I’ve avoided saying much about neo-reactionaries or the alt-right since I wrote a long piece about both last year, but with the election of Donald Trump being credited by some as a triumph of the alt-right I thought I would use a very thoughtful piece by a chastened liberal to revisit some alt-right ideas and see whether or not they merit new consideration.
Professor Daniel Gordon teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and while I haven’t studied his academic work, judging from this essay I’m going to analyze below and his current position in heart of liberal academia, I get the sense that he comes from an older tradition of more humane scholarship – he’s the kind of liberal who actually wants to understand his conservative opponents and/or doesn’t like the radical (and often ignorant) Left that has taken over campus activism and in many cases, academic scholarship.
Gordon begins his essay in an online journal called “The Critique” by trying to define exactly what he means by the alt-right:
The term “alt-right” appears to have been coined by the white nationalist Richard Spencer. However, the term has expanded to include a wider range of thinking that is conservative without being racist. I should emphasize that the ideas that I focus on in this essay are ideas that I consider to be separate from Spencer’s brand of extremism. During the presidential race, Steve Bannon, the CEO of the Trump campaign, described Breitbart News as a platform for the alt-right. At that moment, Hilary Clinton accused Trump and Bannon of being racists.[iv] However, I believe it is more sensible to say that the term “alt-right” underwent an inflection when Bannon appropriated it. Having studied speeches by Bannon, having read Breitbart extensively, having studied the Tea Party which Bannon avidly supports, having read the history books that Bannon endorses and the films he has produced with Citizens United, I do not discern the hate-filled ideology associated with Spencer. I discern a cluster of conservative principles that need to be understood if we wish to comprehend the terms of political debate that are going to endure in America for many years to come.
O.K., so right away, he sees an important distinction that I did not make back in 2016 in my piece when I argued that the
alt-right is a different creature – newer on the scene and really growing in popularity in conjunction with Trump’s candidacy, the alt-right is made up of writers as well as hundreds of Twitter users, commenters on blogs, people who make You-Tube videos, etc. who are alienated from today’s conservative movement and are looking for a radical alternative – what shape that alternative ultimately takes is less clear. They are generally open to using the electoral system (which is why they are interested in Trump’s candidacy as well as right-wing movements in Europe) and they like to take action against their progressive (or insufficiently conservative) foes...Many, if not most, of the alt-right is nasty – they are anti-Semitic, they are hostile to Christianity, and relish vulgar combat with the left or anyone who they consider their enemy.
Furthermore, focusing on just the election of Trump, Gordon makes the following interesting points:
As a Jew, I am well aware that anti-semites exist in our nation, and that some of them voted for Trump. But surely some anti-semites, such as those among the black community, voted for Clinton. I discern no anti-semitism in Trump himself, and I am not willing to consider him anti-semitic simply because some anti-semites voted for him. Anti-semitism is not limited to those who vote for Republicans. The critical question is this: Is it proper for one to reduce a candidate and his or her platform to the lowest denominator to be found among his or her supporters? Finally, a major methodological issue that often escapes attention pertains to the fact that some blacks (8% overall, 13% of black men) voted for a candidate reputed to be racist, that many Jews (25%) voted for someone portrayed as anti-semitic, and that a majority of white women (53%, and 45% of all women with college degrees) voted for an alleged misogynist.[vii] Of course, one could choose to extend the logic of unmasking by arguing that the white women who voted for Trump are “white nationalists” who are ignorant of the gender dynamics in the Trump camp. By the same logic, black men who voted for Trump are presumably misogynistic and blind to how the alt-right seeks to victimize them.
