Just nine months prior to the August 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, a New York Times profile of the alt-right explored the potential force of the movement but tempered the immediacy of the threat, explaining, “…at this point, [they] would have trouble holding a serious street rally, let alone turning into a mass political party.” Many journalists and scholars alike highlighted the “nebulous,” “loosely-assembled” nature of the alt-right, as a disparate collection of largely anonymous online communities – white supremacists, anti-Semites, nativists, neo-fascists, masculinists, conspiracists, nihilists – without any clearly shared goals or motivations. Yet, less than a year later, they marched unified through the grounds of my alma mater, tiki torch-wielding young men clad in polo shirts and khaki pants, angry faces illuminated in collective rage. Horrified publics grappled with the seemingly spontaneous re-emergence of overt, unapologetic white supremacy, the explosive violence in the streets, and the question of how our political polarization reached such depths.While political analysts called for the end of “identity politics,” decrying identity as a “divisive tool” centered on “race cards” and “Oppression Olympics” that produced this white alienation and resentment, I argue that it is only through the analysis of identity that we can make sense of the alt-right, their strategies, and their consequences. As prominent alt-right leader Richard Spencer said, “Donald Trump is the first step towards identity politics for European-Americans in the United States,” highlighting the centrality of identity for the alt-right both as a means and as an end. In particular, bridging theories of collective identity with racial formation theory helps us better understand: 1) how the alt-right came into existence through a dialectics of collective identity that shapes the perception of whites as an oppressed minority, and 2) how movement leaders strategically deploy minority white identity to generate support and gain legitimacy.
White as the “New Black”
Social movement theories tell us that mobilizing groups develop their collective identity through ongoing political processes, interactions between macro political-cultural contexts – laws, policies, cultural narratives that tell groups where they stand relative to other groups – and micro relations between movement actors negotiating who they think they are against who they perceive society thinks they are. Racial formation theory adds that this conception of “who we are” as a racial group is a socio-historical concept, a dynamic set of meanings shaped by social, economic, and political forces that structure social relations between groups. These dialectics shape both how groups understand their position relative to other groups and where they believe they ought to stand. The rise of the alt-right rests on a deeply embedded political project which works to maintain white status by constructing white identity as a threatened, minority status that must be defended.
The perception of white identity as an oppressed minority identity is not a new phenomenon. Historians have shown that during the Civil Rights era, whites saw desegregation as an oppressive practice infringing on their own rights, a system intended “not to end the system of racial oppression in the South, but to install a new system that oppressed them instead.” These perceptions of white minority status sprout against the minority rights revolution of the 1970’s-80’s, when affirmative action, anti-discrimination policies, and the rise of multiculturalism worked to even the playing field. In my book project, I examine the political uses of the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement since the 1980’s, analyzing memory invocations by a range of political actors including ten social movements across the political spectrum (Animal Rights; Anti-Abortion; Christian Right; Environment; Gun Rights; Immigrant Rights; LGBT Rights; Muslim Rights; Nativist; Police Reform). I find that conservative groups increasingly invoke the Civil Rights Movement to claim they are the new minorities, the new oppressed group valiantly fighting for their rights. In these invocations, gun rights activists are the new Rosa Parks, anti-gay groups are defending Dr. King’s legacy in a country that marginalizes Christians, and anti-abortion activists are contemporary freedom riders.
These perceptions of white minority identity grow over time, interacting with changing political-cultural contexts, emboldened by institutional politics under Reagan, growing behind the scenes in abeyance structures during the Clinton era, and powerfully catalyzed after the election of the first African American president. Vocal right-wing conservatives like Glenn Beck stoked these flames as, for example, in 2009 when he said, “This president [Obama] I think has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people and the white culture…this guy is, I believe, a racist.” While his comments were largely criticized, they tapped long-growing sentiments about a post-Civil Rights era that had gone too far, wading into “reverse discrimination” against whites. Beck’s sentiments particularly connected with far-right individuals linking through growing networks like 4chan and 8chan, Twitter and Reddit. But how did an underlying perception of identity give rise to the alt-right?
As social movement scholars show, collective identity shapes both how groups interpret their grievances and how they develop strategies. In this sense, collective identity is both an input and an output, a strategy and a goal. Strategic identity deployment is one way mobilizing groups survey the political landscape – state actors, social movement organizations, and the opposition – and correspondingly strategize how to signal who they are as a group. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which eschewed political correctness, played on threats of immigration and terrorism, and embraced the endorsement of white supremacists like David Duke, offered the political and cultural opportunities necessary to unite disparate right-wing groups under an umbrella identity tapping proud, white collective identity. A January 2016 rallying cry on alt-right site The Right Stuff said, “The new left doctrine of racial struggle in favor of non-Whites only, a product of decolonization and the defeat of nationalists by egalitarians after WWII, must be repudiated and Whites must be allowed to take their own side in their affairs. A value system that says Whites are not allowed to have collective interests while literally every other identity group can do so and ought to do so is unacceptable.”
In September 2016, reporters described the alt-right’s “coming out party,” a lengthy news conference with three prominent alt-right leaders to signal a new, cohesive, and more importantly, visible identity. The strategic identity deployment included a hip, nostalgic logo and the respectable uniform of suits, polos, and khakis. In the days leading up to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, a recruiting call for participants emphasized the importance of performing this strategic identity through a veneer of respectability to attract “normal” people, writing, “We must have Chad Nationalism. That is what will make guys want to join us, that is what will make girls want to be our groupies. That will make us look like bad boys and heroes. That is what we are going for here. I cannot stress the point hard enough – I’m hitting italics again – we need to be extremely conscious of what we look like, and how we present ourselves. That matters more than our ideas.”
Yet the ideas unify the strategic deployment of identity, situating the performance in a set of culturally resonant frames about racial identity, drawing on a discourse of racial pride and celebration in the face of oppression, taken from the lessons of the minority movements of the past. As political scientist Carol Swain described in her prescient 2002 book, The New White Nationalism in America, all signs indicated that this mode of strategic identity deployment was coming. Of the young activists she interviewed she writes, “I knew that identity would come next. It had to come. All they had to do was copy what they were hearing. The multiculturalist arguments you hear on every campus — those work for whites, too.” In a recent interview, a reporter asked Richard Spencer how he would respond to the idea that he was practicing minority identity politics. He plainly replied, “I’d say: ‘Yuh. You’re right.’”
The alt-right may appear to be a small, fringe umbrella group, fragmented by smaller groups with conflicting goals and identities, largely denounced by liberals and conservatives alike. Yet through the combined lens of collective identity theory and racial formation theory, the threat appears far greater. These theories show us that the movement is both constituted by wider collective anxieties about white identity and the movement strategically deploys white “minority” identity using culturally resonant frames to generate support. A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that 55 percent of whites surveyed believe that there is discrimination against white people today. These results highlight an alarming disjuncture between social perception and social reality. The alt-right’s potential audience is vaster than we may know. Rather than sidestepping the politics of identity, activists and scholars must take it head on.