It is not an easy task to pigeon-hole the alt-right. Its ideological eclectism makes it hard to assign it to one specific political tradition unequivocally. When looking for the ideological roots of the alt-right, it is worth to go back to the twenties and thirties of the 20th century and the German conservative revolution. As it turns out, the alt-right and young German thinkers share many common traits: beginning with a conviction that we are entering a new historical era, through the sharp critique of existing states up to the utilisation of new technologies to popularise their own – not necessarily modern – ideas.
The common denominator: historiosophy
How to wisely reconcile revolution with conservatism? Intellectually, for the German revolutionary conservative thinkers, this was not a big problem. To overcome an antinomy of a sudden change and conservation of the things that exist, Armin Mohler – a Swiss author of the first monography of conservative revolution – drew on the Karl Jaspers’ idea of Axial Age.
For Jaspers, an Axial Age (Achsenzeit) was the time between 800 BC and 200 BC, when four powerful philosophical concepts in four different cultural areas, conceived by four different thinkers – Buddha, Jeremiah, Confucius and Socrates – were born. For Jaspers, this was a historic breakthrough and the dawn of a new era, the one from which there was no way back to previous ethical systems.
Mohler’s thinking took a very similar course. He thought that such breakthrough moments ensue between subsequent generations, meaning that every generation has its own conservatism, which is not readily adaptable in the next one. Conservatism of the 18th-century German romantic is different from the one espoused by the 19th-century Prussian junker, which, in turn, differs from conservatism of the 20th-century soldier returning from the WWI fields of death. Therefore, conservatism is dynamic and requires continuous reflection. It has continuously been rediscovered, so that it would be able to face challenges of modernity. According to Mohler, the time after World War I was such an Axial Age. Germany was faced with the tragic situation, the one from which there was no coming back to the old pre-war world. The Great War made the old civilisation a thing of past. German patriots and nationalists had to invent a new Germany.
When we talk about the historiosophy of the alt-right, it is useful to analyse the ideas of Steve Bannon, a former editor of Breitbart website and the chief of strategists in the White House, one of the brightest stars of the alt-right firmament. Bannon based his concepts on the Strauss-Howe generational theory, which describes recurring, 80 to 90 years-long cycles of the United States’ history. Every cycle (Howe and Strauss use a Latin term saeculum) consists of four phases: high, awakening, unravelling and crisis. High is a period in which strong social bonds and institutions are born. With time, they weaken and give way to the autonomy of entity and individualism. The emphasis on individualism inevitably leads to a crisis, which gives birth to a new generational cycle. During the new cycle, a new high is born, fresh, strong institutions are created, and the thinking regarding community is revived.
Bannon used the Strauss-Howe theory in Generation Zero, a documentary about the financial crisis of 2008 (he even promoted it as a “horror movie about American economy”). For the former Breitbart editor-in-chief, the crisis was the sign of the forthcoming breakthrough in the American history. In other words, it was to be the time of “crisis”, as it is named in the generational theory. According to Bannon, the time of new decisions and new order are coming – after all, it has been over 70 years since the last crisis (World War II).
It can be suspected that this is the main reason behind the alt-right leader’s decision to commit himself to the day-to-day politics. If indeed the new historical period is coming to fruition, how could he allow for the government composed of Republican Party philistines, or Democrats intoxicated with liberalism to exist in such a breakthrough moment?
The common denominator: let this rotten republic crumble down!
The primary enemy of conservative revolutionists was Weimar Republic – “bastard of the Treaty of Versailles”. For them, the state that had been created on the ruins of Kaiser Reich was the embodiment of demo-liberalism. This was a truly non-German ideology – alien to the local spirit and national traditions, the fact that was first pointed out by Thomas Mann in his monumental Reflections of a Non-political Man before he moved to the demo-liberal camp in the 1920s. For him, “The difference between intellect and politics includes that of culture and civilisation, of soul and society, of freedom and voting rights, art and literature; and German tradition is culture, soul, freedom, art, and not civilisation, society, voting rights, and literature.”
The republic was fiercely attacked. Not one opportunity was missed to disparage the existing political system, which – in the eyes of conservative revolutionaries – was closer to a repugnant monster than to a legitimate, or at least legal form of political life. Carl Schmitt wrote of “the structure imposed from outside, which has the minimum of political substance as is sufficient to fulfilling the financial commitments towards other countries”. Friedrich Georg Jünger considered the republic as “a society organised as a state, in which parliament is a body of the party’s private limited company”. Ernst, his brother, spoke of a country, in which “undertakers dig the graves for themselves”. Ernst Niekisch, in turn, regarded it as “a sacrificial animal submissively bowing under the blood-thirsty tormentor’s look”. Hatred against Weimar truly exploded in the rapidly-growing nationalist papers.
This critique of the interwar German Reich (an official name of Weimar Republic) did not stem only from aversion of revolutionary conservatism against the idea of republicanism and liberal democracy. They thought that the creation of Weimar was a glaring example of the broader crisis that seized the European spirit and – by extension – also the German one.
