Follow @neilsteinbergBlinking red light on the phone. A message.
“Neil, this is Arlene K—, I live in Oswego. I really enjoy your columns. Would you please do a column on alt-right and explain it? I don’t know what that’s about, and I’m starting to get worried about it.”
This column is not a lounge band; I don’t take requests.
However, in this case: an excellent question, Arlene, one much in the news.
“Alt-right” is the new, sanitized term that includes a rogue’s gallery of haters, loons, tinfoil-hats, bullies and misfits, united by unmerited self-regard and a contempt for modern American life and most of the people who comprise it. They are a far right fringe, have always been with us, and surged into the public eye lately thanks to the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, Donald J. Trump, who used the rock they live under as the cornerstone of his campaign.
When Trump says “America is a hellhole and we’re going down fast” or when he says political correctness is “killing” America, he is speaking alt-right, or a more formal version, like “vous” versus “tu” in French, the plural, polite form more suited to a national political election.
Think of it as an abbreviated code where he leaves out the subordinate clauses: “America is a hellhole and we’re going down fast . . .” is articulated, while “because we’ve got all these Mexicans and Muslims who must go” is implied. “Political correctness is killing America . . .” is spoken, while “by making it harder to mock gays and plaster Confederate flags on our trucks” is understood.
Follow @neilsteinbergIn pre-Internet days, these people found each other in marginal groups that occasionally reared into prominence: the Klan, the John Birch Society, the American Nazi Party. They liked to arm themselves and parade around and pretend to be significant, fantasizing that the world is about to go through some kind of cataclysm and collapse so they, by merit of their superior firepower and Aryan bloodline, will become kings — or at least find a girl to like them.
None of this is new. In fact, it’s very old. The same old poison in a new bottle, and that bottle is the Internet. The online world is a masked ball for haters, one vast pointy white hood, because they can skulk, identify and attack victims and never experience the scorn that actual decent and patriotic Americans feel for them.
Now they can create flashy websites that seem more impressive than the former brochures left on bus station urinals. Create mocking memes to hoover up recruits from isolated backwaters and get their wink-wink hate speech blasted through the megaphone of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
Trump is Pied Piper to these people, leading them from their caves, from within their dim chat rooms, blinking into the light of his rallies, where they can scream and wave signs, giddy to be out in public, in the living world, and declare that this is their country, gosh darn it, and no miserable brown peon is going to crawl across the Rio Grande and take it from them.
Arlene, your worry is well-placed. They’re scary people, bullies and trolls loping around online, looking for 14-year-olds to terrorize. Though take comfort. They’re too cowardly to cause much actual harm. Trump will likely lose. But even if he wins, our country is what it is, going where it is going whether Trump bars the doorway to the future or not. The alt-right view of America is distorted in the fun-house mirror of their fear. Republicans can ignore facts, but facts do not ignore Republicans.
Yes, leadership is important too. The biggest difference between the United States in 1933 and Germany in 1933 is that one got Franklin D. Roosevelt to run it, and the other ended up with Adolf Hitler. The results speak for themselves. The whole Third Reich thing, it ended badly for the Germans. Fear not; Trumpism ends badly, whether in November — please God — or in the years afterward.