You can learn everything you need to know about the “alt-right” by looking at the man who popularized its name. Credit goes to Richard Spencer, head of the white supremacist National Policy Institute (NPI), and one of the country’s leading contemporary advocates of ideological racism.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, Spencer keynoted an NPI conference in Washington, D.C. Over the course of his speech, he approvingly quoted Nazi propaganda, said that the United States is meant to be a “white country,” and suggested that many political commentators are “soulless golem” controlled by Jewish media interests.
That, in a nutshell, is the face of the so-called alt-right. As Spencer himself has said, the core of alt-right ideology is the preservation of “white identity.”
So you might wonder what, if anything, distinguishes the alt-right from more hidebound racist movements such as the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. The answer is very little, except for a bit of savvy branding and a fondness for ironic Twitter memes. Spencer and his ilk are essentially standard-issue white supremacists who discovered a clever way to make themselves appear more innocuous — even a little hip.
A reporter’s job is to describe the world as it is, with clarity and accuracy. Use of the term “alt-right,” by concealing overt racism, makes that job harder.
The ploy worked. News outlets such as CNN and the New York Times, always a little shy when it comes to identifying racism by its true name, have taken to using “alt-right” in headlines instead. The term is flexible enough that Steve Bannon, a top adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, can boast that he turned Breitbart News into “a platform for the alt-right” while simultaneously denying any association with white nationalist movements. Richard Spencer’s marketing campaign has made it possible for leading conservative figures to make common cause with neo-Nazis and Klansmen while dodging any accusations of personal racism.
Spencer and Bannon are of course free to describe themselves however they’d like, but journalists are not obliged to uncritically accept their framing. A reporter’s job is to describe the world as it is, with clarity and accuracy. Use of the term “alt-right,” by concealing overt racism, makes that job harder.
With that in mind, ThinkProgress will no longer treat “alt-right” as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members. We will only use the name when quoting others. When appending our own description to men like Spencer and groups like NPI, we will use terms we consider more accurate, such as “white nationalist” or “white supremacist.”
“White nationalist” refers to a specific ideology held by many of those who adopt the “alt-right” label. A white nationalist is someone who believes the United States should be governed by and for white people, and that national policy should radically advance white interests. White supremacists are a broader and more inchoate group, composed of those who believe in the innate superiority of white people.
We won’t do racists’ public relations work for them.
We will describe people and movements as neo-Nazis only when they identify as such, or adopt important aspects of Nazi rhetoric and iconography.
The point here is not to call people names, but simply to describe them as they are. We won’t do racists’ public relations work for them. Nor should other news outlets.