“The three-times spit-out phrases of the French Revolution” were – according to them – an ideological credo of the demo-liberal Germany. Post-war Germany was the state that rebuffed the pride and hauteur of the Imperial Reich to embrace bourgeois middle-class spirit in accordance with the central ideological tenets of the Revolution.
Revolutionary conservatives contrasted it with heroic ethos. After all, for many of them, coming of age was linked with a formative experience of war.
The abovementioned Ernst Jünger began his career with the publication of Storm of Steel, his war-time memoir. In it, he described war as an honorary fight and the duty of a soldier – despite the consciousness of its technologically-driven dehumanisation. Even in such horrific conditions, the protagonist of the book tries to preserve some residual chivalric ethos. Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten, a novel by Walter Flex, was equally popular among revolutionary conservatives. By 1933 it sold 340,000 copies. A simple story about the friendship tied up on the front between the author and Ernst Wurch, a student of theology, is an affirmation of youth, sacrifice for national well-being and death as an inevitable element of soldier’s life.
War as a boundary experience was supposed to be a refreshing wellspring for the German nation, for its spiritual, moral and the political revival. “We had to lose the war to win Germany”, wrote Franz Schauwecker. This new better Germany was to be – according to the conservative revolutionists – the Reich, and more specifically, Third Reich (the idea is Arthur Moeller van den Bruck’s, who was an inspiration for national socialists) as a point of reference and the ideal to be achieved.
The alt-right also does not possess the conservative sensitivity that would force it to take care for the continuity and stability of state’s institutions. This is most apparent in the figure of Steve Bannon. A former editor-in-chief of Breitbart, supposedly, admitted in a private conversation with Ronald Radosh, a history professor, that he was not a “populist”, or “American nationalist”, but a Leninist. “I am Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and I want the same thing. Everything must crumble and bury the current establishment”. Numerous times he spoke in such a radical manner about the existing order and political establishment, Republican Party included. During a meeting with Washington conservatists he floated an idea to create a “rebellious, populist centre-right and fiercely anti-establishment movement that would beat up whole Washington: both the progressive left and institutionalised Republican Party”.
These statements alone are sufficient to state that the alt-right has revolutionary inclinations and wants to see the true rebellion against contemporary America and its decaying political class. Indeed, Bannon would repeat the words of Ernst Jünger, who wished for “a day when this mob would be annihilated by chlorine so that the process of its self-destruction would at least be deprived of the odour of rotting”.
It does not mean that the alt-right ideas have only negative character. A positive programme can also be sketched, based on what the leaders of the movement say.
Bannon defines himself as a conservatist and “economic nationalist” opposed to Austrian economic school and objectivism of Ayn Rand. Although he is a free-market capitalist, he thinks that America is “more than economy” and that is why he lists Pius XI’s Quadragessimo Anno of 1931 – with its rule of subsidiary – as an inspiration (Bannon is a practising Catholic, regularly attending Trent Masses).
Bannon is against bail-outs, which he calls „socialism for the rich”. At the same time, he wants to increase federal income tax to 44% for individuals making over 5 million dollars a year. Also, he campaigns for a new federal infrastructural programme worth 3 trillion dollars.
In turn, Richard Spencer, President of National Policy Institute and the most prominent white supremacist in the US, sees the homeland of his dreams as a “white ethnostate”, free from any ethnic minorities. According to him, white race, the owners of the US, are being expropriated and that is why the minorities must be dealt with through “a peaceful ethnic purge”. This means forcing non-white immigrants to go back to their homelands, but also… introducing a programme of legal abortion dedicated exclusively to ethnic minorities.
The common denominator: technology in the service of ideas
For the generation of revolutionary conservatists, the World War I constituted the formative experience also because their pre-industrial notions clashed with a brutal, previously unknown reality of the trench-born modern, industrial war. It was during WWI that aircraft and airships joined the army equipment, infantry became supported by tanks, and gases that were pulverised over the trenches terrified both the soldiers and civilians. For the men that were returning from the front lines, these apocalyptic circumstances were the testament to the fact that the return to the pre-industrial world was no longer possible. The war meant the ultimate triumph of industrial society. It could not be stopped, it could only be embraced – in one way, or another.
Therefore, revolutionary conservatives agreed that liberalism – due to individualism with its potential to destroy traditional communities – is destructive, but its achievements might be useful in the creation of the new order. The order based on the eruption of national consciousness.
A personal example of this new techno-conservatism – as anticipated by Ernst Jünger – was supposed to be a “worker”. Just like a soldier, he was to be accommodated in the workplace (after all, he was a soldier on a civil front) to subdue the rampant technique and use it to destroy the remnants of the bourgeois world. For Jünger, in the world of technological expansion, work became everything, and every man became a worker.
