The Alt-Right remains probably the least-understood political phenomenon in the United States right now. There is very little consensus about what those in it stand for, who is in it besides a few celebrities and internet trolls, how many they are, and how powerful they are.
I decided to do some research. I even spent time running around chat boards like Reddit and 4Chan, and reading Breitbart. Fair warning: I have no conclusive answers--but that, in itself, is a finding, suggesting that anyone who is telling you they know that the Alt-Right is such-and-such is probably full of it.
To count, you first have to determine what the Alt-Right is. I've been unable to find a poll that counts the number of Americans that actually identify as Alt-Right, which is a shame, as self-identification is by far the easiest way to do it (imagine trying to count up "environmentalists" in the United States without polls). So let's get started.
What is the Alt-Right?
I hesitate to write even this, but the Alt-Right is a loosely-affiliated political ideology of-a-sort. Calling it an "ideology" is probably too generous, as its views, policies, and underlying philosophy are very poorly defined. There is no unifying underlying political theory or philosophy; there is no authoritative organization (the best shot at this is the National Policy Institute but I'd argue that it's far from authoritative); there is no clear leader (there are a few tinpot-celebrity provocateurs or media trolls that call themselves Alt-Right--probably the best candidate for leader here would be Richard Spencer).
So what, then, is the Alt-Right? Depending on your viewpoint, it falls somewhere between these two places:
- A few extremists whose power is grossly over-estimated due to the amplifying power of the Internet. This is also known as the "4Chan theory."
- All Trump voters and/or all of the GOP, which is sometimes extended to suggest that Republicans or Trump voters are actually Nazis.
Though it is not always the case that the truth lies between the extremes, it is probably the case here. Most observable evidence about the Alt-Right is online in some niche news websites, Reddit, 4Chan, and stuff like Facebook groups. Some selection bias suggests we're going to be seeing some of the worst of humanity on display here. There are many trolls and lots of useless spew in some of these places. But besides a few widely-broadcast TV moments, there's little else to support what we know about them.
What some other journalists (and I) seem to gather from observing a weird amalgam of celebrity-provocateurs like Richard Spencer, YouTube videos, and some online forums, is this:
- The Alt-Right is a specific community/movement, even if loosely organized--that is, even though there are many people that are anti-establishment generally, or don't like conservatives, or are progressive, or anti-immigration, or etc, it doesn't make them the Alt-Right.
- The Alt-Right are not conservative, and they really hate conservatives
- They appear to be mostly white, young males
- They're pretty populist, and many may be for single-payer healthcare and universal basic income
- They're anti-establishment, anti-corporate, and seem to be pretty anti-religious
- They're isolationist, anti-trade, anti-immigration
- They're against multiculturalism, feminism, and political correctness
- Frankly the evidence I see shows that many are white nationalists, and they harbor a bunch of serious racists and anti-everyones. Richard Spencer, who leads the National Policy Institute and founded the Alternative Right, is very explicit about white nationalist policy, and seems to flirt outright with Nazism, quoting Nazi propaganda in the original German.
- They have a strange relationship with Donald Trump: they seem to waver between veneration and condemnation (for not fulfilling their wishes for his presidency so far)
- There are a whole bunch of trolls in the mix and I cannot tell to what extent they believe in which portion of the above and to which extent they are just trolls
The definition we'll use, for someone who is Alt-Right, is this:
- They self-identify as Alt-Right, or
- They hold explicitly a mix of white-nationalist, anti-social progressive, and economic-populist views (as loosely outlined above)
The Alt-Right is not:
- Trump voters
- People who happen to be racist / sexist
- People who hold some subset of the above views/tendencies
Note that if you want to define the Alt-Right differently, the implications for them change. (For example: "All Trump voters are Alt-Right" means the group would include all of the viewpoints and demographics of those 58 million people.)
If you're interested, here's how Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos describe the Alt-Right. It includes pointing to the neo-Nazi elements that they say are unwelcome.
How Big is the Alt-Right?
No real idea, but it's probably pretty small, by the definition we're using above. Again, we can only estimate in the vaguest possible way, but I'm going to argue that they make up less than 1% of the electorate. Let's look at a few disconnected points, many of which are thanks to Scott Alexander, who took this project on before I did and put far more time into it:
- Spencer's infamous Nazi-salute meeting in DC brought in fewer than 300 people. In the words of the Washington Post: "roughly 3,300 fewer than attended a June convention in Reno, Nev., for people who enjoy, among other pursuits, dressing up in anthropomorphic animal suits." (So it was less than 8% of the size of a Reno Furry convention.) There has to my knowledge not been a larger gathering of this sort.
- Before being banned, Reddit's /r/altright had about 5,000 users. 4Chan is harder to count but probably can't have more than 25,000 - 50,000 alt-right users.
- Stormfront has about 30,000 readers.
- Milo Yiannopoulos has 586,000 subscribers on Youtube (are they all Alt-Righters?).
- Outside of that I can find no tangible evidence of the Alt-Right besides the surge in Breitbart views, but it's a stretch at best to say that all or most of these readers are "Alt-Right" anymore than I am a progressive because I read something on the Huffington Post this morning.
(If I have missed some big Alt-Right hotspot, meeting ground, etc, let me know)
Let's just assume there is 0.00% overlap between all those groups. It gets us to about 640,000 people. Let's assume they are all of voting age, and 100% of them voted in the 2016 election. That would make them less than 0.5% of the electorate. (Note: the assumptions are meant to create a possible ceiling.)
For comparison, in 2011 11% of voters preferred Communism (the one that murdered and starved tens of millions of people throughout the 20th century, not the Democratic Socialism of Bernie Sanders) to the US economic/political system. So I'll estimate that Communists are over 22x larger than the Alt-Right.
