We need a class narrative to defeat the alt-right

The key to a strong, coherent movement against the alt-right is mobilising those who were disillusioned with the choice on offer in last November’s election


“Any hopes for reversing the advance of the alt-right lie to the left”

It is, at the time of writing, the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States. Hundreds of protests have been planned in towns and cities across North America. The fact that there is such widespread mobilisation in defiance of a President who won the election, albeit by the rules of the game — peculiar and undemocratic as they may be — points towards an increasing polarisation of society in the United States. This will be familiar to us in Europe, we’ve seen breakthroughs for both the radical left and the far-right in recent years;  the political centre has collapsed and the parties of social democracy appear to be in terminal decline.

It is yet to be seen, however, to what extent this translates into a polarisation of politics across the Atlantic. The Bernie Sanders campaign seemed to indicate the possibility of some kind of a break with the traditional false choice between the Blue and Red wings of Wall Street. Yet since Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton and his acceptance of a leadership position within the Democratic Party, the chances of a new political formation or organised tendency look slim.

New right-wing politics

“What is clear is that the champions of white supremacy have drawn encouragement from the events of the last year”

But what about the right? One of the main stories of Trump’s victory was the apparent ascendancy of the ‘alt-right’. This is the self-adopted label of the new American far-right, who despise the liberal establishment but feel equally disillusioned from the mainstream Republican party. Even the term itself has become mired in controversy — there are many who reject the label outright, arguing that it merely gives a mask of legitimacy to what is little more than white supremacist politics, or even neo-Nazism.

On the face of it, the alt-right is not necessarily any more organised or coherent than the crowds who turned out for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. The difference is seemingly that while the left has been placed on the backfoot, the far-right has been imbued with a new vigour and confidence in the wake of Trump’s victory.

Racist attacks and hate crimes rose immediately following Trump’s victory. Richard Spencer, the prominent white nationalist credited as founder and leader of the alt-right movement, has hailed the Presidential election as a moment of inspiration. Speaking to Canada’s CBC news in recent days, he claimed that “Trump’s movement…was fundamentally about identity for white people”. This captures the essence of what the alt-right is about. Much of what Spencer says is grandstanding and he is undoubtedly exaggerating the extent to which his movement fuelled Trump’s victory. Missing in his analysis is Clinton’s failure to mobilise the same coalition of working class voters and racial minorities that brought Obama to power. Trump, after all, lost the popular vote. There is, nonetheless, a hardened far-right core — for whom Trump personifies the aggrieved American white man — who felt threatened by an Obama Presidency and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Fascism always plays upon a nation’s demons — in the case of the alt-right, this is evident in Spencer’s language of race war and white identity. CBC quote him as saying “We conquered this continent. Whether it’s nice to say that or not, we won. We got to define what America means. We got to define what this continent means. America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men.” The media organs of the alt-right, such as Breitbart, are known to have peddled false stories demonising refugees and immigrants, constructing a narrative about white European identity under threat. Numerous figures in the alt-right movement have links to the Ku Klux Klan. Trump himself may not be a fascist, but there is a racist core attempting to build such a movement.

How to respond

“The Bernie Sanders campaign seemed to indicate the possibility of some kind of a break with the traditional false choice between the Blue and Red wings of Wall Street”

The alt-right may hit a plateau, and find it lacks the leadership, organisation and unity required to make a major political breakthrough. But what is clear is that the champions of white supremacy  have drawn encouragement from the events of the last year. The key to fighting fascism is to recognise it at its genesis and starve them of the space to organise or spread their poisonous ideas. In practice, however, this requires principled left-wing politics that can find an audience in the labour movement and all sections of the oppressed.

If 2016 was the year that saw the rise of the alt-right and the genesis of a new fascist movement, then 2017 must be the year of the fightback. It was the failure of the liberal Democratic establishment to offer any cogent alternative to the horror story of modern American capitalism that produced Clinton’s electoral demise. Any hopes for reversing the advance of the alt-right instead lie to the left. Sanders’ strategy of working inside the Democratic Party entirely misses the mark. It was precisely his outsider status that made him a credible alternative to a failed two-party system for so many. Hundreds of thousands on the streets across the continent in protest against Trump’s inauguration, high school student walk-outs, Black Lives Matter — these are the forces which can provide the basis for a movement that can beat back the far-right.

There must, however, be a political coherence to such a movement. It must be built on a rejection of the liberal centre, the most convenient vehicle of power for Wall Street. It must combat the far-right with solidarity for those whom they hate. In practice this means a labour movement which is explicitly anti-racist and pro-LGBTQ+ freedom. Key to this must surely be the mobilisation of working people. We should have no time for unsubstantiated tropes about Trump’s victory being the work of a racist, uneducated working class. Perhaps the most important factor in November’s result was the disillusionment of working class voters with both major candidates. But unless the left offers an alternative, it leaves a vacuum the far-right will be only too happy to try and fill.

Rory O'Neill

Rory O'Neill is a former Managing Editor of Trinity News, and a History graduate.