The Invisible Empire: Alt-Right Afterlives of George Kennan
By Mathias Fuelling | 2.24.19
Kennan was no realist, but rather an idealist, pursuing a foreign policy based upon reactionary and romantic principles of warding off decline. His ideas are finding new popularity in an alt-right fighting to cement is path back into the mainstream.
n February of 2014 the diaries of George F. Kennan, the famous doyen of American Cold War strategy, were published. Scrupulously edited by Frank Costigliola, a prominent historian of American foreign relations, they elicited praise and commentary in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, the American Conservative, and the Spectator, among others. The respectable consensus was that the diaries established Kennan’s genius and showed him to be an iconoclastic and complicated man with the occasional old-fashioned idea that was no longer acceptable in polite society.
But there were also other, less respectable, outlets that reviewed Kennan’s diaries. American Renaissance, the Occidental Observer, and VDARE – major websites of the amorphous white nationalist and white supremacist movement dubbed the “alt-right” – carried reviews and blog posts on the Kennan diaries and came to far different conclusions concerning the nature of the man and his work.
American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor, a self-described “racial realist,” thinks that societies that try to mix races are unstable and unhappy due to irreconcilable racial differences. Carol W. Swain, a scholar of white nationalism, gave an apt description of the status of American Renaissance: “What the New Republic was to liberalism in the 1930s, National Review to conservatism in the 1950s, and Commentary to neoconservatism in the 1980s, American Renaissance has become to white nationalism in the 1990s and beyond. American Renaissance has also been the sponsor of a number of national conferences in which the intellectual elite of the white nationalist right has gathered to share ideas and fellowship.” The American Renaissance review hailed Kennan as a wise thinker for his position against immigration, his racism, and his suspicion and disapproval of the modern world. Kennan, “last great WASP,” in their view, is hailed as a realist for recognizing the importance of race in human history and foreign relations. Jared Taylor tweeted on June 18, 2014 that “The diaries of the great George Kennan show him to have been a staunch race realist.”
Occidental Observer founder Kevin B. Macdonald, meanwhile, is a retired former professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach and the author of a major trilogy of anti-semitic works on how Judaism is an evolutionary strategy by Jews to survive and dominate in non-Jewish societies. Macdonald essentially revamped classical Nazi ideas of Jewish social parasitism and social degeneracy under the guise of scientific analysis. The Occidental Observer’s review of Kennan’s diaries, titled “The Sensible Realism of a Bygone Generation: George Kennan’s Attitudes on Race, Eugenics, and Multiculturalism,” mirrored the review in American Renaissance. It extolled Kennan as a racial realist, speaking truth to power as regards immigration, race, assimilation, and the nature of society.
VDARE – named after Virginia Dare, the first white child born to English settlers in the Americas – is an extreme right-wing anti-immigration website, blog, and organization founded by Peter Brimelow, a British born writer, editor, and journalist. The most mainstream figure of the trio, Brimelow has worked for Forbes, National Review, Fortune, and the Toronto Star, and spoke at CPAC in 2012. A blog post on VDARE aggregating laudatory articles on Kennan from other far right websites hailed him as an “immigration seer.” Kennan’s racist and anti-modern views are seen in all of these reviews as indicators of Kennan’s fundamental credentials as a realist foreign policy thinker: in their eyes he acknowledged race as a legitimate category and factor in world affairs. They were not off the mark in their interpretation.
Kennan was a strong critic of a universal, or what he called the “legalistic-moralistic,” philosophy of foreign policy, and a famous advocate for a “realist” approach to foreign affairs. He thought universalism reduced the realist’s ability to respond to international issues on an individual basis and to perceive nuance and particularity, and lead instead to increased misunderstanding and to inevitably seeing the world only through the exaggerated lens of total war and total victory. Universalism, Kennan believed, was also an attempt of the American Anglo-Saxon West to impose globally its own concept and practice of individual law. Indeed, he later came to disavow the militarized implementation of his famous Cold War policy of “containment,” on the grounds that it had opened the door to military overreach and interventionism – dangerous symptoms of universalist foreign policy. Excepting the Korean War, Kennan was opposed to almost all postwar American military action, especially the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush.
