So I won't say it all over again, just most of it. What I have to say here may not come as much of a surprise to those who know what I think of the alt-right.
Steve Bannon, as near as I can gather, is an enabler of the alt-right, and knowingly so. This doesn't mean that he is personally racist or anti-semitic. If I had to bet I would bet that those aren't amongst his (strong) ideological, personal commitments. However, he is entirely reckless about both racism and anti-semitism inasmuch as he has been willing, knowingly and deliberately, to give (as he said himself) a "platform" to the alt-right and to let Breitbart be turned into a gateway drug for the alt-right.
In fact, though he has just this past weekend stated that he has "zero tolerance" for racism, this is patently and even laughably untrue. To give just one example, over a year ago Alex Marlow said that he and Steve Bannon were thinking of giving Breitbart writer Katie McHugh a weekly column after reviewing some extremely racially "edgy" anti-Mexican tweets of hers, including one that referred to Mexicans' "retard dysfunction," to which a liberal news organization had drawn their attention. This sort of insouciant doubling down is as far as possible from "zero tolerance" and is, in fact, quite typical of alt-right modus operandi.
It is not that Breitbart is anything like as nasty a site as a hard-line alt-right site (at least, if one ignores the comboxes at Breitbart). But it is a roadway and a platform for fellow travelers (such as the despicable Milo) and a breeding ground for a variety of nasty alt-right attitudes and ideas. It was Breitbart that published this, to my mind damningly laudatory, "guide" to the alt-right. The article normalizes "human biodiversity theory" and even the allegedly humorous use of neo-Nazi imagery, as long as (you know) it isn't done with real hatred in one's heart. Presumably we are to depend upon Milo and co. to guide us as to which swastikas are tweeted with real hatred and which ones are done by the "joyful" and "fun" "meme team." The article attempts to make the alt-right sound sexy, brilliant, amusing, and cool.
The trouble is that people have short attention spans, and so all that the left can shout is that Bannon himself is personally an anti-semite, which is not strongly supported and even has some evidence against it. At that point those on the right who want to believe that Trump is going to do some good simply stop listening, thinking that this is another case where the left is smearing a good man. In all of this, the complex danger that the ruthless and unscrupulous Steve Bannon actually poses to conservatism goes by the boards, and we get repeated, shallow whitewashes at conservative publications, like this one, for example, by John Zmirak, which makes no attempt to address legitimate concerns about both Bannon and neo-nationalism. (For more on what Zmirak actually knows and is pushing under the rug, see the discussion below.)
The appointment of Bannon has already done harm to conservatism, because the debate over Bannon has motivated people to engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics and to separate themselves from reality.
Hardcore alt-right denialism
--The most extreme example of the proposition that the alt-right literally does not exist that I have seen showed up on Facebook on Thanksgiving Day: Someone on a FB friend's wall seriously floated the conspiracy theory that Richard Spencer and his group of Nazi-saluting kookballs are a hoax, paid for by George Soros to make conservatism look bad. Pointing out that he has a history and a web site and has been around for years did not elicit a mea culpa.
--A similar view I've seen expressed or implied is the proposition that there is no alt-right movement at all and that the word was invented by the left-wing news to smear conservatives. This is often accompanied by a proud display of ignorance as argument: "Well, I've never heard of it before this week!" Well, that's a knockdown argument. It does not seem to dawn on the one making this claim that, in the age of the Internet, a great many sociological movements could be going on their merry way, involving thousands of people, without his ever having heard of them. One of course tries to refute this sort of nonsense by naming some sites (which I would have thought could be found quickly enough using Google): VDare, American Renaissance, Vox Day, Radix Journal, and others have obviously existed a lot longer than this week. For this I've occasionally gotten an, "Okay, thanks, I'll check it out" (that's a triumphant moment for me, because at least it represents a move in the right direction) but have never had anyone come back and say, "I was wrong. This really is a movement, and it's been around for a while. I just didn't happen to know about it before."
