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What Was the Alt-Right?

America’s most notorious modern extremist movement collapsed after Charlottesville. But did it succeed in making its ideas mainstream?

Joshua Tait
August 11, 2023
White nationalist Richard Spencer and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, after the ‘Unite the Right’ rally was declared an unlawful gathering, Aug. 12, 2017

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White nationalist Richard Spencer and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, after the ‘Unite the Right’ rally was declared an unlawful gathering, Aug. 12, 2017

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The alt-right burst into public consciousness seemingly overnight—a radical, sometimes esoteric political ideology pointing a knife at the heart of American liberal democracy.

Harnessing racist and misogynistic energies from deplorable recesses of the internet, the movement thrust itself into national relevance as a force to be reckoned with in the 2016 campaign season. Donald Trump appeared to ride the alt-right tiger to the presidency where his chief strategist, “alt-lite” impresario Steve Bannon, occupied the corridors of the West Wing. Yet, following the Charlottesville rally in mid-2017, the project and its most public champions disappeared almost as quickly as they had emerged.

Six years after Charlottesville, it seems clear that the alt-right’s coherence and influence were dramatically overstated in the rush to explain Trumpism and larger upheavals in the U.S. political scene. At the same time, however, judging the alt-right as a set of ideas and ideological claims, rather than as an organization or collection of personalities, we have to grapple with something that feels uncomfortably like its success. Most of the movement’s ideas are now widespread on the American right. But before we can evaluate the alt-right’s successes and failures, first we have to address a more fundamental question.

What Was the Alt-Right?

Looking back, the “alt-right” encompassed at least three interlinked parts of the mid-2010s cultural, political and technological scene.

In its first and most direct meaning, the alt-right meant the alternative or dissident right—a constellation of writers and thinkers working outside the mainstream conservative establishment. Men like Jared Taylor, Kevin MacDonald, Greg Johnson, and the slick Richard Spencer, were the successors of hard-right traditionalists or paleoconservatives who valued anti-modern sources of identity, such as ethnicity or religion, the United States’ historic whiteness, or traditional cultural norms. As a result, they opposed immigration and globalized capitalism. Alienated by Reaganism, which they considered a conservative form of liberalism because of its insistence on individualism and its Jeffersonian sense of equality, some paleoconservatives broached the racist or antisemitic third rails of the American right. Those who did, such as Joseph Sobran and Mel Bradford, lost their jobs in mainstream conservative institutions, or failed to land them in the first place. Instead, they founded fringe journals, websites, societies, and think tanks, often obsessed with race, immigration, and Jews.

The younger members of this dissident right recognized that the internet let them make an end run around the systems that marginalized their forebears. It’s this younger cohort in particular that formed the alt-right—literally an alternative to the mainstream right. The key characteristics of the intellectual alt-right were the rejection of liberal democracy and core aspects of the American political tradition, racialism, and the constitution of a white ethnostate.

There was also a nihilistic undercurrent to the alt-right. Like the older paleoconservatives, they saw little good in the current American order and sought to destroy it. But more than their predecessors, theirs was a secular outlook that imputed a meaninglessness to life—at least under present circumstances. This attitude came forth in the alt-right’s edgy humor, intended to provoke those who believed in a progressive morality.

At the same time, cognizant of the moral opprobrium racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party brought upon themselves, the early alt-right centered on flagship publications was, to some extent, invested in a kind of white nationalist respectability politics.

Donald Trump appeared to ride the alt-right tiger to the presidency where his chief strategist, ‘alt-lite’ impresario Steve Bannon, occupied the corridors of the West Wing.

Scholars like Thomas Main and George Hawley who have written about the alt-right have tended to focus on those who identify as members of the alt-right. The term itself was co-coined by Richard Spencer and Paul Gottfried, a paleoconservative warhorse and former Pat Buchanan adviser. Spencer founded the online publication in 2010 and in 2017. He saw their project as the creation of a genuine—if revolutionary—alternative to the conservative movement that refocused the right’s energy on racial consciousness.