Although considered “realist,” Kennan’s approach to foreign policy is inescapably rooted in his reactionary notion of the falsity of universal notions of human nature and politics and that race and culture were the true sources of human conduct. Foreign policy that erred on the side of isolation and circumspection was better, Kennan believed, for then the United States would not overstretch itself and would be able to longer preserve its own unique civilization. At best this was a separate but equal foreign policy in which each country must be left alone to go its own way as long as it did not threaten American power, and at worst was a discriminatory foreign policy according to which human beings differed so radically due to racial and cultural differences that applying universalist principles would inherently result in failure. Only by recognizing innate human and national difference could America survive and stave off degeneration. In a later diary entry he held that “one of the great American delusions” had been, and still was, the idea that American values and democracy could be spread across the world and that immigrants to America could easily assimilate these values.
Kennan also strongly defended the principle of elitism in the fullest statement of his personal philosophy, the 1993 book Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy. Kennan defined the elite as those recruited by society to be “best qualified to perform certain useful functions of society and the charging of them with attendant responsibility.” Kennan certainly saw himself as one of these recruited elites, and the proper stock who composed the people which a proper society would pick were people of Anglo-Saxon descent. Kennan had strong criticism of the masses and implicitly of democracy in general. He denigrated of what he called popular opinion and thought that it was easily manipulated and swayed. In 1938 while assigned to the Russian desk at the State Department, he privately advocated for an authoritarian government in the United States in which the elite of American society would administer the country freed from the constraints of lobbying and elected representatives.
It should hardly need saying why the far right finds Kennan’s views so attractive. Not unexpectedly, the reviews of Kennan’s diaries are not anomalies of far-right approval but merely the tip of a strange iceberg. A Youtube channel under the name of Alphonsus Jr. posted a video on March 28, 2016 of snapshots of the VDARE blog post on Kennan under the title “George F. Kennan: Immigration Seer,” with the subheading “White ethnomasochists: Wake up. Throw off your virtue-signaling and suicidal xenophilia. Listen to the great George Kennan.” The channel posts a variety of far-right themed videos, with such representative titles as “NO to African Immigrants,” “Lion Smells Muslims, Becomes Enraged,” and “SPLC Jewish Supremacists Lied about Anti-White Hate.”
Kennan was the subject of another approving Youtube video put out years earlier in 2009 by Jack Hunter, a far right radio shock jock, journalist, and former aide to Senator Rand Paul who writes and speaks approvingly of the Confederate States of America and who once called for a former president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, to be tied to a tree and whipped. In the video, titled “The Sanity of Secession,” Hunter argues (falsely) that Kennan approved of secession and radical states’ rights, using Kennan’s prominence to try and give the argument for secession a respectable sheen.
In the video Hunter references an upcoming conference on the subject of secession held at the Abbeville Institute – named after the birthplace of pre-Civil War slavery advocate John C. Calhoun – in early 2010. Kennan and his views were the major topic of discussion. The conference’s topic statement was as follows:
George Kennan, author of the Cold War policy to contain the Soviet Union and described by some as the conscience of America, and taught that a regime can become dysfunctional by simply becoming too large. Near the end of his long career in service to his country, where he stood for moderation and realism in international politics, he judged that the American regime had grown too large for the purposes of self government and that we should begin a public debate on how to divide it in the direction of a more human scale. Many Americans today feel in their bones the truth of Kennan’s insight. For the first time in 144 years the topics of State nullification and secession have again entered public discourse. Nullification and secession were understood by the Founders as remedies to unconstitutional acts of the central government. Yet over a century of nationalist indoctrination and policy has largely hidden this inheritance from public scrutiny. The aim of the conference is to recover an understanding of that part of the American tradition and to explore its intimations for today.
The Abbeville Institute is considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be an integral node of the “neo-Confederate: movement, a conglomeration of academics, writers, think tanks, and blogs that wish to rehabilitate the Confederacy. Many of the academics affiliated with the Abbeville Institute are also affiliated the League of the South, a much higher profile neo-Confederate group which aggressively advocates for a white Christian cultural dominance in America.
