WASHINGTON (AFP) — The shout rose up just blocks from the White House — “Hail Trump, hail our victory” — and drew enthusiastic Nazi salutes.
Behold the alt-right: an angry, white nationalist movement that has come to the fore with Donald Trump’s election, alarming many in America and creating pressure on the Republican billionaire to distance himself from it.
Less than two weeks after Trump shocked the country and the world by defeating Hillary Clinton, about 200 supporters of the movement met Saturday at a convention center near the White House to savor the moment and revel in the idea of a strong, white, anti-immigrant America.
“Moving forward, the alt-right can, as an intellectual vanguard, complete Trump,” Richard Spencer, one of the movement’s informal leaders, told the conference.
Spencer — a well-coiffed, well-dressed man in his 30s — is one of the faces of this shadowy movement, born and flourishing on the internet. He runs a little known think tank called the National Policy Institute.
It brings together young people, often well educated, and among its allies is Trump’s new senior strategist, Steve Bannon.
Trump insisted Tuesday that Bannon is not racist or extremist, as asserted by many critics, and that he — Trump — rejects the alt-right.
“It’s not a group I want to energize, and if they are energized, I want to look into it and find out why,” Trump told the New York Times.
Of the gathering Saturday in Washington, Trump said, “I condemn them. I disavow, and I condemn.”
The alt-right burst onto the US political scene as what it calls an alternative — thus the term ‘alt’ — to traditional conservative beliefs as embodied by the Republican Party.
It has no formal structure, and for ideology it draws on the traditional far right, white supremacist theory and even rejection of free market economics.
War on political correctness
Nicole Hemmer, an expert on far-right movements at the University of Virginia, told AFP that Trump’s emergence has been “a game changer.”
“The alt-right sees his election as a big win for them and as an elevation to the mainstream of American life,” she said.
“They won’t become the main mainstream of American life, but it definitely makes them more visible and it gives them a sense of greater political power,” she said.
“The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved,” according to a manifesto published in March on Breitbart News, which Bannon ran until he started working for the Trump campaign.
The movement says this separation should be racial and religious. It claims links to the European far right, is rich in pseudo-scientific theories on what it calls a hierarchy among the races and espouses little-concealed hostility for Jews and Muslims.
“The disgraceful thing about the left is that they seem to want more Muslim immigration,” Kevin MacDonald, a retired psychology professor, told the conference on Saturday.
“It’s amazing that these leftists want this disease coming into our society more than they want to protect themselves.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, says the alt-right is based on the fear that white identity is being threatened by multi-culturalism, politically correct thinking and the civil rights movement.
Hemmer said the movement, unlike other white supremacist ones in the past, is driven by the idea that the biggest threat in America right now is political correctness.
“That leads to the idea that saying racist, anti-Semitic, or anti-women things is not done out of a desire to be offensive but for the sake of freedom,” Hemmer said.
“That offers kind of an intellectual justification.”
The alt-right’s obsession with a homogenous identity has also led the movement to disavow the concepts of free market economics traditionally held by Republicans.
“An establishment Republican, with their overriding belief in the glory of the free market, might be moved to tear down a cathedral and replace it with a strip mall if it made economic sense,” said the manifesto published on Breitbart News.
“Such an act would horrify a natural conservative,” it added.
Some of Trump’s campaign pledges delighted alt-right people: his denunciation of free trade accords as destroyers of US jobs, his pledge to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US, later modified to the idea of “extreme vetting” for people arriving from countries torn by terrorism.
Trump has also lashed out at the mainstream US press — loathed by the alt-right — as biased and sloppy, and projects an outlandishly macho image that the movement loves though it horrifies many American women.
Spencer said Saturday that the alt-right has a “psychic connection” with Trump.
He added that the alt-right has been a “head without a body” and that at the beginning of the election campaign Trump was “kind of a body without a head.”
The rise of the alt-right prompted Twitter to shut down several accounts linked to it, including that of Spencer, who in 2014 was barred from entering Europe’s border-free Schengen area.
“There’s a great purge going on and they’re purging people on the basis of their views,” Spencer has said.