The New Tribalism of the Electric Age

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Making Sense of the Alt-Right.  George Hawley.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

In a 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, the Canadian philosopher of media Marshall McLuhan offered some piercing observations on the “television-conditioned young” who search for an identity in a fractious world.  “From Tokyo to Paris to Columbia, youth mindlessly acts out its identity quest in the theater of the streets, searching not for goals but for roles, striving for an identity that eludes them.”[1]  Why was this phenomenon occurring in the age of television?  According to McLuhan, TV replaced the private individual of the print age with a “tribal” human being who craves publicity as a member of a group.  The boob tube also mercilessly shines a spotlight on all the differences that separate human beings around the world while reminding us that we all uneasily coexist on the same planet.  The age of electric media as a whole encourages extensive sensory involvement in what McLuhan famously called the “global village,” not the visual detachment of the bourgeois individual reading a book or a newspaper.  Yet this quest for identity is a destabilizing process, especially for modern nations that were founded on bourgeois individualism.  McLuhan darkly warned that the “U.S., which was the first nation in history to begin its national existence as a centralized and literate political entity, will now play the historical film backward,” breaking up into a diversity of tribal or “ethnic states.”[2]

I recalled McLuhan’s thoughts on the rebirth of tribalism in the electric age while reading George Hawley’s excellent study Making Sense of the Alt-Right.  Although Hawley, who teaches political science at the University of Alabama, never mentions McLuhan, he is just as determined to help us understand how a radical movement with its own tribalist desires has used technology (especially the Internet) to make the leap from the margins to the centre of political commentary in our time.  “The Alt-Right,” according to Hawley, “is almost exclusively an online phenomenon.  It has no brick-and-mortar think tanks distributing policy papers to congressional staffers.  It does not run any print newspapers, have a meaningful presence on television, or broadcast its message on the radio.  No major politician or mainstream pundit is a self-described Alt-Right supporter.  It is predominantly anonymous.  For all of these reasons, it is remarkable that it became such a visible presence in American politics in 2016.”  (18)

Yet the Alt-Right has become quite visible in the last two years, ever since Hillary Clinton in the summer preceding the 2016 election fatefully associated this movement with Donald Trump’s campaign (especially his advisor Stephen Bannon) for the presidency.  “Alt-Right” has also become a household word since the violent clashes between leftists and rightists that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017.  During a demonstration against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a young man connected with the Alt-Right mowed down a protestor with his car while injuring several others.  How did this mainly anonymous movement end up enjoying mass publicity?  And, what is their identity quest that threatens to transform American politics in unprecedented ways?  With admirable clarity and insight, Hawley provides a very readable and informative account of what makes the Alt-Right tick.

The most basic fact of the Alt-Right is that it is a “white nationalist movement.” (11)  Yet there is some disagreement within the movement over what all this means in practical policy terms.  Hawley distinguishes between the most radical voices (including Richard Spencer, who coined the term “Alternative Right”) that demand “one or more white ethnostates in North America,” and “less radical voices” that seek the “more modest” goals of ending mass immigration and political correctness while securing the “acceptance of white identity politics as a normal element of mainstream politics.” (15-16)  While only the most radical voices, then, may welcome the fulfillment of McLuhan’s prediction that America will violently dissolve in a stew of tribal Balkanization, the movement as a whole ultimately agrees that white Americans, especially the middle and working classes, are under siege on all sides, threatened by Third World immigration, a hostile political establishment, and declining economic prospects.

