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The Intellectual Origins of the Alt Right

Who are the movement’s ideological forefathers? And what can they teach us about its present and, more importantly, its future? A dive into Tablet’s archives offers troubling insights.

Liel Leibovitz
August 14, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

It’s tempting, in a media cycle that moves furiously fast, to careen right along on a road paved by outrage. But if you believe, as we at Tablet firmly do, that this weekend’s neo-Nazi violence was a watershed moment, you’d do well to take leave of Twitter—with it’s mass-scale play-by-play of millions of people’s momentary fleeting thoughts—and instead do a deep dive into the noxious, murderous movement we’ve seen marching through the streets of Charlottesville.

These are questions we’ve been reporting for more than a year now, since Donald Trump ascendancy as the Republican nominee caused these vermin to come scurrying out into broad daylight. throughout the day, we’ll be reposting some of our most relevant pieces on the subject, starting with this collection examining the intellectual origins of the alt-right:

Writing about Trump’s presidential candidacy in December of 2015, Paul Berman mused on the nihilist pleasures of sheer hate: “grandeur,” Berman wrote then, “can be emotional. And so, the followers indulge their urge to hate. The Donald tells them that hatred is OK, and they yield to it. The wonderful thing about hatred is that it does not require a particular object. Any object will do.”

Some of Trump’s supporters, however, are a bit more specific in their hatreds. Of those, including the cadres who marched on Virginia this weekend, many see a retired Jewish professor named Paul Gottfried as an intellectual inspiration. “Gottfried doesn’t resolve the alt-right’s contradictions so much as he embodies them,” wrote Jacob Siegel. “He’s a sniffy traditionalist, a self-described ‘Robert Taft Republican,’ with a classical liberal bent, and a Nietzschean American nationalist who goes out of his way to exaggerate his European affect. He opposes both the Civil Rights Act and white nationalism. He’s a bone-deep elitist and the oracle of what’s billed as a populist revolt.”

Speaking of Nietzsche, the German philosopher is having a moment. In our new and wild political landscape, radicals on both the left and the right are finding something to love about the thinker and his ideas, wrote Guy Elgat: “The secret of Nietzsche’s appeal to people from opposite ends of the political spectrum is thus revealed: To the radical right, it is his rejection of equality and the democratic ideas that are based on it that is scintillating and rings true (besides his often and—as I have argued—misunderstood flirtations with the concept of race); to the left, it is his anti-essentialism with its emphasis on the plastic nature of identity that promises liberation from societal oppression. But, as it is typical in politics, the catch is that each side, to maintain its political ideology, has to reject the other’s Nietzscheanism: The radical right cannot easily accept the idea that identity, including racial identity, is dynamic and malleable, and the left, in order to promote its progressive agenda in the democratic public forum, cannot easily give up on the idea of the moral equality of all.”

More contemporary German history offers useful insights as well. The Weimar Republic, wrote Eric D. Weitz, showed us the dangers of traditional and radical conservatives learning to speak the same language. “That is the lesson from the right-wing populist upsurge in Weimar Germany, which culminated in the Nazi assumption of power,” Weitz argued. “The political language of fear and hostility directed at “foreign” elements (never mind the fact that many and even most of those so-called foreigners had been residents and citizens for generations) enables moderate and radical conservatives to come together. The moderates make the radicals salonfähig, acceptable in polite society. That is the real and pressing danger of the current moment.”

And as a new and troubling history tells us, the Nazis themselves looked at America for inspiration. “In the 1930s,” wrote David Mikics, “the American South and Nazi Germany were the world’s most straightforwardly racist regimes, proud of the way they had deprived blacks and Jews, respectively, of their civil rights.”

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.