At the time, the soft-Reaganite Romney campaign and libertarian trappings of the Tea Party movement masked cultural and economic shifts that created the conditions for a parrallel shift in right-wing politics. The neoconservative-led global war on terror wasted blood and treasure abroad. Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that legalized same-sex marriage by, as conservatives saw it, judicial fiat, pulled the carpet out from under social conservatives. And the 2008 financial crisis shredded the faith in markets and financialization that had been central to mainstream conservatism since its inception. The recession hurt the prospects of a generation. Some men with certain expectations about gender roles faced market competition from highly educated women, all the while feeling traditionally male spaces were being eroded.

This sense of “being replaced,” in that infamous phrase from Charlottesville, leads to another animating aspect of the alt-right: that a large segment of the movement was composed of young, male YouTubers and memelords who advanced misogynistic, anti-liberal, antisemitic, and often racist ideas as they shitposted pro-Trump or anti-progressive memes under absurd pseudonyms like Baked Alaska. Starting in roughly 2014, the edgy, irony-poisoned online culture of extremely insular male spaces like the imageboard 4Chan burst forth and took aim at progressivism generally and feminism in particular. The “Gamergate” scandal, wherein self-identified video gamers married concerns about journalistic ethics with an often nasty opposition to what would now be called “wokeness” in the video game industry, was a critical first battlefield for this second grouping of the alt-right. Milo Yiannopoulos, who would become one of the most widely known members of this movement, rose to prominence reporting on Gamergate for Breitbart.

Finally, alt-right also referred to the burgeoning ecosystem of more mainstream right wing websites, channels, and personalities who flouted the norms and niceties of the political discourse. Called the alt-lite here, this category centered on the Steve Bannon-run Breitbart. In 2016, Bannon proclaimed Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right,” although he later walked back associations with the likes of Richard Spencer. According to Thomas Main, Breitbart’s popularity “dramatically turned the tables on the respectable right and achieved, one could say, riches beyond the dreams of avarice.” It was this third category—the alt-lite—that found the most mainstream success. These figures in the alt-lite entered the mainsteam by alternating between courting and rejecting the more explicitly racist elements of the alt-right, massively expanding the movement’s reach and ultimately placing it inside the White House.

The story of the alt-right, then, is one of how the American right, or any modern ideological movement, can—and cannot—police itself without guardrails.

As candidate, then president, and finally as a gravitational force over the Republican Party and American right, Donald Trump’s own political inclinations coincided with some of the alt-right’s positions on issues like immigration and opposition to globalism. This appearance of common cause with the president gave alt-right thinkers and their forebears, like paleoconservative writer Samuel Francis, a hard currency they had lacked for decades. When Trump retweeted alt-right-originating memes, it made his relationship to the movement seem even more substantive.

The press’s desperate need, however, to explain Trump’s swift rise and victory over mainstream conservatives and eventually over Hillary Clinton led pundits and scholars to overstate the connection, attributing too much power to the alt-right and its figureheads. To be fair, the alt-right is a grouping whose power was easy to overstate, as it included both public figures and anonymous internet trolls. But bound up with this effort of explaining Trump and his supporters, the alt-right was to some extent a media creation. Certainly, dissident racist right-wing writers, online nihilists, and alt-lite web platforms existed. They had proliferated in various forms for decades. But massive coverage of Trump and Trumpism exaggerated the impact of the alt-right, granting a coherence to the motley group, and imputing to it an ideological sway over enormous platforms or nebulous groups of young men. The image of Richard Spencer telling an audience to “party like it’s 1933” proved irresistible to the media as a catchall explanation for political developments that would otherwise have required serious reporting and uncomfortable introspection to understand. The conceptually vague heading “alt-right” became an umbrella term for all strident right-wing views—alt became an amplifier rather than a descriptor, in the same way neo was applied in the 2000s.

Despite this, there is a unity to the usages of “alt-right” outlined above. Each demonstrates the collapse of intellectual and political guardrails on the right. The internet, and to a lesser extent talk radio and cable television, destroyed the barriers that had previously excluded explicitly anti-liberal ideas on issues like race, immigration, and the value of gender equality from the political discourse. The internet upended the information production system, and transformed the nature of the ideological ecosystem.