These sentiments are nothing new in the history of America.  There have always been white nationalist movements (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan) at least since the late nineteenth century that have raged against immigrants, Jews, and racial minorities.  These older movements also agree with the Alt-Right that America is a nation founded by white Europeans for white Europeans.  Yet this traditional version of white nationalism is radically different from the Alt-Right in several distinct ways.  For one thing, the early “white nationalists pined for the America they remember and thus seemed to have a residual patriotism.  This new crop of white nationalists, having grown up in a much more diverse United States, has never known an America that approximates the white-nationalist vision and thus seem willing to reject America—openly desiring the collapse of the country or creation of a new white-nationalist regime that has nothing in common with the constitutional government the nation has known since its inception.” (80-81)

If this difference between the old far Right and the Alt-Right is not radical enough, there are others that Hawley ably documents.  The Alt-Right consists of mostly educated media-savvy young people who are far less likely to be religious than their predecessors.  They are experts in the tactics of trolling and “doxing” their enemies while creating memes that spread their identity politics in electronic space.  Hawley quotes Richard Spencer on what a typical Alt-Righter is: “If I were to sum up your average Alt-Righter, if we were to make a composite image of the Alt-Right, I would probably say someone who is thirty years old, who is a tech professional, who is an atheist, and who lives on one of the coasts.”  (78)  Although there are some self-identifying Christians in the Alt-Right, the atheistic flavor of the movement makes it unique in comparison to other movements on the American Right, including the paleo-conservatives whose champion Pat Buchanan has raised similar concerns about immigration and the survival of the white working class yet still embraces a traditional (typically Catholic) version of Christianity.  Even if there is disagreement within the movement over the extent to which Christianity (as opposed to a leftist or heretical distortion of the faith) is culpable for the decline of western civilization, Alt-Righters are more likely to accept Nietzsche’s famous association of this “slave morality” with the most suicidal features of modern liberalism: “a sense of guilt, a belief in atonement, and the idea that weakness is a measure of moral superiority.” (100)  Some of the Alt-Right’s heroes, including the paleoconservative columnist Samuel T. Francis, have blamed even the Religious Right for failing to mount an effective counter-offensive against the leftist managerial state.  Although Hawley believes that “the Alt-Right also seems to be becoming less overtly hostile to Christianity as such” (104), I suspect that most Alt-Righters will remain disaffected from the churches as long as these entities appear to act as echo chambers for liberal democracy.  They may even share Nietzsche’s prediction that the modern church will abolish itself if it continues to preach the democratic “ethics of the common man.”  (Genealogy of Morals, I, 9)

Despite the Alt-Right’s predictable hostility to the liberal Left’s support of unlimited immigration, open borders, and group rights for racial minorities, its main enemy is the conservative establishment that controls the Republican Party.  In his previous study Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (2016), Hawley did an excellent job of demonstrating how the GOP faces serious threats to its future survival that arise from the changing demographics of America.  The fact that a decreasing number of Americans are getting married, having children, and joining a church spells big trouble for the conservative movement which, since World War 2, has benefitted handsomely from this demographic base.  As if this shift is not challenging enough, the increasing number of Third World immigrants entering the country is a political boon to the Democrats, not the Republicans.  Yet Beltway conservatives, including William F. Buckley and many others in the establishment, have made matters worse for themselves by purging their movement of any right-wing elements that question a foreign policy of aggressive democracy promotion as well as its ideological analogue that presents America as a “propositional nation” whose mission is to disseminate the universal ideals of liberty and equality.  The Alt-Right’s preferred term for this type of conservative is “cuckservative” (a combination of cuckold and conservative), someone who pretends to be on the Right even as he pathetically goes along with the Left on matters of race, immigration, and the mass democratic state.  According to Hawley, establishment conservatives face a “conundrum” of their own making.  If they continue to distance themselves from the Alt-Right (which they have done even before the violence in Charlottesville), they risk cementing their image as politically correct “cucks.”  If they do not denounce the Alt-Right vigorously enough, they incur the wrath of the Left who can charge mainstream conservatives with aiding and abetting racist agitators.