Softcore alt-right denialism
--The proposition that "the alt-right" is so incredibly diffuse and diverse a set of people and includes so many different sub-groups and is so unofficial and Internet-y that it should not be thought of as a movement at all and (this is crucial) no ideas, especially no bad ideas, should be attributed to it. Nothing is a movement, apparently, without membership cards, a mailing address, peer-reviewed journals to which one can make footnotes, and elected officials.
--If one sends the doubter to some actual alt-right site, such as VDare or Vox Day, and he sees bad stuff there that is clearly accepted as the core ideas of a movement, he may shift to saying that almost nobody could possibly be influenced by or believe this stuff just because it is so bad and crazy. A version of this actually said to me was, "Isn't that guy some kind of Nazi? Well, who listens to him?" The fact that (as comboxes show) apparently quite a number of people do listen to "this guy" does not move the doubter.
--If one finally convinces a person that yes, this is real, yes, there really are these sites, yes, they've been around for a long time, no, this isn't just a dream in the fevered brain of the left-wing media, and yes, this movement does really coalesce around these various really bad ideas, the next move will often be to say that they can't really do any harm. Usually this takes the form of saying that there can't be all that many alt-rightists, so why talk about them at all or worry about them? Sometimes it takes the form of saying that they are "mostly on the Internet" or are probably mostly youthful losers "living in their parents' basements," so they can't really hurt anybody.
At this point, of course, one should bring up David French , Bethany Mandel, Erick Erickson, and the other journalists French names who have received vile harassment and death threats. One should also mention that SWAT-ing and doxing can be carried out remotely. And apparently some enraged Trump supporters got out of their parents' basements and ended up on Never Trumper Erick Erickson's lawn. And it doesn't bloody matter if they aren't there anymore right now. (I was actually asked, as if to gauge whether the movement is really dangerous, if they're still on his lawn.) How would you like it if they showed up on your lawn?? Erickson shouldn't have to live in a state of literally permanent siege for the rest of his life for ostrich-headed conservatives to admit that we have a problem.
I want to say a word here about threats. The Internet, Twitter in particular, has done something extremely bad to our common life: It has made us blasé about threats. There is a reason why threats are not protected by the First Amendment and are, in fact, illegal. But given that law enforcement would be overwhelmed if it tried to investigate every death threat or rape threat conveyed by Twitter and e-mail as well as those conveyed by phone, text, physical letter, etc., a lot has to go uninvestigated. Law enforcement has to triage. We have to try to guess which threats are likely to result in action. But it shouldn't be that way. Nobody should have to play Russian roulette with his and his family's safety by guessing whether a death threat or a rape threat is "credible" or "serious." In a sense, they are all serious, and all the people who make all of them would be behind bars if things were as they should be.
It is truly sad to see conservatives starting to use phrases like "on the Internet" to downplay the danger and harm caused by threatening and vile harassment. The fact that an electronic means was used to convey the threats and vile harassment that these men and women have received doesn't change the semantic content of the communication. "These people are mostly on the Internet" makes it sound like they literally live in another dimension of reality, as opposed to "These people used a vast network of computers anonymously to convey their evil, threatening, and cowardly communications."
The saying (attributed to Elie Wiesel) goes that, if a man tells you he wants to kill you, you should believe him. That shouldn't have a little asterisk next to it that goes to a footnote that says, "Unless he says it on the Internet. Then he's probably just some loser in his parents' basement, and you shouldn't worry about it."
Whitewashing by redefinition
--This is what Bannon himself is doing directly, and others are joining him. Bannon is now openly redefining the term "alt-right," and here is what he says is his personal meaning for it. "Our definition of the alt-right is younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment."
Even if there were a stable form of being "very nationalist" and "terribly anti-establishment" somewhere in America that was not racist and harassing, the alt-right ain't it. You can't just redefine a term for an existing social movement in order not to have to apologize for giving a platform. (See Ben Shapiro on the redefinition move here.)