Previously, responsible conservative gatekeepers—party elites, magazine editors, TV producers—could simply bar certain topics from politics, effectively consigning them to the margins of culture or the private sphere. Even if the efforts by conservative movement leaders to bar racists were less comprehensive than some have claimed, it is clear that during the Bush years, conservatives strove to write and think in race-neutral terms. The chief policy positions on the right in that era were pro-free markets, pro-immigration, and internationalist in foreign affairs. Jewish concerns were publicly respected and individual Jews played important roles on the right, especially in prestigious neoconservative institutions.

But a parallel development was also taking place online, outside of the public spotlight. Dissident right wingers, angry with neoconservatives and embittered about changing demographics, were finding one another and building forums and networks that would be greatly enhanced in the coming decade by the power of social media. The wide open space of the internet created a mass, if diffuse, audience for forbidden ideas and both incubated and spread the distinctively bleak and transgressive culture that emerged on sites like 4Chan. It likewise enabled alt-lite venues to outflank mainstream conservative outlets by selling sensationalist and edgy political content. In the context of Trump’s emergence and subsequent victory in the 2016 election, there was an assumption, mostly correct, that the ideological guardrails had collapsed.

The alt-right demonstrates the collapse of intellectual and political guardrails on the right.

On the one hand, it seemed as if the barbarians were in the city. But ultimately, the real hardcore of the alt-right, which gained so much attention in 2015 and 2016, saw its stock plummet after its “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a counterprotester was killed by a neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd.

After Charlottesville, it was clear that the alt-right brand had been oversaturated, diluted, and damaged. The approximately 500 marchers included alt-righters, but also neo-Confederates, Kluxers, neo-Nazis, and militiamen—the detritus of failed movements, laden with historical baggage.

The rally opened Spencer and other alt-rightists to legal liability. In its immediate aftermath, the webhost of the Daily Stormer, one of the alt-right’s most popular and overtly neo-Nazi websites, refused to host the site. In November 2017, a handful of Charlottesville residents took a civil action against 24 key alt-righters and organizations in Virginia, putting the movement under legal pressure and scrutiny under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. In a landmark verdict, the jury awarded a total of around $25 million in damages against the defendants, which included Spencer and other key alt-righters. A judge subsequently reduced the punitive damages to Virginia’s legal cap of $350,000, alongside $2 million in compensatory damages. Nevertheless, the long-running case exposed, bogged down, and embarrassed key alt-right organizers and organizations.

Extreme politics frequently coincide with extremes in other tendencies, including the anti-social. Since 2017, alt-lite provocateur Milo Yiannopolous lost his publishing deal with Simon & Schuster and had his public platform obliterated after appearing to justify pedophilic relationships. Spencer, banned from YouTube, was divorced by his wife who accused him of physical and emotional abuse. In November 2022, an arrest warrant was issued against Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer, for refusal to appear in court. Anglin owes millions in damages from multiple court cases. Alt-right YouTuber Baked Alaska has spent time incarcerated for a series of misdemeanors, as well as for his involvement in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which he livestreamed.

It is hard to know how big the alt-right was at its peak. Thomas Main estimates, based on web traffic to core alt-right sites (excluding Breitbart) that they had a readership approximately the size of small but reputable magazines such as Dissent or Commentary. It is far harder to quantify the overall audience of alt-right—and alt-lite—message boards, streamers, and other web content. It’s possible many came for the politically transgressive content without embracing the political or philosophical vision of the alt-right.

Yet if the abrupt and unexpected rise of the alt-right ended in equally abrupt and chaotic fashion after Charlottesville, it also managed to reintroduce racist and antisemitic discourse into the mainstream of the right via the overlapping circles of the hardcore alt-right, the alt-lite, and the nebulous world of online anti-progressivism. The story of the alt-right, then, is one of how the American right, or any modern ideological movement, can—and cannot—police itself without guardrails.

What Did the Alt-Right Want?

Those who consciously adopted the term alt-right saw their struggle as being above matters of mere policy, as they fought in the lofty realm of what they termed “metapolitics.” “Spirit is the wellspring of culture, and politics is downstream of that,” wrote Richard Spencer in his manifesto. According to Daniel Friberg, a Swedish publisher influential on the alt-right, metapolitics aims “ultimately to redefine the conditions under which politics is conceived.” Greg Johnson, the editor of the white nationalist journal Counter-Currents, argued the alt-right sought to achieve Old Right aims, by New Right means. The white nationalist Occidental Dissent’s founder, Brad Griffen, claimed the alt-right sought to narrow the gap between “white America and White Nationalists.”