But a better argument is that how people envision politics, and how they choose to vote, does not map onto the grid of social interests and biases articulated by leftist academics and journalists. Critics of the alt-right often seem to presuppose that people must vote based on their real social identities. Our interests are based on who we are. And who are we? We are white or black, rich or poor, male or female, Christian or Jewish. In short, privileged or unprivileged. Everyone who is rational and humane ought to vote for the party that espouses more equality and less privilege, in order to create the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
But this conceptualization falsely polarizes all identities into the category of the dominating and the dominated. Even more, it ignores the fundamental nature of politics. Politics is not merely the sphere in which pre-existing social interests and hierarchies register their existence. Politics is the arena in which new questions are raised, new words introduced, new issues constituted, new passions generated, new identities and movements forged.[viii]
I think this does a nice job of summarizing some of the problems with the way liberals often criticize conservative ideas. So let’s stick with Professor Gordon for now, ignore the anti-Semites and anti-Christian bloggers, and instead focus on these “new questions” and what Gordon calls the “cluster of conservative principles” that he wants his readers to understand and he thinks the alt-right have coalesced around. To begin, Gordon says that
…the alt-right draws intellectual vigor from its emphasis on the need for limits and borders. Given the commitment on the part of some Leftist intellectuals and politicians to a borderless world–not only in matters of immigration and trade but in matters of sexuality and morality—the alt-right’s concern about the consequences of a borderless society registers a real need to have a national debate about how far we can go: how far can we push the frontiers of transgressive thinking and action without destroying our own freedom? With its emphasis on borders, the alt-right has managed to articulate some of the most important philosophical issues of our time. [Emphasis mine.]
Here I admit to a sense of deva vu – is this really “alt” in any sense from the traditional conservative movement? Sure, Republicans have been much more open to unlimited immigration and/or various elements of say the sexual revolution, but conservatives – and especially Christian conservatives with a healthy sense of man’s fallen nature – have always led the charge for limits on our actions and on preserving our culture and traditions against Islam first and foremost but against other forms of immigration due to concerns of assimilation. I guess the alt-right has given the issue of immigration (and tangentially related to open borders is the question of free trade) higher visibility, but don’t tell me that there weren’t conservatives sounding the alarm about immigration before the alt-right.
Professor Gordon moves on to focus on another “conservative principle” of the alt-right:
The alt-right rejects unregulated capitalism as its bedfellow. In previous elections, Republican candidates offered a heterogeneous mixture of libertarian and conservative ideas. The predominant element in Republican rhetoric was not conservatism but the commitment to the free market. In domestic matters, the central dichotomy was the productive market versus the wasteful welfare state, or in Cold War terms, the openness of the market versus the closed system of communism. The market, of course, is not a framework for preserving traditions; it is a force for disruption and change, benignly described as “progress.” The language of the Republicans owed more to Milton Friedman than to Edmund Burke. Economic conceptions like “supply side” and “trickle down” overshadowed references to civic virtue and generational continuity. Admittedly, on certain domestic issues, such as abortion, religious conservatism was in play. Yet, on the whole, Republican thought was capitalist at the core and conservative around the edges. It was the party of business owners and critics of the state, not the party of workers and saints. That has changed.
Here I think the good professor is on to something – we just disagree about whether or not it makes sense to describe capitalism as “conservative” or not. In one sense, of course, Gordon is right (and we’ve had these debates here at W4 many times) that capitalism does promote change and disruption; the question becomes whether or not this change should be described as happening for the common good or in more traditional conservative language. For example, I can easily think of capitalism as promoting civic virtue – hard work, saving for the future, providing goods and services people need (rather than what some bureaucrat dictates), etc. I don’t want to rehash the entire two cheers/three cheers for capitalism debate here, suffice it to say, that if the alt-right is suspicious of the market and wants to move us to a more centrally planned economy than I can certainly see why they would be described as clashing with traditional conservative thought on the matter – I just don’t think it is right to downplay all the social and religious conservatives who would vigorously defend the capitalist system.