The Alt-Right’s utter disdain for establishment conservatism raises an important philosophical question.  What exactly does the Alt-Right want to conserve, besides a majority-white America?  Although it is unsurprising that the Alt-Right is as hostile as the Left to free market capitalism, which many Alt-Righters blame for destroying the prospects of the white working class, they sound leftist or libertarian on other issues as well.  Perhaps reflecting their young millennial base, several Alt-Righters tend to be tolerant of gay marriage and abortion (except the mass aborting of white fetuses).  The paleoconservative historian Paul Gottfried, whom Hawley interviewed for his study, has taken aim at the Alt-Right for its anti-traditionalist politics.  Gottfried, who has been inaccurately linked to the Alt-Right, is quoted as saying: “although the Altright claim to be ‘radical traditionalists,’ I’m unaware of any social tradition they want to maintain.” (52-53)

Even before the violent events in Charlottesville the future of the Alt-Right seemed uncertain, not least because of its un-traditional political messages.  Is this movement just a flash in the pan, a mere epiphenomenon of a media-soaked age that pits one tribe against the other?  Or does the breakdown of mainstream conservatism and Christianity in America (as Hawley has documented in other books) open a void that new political religions on the far Left and Right seek to fill?  In his admirably cautious way, Hawley astutely offers some speculations rather than predictions.  In his view, the preferred anonymity of many Alt-Righters hampers the growth and appeal of the movement while deepening suspicions about who exactly is behind it.  The divisions within the Alt-Right over the feasibility of creating a white ethno-state may also provide comfort to mainstream liberals and conservatives who have fretted about its strength.  Despite the attempts of Hillary Clinton and other limousine liberals to associate Trump’s populist insurgency with the Alt-Right, it is far from evident that The Donald needs its support, nor is it obvious that Trump’s restrictions on immigration and provision of tariffs for America’s manufacturers will be enough to keep the support of the Alt-Right.  Perhaps worst of all, as Gottfried often points out, the most implacable enemies of the Alt-Right are people who share their ancestry, namely white liberals and leftists.  Unless by some miracle the Alt-Right can convert this huge bloc of adversaries to their cause, the movement’s future is very uncertain indeed.

Why worry, then, about the Alt-Right?  Hawley astutely warns the Left that the Alt-Right “may be more threatening to fundamental liberal values than the religious right ever was.” (100)  The validity of this speculation all depends on measuring the future growth of the Alt-Right, which Hawley cautiously avoids.  Still, the increasing radicalism from the other side of the political spectrum is bound to fuel the Alt-Right.  If I have one modest criticism of Hawley’s wonderful study, it is the lack of discussion of how the Left continues to be the best ally that the Alt-Right has.  (Even the esteemed leftist critic Noam Chomsky has called Antifa’s violence a “major gift to the Right, including the militant Right, who are exuberant.”)  In recent years, radical leftists in politics, the media, and academe have stepped up their denunciation of “white privilege” at a time when working class whites (among others) are losing their jobs to factories in China and Mexico.  Ironically but not surprisingly, these well-groomed opponents of white privilege have lacked the moral courage or honesty to abandon their own privileged status in the process.  Meanwhile, white youth who are facing dismal economic prospects of their own find answers on the Internet that fuel their growing resentment, as Hawley points out. (79)  As long as the Left continues to play this tribalist game, the Alt-Right, I predict, will benefit from the anger and outrage that is the likely result of this strategy.  At the end of his book, Hawley speculates: “In a postconservative America, zero-sum identity politics may become the norm, and the Alt-Right will be on the periphery, pushing racial polarization at every available opportunity.” (175)  With a final nod to McLuhan, the replacement of once stable nation-states with tribal enclaves is a possibility that the establishment Left and Right dare not dismiss or encourage.

 

Notes

[1] “Playboy Interview: ‘Marshall McLuhan—A Candid Conversation with the High Priest of Popcult and Metaphysician of Media,’” in Essential McLuhan, edited by Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1995), 249.

[2] “Playboy Interview,” 257-258.

Grant N. Havers

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Grant Havers is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University in Canada. He is the author of Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (University of Missouri Press, 2009) and Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013).