Secessionist usage of Kennan is not limited to the South. One Abbeville Institute conference attendee was Thomas Naylor, an economics professor who led the Vermont secessionist movement until his death in 2012. The movement seeks to establish an independent “Second Vermont Republic” in a larger effort to break up “meganations” like the United States and establish alliances with “small, democratic, nonviolent, affluent, socially responsible, cooperative, egalitarian, sustainable, ecofriendly nations such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland which share a high degree of environmental integrity and a strong sense of community.” In an article for the magazine Counterpunch, Naylor cited Kennan as a “major inspiration for the Second Vermont Republic” and claimed that in letters between Kennan and himself in the early 2000s, Kennan had expressed enthusiasm and support for the Vermont secessionist movement. In a blog post on the official Second Vermont Republic website, Naylor quoted copiously from the claimed letters between him and Kennan, in which Kennan supposed wrote that his “enthusiasm for what you are trying to do in Vermont is undiminished,” and “let me wish you [Naylor] well in your own struggle for understanding. Much or your thinking must at least, I feel, break through.” Naylor in this same blog post called Kennan a “closet secessionist” and the “godfather of the movement.”
Richard Spencer, the current poster boy of the alt-right, has also fostered connections to Kennan. Spencer founded the journal and website Radix in 2012 for the purpose of creating a major outlet for giving a voice to the alt-right and as a central hub for archiving earlier alt-right pieces. Kennan makes an appearance in two pieces from 2010 that are now found on the Radix website, both written by a man named Keith Preston.
Preston is a revolutionary anarchist who has over the course of his political life come to embrace an ideology he calls “pan-secessionism,” which advocates for the self-determination of all peoples and nations, essentially seeing a world in which all peoples and cultures are separated into discrete communities as the solution to all problems. This is ethno-nationalism by another name and explains the apparent alliance with the alt-right. The first of Preston’s pieces on Radix concerns secessionism and in it he calls Kennan “a serious man of the Right in every important aspect of his thought” and praises Kennan’s passages in his writings that called for a decentralization of the American state and that criticized American foreign policy ideology. The second piece is a reading list Preston drew up to help provide a canon of essential works for the “Alternative Right” (the acronym alt-right had not yet come into usage). Kennan’s book Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy is included in the list under the foreign policy/international relations section.
For good measure, Richard Spencer has also referenced Kennan in two tweets directed against the Republican political strategist and consultant Rick Wilson. In 2016 Wilson gained prominence as anti-Trump conservative and thus gained the ire of the alt-right. Wilson tweeted that he had discovered that his son was enjoying reading some of Kennan’s work. In response, Spencer tweeted to Wilson “did your son tell you that Kennan opposed every foreign-policy initiative from Cucks like you?”
Kennan has been the subject of various posting on far right wing blogs, news sites, and message boards. One such blog is called Occam’s Razor, subtitled Reactionary Musings. Occam’s Razor describes itself as “a blog dedicated to deconstructing the pretty lies of political correctness.” In a post on Kennan from early March 2014, the main writer of the blog uses terms derived from the Internet driven far right movement called the Dark Enlightenment, a self-described “neo-reactionary” movement that stands against liberalism and advocates for racial hierarchy and monarchism. Kennan is called a “race realist Cassandra” due to the views that Kennan expresses in his diaries. The post also provides links to the review of Kennan’s diaries on the Occidental Observer and the blog post on Kennan on VDARE. According to the post, “In recent years, those unhappy with neoconservatism/neoliberalism have turned to George Kennan’s writings.” It concludes, “As the America media hysterically go on about human rights and democracy in the Ukraine, it appears the country is already being divvied up by Jewish oligarchs. Wonder what Kennan would think?” Kennan is also favorably mentioned in several columns by Pat Buchanan and has been brought up in dozens of conversation threads on the white nationalist message board website Stormfront.
