The other day, “Alt-Right” leader Richard Spencer spoke at Texas A&M University, and I went on CNN to discuss his seductive message. What I had to say boiled down to this: First, Spencer is charming and intelligent—not the normal Klansman stereotype. Second, his messaging is shrewd.
His movement is called the Alt-Right or alternative right; the word “alternative” has a young and hip connotation. His organization is the National Policy Institute, which sounds like a harmless think tank. And he often replaces the word “white” with “European,” while talking about how Western Civilization has done so much for the world. This, of course, is true—but the underlying premise is a canard I wrote about back in 2013—which suggested that only white people are suited to live in a free society. (This idea is, by definition, an example of a belief in “white supremacy.”)
In preparation for the CNN segment, I listened to Spencer’s appearance on The Jamie Weinstein Show, where he referred to himself as a “radical.” It got me thinking about how the Alt-Right is (in terms of its appeal) similar to radical Islam. (The huge caveat being that Spencer specifically condemns violence. Radical Islamists see it as a legitimate tool.) Our modern, materialistic society is both sterile and suburban, and it leaves a lot of people feeling empty inside. I suspect the same deep-seated impulses that lead some Muslim Americans to become radicalized are leading some young, white people to become radicalized by the Alt-Right.
This is human nature. George Orwell recognized it decades ago, when he wrote about Hitler’s appeal: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.’”
Modern conservatism, like modern liberalism, seems boring. This is not to say these ideologies are bogus, but they have the disadvantage of having been part of the modern political paradigm for decades. Instead of being revolutionary, these philosophies are about tweaking democracy—about blocking and tackling, not grandiose passes into the end zone. While modern America offers comfort, it’s more fun to be involved in something dangerous and radical. In fact, we yearn for it. People feel called to be a part of something larger than themselves—to be part of building a modern-day Roman Empire.
It’s worth noting that Spencer is relatively young—and that he was speaking at a college campus. He reportedly drew only about a dozen actual attendees, but his message could resonate with a lot of disaffected young men. Aside from economic and social challenges that modern men are confronting, young people are especially susceptible to things that seem daring and romantic. Douglas Hyde, a prominent Communist turned Catholic, captured this scenario well his book Dedication and Leadership,
… I have travelled in nearly every country of the world, and everywhere I have gone, I have found that young people are idealistic. I can only conclude that that is the way God wants them, and I do not believe that it is good sense, quite apart from charity or justice, to sneer at the idealism of youth. Young people will have their dreams; they will dream of a better world; they will want to change the world and if we have no patience with them or make them feel that this is some kind of infantile disease, they will still pursue their idealistic courses; they will do it outside the family instead of within it.
Ultimately, I believe that the most powerful opponent the Alt-Right will have to face is not mainstream conservatism, but rather, Christianity. First, they are polar opposites; the Alt-Right tends to be atheistic and Nietzschean. Second, although American Christianity has become anodyne, at its heart, it is the most revolutionary idea ever to emerge. Real Christianity calls for sacrifice and suffering. Absent a God to worship, people will try to find something to fill the void—a cause to champion, a strongman to elevate. It might take an idea this big—this countercultural—to combat the big lies that are now being told. This isn’t a polite political debate. It’s a clash of profoundly different worldviews.