Ideological entrepreneurs of all stripes frequently think in metapolitical terms, even if just implicitly. The founders of the conservative journal National Review in the 1950s aimed to shift the thinking of an influential audience in order to effect political change on a grand scale. They modeled themselves on what they saw as the great metapolitical success of their time: the consummation of the vision of the New Deal put forth by The Nation and The New Republic—premier organs of the American left and liberal establishments respectively. The leading figures in the alt-right imagined themselves as an ideological vanguard pushing the Overton window far enough to make their political project plausible.

Spencer, the movement’s most visible public exponent, reveled in the notoriety the alt-right received during the Trump campaign. This was even more true following Trump’s election night victory. After launching in January 2017, he published “What It Means to Be Alt-Right” that August, a document modeled on earlier political manifestos like the New Left Port Huron Statement and the conservative Sharon Statement.

Spencer’s manifesto, which he prematurely dubbed the “Charlottesville Statement”—an enormous PR blunder given the infamous outcomes of that day—succinctly summarizes the alt-right vision. It contains 20 points. Its first three points address race. “Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity,” Spencer writes. In his manifesto, Spencer only highlights the virtue of whites, seemingly agnostic on nonwhites. But the wider alt-right corpus happily denigrates nonwhites, especially Blacks, on racialist grounds. Jews are described as an “ethno-religious people distinct from Europeans,” and a dangerous counterelite. Traditional conservatism has failed, according to the statement, because it has failed to recognize the reality of race. Therefore, Spencer asserts, “racially or ethnically defined states are legitimate and necessary.” The remainder of the manifesto reflects standard traditionalist laments, although not without white nationalist elements. “Women, as mothers and caregivers, are key to the future of our race and civilization,” Spencer writes. “We oppose feminism, deviancy, the futile denial of biological reality.”

The Intellectual Foundations of the Alt-Right

Note how many of the Charlottesville Statement’s points resonate in today’s right-wing discourse. On foreign affairs: America First. On free speech: absolutism. Globalization creates a class of “nothings” and “nowhere,” and “economic freedom is not an end in itself.” Business “should never take precedence over the well-being of workers, families, and the natural world.” The left “is an ideology of death and must be confronted and defeated.” Education “serves leftist ideologues, loan financiers, and a new class of administrators far more than it serves students and parents.” While contemporary right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson or the Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters explicitly reject the racist and antisemtic aspects of the alt-right, it is impossible not to notice how many of the other elements of the agenda they share. This convergence has less to do with direct affinities between Carlson and Masters with Spencerite white nationalists, and more to do with the fact that both the contemporary Trumpist right and the alt-right were primarily influenced by the same paleoconservative thinkers, and Samuel Francis in particular.

Before a Trump-inspired resurgence in interest in Francis, he was a cautionary tale from conservative intellectual history. After earning a Ph.D. in British history, Francis went to Washington as an aide to an obscure senator from North Carolina, and then to work for the Heritage Foundation and the Washington Times. Although a creature of the conservative movement, he came to dismiss it as populated by “beautiful losers”—either “rootless men” attracted to archaism or crypto-liberals who put up token resistance to progressives before dutifully rolling over. Francis thought the right lost because it fixated on ideas but did not understand power politics. He understood power in a specific, almost Marxian sense. In his view, the left dominated because the “managerial” class was the ascendant social group. Progressivism was its attendant, justifying ideology and its precepts—equality in particular—led to greater state authority and more power for bureaucrats, all the while eroding rival forms of authority. To combat the managerial class, the right then needed a social base for its political aspirations. Francis landed on the chiefly white middle class, or “Middle American radicals.” This group had no interest in conservative abstractions or unleashing the free market. He advocated for the right to emphasize “crime, educational collapse, the erosion of their economic status, and the calculated subversion of their social, cultural, and national identity” as a way to foster class identity for middle Americans.