A Damned Prophet
In 1982 at the age of seventy-eight Kennan wrote, “But then if the viper [nuclear weapons] should fail to destroy us, we are doomed again by overpopulation and environmental destruction or degradation. It is not, to be sure, our over-population at this point. Our country is of course some 200% over-populated, but we have at least stabilized our own birth rate, and could perhaps face the future with confidence if we were the only ones concerned. It is the others—the Mediterraneans, the Moslems, the Lations, the various non-WASPs of the 3rd and the not-quite-3rd worlds—who are destroying civilization with their proliferation, our civilization as well as theirs…” Compare the continuity of this observation with an even earlier diary entry from 1924 when Kennan was 20 and on board a ship to Europe for the first time: “My God! We are with a bunch of deportees! Of all the scurvy, seedy, filthy, low-down, diseased, wrecked, ignorant, miserable human beings that God ever made a bad job on, these wretches hold down first place. There is a one-eyed man; there is a negro-woman; […] there are at least a hundred spaggettis [sic] who all look alike; […] there are fifty dirty & squalling kids who fall down the gangway & swear at each other in pidgeon-English […].”
In a letter to the historian and self-described reactionary John Lukacs in 1975 Kennan wrote about his fears that the West was facing “a grey, egalitarian uniformity” in which “jealousy of excellence” would lead people to “accept a colorless shabbiness and dreariness of life, comforted by the reflection that no one lives better or more attractively than themselves, rather than to live better, with the knowledge that someone else lives better still.” In his diary in 1983 he held that his entire 35 year career on influencing U.S. foreign policy had been “misconceived and hopeless, should better never have been undertaken in the first place.” In 2001, four years before his death, his final indictment of the future was stark. “I am like someone on a ship crossing a great ocean. I know that the course taken by those on the bridge is dreadfully incorrect, but having been neither consulted nor allowed to feel that my opinion, even if volunteered, would be welcome or respected, why should I worry beyond a point? I can only be inwardly prepared for what is coming, and mumble helplessly, as did the discarded and dying Bismarck, ‘Wehne meinen Enkeln.’ (God help my grandchildren.)” Kennan’s mind may not have been shipwrecked, but it was certainly lost upon the sea of modernity.
Kennan was born in 1904 in Milwaukee, heir to a long line of devout Presbyterian Scots-Irish farmers and entrepreneurs who had been living in American since the early eighteenth-century. Kennan’s family background and a form of racism played a significant role in his self-conception and his philosophy. In the beginning of his memoirs Kennan devoted a section to the discussion of his family, idealizing them as independent and upright pioneer farmers who implicitly represented the best of America. As he put it, “Whoever emerged from such a family in the twentieth century emerged from it devoid of either pride or shame of station, without social grievance, oppressed neither by feelings of superiority nor of inferiority, prepared to relate himself on terms of equality to any other human being, with a total disregard for race, color, or nationality.”
Eugene V. Rostow, an eminent legal scholar and brother of Walt Rostow, the National Security Advisor under President Johnson, wrote that Kennan “saw himself as part of the intellectual and moral Puritan aristocracy of [Nathaniel] Hawethorne’s imagination.” Near the end of his life Kennan also wrote a book charting the history of the first three generations of the Kennan family, concluding with praise for their stoic agricultural life and austere Christian morality. He held he could find in his family background no “deviousness, sordidness, or cynicism.” They were all whole persons without “a single weakling, a single physical invalid, a single crook, or a single villain.” In a word no degeneration or decline. This nostalgia for a pure Anglo-Saxon agrarian order would function as the golden age in Kennan’s thinking, from which all was trending towards dross.
In a letter to John Lukacs of 1984 he held that it was people like his family, the classical settler pioneer Anglo-Saxons, who had given America its original character. He continued on in the letter to describe the unease he felt at mass immigration to America of people of a “wholly different cultural and spiritual tradition—submerged to a point where I consider myself a displaced person in what was once my own country.” He claimed that his unease was a result of the radical differentness of immigrants and not any supposed inferiority. He concluded the letter by holding that he does not mean to idealize the Anglo-Saxons and indeed holds them accountable for “many seeds of the deterioration that is now overtaking American society.” Given many other of Kennan’s remarks regarding race this appears to be him at his most magnanimous. Racial concerns were something of a running theme throughout the letters of Kennan and Lukacs. In another letter of 1984, Lukacs asked Kennan, after discussing a perceived global weakness, “Where are the fresh, the tough, the virile barbarian Germanic tribes?” In a further diary entry of that year, Kennan laid out a series of points of what policies he would implement if he had his way. Among these was the termination of immigration, strengthened border control, and the sterilization of men with more than two children.