Moreover, it has proven incredibly difficult in the U.S. for any group to be very nationalist and very anti-establishment and very anti-globalist while having no problem whatsoever with some form of racialism. Even those who have tried to split those particular hairs have always had to be eternally vigilant--both concerning themselves and concerning their readers and followers. I know whereof I speak, having been for several years a reader and sometimes commenting at the site of the late Lawrence Auster, View from the Right. Eventually I took it off my sidebar for good and sufficient reason. Not that I didn't actually like and even pray for Auster. I also knew that he was genuinely trying to create a forum in which racial issues could be frankly discussed from what might be considered a "far right" viewpoint, without actual racial animus. But the problems proved nearly insuperable, and I decided that the site was actually having a bad effect upon me even as a somewhat detached reader.
The potential problems are not just with active racial animus but also with openness to pseudo-scientific biological racial theories as well as unhealthy obsession with racially motivated crime. For anyone who thinks that there is a great gulf between the ideas of today's alt-right and the ideas of yesterday's paleoconservatism, this speech by the paleoconservative Paul Gottfried is instructive. Gottfried has some claim to have coined the phrase "alternative right." In a speech in 2008 he explicitly dubs VDare and Takimag as the future of the paleoconservative ("alternative right") movement that he founded! He also explicitly bemoans any move toward racial egalitarian ideas in the movement and urges the movement to keep hold of its racialist past:
They [older paleoconservatives] were also preoccupied with sociobiology, a discipline or way of thinking that had influenced them deeply. Today the paleo camp looks markedly different as well as much older, and it shows little interest in the cognitive, hereditary preconditions for intellectual and cultural achievements. And the despair about American society among paleos may be pushing some of them toward the liberal immigrationist camp, providing they’re not already there. Others of this group have become so terrified by those on their left that they pretend not to notice the stark fact of human cognitive disparities. This quest for innocuousness sometimes takes the form of seminars on educational problems centering on endless sermons about values and featuring rotating lists of edifying books. Presumably everyone would perform up to speed if he/she could avail himself/herself of the proper cultural tools. The fact that not everyone enjoys the same genetic precondition for learning is irrelevant for this politically motivated experiment in wishful thinking.The main difference, then, between Gottfried's preferred "sociobiology" and today's alt-right is that Gottfried was genteel and presumably wouldn't have wanted anyone harassed with crude insults or threatened. But it's not as though the older paleoconservative movement, as envisaged by Gottfried and co., had no problems whatsoever with racialist ideas!
Bizarrely, John Zmirak himself must know this, for he himself engaged in a back-and-forth with Paul Gottfried on this very subject of race in that very year (2008). Zmirak wrote in Takimag, and Gottfried eventually responded (to Zmirak, inter alia) in none other than American Renaissance, a blatantly racialist publication, where Gottfried praised the racialist leader of the alt-right, Jared Taylor! Gottfried specifically insisted, in response to and disagreement with Zmirak, that blacks are genetically deficient in their "capacity to produce culture, science, and civility..." Are these the "Jacksonian nationalists" Zmirak wants everybody to keep calm and hang out with? Zmirak even recounted a few months ago that he once got trapped by attending a paleocon conference with an openly white nationalist speaker. He knows the dangers and the lack of clear demarcation lines full-well, and has known them for years, yet in this most recent piece he writes as if no such problem exists!
The association among nationalism, anti-globalism, and racialism is perhaps something of an historic accident in the U.S., but it is a sociological fact nonetheless, and to pretend otherwise is to be wildly irresponsible. There is not some bright line, some hard and fast sociological distinction, between those groups of people who are "very nationalist" and those who are at least in danger of if not openly flirting with racialism. For that very reason anyone who is going to be an immigration hawk (as in fact I generally am myself) or who is going to use "very anti-globalist" language, much less "nationalist" language (as opposed to patriotic language, which is not the same thing) needs to be on guard rather than dismissive of these concerns.
