The Conservative Conundrum: What to Do About the Alt-Right?
Policy + Politics

The Conservative Conundrum: What to Do About the Alt-Right?

© Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Stung by the embarrassment of having to disinvite right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from a speaking slot at its Conservative Political Action Conference this year, the American Conservative Union sent out one of its top officials on Thursday to denounce a fringe political movement Yiannopoulos is associated with.

Yiannopoulos was bounced after a video surfaced showing him speaking approvingly about sexual relationships between adult men and young teenage boys. He has long been associated with the so-called alt-right movement, which is associated with white nationalism and antisemitism, among other things. He also worked as an editor for the Breitbart website whose former publisher and now White House strategist Steve Bannon described as a forum for the alt-right.

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“There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” Dan Schneider, the ACU’s executive director, warned the gathering of right wing activists and college students. We must not be duped, we must not be deceived. This is serious business. We have heard what conservatism is. We have to make sure we understand what conservatism is not.”

That’s when things started to get a little weird, because Schneider made repeated efforts to assure the crowd that the alt-right is actually some sort of left-wing front group trying to infiltrate the ranks of real conservatives.

“Just a few years ago, this hate-filled left-wing fascist group hijacked the very term ‘alt-right,’” he said, calling it a term that has been used “for a long time” and “in a very normal way.”

“This group has hijacked the term and they did it intentionally because they want to deceive the media and they want to deceive you all about what they stand for so that they can try to become normalized and we must not allow them to become normalized. They are not a part of us. They stole that term specifically to confuse us.”

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Schneider was plainly referring to a loose-knit movement led by Richard Spencer, a self-described white “identitarian” who hosted a controversial conference in Washington not long after Donald Trump won the presidential election. At one point during the gathering. Spencer raised his arm in a gesture reminiscent of the Nazi salute and led the cheer “Hail Trump!” (For his part, Spencer says he was holding a whiskey glass and was making a toast.)

“We know who these people are,” Schneider said. “They met just a couple of months ago in Washington, D.C., to spew their hatred and make their ‘Heil Hitler’ salutes. They are anti-Semites, they are racists, they are sexists. They hate the Constitution, they hate free markets, they hate pluralism. They hate and despise everything we believe in. They are not an extension of conservatism.”

Again, he tried to tie the alt-right to the political left, insisting, “They are nothing but garden-variety left-wing fascists.”

Spencer, in fact, was in the audience for Schneider’s brief remarks, and live-tweeted during the remarks.

“Dan Schneider--who is this guy? Really lame,” he wrote.

Spencer was soon escorted out of the conference by security. Outside the auditorium, Spencer spoke to reporters, mocking Schneider’s remarks as “name-calling” and pushing back against the idea that his movement is not part of the political right.

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He said that he supported CPAC’s decision to disinvite Yiannopoulos, calling his behavior unacceptable and claiming that the former Breitbart editor “was never alt-right.”

When reporters resisted, claiming that Yiannopoulos had tied himself closely to the movement, Spencer said, “I coined the term ‘alt-right.’ I hereby declare he is not alt-right.”

He went on to insist that people who call him a racist, an anti-Semite or a fascist are just trying to shut down what he claims is a legitimate discussion of issues like “Israeli influence on American policy” and “Jewish identity.”

Asked why he is frequently referred to as a fascist, he said, “People want to shut down what I am saying. People don’t want to think about identity for European Americans seriously. They want to shut us down so they use a host of catchphrases and words like that. That’s clearly the reason.”

“Race matters,” he said. “Race is the foundation of identity. So if anyone says that, they say ‘Oh, you’re a racist.’ That’s just a way of shutting us up. And it doesn’t work anymore.”

Spencer also noted that in President Trump he sees, if not a fellow member of the alt-right, at least an ally.

“It’s not so much that he’s alt-right as that he’s a nationalist and a populist,” he said. “He’s connected to us on a basic level. He doesn’t articulate our ideas, he’s not an identitarian, but his arrow points in our direction.”