What is the alt-right?
This question has gripped the public since the rise of Donald Trump. Although the inchoate movement has been floating around on blogs for a while, it is its seemingly symbiotic relationship with Trump that has propelled it to national prominence, rising to the great honor of being denounced in a speech by Hillary Clinton.
The alt-right is a confusing mix of the very high-brow and the very low-brow. It began as "Neoreaction," and it grew up under the pen of a handful of erudite and very long-winded bloggers. But now it includes an assortment of online trolls, racists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, who engage in online harassment, and whose appeal is based more on trolling than intellectual substance.
But it's important to get the alt-right right, since it's going to be around, in some form or another, for a long time. Yes, many on the alt-right are undoubtedly motivated by racial prejudice. But it's not enough to boil it down to racism and dismiss it.
To truly understand what the alt-right is about, you have to understand what it is offering an alternative to. You might think the defining idea of modernity, as a cultural and historical phenomenon, is freedom or human rights. And you wouldn't be alone. Most Americans would probably say the American experiment stands for "liberty." But really, it stands for equality. When the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville visited America, it was this equality that struck him as the defining quality of America's character.
This idea of equality has an extremely powerful grip on our imagination and political system. When supporters of same-sex marriage branded the idea as "marriage equality," the fight was over. Nothing horrifies Americans more than discrimination.
What exactly do we mean when we say equality, though? Humans are not "equal" in the sense of "the same." As a sprinter, I am not "equal" to Usain Bolt. It would be silly for me to demand that I be awarded the same number of Olympic medals as Bolt because of "equality." The modern idea of equality is one of equal dignity: We all have the same worth and thus, theoretically, equal rights.
Modern conservatives, especially American conservatives, believe in this equality of dignity. But they disagree with progressives about what, exactly, it entails. Does it mean that all should have equal economic opportunity, or that we should also strive to equalize outcomes? First-wave feminists believed "equality" for women meant the same legal rights, such as voting, owning property, or working; later feminists believe "equality" encompasses a much broader set of interventions. And so on.
If modernity is defined by its adherence to the idea of equal dignity of all people, the alt-right, then, is defined by its rejection of that creed.
The alt-right points out that some people are smarter than others, that some people are more virtuous than others, that some people are downright nasty. All of that is true, but the alt-right uses those observations to reject the modern idea of equality, and everything it entails. Democracy is intrinsically bad, the alt-right would say, because it means the people in the fat belly of the bell curve get the most say. Feminism is a cancer, as alt-righter and Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos once told a group of students in a speech, because women are inferior to men.
I believe down to my bones in the equal dignity of every single child of God. But I also believe, like Tocqueville, that if this "equality" is misunderstood, we go down the path towards a self-destructive utopia.
In a world where we are constantly informed of the need to "win the future" and get on "the right side of history" (or else), modernity does indeed need a strong critique. The more we are all marched towards capital-P Progress, the more the sirens of radical critiques like those of the alt-right will appeal to many, and the less space there will be for moderates. To prevent a world where all that's left is the alt-right and extreme progressives, it's imperative that we understand those critiques of modernity.