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Politics & Polls #13: The Alt-Right

September 29th, 2016, 3:36pm by Sam Wang

Julian Zelizer and I had the pleasure of interviewing historian Rick Perlstein on the subject of the “alt-right.” Fringe movements on the right have been around a long time, and Perlstein has studied these movements deeply, starting with his classic book Before The Storm. It was a fascinating conversation – take a listen.

Tags: Politics

35 Comments so far ↓

  • Ed Wittens Cat

    Thank you Dr Wang and Dr Zelizer
    that was just incredibly good.
    Has Rick Perlstein done any analysis on Palinism?
    its amazing to me to read news stories about Sarah Palin today… but she was essentially controlled by the high church repubs until the election was over– Trump is not submitting to controls– its more like a hostile take-over.
    I think the perception that Trump could win is bringing some reluctant GOP base on board.
    That is why Trump is citing online polls as proof he won the debate.

  • Ed Wittens Cat

    and i want to read that book altho i dislike political “science” in general– its too soft.
    If race is indeed the animating factor of the GOP base– polarization and RW extremism is going to get a whole lot worse going forward.
    US was 88% white in 1980 and is 69% white in 2016.
    Paul Ryan and the Heritage foundation have made a devil’s bargain it seems. Even if Trump wins (i doubt it, not just because of PEC but mostly because i worked on OFA in 2012) the GOP brand has taken incredible damage.

  • Tapen Sinha

    Fascinating discussion about the roots of “conservatism”. This ties in nicely with the LA Times story today.

    • Jim H

      All of which raises the question : Is Trump a one off or will the next Republican nominee be an even greater white supremacist?

    • Josh

      If this year’s GOP nomination process showed us anything, it’s that there was a disconnect between the political wishes of rank and file GOP voters and the official and unofficial party leaders. This was manifest in obvious ways like #NeverTrump.

      If Trump loses–and especially if he loses badly–the short term problem the GOP’s party apparatus will have to deal with is to find a way to realign its wishes with those of its voters. This may mean purging party officials or kowtowing to certain voter demands. If HRC wins, I predict more than a few rolling heads at RNC headquarters. It’s certainly possible the party and its voters will be able to get their goals into alignment before 2020. If that’s the case, they should (theoretically) be more competitive in that election.

      The longer term, and, IMHO, more serious problem, is that even if the party and its voters repair the frayed wiring, they’ll still be running on a largely white nationalist platform in a country that is becoming less white every minute. Gerrymandering, state-level domination, and certain other available levers of political power will keep the GOP relevant, but as long as the party continues to run candidates overtly or covertly on white nationalist platforms, it’s hard to see them ever being able to fully control Washington the way they did from the early 1990s until the mid-2000s.

      So the long(ish) answer to your question is: yes, we will absolutely see more white nationalist candidates like Trump. They may not all be as brazen or unapologetic as he is, but absent a major shift in the GOP’s electorate, they’ll keep nominating people who see the world as they do.

  • Jay Sheckley

    Let me know if I’m going against message, but giving another listen to Woocast 12 seems to set 13 in context. For the policies and views of the alleged alt right have grown firmly from GOP roots.
    And here comes the next debate. We’ll find VP candidate Indiana Governor Pence less transparent than Trump, more dignified, in his determined striving toward what seems to me the same goals. How much more credit and creditability he gains from crowd-pleasing hair and knowing when to laugh remains to be seen. Pence can work with Ryan and doesn’t disagree with Trump, except to seek to marginalize _more_ Americans . To both, freedom is defending the right to deny others’ rights. David Letterman said,”This isn’t the Indiana I remember. Folks were just folks. It may be legal but it ain’t right.”

  • Toby Charleston

    I found this discussion to be extremely enlightening, especially tracing the historical tensions between the mainstream Buckley conservatives and the fringe elements of the movement. You should have Mr. Perlstein back again.

  • Keith Romig

    Perlstein is one of the most insightful long-view political analysts this country has, maybe the most insightful. and his books, though heavily annotated, are far more accessible to the ordinary reader than most tomes with equivalent levels of information.

  • OldenGoldenDecoy

    Sam… Thanks for the podcast.

    Watching all of this alt-right business from the perspective of a now grumpy old 70 year old white very very LIBERAL male individual who has traveled the world and lived through the rise of the Birchers radical xenophobia, racism. and Antisemitism wrapped in anti-communism in Southern California, in addition to the 60s Watts riots, and the white militia insanity of the 70s, 80s, and 90s–I can only say to the sensible educated progressive/liberal young people among us–educate yourselves, understand the nexus of the issue, and do not engage on their turf or terms.

    As far as Trump? VOTE! and deny the opportunity for this ilk of the pseudo “conservative” wing to attain a place or voice in the high office of President.

  • Reginald

    The high church vs low church analogy. It will be interesting, if not scary, to see where the conservative momvement goes from here

    • Reginald

      Meant to say I appreciated the analogy of high vs low church of the Republican Party outlined by the interviewee

  • Josh

    For all those interested in the history of Western conservative politics, I’d strongly recommend “The Conservative Tradition” audio lecture from the Great Courses. I happened to finish just a few days before listening to this podcast and the crossover references were extremely interesting. The lecture itself as about as even-handed as it gets, and the speaker betrays no bias that I could detect in one direction or the other.

