It may be time for the alt-right movement to rebrand and choose a new name.
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When Donald Trump becomes U.S. president on January 20, with Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counselor, the alt-right will no longer be a political force that can style itself as a rebellious “alternative” to the mainstream Republican Party. With Bannon, the alt-right’s godfather, ensconced in the White House, and with Trump at the helm, they will longer be outsiders kicking at the establishment, but supporters of the ultimate insider.
The unlikely romance between the outspoken billionaire Republican presidential candidate and the motley crew of anonymous, aggressive, offensive and threatening anti-establishment Internet trolls has profited both sides tremendously until this point. The big question now is: where will it go from here?
The phrase alt-right preceded the Trump candidacy but few were familiar with it. The term was coined in 2008 meant to describe a grassroots right-wing populist movement that rebels against and attacks mainstream conservatives, using the Internet both as its gathering place and its weapon of choice. While it has no single ideology, alt-right activists are inspired by renegade white supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer and fired up by racial and immigrant issues, as well as gun control and other liberal intrusions on personal – except, perhaps abortion.
Gathering around their angry campfire, on various websites and bulletin boards and on Twitter, they delighted in coming up with and inventing provocative and offensive memes. They were – and still are – proudly racist, misogynist, scorning any form of political correctness and restraint. The memes have been used to harass, smear and insult both leftists and treasonous conservatives, for whom they coined the term “cuckservatives” – cuckolded conservatives, complete with disgusting sexual imagery to illustrate it.
Foregoing the reviled mainstream media, they drew their information from sites like Breitbart and the Drudge Report.
Their mascot of choice has been Pepe, a cartoon frog-like amphibian created by Matt Furie’s comic strip Boy’s Club. (Furie was ultimately appalled that his creation had been turned into to create a #SavePepe campaign to reclaim the symbol from those who use it with hateful intentions.)
This symbiotic relationship between the alt-right hordes and Donald Trump first surfaced publicly in October 2015, after the contender for the Republican nomination retweeted the sarcastic but admiring video “Can’t Stump the Trump” posted on the website 4chan, ground zero of the alt-right. But their dangerously enthusiastic advocacy for Trump hit the headlines in the spring of 2016, when Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe was bombarded by anti-Semitic tweets containing horrifying images after publishing a profile critical of Melania Trump. Among other threats, Ioffe was told that she “should be burned in an oven,” “shot in the head,” and was sent photoshopped images of her in a concentration camp uniform. Alt-righters obtained her telephone number and she received calls from people playing Hitler’s speeches.
Ioffe’s experience opened the floodgates. Jonathan Weisman, a New York Times editor, was similarly bombarded and decided to retweet all of the hate that came his way. Any high-profile figure with a Jewish name openly critical of Trump, not just journalists, found themselves targets, not only on the internet, and were chillingly detailed by National Review writer David French in “The Price I’ve Paid for Opposing Donald Trump.”
Then, in July, a direct connection became obvious when Trump tweeted an anti-Semitic image originating in the alt-right universe depicting Hillary Clinton next to a pile of money and a six-pointed star.
After becoming the Republican nominee, there was apparently no more need for Trump to remain coy about his connection to the legions of Internet trolls. The alt-right/Trump marriage was sealed when he hired Breitbart News chairman and alt-right hero Steve Bannon to lead his campaign in August. Shortly afterwards, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech devoted to the alt-right, attacking Trump for bringing the most extreme racism into the American political mainstream.
"Of course, there’s always been a paranoid fringe in our politics, steeped in racial resentment,” Clinton said. “But it’s never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone. Until now."
Now, with Trump’s victory, the alt-right’s bigoted worldview won’t just have a megaphone, it will have the bully pulpit of the presidency.
The role of the alt-right hordes under a future Trump administration is uncertain. Will they be a loyal force devoted to his leadership, attacking all who challenge him?
Or will they stay true to their original “alternative” spirit and turn on the new commander-in-chief should he dare displease them by hiring Republican establishment members they revile, getting too friendly with the D.C.
Democrats they consider traitorous criminals or drag his heels on issues like building a wall and banning Muslims?
If so, President-elect Trump may soon find out what it feels like to be one of their victims instead of their hero.