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Two Experts Weigh in on the 'Division of Labor' in the Alt-Right Movement

Pacific Standard spoke with experts on right-wing studies about just how different the alt-right and the new right actually are, and how they both misunderstand free speech.
Milo Yiannopoulos, pictured here in April of 2017.

Milo Yiannopoulos, pictured here in April of 2017.

In late September, the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos will attempt once again to speak at the University of California–Berkeley during "Free Speech Week," an event hosted by a conservative campus newspaper the Berkeley Patriot. When Yiannopoulos was scheduled to address students in Berkeley in February, university police canceled his speech amid violent protests.

Despite pressure from Berkeley's mayor to cancel the event, the university—which was a central location for the birth of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s—is committed to allowing it to take place, provided the student group fulfills all the requirements of the campus events policy. "We have neither the legal right or desire to interfere with or cancel their invitations based on the perspectives and beliefs of the speakers," university spokesman Dan Mogulof told the Washington Post.

The Berkeley Patriot also invited former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and conservative political commentator Ann Coulter to speak at the campus. (Coulter was scheduled to deliver a speech at Berkeley back in April, but the event was also ultimately canceled due to threats of violence.)

"We want to bring together liberals, conservatives, and whatever libertarians aren't too busy mining bitcoin, to celebrate free speech," Yiannopoulos wrote on his website. "In the not too distant past, that is what every day at American universities was about. Now free speech is shunned, and in some cases violently shut down."

The alt-right community has long accused both university campuses and technology giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook of censoring conservative views. Last month, for example, right-wing activists planned a "March on Google" to protest the treatment of James Damore, the Google employee who was fired for writing an internal, anti-diversity memo. (The event was ultimately postponed, with organizers citing threats from "alt-left terrorists.")

Jack Posobiec, the far-right activist and March on Google organizer, has resisted the "alt-right" label embraced by Yiannopoulos, and tried to distance the march from the white supremacy that pervades other alt-right actions, namely by focusing on free speech.

With so many emerging factions and offshoots of the alt-right, Pacific Standard asked Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, and George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama and author of a forthcoming book on the alt-right, about the difference between the alt-right and the recent "new right," and the collective movement's flawed understanding of free speech.


On the March on Google's Organizers Efforts to Distance the Protest From the Alt-Right Label:  

Lawrence Rosenthal: I don't blame them, but it's not real world. That is to say that the alt-right has had these two conventions all along. I would tend to distinguish in the alt-right between the provocateurs at the level of "political correctness," of whom Milo Yiannopoulos is perhaps the most well known character in that, and those who really concentrate on nationalism, white nationalism, and white supremacy. There is a spectrum, but the alt-right has always included young men who are more alienated than politically ideological. So it's almost a division of labor, as it were, in the alt-right movement.

George Hawley.

George Hawley.

George Hawley: Although the term was created by the alt-right, and is suspect for that reason alone, the people involved in the March on Google can be called "alt-lite." That is, they are similar in style and tone to the alt-right, but they generally shy away from white supremacist rhetoric. Understandably, this category does not prefer the term "alt-lite," and instead usually refer to themselves as "New Right." There is actually a tremendous amount of hostility between the two camps. Throughout the 2016 presidential election, the two sides generally got along, but after the post-election National Policy Institute conference—the one where Richard Spencer said, "Hail Trump," and some in the audience gave Nazi salutes—people uncomfortable being in the same camp as white supremacists dropped the alt-right label.

On the Alt-Right's Ongoing Feud With Campuses and Silicon Valley Over Free Speech:

Rosenthal: The focus of the kind of provocateur side, the side that talks about political correctness more than it talks about whiteness, that side has been focusing a great deal these days on what they call First Amendment issues. Take what goes on on college campuses, for example. Yiannopoulos at Berkeley and later Ann Coulter at Berkeley were both prevented from speaking because of either an actual kind of melee, or the threat of that. For the alt-right, these were almost propaganda gifts. They regard these things as excellent opportunities from a provocateur's point of view, to talk about the left or the liberal world as either hypocritical on issues of the First Amendment or simply opposed or authoritarian against the expression of alternative points of view. The firing [of James Damore] at Google should be understood in that context; it's another propaganda gift for this sort of provocateur side of the alt-right.

Lawrence Rosenthal.

Lawrence Rosenthal.

Hawley: Both the alt-right and the alt-lite believe Damore did nothing wrong, and that this controversy demonstrates that Google does not believe in free expression. Thinking bigger picture, the alt-right community has been fighting with the tech giants because they run the risk of losing their major platforms. Being kicked off Twitter, YouTube, PayPal, and other sites can cause the alt-right real harm. This movement lives on the Internet, so if these corporations shut down white nationalist speech, the movement will have a hard time continuing.

That said, there are a lot of people associated with the alt-right that are extremely tech savvy. I know that some people associated with the movement are already at work trying to build their own platforms that will be independent of these giants. The extent of these future crackdowns on certain types of speech, and the alt-right's ability to work around these challenges, remains to be seen.

On What Actually Sets the Free Speech Faction Apart From the Rest of the Alt-Right Movement:

Hawley: I would say that both factions say they favor free speech, for strategic reasons, if not for principle. That said, a case can be made that the alt-lite has actually been less consistent than the alt-right in defending free speech, since it was two major alt-lite figures [Jack Posobiec and Laura Loomer] that recently disrupted a Shakespeare play because it depicted the assassination of a Trump-like figure. That seems to undercut their insistence that everyone deserves to have their say.

A problem for the alt-lite/new right is that it has a confusing message. It understandably wants to distance itself from the alt-right brand, which has become increasingly toxic. But aside from cheering on Trump, it does not really have a unique and compelling vision of its own. If Richard Spencer took over a country—which will never happen, but we are talking hypothetically—I know what kind of country he would create, and it is not a pretty picture. But if Posobiec or Mike Cernovich or Gavin McInnes were suddenly in power, I really do not know what they would do.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.