What’s now called the alt-right actually began as a conservative resistance — against George W. Bush
Throughout his just-concluded campaign, Donald Trump was frequently analogized to the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein. The future president — as everyone from his former ghostwriter to critics on both the left and right asserted — was the inevitable byproduct of the political culture of bravado and bigotry that Republican and conservative elites had used to gain votes from people who had no interest in cutting the government.
Whether the GOP will suffer the ruination and death that ultimately befell Mary Shelley’s monster is yet to be determined. Also unknown is the degree to which the anti-Semitic white nationalist movement known informally as the alt-right will be able to use Trump’s election to inject its ideas into the bloodstream of American conservatism and the larger body politic.
This story also has a “Frankenstein” quality on another level. In many ways, the alt-right was invented by Paul Gottfried, a retired Jewish political historian whose age and persona are about as far removed as one can get from the youthful legions of self-proclaimed “shitlords” who roam Twitter 24/7 seeking to serve the man they only half jokingly refer to as the God Emperor.
How it all began
Frequently held to be a brand-new phenomenon or merely a reincarnated version of old-school Southern segregationism, the alt-right is actually neither. Many of the people and ideas that bind the movement go back a long way, even if they don’t quite hearken back to the likes of John C. Calhoun.
Looking at the early history of the movement, long before the social-media trolls got involved, one can more clearly see that one of the principles that got the alt-right started was an intense dislike of former president George W. Bush — and his foreign policy in particular. Indeed, criticizing and debunking the neoconservatives who dominated the Bush administration has been Gottfried’s lifelong project.
Although he rejects the alt-right label today, Gottfried affixed it to himself in the summer of 2008 when he teamed up with a 30-year-old editor named Richard Spencer to create a conference for right-wingers who regarded Dubya as a warmongering liberal who had betrayed conservatism and surrendered to leftist political correctness.
Gottfried delivered a speech that November to the first meeting of his H.L. Mencken Club titled “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right.” It focused on the conflict that occurred in the 1970s and ’80s when many hawkish Democrats had migrated to the Republican Party and began dominating its institutions. The neoconservatives, as they were eventually called, had made a mess of the GOP and America as a whole, Gottfried argued, but their right-wing opponents (he had earlier coined the term “paleoconservatives” in 1986 to describe them) were continually unable to do anything about it because they were so ideologically divided.
According to his address, Gottfried intended to do something to promote collaboration and unity against the common enemy. The alt-right was that something.
Spencer, who later went on to start a (now-defunct) webzine called Alternative Right, played a big part in conference organizing for the nascent group. He also gave addresses at subsequent Mencken Club meetings, but eventually the two men grew apart as Spencer developed more than an academic fascination with fascism and white separatism.
“Richard, I think, has gone on out on a limb to create a more extreme, racialist right,” Gottfried, 75, told Salon in a telephone interview last month. His preferred stance then (and now) was more about “anti-anti-racism” and opposing leftist political correctness, he said.
Another factor in their disaffection was an address that Spencer gave at the Mencken Club’s 2011 meeting, in which he heaped praise upon Madison Grant, an early 20th-century conservationist who was also an advocate of the bogus racial science known as eugenics.
Spencer’s speech was not well-received by the crowd. According to a contemporary account of the conference proceedings, at least one audience member walked out in protest.
“His speech was so embarrassing,” Gottfried said. “I thought it would be a kind of historical presentation but it turned out to be a harangue in favor of Indo-German America or something like this.”
(Despite the Mencken Club’s professed dedication to completely intellectual discussions, the recording of Spencer’s speech about Grant is nowhere to be found in the club’s audio library of speeches from that year’s proceedings.)
Despite Gottfried’s unwillingness to be associated with Spencer’s advocacy for eugenics, that has been far from the only exhibition of racism to be featured at Mencken Club gatherings. Past speakers have also highlighted the life and times of Sam Francis, a deceased former Washington Times editor who was fired from the right-leaning newspaper for his overtly racist attitudes. White separatist Jared Taylor, who has found a new career as an éminence grise for the alt-right, has also been praised by lecturers.
Mencken Club conferences have also featured William Regnery, an heir to the conservative book publisher Henry Regnery who once tried to start a dating website exclusively for white people. William Regnery also publishes an anti-Semitic website called the Occidental Observer and is one of Spencer’s largest financial patrons.
Conservatives against Bush
There’s no question that racist speech and racist attitudes have always had a “safe space” within the alt-right. But it’s not accurate to suggest that racism and anti-Semitism were always as integral to the movement as they are today.