Gordon then highlights what I think is an important flaw in what he attributes as Steve Bannon’s thinking about these matters:
Anyone listening to Bannon’s speeches[xi] or watching films like Generation Zero will quickly realize that the pursuit of profit unbound from national welfare is what the alt-right stands against. Bannon invokes with reverence Burke’s compact between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. Our duty, he says, is not primarily to enrich ourselves; it is to bequeath something to the next generation. With an astronomical debt and trade deficit, we risk being the first generation that bequeaths nothing to the future. Thus Bannon castigates “crony capitalism” and promotes the ethic of social responsibility over unrestrained egotism.
Assuming that Gordon has fairly summarized Bannon’s ideas here, notice the problem with Bannon's thinking: he moves from a critique of capitalism and the market economy (i.e. “the pursuit of profit unbound from national welfare”) to a completely different and, I would argue, unrelated idea worrying about our “astronomical debt and trade deficit.” Excuse me for jumping in here with a bit of logic, but a robust, lightly regulated market economy has nothing to do with “astronomical debt” – debt is a function of spending beyond your means, whether it is the government that is doing it (which has been the case for years and years since probably the Great Society) or individual households (in which case they are just not managing their money wisely – a problem of too little thrift.) Neither situation indicts capitalism or has really anything to do with “crony capitalism” which Bannon mentions later – this is all an argument against the welfare state and/or out of control spending – again, arguments that traditional conservatives have been making for years and if anything Trump and the alt-right don’t seem all that interested in such government spending restraint. To be sure, Trump has initially proposed some great ideas to reduce the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy, but he has also defended Social Security which is one of the main drivers of the out of control federal budget and he is talking about massive federal spending on infrastructure projects which could wind up costing as much as all of the savings he gains from his other reforms.
Gordon ends up finishing his piece with a focus on the Left – arguing that in part the alt-right is a reaction to the craziness of a Left that refuses to accept any limits:
Denying the benefits of borders is part of the Gramscian long march of radical ideas into the institutions that frame public policy. (I will illustrate below with case study from the Department of Education.) The existentialist affirmation of the nothingness underlying all commitments, of the arbitrariness of all choices, including even those that are guided by our previous choices, is now part of our political culture. This is not the skepticism of Montaigne, Hume, and Burke, which lends itself to disciplined and gradual modes of extending our outer and inward conversations through, for example, the intensive study of Great Books and the prolonged exploration of foreign languages and cultures. It is a childish wish to defer all binding self-definitions and to experience liberation from constraint at every moment of one’s existence. It is a rejection of pronouns and of every social grammar. The Brexit vote in turn rejected this nihilism. It affirmed the conservative principle that there is nothing wrong with being attached to something in particular. Likewise, the alt-right is a victorious reaction against what is too often – and mistakenly – called the “identity politics” of the Left. For what is in question today is just the opposite: the explosion on the Left of anti-identity politics.
I would suggest reading the rest of the piece for the details of the craziness at the Department of Education and their infamous “Dear Colleague” letters that Catherine Lhamon of the Department of Civil Rights was known for (i.e. transgender bathrooms seemed to be their major concern.)
Overall, for someone who probably considers himself a liberal, it is a well-written article and Gordon comes across as sympathetic to the conservative themes he discusses (especially his extended discussion of immigration.) But unless the reader is already familiar with conservative ideas and thought, he could be lured into thinking that Gordon has indeed uncovered something new and original to say about the alt-right – instead I fear that in the end there is not much “alt” about the entire piece. There are a couple of mentions of Trump’s attack on free trade (which I agree is a new and different direction for conservative orthodoxy) but no real effort to explain this position or tie it to the broader alt-right movement. We are left with the idea that the alt-right stands for “limits and borders” but these seem to me to be perennial Christian conservative themes tackled by thinkers in America for the past 50+ years. Gordon's problem is that while he engages in honest reflection in ideas of the moment, he has no historical knowledge (it seems) of the broader conservative movement and therefore fails to see all the parallels between the alt-right ideas he highlights and the older, richer body of conservative thought that has come before. “That which has been is that which will be / And that which has been done is that which will be done./ So there is nothing new under the sun.”