Such a purported distinction coming from Bannon, of all people, is especially a joke, since he himself has scarcely made an effort to make any such distinction in practice. (See the story about Katie McHugh, above.)
Bannon's appointment is, as the Zmirak article itself illustrates, going to increase this type of whitewashing by redefinition and by pretending that hard and fast distinctions exist where they do not. This encourages conservatives to be reckless precisely where they should be careful.
Alt-right anti-establishmentarianism and harassment
Finally, I want to discuss further the way that Bannon's association with the alt-right harms conservatism through the alt-right's ideas about harassment, aside from contentful ideas about race, etc. This, again, is difficult for people to grasp who are focused entirely on a question like, "Is Steve Bannon a racist/anti-semite?" The greater problem is that he's ruthless and vindictive and hates many ordinary conservative politicians and pundits. It is here that his affinity to the alt-right is greatest--in methodology and deliberately cultivated hatred for anyone on the conservative side deemed "establishment." This, I think, explains his liking for the alt-right and his wanting to normalize and continue to associate with it. Both Bannon and his alt-right associates hate conservatives who aren't as edgy as they are, conservatives who have been defined as enemies, Never Trump conservatives, and allegedly "establishment" conservatives (even those who were previously Tea Party candidates).
This article is especially illuminating in this regard. Bannon reveals himself here to be an ideologue in his own right and, simultaneously, to care deeply about tearing down the existing Republican party as an end in itself. This destructive tendency is typical of the alt-right. I had one alt-right commentator at W4 tell me that the booing of Ted Cruz at the RNC was an accomplishment of their movement! In other words, they care far more about destroying those they have dubbed enemies than about positively advancing conservative causes or candidates, even the most brilliant and valuable (like Cruz). Bannon may well (for all I know) have started out with a legislative agenda for the Tea Party that I would have at least partly agreed with. But it looks like he decided he needed to attack the Republican establishment as a means to the end of advancing that agenda (which may have had some strategic truth to it) and eventually came to a) have an extremely expansive concept of "the establishment" and b) consider tearing down this widely defined "establishment" as a goal in and of itself. This latter approach is deeply wrong and deeply disturbing.
Indeed, the greatest practical danger (aside from the ideological dangers) that Bannon poses right now to conservatism is that he will influence Trump away from cooperating with Paul Ryan and the Republicans in the Senate ("establishment") to pass conservative legislation.
Beyond that, Bannon's praise for what he calls being "terribly anti-establishment" is dangerous to the soul of conservatism. Consider the way that the alt-right carries out its project of being "terribly anti-establishment." The cases of David French and Erick Erickson are at the top of the list here, but now I'm going to talk about Ben Shapiro, because he is connected to Breitbart and Bannon: After Ben Shapiro left Breitbart and began criticizing it, he received a lot of vicious anti-semitic and racial harassment. This included a vile tweet from Breitbart's Milo upon the birth of Shapiro's son. That tweet, stating that Shapiro's son was "half-black," alluded to the meaning of the disgusting insult that the alt-right has invented for conservatives they hate. Nonetheless, camp followers of the alt-right will sometimes try to tell you that that isn't the meaning of the insulting term and that there isn't anything wrong with the term. De Nile isn't just a river in Egypt. A camp follower of the alt-right recently told me on Facebook that Milo has never said anything racist (!), and then, after I pointed out this example, began angrily fuming that the only people who object to what Milo says are those who are oversensitive and manipulated by the media. Never mind the fact that I had just refuted his false claim. This is the corruption of conservatism: Vileness isn't vileness. Racist abuse isn't racist abuse.