If you're just looking for hardcore racists as a whole, Alexander makes a case that it's probably not more than 4-5%, compared to:
- 28% of voters who believe the New World Order is trying to create a global government
- 20% who believe there's a link between vaccines and autism
- 13% of voters for Barack Obama believe he's the Antichrist (and 22% of Romney voters)
- 15% believe the pharmaceutical industry creates new diseases to make money.
This is to give a sense of relative size, and how likely any of these groups are to be a substantial voting bloc.
How Powerful is the Alt Right?
In short: most people have never heard of it; almost everyone who has hates them.
In a Pew poll back in December (Pew: gimme some love and update this!), 54% of Americans have heard literally "nothing at all" about the Alt-Right, and 28% had only heard "a little."
If we take the 45% who have heard of it, 34% of those most associate it with "white supremacy," followed by 14% "racism," 12% "extreme right-wing." Republicans hate these guys less than Democrats do, but only 4% of Republicans had anything good to say about them (compared to 2% of Democrats).
Based on the general Wedge theory, this gap would be largely explained by the fact that right-wing media's job is to get people upset about left-wing outrages, and vice-versa. Therefore, right wing consumers hear little about the Alt-Right and the left wing hear about it constantly (in fact liberals are between 1.5x and 2x as likely to have even heard of these guys vs other groups).
As far as national political influence, the Alt-Right is something that is so small most people have never heard of it. Those that have heard of it widely consider it to be a fringe extremist movement, generally agreeing that they're racist, white-supremacist, and generally negative as a whole. I would venture therefore that their political power in the US is marginal.
But what about their Trump card?
How Does Trump Relate to the Alt-Right?
The Alt-Right was energized by Donald Trump in the belief that he would fulfill their dreams. According to Spencer, the era of Trump is for white people an "awakening to their own identity."
But Trump never really embraced the whole white nationalism thing--certainly voters didn't think so. Despite reactions to his comments on the trail, Trump did better with voters of color than Romney. In fact Trump outperformed Romney among black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and other ethnicities by a larger margin than he outperformed Romney among whites. And there was no surge in white turnout. Long story short, it is flat-out wrong to say that Trump won by getting more whites to vote for him than Romney or McCain, and wrong to say that voters of color preferred Romney or McCain more than they did Trump.
And to be frank, it would have been a terrible, awful, no good, sad campaign strategy to try to appeal to white nationalists or the alt right to win an election, as they are a vanishingly small number of people total. If Trump hadn't appealed to a much wider crowd (including winning 29% of the Hispanic vote) he would not have stood a chance. He rejected the KKK's praise of him, said repeatedly that he "disavow[ed] and condemn[ed]" the Alt-Right, and said white supremacism was bad, etc--all of which suggests his campaign strategy was not an overt outreach to the Alt-Right, which is a very small group anyway.
As far as direct appeal to the Alt-Right, the only evidence I've ever seen are Trump retweets of some people that identify as Alt-Right--never anything that is actually a white nationalist statement, but only declarations of how great he is and how awful Clinton is (this happened to include a sticker that was a six-sided star). Since the election ended he seems to have gotten better people to help manage his Twitter account.
I cannot find anything Trump has said (and I have searched through Mother Jones, Vox, etc) that would tell that he is a white nationalist, and I've not seen him say that someone who is not white should be treated differently, is different or worse in any way, etc. (Let me know if I'm wrong and please actually read the quote in full before trying to tell me the "Mexicans are rapists" one).
In summary: Trump has disavowed the Alt-Right, has not said anything substantial that Alt-Right leaders say, and doesn't seem to support the policies of the Alt-Right that are white-nationalist related, as far as I can tell.
But Is He a Subvert Racist?
The "dog-whistle" speculation game is an old one and people approach it with varying levels of rigor. I haven't done the rigorous research to tease out the dog-whistle-racism-ness of Trump's statements and compared them to other people like Mitt Romney, John McCain, George Bush, Bill Clinton, etc.
Whether you call someone a racist also depends how you define "racist," as that could include anywhere from "a few horrible people" to "literally all white people by definition" to "everyone, a little bit, sometimes." I have gotten out of the business of trying to help people reconcile their different definitions of this word. There's certainly substantial evidence that Trump is not anti-Semitic, and the only evidence he has about transgender people is that he's against the North Carolina law. How subvertly racist he is is a matter for speculation, but not directly relevant to the power of the Alt-Right in his presidency unless his racism represents something different from mainstream politicians in the last two decades.
I am not making a general character defense of Donald Trump: what I'm doing is showing that there is little evidence that he has any real alignment with the views of the Alt-Right, and is not an Alt-Right candidate.
What About Bannon?
Of Bannon, Trump's Chief Strategist (which, by the way, is a position the president made up): he said in 2016 that Breitbart (which he led at the time) was "the platform of the Alt-Right." And Breitbart definitely publishes stuff that supports the Alt-Right's seeming positions (and is a loudspeaker for some of their bigger celebrities).
Bannon also claims to disavow what he calls "ethnonationalism," but seems to have taken Breitbart towards the Alt-Right space it lives in today. How much influence does Bannon have over Trump, versus people like Tillerson, Mattis, Pence, Ryan, etc? I don't know.
Bannon is probably the X-factor in whether the ideas of the Alt-Right have any real influence in the White House. But until something comes out of the White House that is in support of masculine white-nationalism, it looks like it would be a stretch to call Trump an Alt-Right president.
I would estimate from this analysis that the Alt-Right's size and power are vastly overblown by their ability to generate viral (but meaningless) memes, their organized sharing of their own content on social media, the outrageous things they say, and others' tireless outrage-fueled reaction to them.