News / Canada

Defining the 'alt-right': 'White power dressed up in a new outfit’

Metro asked four Canadian experts in history, religion and gender, social science and criminology to define the world's newest far-right group.

Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon exits an elevator in the lobby of Trump Tower, November 11, 2016 in New York City.

Getty Images

Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon exits an elevator in the lobby of Trump Tower, November 11, 2016 in New York City.

The term “alt-right” has been thrown around almost casually since the election of Donald Trump, as an ambiguous way to describe anyone on the extreme right — the type of people we might assume wear “Make America Great Again” hats and avoid shopping at stores run by people wearing turbans.

The phrase was coined by Richard Spencer, who has gained notoriety for being a handsome, outspoken Trump supporter and white supremacist (although he rejects the latter label himself).

But the term “alt-right” is deceptive. It doesn’t just describe a broad range of people who reject mainstream conservatism for being too left. If you really analyze its message, it’s white power dressed up in a new outfit.

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Many people are pushing for the media stop to using the term “alt-right” altogether, arguing it’s a euphemism for white supremacy that normalizes racism, and is a self-descriptor that its adherents use to sanitize their message and make it more palatable.

A New York-based activist even created an extension for Google Chrome browsers that converts alt-right automatically to either "white supremacist" or "Neo-Nazi."

Writers for Jezebel, Bustle and Death and Taxes have all written op-eds urging the press to drop the term in lieu of white supremacism or extremism. And the Associated Press has asked that its reporters avoid the term generically and without definition, warning that the term exists “as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.”

The Globe and Mail has also asked that its writers and editors to refrain from using the term.

“Alt-right refers to a collection of groups or individuals espousing racist, fascist or white-supremacist ideologies,” the Globe’s note to staff said.

People protest the appointment of white nationalist alt-right media mogul, former Breitbart News head Steve Bannon, to be chief strategist of the White House by President-elect Donald Trump on November 16, near City Hall in Los Angeles,

AFP/Getty Images

People protest the appointment of white nationalist alt-right media mogul, former Breitbart News head Steve Bannon, to be chief strategist of the White House by President-elect Donald Trump on November 16, near City Hall in Los Angeles,

“We should avoid this term as much as possible. If we must use it, in a quote, for example, we should provide a definition of the term.”

The problem is there’s no one rigid definition of what constitutes right wing ideology, says Ryan Scrivens, a PhD student at Simon Fraser University’s school of criminology who studies right wing extremism in Canada.

Scrivens says there are subtle differences between alt-right ideologists, white nationalists and white supremacists, but that in many ways it comes down to the level of sophistication in their messages.

“The alt-right present themselves in this scientific, academic manner,” he says. “They tend to tap into mainstream issues that most people are concerned with, like immigration (and) multiculturalism.”

The alt-right keeps its racism subtle – toning down its rhetoric and framing its message within the context of defending Canadian or American values to gain sympathizers who would otherwise shy away from white supremacy, with its connotations of skinheads and burning crosses. Alt-Right Canada, for example, calls itself a council of “Canadian Europeans,” carefully avoiding the term “white.”

“White nationalism” espouses similar ideologies — in which white culture is seen as superior and under threat. Wikipedia lists “white supremacy” as a sub-group of white nationalism.

All make a case for whiteness as an identity, a culture, and an ideology, and argue that race is rooted in biology.

“It’s right wing extremism at the end of the day,” says Scrivens. “They know they can’t parade around the streets in white robes, so they have to promote themselves in a manner that is more digestible to the masses.”

Ayesha S. Chaudhry, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia, and says the term alt-right is really an issue of branding.

“It’s an appealing name and doesn’t actually indicate a central part of their ideology, which is white supremacy,” she says. “ ‘White supremacist’ is the most honest description of (the alt-right ideology).”

“White supremacist ideology is an extremist ideology based on the essential characteristics of race,” she says.

Arne Kislenko is an Associate Professor of History at Ryerson University, and an instructor in the International Relations Program at Trinity College/the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

He points out that while these groups tend to espouse similar viewpoints and are thus often categorized as the ‘far right’, there are ideological, political and historical distinctions between them.

“Those (distinctions) are, I think, generally more important to the leadership core of each group, which tends to be the most motivated and the most aware that they need to distinguish themselves from others in order to exist and draw members,” he says.

“The actual differences between, say, neo-Nazis and the KKK may seem to outsiders rather marginal given their obsessions with race, etc. But in reality they are great — even if members don’t know it.”

The one commonality? All are based on white supremacy.

Barbara Perry is a professor in the faculty of Social Science and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and studies hate crime and white extremism. She agrees that while there are some differences between the varying right-wing ideologists, they tend to share similar messages and rhetoric.

“(There’s) a sense of having to protect, defend or take back ‘our’ nation from all those interlopers, immigrants and non-white, non-Christian people,” she says, adding that while white supremacy is a hot button issue right now, it’s nothing new in the United States, or here.

It’s just on everyone’s minds right now because the election of Donald Trump appears to have emboldened people holding these views — and because he’s doing little to distance himself from his right-wing supporters.

As to whether we should be using the term alt-right, Perry says if it’s the label they’re giving themselves, then there’s no real harm in us using it too.

But she warns we should use the term with a true understanding that alt-right ideologists don’t really differ from other far-right views. At the end of the day, their message is that of white supremacy.

The term “alt-right” and the press

  • Some news outlets are implementing guidelines for publishing the term alt-right.
  • The Associated Press and National Public Radio have mandated that journalists describe the term whenever they use it, and the New York Times is encouraging its reporters to do the same.
  • The Globe and Mail has asked that its staff refrain from using the term at all.
  • And editors for the online news site ThinkProgress say they will “no longer treat ‘alt-right’ as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members.” and instead will use the terms white nationalist or white supremacist.

“(People) are of course free to describe themselves however they’d like, but journalists are not obliged to uncritically accept their framing,” says a recent ThinkProgress article. “A reporter’s job is to describe the world as it is, with clarity and accuracy. Use of the term “alt-right,” by concealing overt racism, makes that job harder… We won’t do racists’ public relations work for them. Nor should other news outlets.”

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