Later in his life Kennan argued for a potential decentralization of the American government, breaking it up into twelve regional zones or republics which would consist of “New England; the Middle Atlantic states; the Middle West; the Northwest […]; the Southwest […]; the Old South; Florida […] and Alaska; plus three great self-governing urban regions, those of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.” These regional republics, operating under “the rudiments of a federal government” would, Kennan argued, create closer community ties and help alleviate the problems of the leveling effects of the global economy. These regional republics would also help the nation return, albeit just one step closer, to Kennan’s yeoman ideal of the subsidiarity of the early American republic. This argument was widely taken up by later secessionist enthusiasts as proof of Kennan’s support for secessionist causes.
Kennan’s reactionary philosophy of the Anglo-Saxon roots of the “true” America and worries over racial decline or racial mixing which would fundamentally change the American character were expressed in his more public statements regarding foreign policy, albeit under a less extreme guise. A form of isolationist ethno-nationalism shines through in his 1951 book American Diplomacy. In discussing the appropriate policy towards what he calls the Orient, he held that “no people can be the judge of another’s domestic institutions and requirements” and that America had a limited capacity to assimilate people of a non-Caucasian origin. Therefore America should be constrained in its hopes for “intimacy of association” with other countries and should not make itself a slave to “concepts of international law and morality.” Kennan has criticism for the Spanish-American War early in the book and holds that “the potential scope of our system is limited […] it can only extend to people of our own kind.” While “the people of our own kind” are then defined as people who are used to a culture of self-reliance and democratic institutions, the racial overtones of the comment are strong.
Kennan in later life expressed very open skepticism about and hostility to immigration in his book Around the Cragged Hill, although hedging his criticism by calling American a nation of immigrants and an immigrant society. An ideology of universal values had blinded Americans to the differences between cultures and the unassimilable nature of certain peoples. He referenced “great-city ghettos” and the gradual takeover of Italian cities on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea by Slavs as examples of what could happen to America. Kennan firmly believed in the limits of America to absorb new immigrants and held that continued immigration policy would “make this country itself a part of the Third World (as certain parts of it already are), thus depriving the planet of one of the few great regions that might have continued, as it now does, to be helpful to much of the remainder of the world by its relatively high standard of civilization, by its quality as example, by its ability to shed insight on the problems of the others and to help them find their answers to their own problems.”
In 1977 it seems Kennan had given up all hope. In a particularly stark diary entry he wrote, “A lost people, we WASPs, living out our lives, like displaced people, in a cultural diaspora, unrelieved even by any consciousness of the existence, albeit far away, of a lost homeland. Our homeland, raped and destroyed by modernity, no longer has any meaning geographically; it has meaning only in time, and has sunk, with scarcely a trace, into history…” By 1985 he had changed his opinions a bit, calling for increased immigration of what he called “orientals—Chinese and Japanese, especially.” He called them “hard, tougher, more disciplined, more ruthless” than Americans of European descent and hoped that they would “take charge of the negroes and the Latinos, perhaps even of the Jews, in a way that we have not been able to do—and to the good of all of those elements.” Liberal democracy no longer worked in his eyes and “oriental” peoples would be able to make the system effective again.
One of Kennan’s greatest fears was the baleful effect of technology on American culture, society, and even racial vigor. Kennan held that cars were enemies of community and that investment in public transport was necessary in order to restore broader American solidarity. The automobile was a boon to “crime and to juvenile delinquency.” Cars were forces of pollution, atomism, and social destruction. These were long running ideas for Kennan. In his diary in 1974 he wrote that “the internal combustion engine is now king over man.” In a late letter from 1998 he held that cars, television, drugs, and computers had become “forms of entrapment” which suffocated creativity and language and created a slavish mentality. Television in particular bred a false sense of reality and promoted “personal immaturity.” He criticized what he called the hysteria in response to Princess Diana’s death as a result of television and mass media. Television for him was a source of “enervation and debilitation and abuse of the intellect.”