Francis had a significant impact on paleoconservative thought. But his writings became too explicitly racist for the mainstream right. He lost his job at the Washington Times in 1995, in part for associating with white nationalist platforms that became the basis for the intellectual alt-right, and he died in relative obscurity in 2005 at the age of 57.

Being right wing, rather than conservative, indicates a commitment to some form of hierarchy rather than a tradition, per se, and this hierarchy must sometimes be defended or even established by radical means; it also repudiates 50 years of conservative activism and perceived failure.

An exception to the general rule of explicit racism diminishing in influence is the popularity of 24-year-old right-wing influencer Nick Fuentes and the “Groypers,” who are associated with his brand of politics. The Groypers are white nationalists, antisemites, and radical traditionalists who are extremely active online. They have built an audience online by baiting and provoking more mainline youth-oriented conservative organizations, like Turning Point USA, from the hard right, and boosting Kanye West’s presidential campaign. In late 2022, Fuentes joined West for dinner with former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, provoking outrage. They have also attracted attention from Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative-turned-far-right commentator Michelle Malkin.

Bizarre, juvenile, and splintering, it is hard to imagine an effective Groyper movement. Yet it is undeniable that the American right, both in political movement terms and in the Republican Party, have come to resemble at least parts of the alt-right platform. Is this metapolitical success?

The Victory of the Alt-Lite

Just as the mainstream press rushed to understand Trump and the origins of his support, the intellectual and political right did the same. In Trump’s wake, many ideologies have bloomed seeking to capture the forces that propelled Trump to the presidency. These New Rightists, post-liberals, Christian nationalists, integralists, National Conservatives, kinists, and others, are not themselves alt-right, and in most cases explicitly reject the movement and its white nationalist politics. But they share touchstones, enemies, and to some extent aims. In particular, they have a shared interest in overturning Reaganism and neoconservatism as the dominant forms of right-wing activism and organization.

In a telling linguistic shift, these nascent movements generally consider themselves of the right, rather than conservative. Being right wing, rather than conservative, indicates a commitment to some form of hierarchy rather than a tradition, per se, and this hierarchy must sometimes be defended or even established by radical means; it also repudiates 50 years of conservative activism and perceived failure.

These ideologies, especially the New Right, have crowded out the discursive space for the alt-right by advancing similar positions shorn of their most explosive content. The New Right, which figured prominently at last year’s National Conservatism Conference, includes activists like Christopher Rufo, writers like Josh Hammer and David Azerrad, and to some extent politicians like Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance. Like the alt-right, it rejects Bush era conservatism: It is anti-immigration, America First, and despairing about modern America and its institutions. Like the alt-right, it organizes itself against a perceived oligarchic elite—whether “globalists,” the “laptop class,” or the professional-managerial class—and thinks in terms of progressive “soft totalitarianism.” The New Right in its various forms does not reject equality out of hand. But it rejects the equalitarian aims of the state. And like the alt-right, the New Right wants to take the initiative in the culture war, using the state to punish progressives and progressive institutions.

White identity politics, however, are verboten. Although the right’s explicit nationalism and anti-immigration policies may have narrowed the gap between “white America and White Nationalists,” the New Right, as exemplified by Donald Trump himself, is also ironically more multiethnic than its predecessor. In the 2020 presidential election, after four years in office, Trump gained support among Blacks, Hispanics, and women—the very minority groups who are often presumed to be the victims of his political program.

Alt became an amplifier rather than a descriptor, in the same way neo was applied in the 2000s.

Trump’s continued prominence on the American right and dominance over the GOP’s voting base has meant his political inclinations, which align to some extent with those of the alt-right, also dominate. Meanwhile, the original alt-righters have hardly prospered. Instead, figures like Yoram Hazony, a proponent of anti-globalist but nonracial “national conservatism,” or Christopher Rufo, a crusader wielding state power against critical race theory; diversity, equity and inclusion; and academia, have prospered in the right’s post-liberal intellectual institutions. They already have the ear of powerful funders on the right and politicians like Ron DeSantis.

For the alt-right, if their brand is damaged and their most palatable ideas in wide circulation, they remain distinguished by their racism, bile, and Nietzschean posturing.

