Until recently, the members of the alt-right movement have lived mainly in narrow corners on the internet, spreading hate and seeking fellow travelers. But with so many of these cohorts lined up in support of Donald Trump, the extremists have leaked into the mainstream. Bob talks with Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, about the particular brand of white nationalism the alt-right peddles and how the Trump campaign is helping their effort gain political power.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. Most of us first heard of the alt-right on August 25th when Hillary Clinton namechecked it on the campaign trail in Reno, Nevada.
HILLARY CLINTON: This is not conservatism as we have known it. This is not Republicanism as we have known it. These are racist ideas, race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women, all key tenets making up the emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right.
BOB GARFIELD: So far, the members of the alt-right movement have lived mainly in narrow corners of the internet, spreading hate and seeking fellow travelers. Richard Spencer’s considered the founder of the modern alt-right movement, describes his members this way in a video released by his white nationalist think tank, the National Policy Institute.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
RICHARD SPENCER: Who are we? We aren't just “White.” "White" is a checkbox on a census form. We are part of the peoples, history, spirit and civilization of Europe. This legacy stands before us as a gift and as a challenge, for what our ancestors took for granted we must discover, we must renew.
BOB GARFIELD: ‘Til recently, such rhetoric was the province of people previously known as the lunatic fringe, but with so many of those cohorts lined up in support of Donald Trump and rebranded with the anodyne catch-all “lt-right” the extremists have leaked into the mainstream. They even have a popular news and commentary site, breitbart.com, flying their banner. With a sense of political legitimacy within their grasp, last week they held a Washington press conference and unveiled a new logo, which looks strikingly like two Klansmen in hoods.
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, explains what is at the core of the alt-right.
MARK POTOK: Fundamentally, it's about race. Its basic idea is that “white people in white people's countries,” quote, unquote, like the United States and most of Europe, are under assault by the forces of political correctness, of social justice, and so on. The whole movement really begins in Europe as a kind of anti-Muslim movement 10 or so years ago.
BOB GARFIELD: But surely, the roots of this in the United States are more than 10 or 15 years old. You've identified significant overlaps between what now calls itself the alt-right and what we long knew as white supremacists and various other hate groups.
MARK POTOK: That's right. I mean, it's essentially a rebranding of white nationalism or white supremacy for the digital age. It is a band of white supremacists who are trying to give themselves a better look, much as David Duke did in the late 1970s, when he said it’s time for us Klansmen to get out of the hoods and robes and into three-piece suits, it's time to get out of the cow pastures where the crosses are burning and into the hotel meeting rooms. In other words, we need to present ourselves in a way that reasonably rational Americans might actually find something attractive about us.
David Duke was an out-and-out Klansman, a neo-Nazi. He used to like to wear swastika armbands and that sort of thing. And by nominally disavowing the Klan and nominally separating himself from some of his old friends, David Duke, in 1991, was able to come fairly close to becoming the governor of Louisiana. So, in his case, he was able, at least for a short time, to successfully rebrand. And I think that is very much the hope of Jared Taylor, of Richard Spencer and of other leaders of the alternative right. They’ve not been looking at any kind of electoral success in literally decades. They are hoping that with the help and the dog whistling of Donald Trump, that will change.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, they’ve certainly found a way into the political conversation, and they seem to have grown out of their virtual headquarters on 4chan and other very narrow corners of the internet. They [LAUGHS] not only were identified by Hillary Clinton, which did them no harm, they essentially have an official mainstream backing publication in Breitbart, the popular right-wing website. Tell me about the connections between Breitbart and the core of the alt-right movement.
MARK POTOK: Well, about 18 months ago Breitbart began to really focus in on the themes that are nearest and dearest to the core of the alt-right movements – immigration, in particular, nonwhite immigration, the alleged threat of a Muslim takeover. Not so long ago at all, just a few months ago, it actually published a major defense of the alternative right, in which, among other things, it talked about people like alt-right leader Jared Taylor, a guy who has described black people as incapable of sustaining civilization of any kind, as “allegedly racist.”
In other words, Breitbart's position has been to say that these people are accused of being racist but, of course, insinuates that that's not so at all. So Breitbart has essentially moved into the camp of the alt-right and become a major platform. That’s why Steve Bannon's move to the Donald Trump campaign has been so eyebrow raising.
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, he was the chairman of Breitbart News. He is now in charge of the Trump campaign. I want to ask you about the continuum of deplorability. Can the average blue-collar white guy in a Rust Belt state be lumped in with a fire-breathing militiaman in northern Idaho?
MARK POTOK: No, I don't think it's fair to lump in the average Trump supporter with David Duke or some neo-Nazi up in the Pacific Northwest, at all. I think the reality is that people out there have been fed a steady diet of falsehoods and misinformation. You know, if you are not a sophisticated consumer of the news but you are being told by your congress people, by other politicians, by certain pastors, for instance, that Muslims have a secret plan to impose sharia law on the United States or you’re being told that gay people are engaging in a massive conspiracy to seduce your children and, on top of all of that, you're having trouble finding a job because you’ve been in the timber industry or working in a steel mill for most of your career, these things may seem to make sense. You may look at a Donald Trump and see a man who’s, quote, unquote “not afraid to tell it like it is.”
The sad thing is that all of these claims are utterly false, and yet, as I say, there are politicians, there are pundits, talk radio stations that pour this kind of poison into the kind [LAUGHS] of river of American democracy constantly, and it makes it extremely difficult for people to see the world as it really is.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one less thing, Mark. Over the decades, I’ve been following the output of the Southern Poverty Law Center and being alternately disgusted and heartened, disgusted because these hate groups are so repulsive, hardened because if you added ‘em all up - the neo-Nazis, the Klansmen, the militias - it was such a small number of those involved in organized hate movements. Has the alt-right changed that math?
MARK POTOK: I'm not sure that the alt-right has changed the math but it describes something that is happening or was happening with or without the name, which is the kind of broadening and mainstreaming of some of these very ugly feelings.
On the other hand, it's got to be said that all the polling shows, for instance, that the youngest cohorts of people in this country have absolutely no problem with racial intermarriage or interracial relationships, and I think that we are headed ultimately to a better place. You know, when we finally come to that place where whites are no longer a majority, we will, in a sense, have finally realized the promise of becoming a multicultural country in which no one single group dominates. So I think we’re going through a rough patch, but I do think that at the other end we should have great hopes of creating a better, more just and more fair society.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK POTOK: Thank you. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Potok is senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.