When Bannon was interviewed at the Republican National Convention, after this abuse of Shapiro had been publicized, he referred to Shapiro as "a whiner." This was the same interview in which he complacently stated that he had made Breitbart a platform for the alt-right. The criticism of Shapiro as a "whiner" (presumably for objecting to the anti-semitic abuse he received) is revealing. This is classic alt-right behavior: When a hated, non-alt-right conservative (or an "SJW") receives abuse and has the gall to mention it, revile him as a whiner, as "playing the victim," etc. Insinuate that either he deserved what he got (because reasons) or that (because reasons) he shouldn't talk about it. That's "whining." Or say both. This same behavior can be seen in other anti-establishmentarians (neo-reactionaries, etc.) who say things such as, "I have little sympathy for David French," blaming French and the others for having the gall to write political commentary under their own names, because abuse and threats are just expected in that case. Actually, no, they aren't. And are we now going to withhold sympathy from anyone who writes political commentary under his own name as being at fault for any subsequent abuse he and his family receive? Or is appalling callousness and victim-blaming reserved for those we disagree with? This "I have no sympathy" attitude both reveals and eggs on the wicked spirit of the bully. Sneer at people who complain about abuse. Portray them as weaklings. Verbally kick them while they're down. Blame the victim. Breitbart published a piece along exactly the same lines, saying that Shapiro was "playing the victim," mocking him, and even containing the breath-taking falsehood, "No one hates Jewish people." Bannon didn't personally write that piece (I assume). But it fits perfectly with his personal, ruthless dismissal of Shapiro as "a whiner."
This bullying, vindictive spirit, this sneering normalization of abuse, is a grave danger to conservatism. It would be entirely possible for Bannon not to harbor personal racism or anti-semitism while being (as he clearly is in the case of Shapiro) a bully who doesn't give a damn about racist and anti-semitic abuse so long as it is directed at those he deems his enemies, the "establishment," that which he wants to burn down in his "Leninist" project. That destructiveness is the spirit of the alt-right (and for that matter, the spirit of neo-reaction), and Bannon appears to have adopted it to the hilt.
The Machiavellians among the alt-right may realize that various forms of alt-right denialism, even the most extreme, work to their advantage. They can do whatever they want, in plain view, and the extreme denialists will still conclude that there's nothing to see here. ("I never heard of it before this week. Probably just an invention of the left.") Moreover, the move within a given person from outright denialism to softcore denialism to downplaying to whitewashing is also to their advantage when it occurs. The end state is a person who thinks in some vague way, "The alt-right isn't so bad after all" or "There is good in the alt-right, and we should appreciate it" or "I guess I'm alt-right" and is thus ripe for being further drawn in and becoming a camp follower of the movement itself. Ben Shapiro talks about this strategy helpfully here. And the process can be begun at one time and picked back up and continued later on. Someone who got as far as, "It's just some losers in their parents' basement being tough on the Internet" or "Who listens to Nazis anyway?" on one day may, if sufficiently motivated (motivated to disagree with the media, motivated to defend Trump and/or Bannon and/or Milo), come back another day and glom onto the dubious "distinction" between the bad, racist alt-right and the allegedly interesting and harmless "nationalist, anti-globalist" alt-right. Or may move to, "Well, people should know better than to criticize the alt-right using their own names. I have no sympathy for them. They should stop whining."
Of course, a given person may settle into one of the states I have described here and never move to another, but that is still a problem, because it represents a disconnection from reality in one way or another.
How many conservatives and erstwhile conservatives will become inured to, shrug off, and even support harassment and abuse of the c---s, the Never Trumpers, and the "establishment"? How many will support evil-doing toward leftists? How many more will turn a blind eye to support for harassment among their fellow conservatives or lend a platform for it? And how much will the divisive appointment of Bannon, and Bannon's influence on Trump, interrupt any opportunity that a Republican presidency would otherwise present for passing conservative legislation? Some of these harms have already begun, and I have witnessed them. Remember when the Never Trumpers said that the greatest harm of a Trump win lay in the damage it would do to conservatives themselves? He isn't even president yet, and it is already happening. How far all of this will go as time goes on remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, if the sunshine treatment will help, I'm quite willing to cooperate in shining the light.