Yet, the rise and fall of the alt-right and the reformation of the American right over the past eight years has meant a generation of right-wing political actors—congressional staffers, campaign volunteers, Young Republicans, legal clerks—has matured while race, nationalism, state power, and foreign affairs have been live questions. The history of the American conservative movement demonstrates that the ideological inclinations of these cohorts have the power to shape institutions like the Republican Party or the Federalist Society. And it is undeniable that the younger rightists have absorbed this alt-right outlook. They have an interest in proto-New Right thinkers, like white nationalist paleoconservative Samuel Francis, and an openness to vehemently anti-conservative right-wing fire starters like the provocateur known as Bronze Age Pervert.

Take Blake Neff, for example, Tucker Carlson’s senior writer and amanuensis. Neff wrote vitriolic, racist material on a 4Chan-like website while laundering alt-right concepts through Carlson’s show, until he was outed and fired in 2020.

Or Thomas Achord, who co-hosted a Christian nationalism podcast alongside Stephen Wolfe, author of The Case for Christian Nationalism. Pseudonymous tweets convincingly attributed to Achord demonstrate his “kinist” and, indeed, white nationalist views—views that proponents of Christian nationalism tiptoe around.

Or Pedro Gonzalez, the pro-DeSantis influencer and politics editor of paleoconservative magazine Chronicles. Hundreds of Gonzalez’s racist and antisemitic messages were leaked; messages in which Gonzalez called Nick Fuentes the future. After his private messages were published in what appeared to be a case of intraright score-settling ahead of the 2024 primaries, Gonzalez claimed to have evolved beyond the ideas he was expressing a few years earlier, writing in a statement: “I said nasty things about race and Jews that do not reflect who I am today.” Ironically, Gonzalez’s messages were published in Breitbart, which sought to damage a DeSantis surrogate in favor of Trump—revealing a political rift in the post-liberal right.

Or Nate Hochman, an ambitious comer on the right who held a slew of fellowships at conservative organizations, an internship at The Dispatch, and a position at the National Review, before being hired by the DeSantis campaign. Hochman survived one cancellation attempt in 2022 when audio of a semiprivate debate with Nick Fuentes circulated. While critical of Fuentes, Hochman nonetheless told Fuentes he had “gotten a lot of kids ‘based’ and we respect that for sure,” and that Fuentes was “probably a better influence than Ben Shapiro on young men who might otherwise be conservative.” Given the benefit of the doubt, in July 2023, Hochman reportedly made and reshared on an official DeSantis account a video using a sonnenrad, an esoteric but unmistakable Nazi symbol.

Perhaps the strangest arc in the intellectual afterlife of the alt-right is the one traced by Richard Hanania. A rising star in the Silicon Valley-aligned libertarian intellectual scene, Hanania earned a reputation in recent years for his heterodox provocations and consistent focus on racial differences as a driver of social problems in the U.S. To many observers familiar with his work, it came as no surprise earlier this month when it was revealed that in the early 2010s Hanania had been a prolific author in the alt-right scene, publishing numerous articles critical of “race mixing” and extolling the virtues of racist eugenics. In fact, under his pseudonym, Hanania was invited by Richard Spencer to contribute one of the first articles to, launched in 2010.

After the revelations about his pseudonymous racist work became public, Hanania published multiple articles asserting that he had abandoned his earlier views and evolved over the past decade from alt-right internet troll into a classical liberal. But while most of the commentary about Hanania in the wake of the revelations has positioned him as right wing, his public statements over the past two years have been generally supportive of President Biden and highly critical of the right. In that respect, his evolution has mirrored the strange career of Spencer who, in the wake of Charlottesville, has attempted to distance himself from his leadership of the alt-right, rebranding himself with public statements attacking Trump, and voicing support for NATO and the Biden White House.

Leading figures associated with the alt-right have disappeared into obscurity, self-immolated, and reinvented themselves as centrists. Meanwhile, the ideology’s ideas have diffused across the political landscape. As a movement, the alt-right failed. Its ascendance, such as it was, was always more symptomatic of a larger transformation: the collapse of guardrails and gatekeepers on the right.

Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina.

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