All the tendencies that have come to define the alt-right today were present when it began, at least to some degree. But initially, during the mid-2000s when criticizing George W. Bush’s foreign policy could mean being branded as un-American, the alt-right was a loose collection of very different conservatives and libertarians. What bound them together was a shared dislike of Bush policies in general, and his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. Dissatisfaction with the existing Republican hierarchy was all that was needed.
“It was a pretty disparate group of people,” according to Jim Antle, a paleoconservative writer and editor who counted himself as among the “alternative right” for a while. “Some were pure libertarians. Some were immigration restrictionists. Some were just conventional Goldwater-Reagan Republicans. Some were monarchists and some were also white nationalists.”
Antle, who today is the political editor for the right-leaning Washington Examiner, told Salon in an interview that he became rapidly disenchanted with the emerging movement as it “became obvious where this was all headed.” He said he stopped affiliating with the alt-right before most people had even heard of the term.
Not all of Antle’s nonracist associates were as aware of what was happening, however. That was largely because of an overwhelming sense among many in the nascent alternative right that to expel white nationalists from their ranks was to repeat some of the “purges” that conservatives engaged in with some frequency during the 20th century. William F. Buckley and the National Review, for instance, had denounced the anti-communist conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society. Some alt-rightists saw disavowing racism as somehow permitting progressives to dictate the acceptable limits of conservative thought as well.
“There was this idea that you never let the left set the terms of dialogue,” Antle said. “Even if you may personally think that some of the things people were talking about are bad, by being overly worried about racism, you were playing according to the left’s rules, and you shouldn’t do that.”
For anti-Bush conservatives of all stripes, the mid-2000s were a time in the wilderness. That was true even before Barack Obama managed to throw the rest of the right there after he won the presidency in a 2008 landslide that also saw Democrats take majorities in both houses of Congress. The chaos and lack of strategic direction that Democrats face today, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, was something that the paleocons and their libertarian allies confronted as a major topic in early Mencken Club meetings. One person trying to move the argument in a racially inclusive direction was Jack Hunter, a writer and editor who had made a journey from anti-government white identitarianism to more mainstream libertarianism.
Hunter’s personal odyssey story, which he detailed in full in a 2013 Politico article, is essentially the exact opposite of the journey that the alternative right has undergone. He began as a racist shock-jock radio host in South Carolina who called himself “The Southern Avenger” and eventually landed in the orbit of young libertarians who were repelled by his racism. Eventually, Hunter began to re-examine his beliefs and reached the conclusion that racism was illogical. He has repeatedly renounced his former views and called for Southern states to remove Confederate flags from their state capitol buildings.
“After a while, I just came to the conclusion that the racial conservatives were just off base, that they were wrong,” Hunter told Salon in a phone interview.
Hunter tried bringing that message to the fledgling alt-right. “We were making the case that the conservative movement needed to be more youth oriented; it needed to be less divisive. And if you were going to talk about immigration to not demonize people,” he said.
Paradoxically, one ally Hunter had in this regard was Richard Spencer, Gottfried’s former junior partner who has now become synonymous with white supremacy. It was Spencer who gave a speech in Washington, after Trump’s election, in which claimed that only whites could preserve Western civilization. He ended with the English translation of “Sieg Heil,” the infamous phrase Nazis encouraged Germans to use in praise of Adolf Hitler.
In 2008, however, Spencer had not yet fully committed to white nationalism. At the time, he was editing Takimag, a libertarian blog and was under pressure to increase traffic. One strategy suggested by Taki Theodoracopulos, the site’s owner, was to begin publishing essays written by “white advocate” author Jared Taylor.
According to Hunter and Antle, who both wrote for the site at the time, Spencer opposed the idea, even though the site had published Taylor once before. Hunter specifically recalled discussing the matter with Spencer in New York after inviting him to attend a performance of his part-time rock band.
“I had that conversation with Spencer on the sidewalk outside the venue,” Hunter said by email. “He told me he would never run Taylor.” Antle recalled discussing the matter on the telephone with Spencer and said that Spencer discussed the matter with several other contributors as well, who were concerned about whether they would continue to write for the site if it published Taylor’s anti-black and anti-Hispanic articles.
Whether Taylor’s writings were a point of friction between Spencer and his boss, the poor traffic that Takimag attracted did bother Theodoracopulos. Shortly after Spencer was removed as editor in January of 2009, he founded his own independent webzine titled Alternative Right. That was subsequently shuttered after Spencer was hired by publishing heir William Regnery to run his overtly racist think tank, the National Policy Institute.
See Part 2: How Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign fueled the rise of the alt-right