seeming mainstream has its beliefs affirmed on this grand scale, that group cannot help but change. On the one hand, for the alt-right and white supremacists, that affirmation is cause for them to celebrate: what was once only said on the fringes and behind closed doors now appears to be part of mainstream discourse. (See Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke tweeting in jubilation at Trump’s ascendency.) Yet even as a Trump presidency appears to increase its influence, the alt-right is bound to falter. The half-life for extremist groups is short: the alt-right has a good chance of fracturing into oblivion. Or it could just fizzle: that’s what happens when you no longer have anyone in power to yell at but your own champion.
Trump and the Alt-Right
Trump’s appeal to his base has two main components: the promise of a return to prosperity and an “America First” identity politics. But one seems to have outweighed the other. “If it were just an economic issue, there would be blacks and Latinos lining up behind Trump,” says Nell Irvin Painter, a historian at Princeton University. In reality, the line between “America First” and “whites first” is hopelessly blurred.
Which is of course, where the alt-right gets excited. “Donald Trump is certainly not a member of the alt-right,” says Jared Taylor, a prominent alt-right leader and head of the white supremacist New Century Foundation. “But he seems to have instinctively, clumsily stumbled upon some of the policies that we’ve been promoting for a long time.” To alt-right leaders, Donald Trump is less messiah than a convenient, half-enlightened monkey wrench thrown into the political machine.
But they see in his anti-immigrant and isolationist policies a future for their interests. “It’s impossible to know how many people voted for Trump based on feelings of racial dispossession. But a Trump presidency reopens a closed book,” Taylor says. “It’s not inconceivable that Donald Trump and people around him will start publicly discussing racial differences in IQ. Or that maybe some people don’t belong here, which clearly leads to racial analysis. No Hillary appointee would ever say that. To them, it would be evil.” Reminder: this man is arguing that these are good reasons for having Donald Trump in power.
Not So Extreme Futures
So, yes, racists are racist. And the idea of Donald Trump spouting full-blown alt-right rhetoric (versus some loud-and-clear dogwhistles) still seems somewhat farfetched. But Taylor is right about one thing: “For the next four years, these ideas will have to be discussed with much more openness, and frankness.” Because the alt-right’s talking points—Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and racism—are crucial motivators for many people who bore Trump to office.
The consequences of having those ideas percolating through the national discourse are already being felt on a person-to-person level. “Kids have been catching hell because other kids’ parents say, ‘We’re against political correctness,’” says Painter. “That means you can act on your hatred.” It’s not just anecdotal: the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, says hate crimes, domestic terrorism rates, and hate group membership have all risen over the past two years.
To alt-right leaders, Donald Trump is less messiah than a convenient, half-enlightened monkey wrench thrown into the political machine.
But the alt-right’s aspirations aren’t to be the neo-neo-Nazis or an updated version of the skinheads. They want to move from the fringes into the traditional political power structure. “Inevitably there will be some candidates at the levels of city council, school boards, and maybe congressional districts,” Taylor says. “It may be the Republicans are smart enough to adjust their course. If not, we will move in and we will capture their supporters.” This is a well-established extremist move. It’s how the KKK rose to power in the South during and immediately after the Reconstruction period.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to pack up and leave for Canada. That same move into the mainstream is typically a precursor to dissolution, not more power. “The Klan dissolved pretty quickly, mostly due to internal bickering,” says Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus who studies extremist groups. That kind of self-destructive discord is a very common trajectory for extremist groups throughout history, and there’s no reason to believe that the alt-right won’t follow it. “If you look at how they operate, they don’t get along well with others. Including each other,” Gerstenfeld says. So it may not be long before the alt-right’s troll army turns on itself. Which might very well break Twitter, but is good news for everyone else.
Speaking of Twitter, which has been the alt-right’s loudest bullhorn, the movement may soon find itself with a messaging problem. “Their whole attraction is they’re fighting to regain power,” says Gerstenfeld. “I don’t think they’ll do a good job spreading that message when they are in power and there’s nothing to fight against.” Gerstenfeld points out that the extremist militia groups that were common during Bill Clinton’s presidency all but disappeared during the George Bush years that followed. With Trump in the White House, it’ll be hard for the alt-right to argue that the American white male is disenfranchised. “People will stop caring,” Gerstenfeld says.
And though Taylor and David Duke and Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos are exuberant about President Trump now, they might not always feel that way. “There’s a gaping hole between most Americans and the alt-right. He’s going to have to backtrack to govern all of us,” Painter says. “Is that going to inspire a Bundy brothers insurgency against him? I wouldn’t be surprised.” The Trump administration is not the early days of an alt-right America. It’s the beginning of a fringe group’s fall.