This fear of technology bled over into wider fears over the influence of materialism on Western civilization. Kennan had visions of civilizational collapse due to the “material precariousness of civilization.” He saw the modern world as purely dependent on “motor fuel and electricity,” resulting in the loss of the skills of agriculture and living off the land. Without technology people would be helpless. He thought it wise for society to preserve somehow these skills in the face of “infinite faith in the elaborate division of labor on which this advanced technology depends.” Norway in particular was a country of fascination as an exemplifier of the West for Kennan. His wife was from Norway and he visited the country dozens of times throughout his life. In 1976 he stated that the Norwegians up to 1920s had been a “marvelous people: strong, simple, earnest, and dignified,” but then the automobile came and caused decline. In 1999 Kennan expressed depression over what he called “the rank and pervasive materialism” in Norway and the lack of challenge that Norwegian society presented to its people. He criticized the effects of the money Norway had made from its oil industry and deplored the movement of rural Norwegians to the large cities and Oslo in particular.
Kennan’s fears of technology also had an environmental edge. In his eyes technology had allowed too many to be people to be born, causing massive overpopulation and ecological problems. In a 1976 interview he said that he saw “two versions of catastrophe” that could destroy civilization. The first was war with the Soviet Union and the second was the “ecological and demographic disaster which is going to overtake this planet within the next […] 60-70 years.” In the same interview he disparaged aggression against the Soviet Union in the name of saving Western civilization, questioning what that would accomplish when in “20 or 30 years hence we may run out of oil, and minerals, and food, and invite upon humanity a devastating conflict between the over-populated and undernourished two-thirds of the world and ourselves?” He held that the eighteenth-century was a “highly civilised” time in comparison to the present and railed against nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy. Kennan summed up his isolationist preferences and cultural fears in one particularly damning sentence: “Isn’t it grotesque to spend so much of our energy on opposing […] Russia in order to save a West which is honeycombed with bewilderment and a profound sense of internal decay?” As Eugene Rostow put it, true moral purity for Kennan could only be found in “small agricultural communities,” where men worked hard and were in rhythm with the earth and animals. Kennan himself in an interview stated that he was “convinced that a society which is predominately agrarian is, with all its faults, a sturdier and healthier society in the long run than one which is predominantly urban.”
Kennan had a range of intellectual influences. In his diary he wrote that he was deeply influenced by Edward Burke, Edward Gibbon, Alexis De Tocqueville, and Russian literature. Gibbon in particular loomed large for Kennan. He read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire during WWII while on trans-Atlantic flights. References to Gibbon are sprinkled throughout his diary, letters, and books of personal philosophy. An early influence was the German philosopher Oswald Spengler’s infamous work The Decline of the West, which Kennan read in the original German while in his early twenties and visiting Germany. Spengler, as Kennan would come to believe, held that the eighteenth-century was the high point of Western civilization. Kennan also agreed with Spengler’s argument that large cities were sources and causes of social decay and corruption. Kennan also held to Spengler’s philosophy of different and competing civilizations that were largely split along racial lines. The influence of Gibbon’s suspicion of mass democracy and theories of the influence the barbarian migrations played in the downfall of Rome can be seen in Kennan’s elitism and fears about immigration.
Kennan was a contradictory figure. He was a famous and influential foreign policy theorist yet he felt that his ideas were never fully understood and that his career had been a failure. He operated at the highest levels of American power and academia yet was deeply pessimistic about the future of America and saw it in decline and decay all around him. He was a deeply religious man who made frequent references to God and Christianity in his diary and letters, yet believed in eugenic practices. A major diplomat and representative of the world’s most prominent democracy, he held deep suspicions about the efficacy and even virtue of democracy. The scholar Stefan Rossbach has argued that Kennan should be seen as a self-ordained prophet, a man who predicted and warned of the decline of the West and who saw the Cold War through quasi-religious notions. Deeply influenced by Spengler and Gibbon, he held an apocalyptic vision of the end of civilization that was being hastened by America’s foolish conduct during the Cold War. Opposed to Soviet totalitarianism, he also saw totalitarian and degenerating threats within Western civilization itself. Kennan was no realist, but rather an idealist, pursuing a foreign policy based upon reactionary and romantic principles of warding off decline. He once wrote that “Whatever is realistic in concept, and founded in an endeavor to see both ourselves and others as we really are, cannot be illiberal.” The crux of the matter however is how one defines what is realistic and what one believes makes us as we really are. Kennan considered himself a realist and a liberal by his own definitions and beliefs, but his own self-assessment crumbles under scrutiny.
