There used to be just conservatives. Then there came the neo-conservatives, a largely American variation on the theme that venerates free markets, but marries it with an interventionist foreign policy. Neo-conservativism got a black eye after the interventionism its proponents advocate led to the quagmire in Iraq. In a resurgence of old-fashioned conservatism, stalwarts proudly adopted the self-deprecating paleo-conservative, a blatant rejection of the neo-conservative moniker.
In recent months, a new term has come into common usage in American politics: alt-right. The contraction of “alternative right” is a sort of whitewashing umbrella for a range of ideological streams that were, until recently, considered well outside the mainstream. White nationalism, itself a whitewashed term for white supremacy, is chief among these. While not precisely defined, alt-right has also been said to encompass the anti-immigration and xenophobic nativism that has been articulated by Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for U.S. president. Populism is a term also associated with the alt-right, although Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination was also defined as populist.
The banality of the term “alt-right” – it almost sounds like something you do with a computer keyboard – masks the mainstreaming of terrible ideas. Concurrent to, and not the least bit unrelated to, the rise of alt-right as a term is the rise of Trump as a political phenomenon. The Republican standard-bearer has said, on an almost daily basis, things that would eliminate any other candidate in history from contention. Yet his supporters dismiss (or embrace) his hateful, ignorant and, seemingly as often as not, outright false statements. The litany is endless. Last week, he suggested that Clinton’s secret service details should disarm and “see what happens to her.” This unsubtle allusion to violence is not at all uncommon in Trump’s rhetoric. That he remains a contender for the presidency is alarming. That he is rising in the polls, almost tying Clinton in aggregates and leading her in many polls, suggests that Americans are seriously considering taking a dangerous political turn.
Trump idolizes “strongmen.” He has reveled in the admiration of Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader who has undone that country’s nascent steps toward democracy. He is unequivocally a solo act, openly insisting that he will run roughshod over Congress and the judiciary, the institutions that the founders of the United States set up as checks and balances on the presidency. He has stated that the electoral system is rigged against him and predicted rioting in the country should he lose. The image he projects of America is of a third-world economy, and the vision of political violence he purveys is more suited to an unstable dictatorship than to the reality of American government.
It is in the nature of human beings to take for granted what we have the moment we possess it. Readers of a certain age remember The Jetsons, with its incredible futuristic gadgets, a cartoon we can now watch on a device we carry in our pocket that contains all the accumulated knowledge of humankind, and we have the ability to speak face-to-face with almost anyone in the world instantaneously, in real time. And yet, when this gadget alerts us that we have a message or a call, we are as likely to respond with a weary, “Oh, what is it now?”
Likewise, perhaps, with democracy. In its modern incarnation, democracy was born 240 years ago in what is now the United States of America. In the span of human history, this is the blink of an eye. About Trump, many commentators, most recently this week in the Washington Post, have said, “This is how fascism comes to America.”
On numerous occasions over the years, we have used this space to condemn flippant use of such terms as fascism, warning that overuse will dull sensitivity to the seriousness of the language and its threat. We are less reticent to condemn the use in this case. The rise of Trump and the “alt-right” ideologies he empowers are cause for very real concern.