As the Obama era comes to a close, two political movements that were once confined to the margins of public discourse are elbowing their way further and further into the mainstream.
The first, a type of aggressive identity politics on the left that can be loosely described as political correctness, had been incubated in academic gender and ethnic studies departments for decades, but burst into the public consciousness like never before in 2015 as college students started shouting down speakers, demanding protection from disagreeable ideas, and otherwise engaging in illiberal antics that earned widespread coverage in the mainstream press.
PC is making its mark in elite culture outside of the Ivory Tower, too. As Jonathan Chait wrote in his blockbuster essay on the phenomenon early last year:
Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.
Six months after that essay was published, Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president, made PC-bashing a staple of his stump speech and seized the Republican nomination.
But before Americans could say “trigger warning,” a new internet-fueled fringe political movement was demanding their attention as well: The alt-right. After Donald Trump selected Steve Bannon, the publisher of Breitbart, an outlet known for enthusiastically promoting alt-right materials, as his campaign manager, Hillary Clinton gave a speech laying in to this assortment of dissident right-wing factions.
“No one should have any illusions about what’s really going on here,” she said. “The names may have changed. Racists now call themselves ‘racialists.’ White supremacists now call themselves ‘white nationalists.’ The paranoid fringe now calls itself ‘alt-right.’ But the hate burns just as bright.”
The alt-right is more diffuse, and diverse in its tactics and objectives, than the PC left. It encompasses sophisticated neo-reactionary Silicon Valley engineers like Curtis Yarvin, 1990s-style white nationalists like Jared Taylor, and legions of race-baiting online trolls with Pepe the frog as their Twitter avatars. But they are united by their contempt for pluralistic liberal democracy, their view that Western Civilization is in a profound and perhaps irreversible state of decline due to the empowerment of women and minorities, and their open embrace of white identity politics, and even white separatism, as the only solution.
This is a precarious cultural moment. How can it be that it is impossible to really understand the 2016 U.S. presidential election without reference to anti-liberal ideologies developed in the dark corners of 4chan and the inner sanctums of once-marginal campus bureaucracies?
Many commentators have observed that the radicalisms of the right and left feed on one another, teaming up to suck the liberal center dry. On the one hand, excessive left-wing speech policing and cultural brinksmanship on issues of race and gender was bound to make Milo-style ideological transgression more appealing. On the other hand, the alt-right’s newfound cultural power seems to vindicate some of the assumptions of the PC left: that racism and misogyny are deeply embedded in America’s cultural fabric, just below the surface, ready to erupt unless controls on thought and language are continuously tightened.
But what if instead of thinking of the campus left and the alt-right as mortal enemies, each bringing out perpetually heavier firepower in a long-running war of attrition, we thought of them as allies in a battle for the fate of liberalism? Because despite what they might say about each other, the radicalisms of 2016 actually align with one another more than they align with the Anglo-American Enlightenment tradition that has always occupied the American political center.
Take the issue of diversity training, a key agenda item for the campus left. (Last year, when independent-minded Amherst students erected free speech posters to protest against the excesses of PC, social justice crusaders demanded that the perpetrators be sent to diversity training as punishment). On sectors of the alt-right, diversity training is also considered a positive good: “Looks like Diversity Training makes everyone more racially conscious–good news for Whites,” wrote Kevin MacDonald, a highly influential figure in the movement (and author of a book arguing that Jews are systematically tearing apart Western societies), in response to a study showing that corporate diversity lectures inflamed rather than abated inter-group mistrust.
Or take the related issue of integration and national identity. The University of California administration expressed the views of many on the academic left when it released a document last year warning professors not to describe America as a “melting pot” because this unduly pressured minorities to “assimilate to the dominant culture.” Jared Taylor, publisher of the alt-right magazine American Renaissance, couldn’t agree more. He recently argued at length on the Diane Rehm show that people naturally want to “live with people like themselves,” and that impulse should not be resisted but actively encouraged, even up to the point of white racial separatism.
After all, neither the alt-right nor the campus left are nationalists in the proper sense: The alt-right sees globalized ethnic groups, rather than states, as the proper unit of solidarity and cohesion. And the far-left considers it bigoted to prioritize the well-being of one’s fellow countrymen over those who live outside of arbitrarily constructed borders.
One more example: The campus left has been arguing for years that the United States Constitution, the Western canon, and other “dead white male” materials are shot through with misogyny and white supremacy, and are largely irrelevant to the experiences of oppressed minorities. Mainstream conservatives have historically fought this tendency, arguing for the continued relevance of Western intellectual traditions despite America’s social revolutions and demographic upheavals. The approach of the alt-right is to effectively concede the issue to the campus leftists, and then some: “Yes, you’re right, our political and cultural institutions were not built to accommodate people like you.”
Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who spoke at Donald Trump’s convention, is perhaps the best illustration of this divergence within the right-of-center world. As an enterprising Stanford student, Thiel led the fight against the “dead white male” critique of Western culture, arguing that American institutions were and should be blind to race and gender. Twenty years later, Thiel (who has been associated with the Bay Area school of neoreaction), raised eyebrows by arguing that the expansion of the franchise to women had doomed capitalist democracy—in other words, that America’s founding principles are not universal, after all.
The PC left and the alt-right exist symbiotically with one another: Working together to exacerbate tribal loyalties, to undermine the legitimacy of the state as a political unit, to question the idea that Western institutions can really treat groups of people with equal respect—in other words, to draw out and hijack the inherent weaknesses and contradictions in the Enlightenment liberal tradition. It’s unlikely that either movement has the cultural power or breadth of appeal to succeed on its own. But taken together, they make a fearsome foe.