Contemporarily, the alt-right also does not shy from the use of new technologies. On the contrary, it does use them to promote its ideas – primarily on the Internet, where the battle for minds and souls of internet users goes on perpetually. The first – and undoubtedly the most prominent – soldier of the alt-right is a British conservative Catholic, and at the same time gay, Milo Yiannopoulos. Before he was banned from Twitter, his account had been followed by over 388 thousand users and his Instagram profile has now 387 thousand followers. Yiannopoulos tells what he thinks. He fiercely attacks feminism (“it’s cancer”), Islam (it’s AIDS), plays on his own sexual orientation (his university lecture series is called Dangerous Faggot Tour). Yiannopoulos is a perfect example of how the Internet can become a powerful tool of promotion of the alt-right ideas. After all, according to the old media rule: “It doesn’t matter what people say about you, as long as they’re talking about you”.
Stefan Molyneux, an Irish-Canadian youtuber, radical libertarian and the owner of an independent Freedomain Radio, is equally famous in the alt-right Internet. In his radio, he talks about politics, criticises feminism and multiculturalism which, according to him, is a tool of “white genocide”. Molyneux is a very controversial figure and, due to his idea of so-called deFOOing, he has been accused of creating some kind of sect around himself. Molyneux would coax his teen listeners to severing ties with their parents if they were victims of abusive treatment at home. Even if such treatment was limited to spanking. Molyneux himself promotes peaceful parenting, which means he even abstains from shouting at his own kids.
Somehow, the people who decided for deFOOing stuck with Molyneux’s community. In turn, it translated into an increase in donations for the radio. Even British Channel 5 made a documentary Trapped in A Cult? About this phenomenon. Time and again, in his podcasts, Molyneux spread apocalyptic visions of the destruction of Western civilisation by Muslims, the Left and mainstream media. To fight them, he offers “taking a red pill”, the name for his introductory video on YouTube.
But the alt-right Internet is primarily created by the grassroots activity of thousands of 4chan, 8chan, or Reddit users, where they share their ideas with the help of memes. Many variations on the popular Pepe the Frog presented as Donald Trump, a Nazi, a Ku-Klux-Klan member, or general Augusto Pinochet come from these sources. In this category, we can also mention the images of a crusader crying “Deus Vult”, which alludes to anti-Islamic sentiments among the alt-right; graphic presentations of helicopter rides, which refer to the killings of the leftist activists in Chile and suggest a potential approval for such actions in the US.
The common denominator: ideological hodgepodge
Contrary to popular belief, revolutionary conservatives had more differences than similarities among them. What united them was a formative war experience and rejection of Weimar Germany. Besides, it would be hard to find a common denominator for “a soldier nationalist” Jünger, a national Bolshevik Niekisch, a young conservatist Moeller van der Bruck, or Hans Blüher, a theorist of men’s bisexuality. According to his theory, for a man, the purpose of a relationship with a woman is to have a family, and contact with a man serves as a fulfilment of higher needs.
In case of the alternative right, we also witness an ideological patchwork, where ideas that are often contradictory function under one banner. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists/supremacists, neo-pagans, monarchists, Christian fundamentalists, paleo-conservatists, libertarians, economic protectionists, or neo-confederates are lumped together, but – as was in the case of revolutionary conservatives – they are united only by the hatred against demo-liberal America and its slogans affirming the rights of racial, sexual and religious minorities.
Does Spencer – a white supremacist, a supporter of legal abortion and an enemy of homosexualism – have anything in common with Yiannopoulos, who is a Catholic opposing abortion and a gay in a relationship with an African American?
Just as a German conservative revolution, alt-right is not a doctrine, but rather a set of principles incompatible with one another. And like them, it is not “for”, but “against”. Everything that can be linked to liberal America or too bourgeois and not sufficiently radical Republicans can be attacked.
Fundamental difference: the scale of influence
The German conservative revolution was an elitist intellectual movement, which used journalistic writing and books to spread their metapolitical ideas. People such as Schmitt, Jünger, Spengler, Benn, Heidegger, or Niekisch were generals without an army, lone wolfs deprived of wider social background. Even if some of them allowed themselves for a short period of closer ties with Nazis, they were nowhere to be found on the Reichstag benches, or in public institutions (e.g. Ernst Jünger declined the place in the Reichstag offered by the NSDAP, and Stefan George refused to become a member of the German Literature Academy). Ernst Jünger defended the loneliness of conservative revolutionists in the following way: “Today, one cannot take care of Germany in larger company; it should be done in solitude, just like a man who – using his knife – cuts the passage through a primaeval forest and lives on the hope that somewhere in the bush there are others who perform similar labour”.
In the case of the alt-right, the situation is different. Its supporters do not hide behind elitist concepts, do not abhor party politics and are able to mobilise masses of internet users in defence of their ideas. It is a vibrant movement, which has real backing in the society, not only among the intellectual elite.
And it is this different scale of social resonance which will probably make the alt-right more than a curiosity in the future academic textbooks. Will the movement translates into a new political force? And maybe in a few years, Bannon and others would only be a thing of the past? Time will tell.
Translation from Polish: Łukasz Gadzała
This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.