Towards a Definition and History of the Alt-Right
The conservative movement since the later half of the twentieth-century has always struggled with the contradiction of supporting both Christian social traditionalism and radical free market economics, the latter the greatest disruptor of traditional ways of life, communities, and religious practice. But mainstream conservatives squared the circle, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul, selling a vision of social tradition and family values while supporting an economic policy that destroyed the financial basis of social stability that is essential to these very traditions and values. De-industrialization, massive growth in wealth inequality, job instability, and an explosion of private debt have been the defining trends of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, all results in large part of de-regulated free market capitalism championed and fervently promoted by the conservative movement.
Meanwhile white nationalists, racists, paleoconservatives, and anti-semites, the forgotten cranks and crazies, were left exiled in the political wilderness for decades. They felt abused by the mainstream Republicans, who would trot out their racial concerns when they needed an advantage and then quickly drop them to the curb. Opposed to American interventionism, American global leadership, multiculturalism, identity politics, free trade, racial equality, and immigration, especially or even exclusively immigration by non-whites, they perceived the mainstream, especially with rise of neoconservatism, to have betrayed the right-wing and America by squandering America’s post-WWII position of global power.
But they suddenly found themselves back to the table again as the Republican party radicalized in the wake of Obama and Bush. Such far-right subjects as immigration threatening America’s white Christian identity and Obama’s racial radicalism was suddenly condoned, even encouraged in mainstream circles. This public prominence gave them a new wind just as a generation of young white men came of age filled with resentment towards a world they no longer felt they recognized. An unholy marriage occurred: the elderly, exiled far-right fed the nostalgic illusions of some of the young white men, whose seeming thirst for their ideas in turn fed the futuristic illusion of the exiled far-right that a came-back was possible after all, and that one day they would destroy the conservative movement that had betrayed them. Feeding on the hopes that each side offered the other, a new and amorphous political movement was born: the alternative right, commonly abbreviated as the alt-right. Websites, memes, and cult books form the medium of the alt-right, its young digital side, while its message is that of a much older, pre-WWII and pre-conservative movement far-right white populism, supplied by its older side. This process is emblematic in the relationship between the seventy-six year old staunch paleoconservative historian Paul Gottfried and the much younger Richard Spencer, who both coined the term alternative right, perhaps in collaboration, late in the first decade of the twenty first century.
The movement’ racism and concerns about economic inequality are its hallmarks, fusing the two elements that the mainstream conservative movement publicly rejected. A white Christian nation with a just economic order is the utopia the alt-right seeks. The means it uses are arguments for the viability and desirability of ethno-nationalism. They claim they are not racists but racial realists, believing that races should each live in their own homeland or nation in order to optimally develop and thrive. Reducing immigration and competition between races for jobs is the solution to wealth inequality in their eyes. Fears of race and inequality become fused, and economic competition a zero-sum game for survival between races.
That the movement should have come to claim George Kennan is not surprising. As believers in notions of cultural degeneracy, cultural essentialism, innate racial differences, with deep strains of assumptions of white supremacy and the inferiority of other races, Kennan’s shared fears, especially of technology, immigration, and American foreign intervention are music to their ears. Kennan’s writings reveal him to be a supporter of a vision of a largely rural, white, and more isolated America, with a concomitant rejuvenated culture and civil society. This is ethno-state nationalism centered on the so-called white race, or at least a step removed from it. The alt-right in Kennan see a kindred spirit.
Kennan still has potent political cachet in this country. Testing the public waters, the movement seeks to find justification for itself in the history of American politics and its statesmen. As they look to the past to find a way toward their racial utopian future and as the Republican Party continues its process of fracturing, the alt-right will likely gain in adherents and publicity. After all, it did not arise sui generis, but by drawing upon a foundational underbelly of white supremacy with deep roots in the American past. With the rise of Trump the floodgates have been opened. Given Trump’s own hypocrisy and irrationality, the alt-right could easily be and may already have been disappointed by him. In that case, their sense of crisis and hope will only grow. The genie is out of the bottle.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mathias Fuelling is a PhD student in History at Temple University.