    But one of the prevailing themes throughout the series is how much of conservative tradition was and continues to be built upon a fundamentally undemocratic foundation. The concepts of equality and democracy we now more or less take for granted were controversial in conservative circles for longer than I had realized. And it is not terribly difficult to see how a group that tends to perpetually support existing power dynamics might tolerate and tacitly encourage those on the alt-right.

    I’m not sure where Trump and the alt-right would fit in all of this, as the lecturer wisely chose to end his series more or less with the Reagan / Bush I years. He references Bush II and Obama and contemporary speakers, but refrains from offering much analysis of these more current events. For a fairly detailed journey through conservatism from the late 1600s through the 1980s , though, this is a great reference.

    • Phoenix Woman

      Yup. People don’t realize that from the fall of the Roman Empire to the sixteenth century, absolute monarchy was a nonexistent concept in Europe. Kings couldn’t just assume the throne, but often had to pass muster with their country’s great councils or parliaments, especially if the kings were juveniles or mentally deficient. In England, yeomen and many other commoners had for centuries possessed the right to vote, until Henry VI (quite possibly England’s worst ruler) took that right away from them.

  • Spotted Toad

    Meh, a fair number of the so called alt-right are just obnoxious high school kids who’ve decided that sending Nazi pictures to journalists is more fun than knocking over mailboxes- the frog-meme story that the Washington Post published and that Hillary drew from in her speech was mostly literally based on e-mail interviews with two high school kids. I don’t think the alt-right is “behind” Trump’s candidacy- they’re not the reason huge numbers of people showed up at his rallies or voted for him. The alt-right says something about the appeal of political shock theatre that Trump tapped into in different ways, though.

    • Ed Wittens Cat

      The alt-right is using Trump’s candidacy to normalize their extreme ideology–
      and we should all be very worried– as the demographic timer ticks down to a majority minority electorate–
      are the all hbd (human biodiversity) guys like Sailer, Derbyshire, Cochran, Murray and Khan alt-right scientists?
      That is pretty terrifying to me if there is a science cohort within the alt-right.

    • Michael

      Not to go all Godwin on you, but the same was said of you-know-who in you-know-where.

    • Matt McIrvin

      There has always been a science or “science” cohort among the white supremacists. Before them it was people like Jensen and Shockley. Before them, it was pretty much mainstream.

    • Ed Wittens Cat

      its not just high jinks when u see socio-cultural pariahs like Steve Sailer and David Duke crawl out from under their rocks to gloat over Trumpism.
      FYI they know Trump is gunna lose and plan to leverage his loss into their gain. Sailer proposed Ann Coulter to inherit the mantle.
      and check this out– normalizing crazy shit like armed insurrection against the elected president with star wars memes

    • Spotted Toad

      We are commenting on the blog of someone who, what, went to CalTech when he was fifteen, studied physics and then became a neuroscientist before switching part-time over to political analysis and prediction, becoming nationally prominent despite taking it on as more-or-less a hobby.

      If the g-factor isn’t a meaningful construct it is news to me.

      More seriously, the hypothesis that differences in measured IQ within a single society and at a certain point in time are largely due to genetics has been supported pretty strongly in the decades since Jensen was pilloried for arguing it in 1969.

      For example, about 10 percent of the variation in UK educational attainment can be predicted from a genotypic score –

      And the same score was then used to predict 17 percent of the variation in an Estonian sample- comparable to self-reported socioeconomic status or IQ at age 7 in predicting educational attainment.

      That’s quite aside from decades of twin and adoption studies saying that the heritability of measured intelligence and educational attainment is very high indeed- for example over 60% in another recent UK study.

      There are dozens of reasons to oppose Trump, but thinking genes strongly influence outcomes, as Huffington Post alleged was a “horrible thing to believe” yesterday, is not one of them.

    • Sam Wang

      Public discussions of heritability, environment, and mental abilities tend to get tangled up with the mostly-unrelated concept of race, for reasons of prejudice and political preference. Here is my review of Nicholas Wade’s toxic and misleading book. I find Wade’s fixation (and the fixation of others named by Ed Wittens Cat) to be an unwanted detour. Genetic variation is large within a single “race” – conversely, people are mostly similar to one another worldwide. Mentioning race speaks more to our prejudices than to a desire to understand the nature of intelligence.

      Put it another way: statistically, given the law of sqrt(N), differences within a racial group are so great that a person’s race reveals little to nothing about his/her genetically-originated potential.

      Spotted Toad’s comment generally factchecks. 10-17% of the variance is an accomplishment scientifically, but it is not at all clear how applicable the findings will be, at least in the way that the race/intelligence crowd wants. Note that this work builds on preceding work that probed genetic contributions to intelligence are extremely widely distributed across the genome – see the original study which did GWAS on over 120,000 subjects.

      In the last link (“for example over 60%”), Plomin’s discussion is pretty good. To consider just g-factor, the basic idea is that “g” is about 50% heritable, 50% driven by environmental factors (under certain assumptions of how the variances combine). That leaves quite a lot of room for environment to explain most differences between “races.” Also, note that environment encompasses all nongenetic factors, including prenatal/postnatal factors such as nutrition, maternal health, stress, and toxicants. And of course it includes all the socioeconomic factors such as peers, family, and schooling. Since environmental factors can be improved with societal effort, and might account for much or all of the difference between races, why would anyone focus on race?

  • Phoenix Woman

    Thanks for talking about the 1966 midterms. And showing that the GOP was road-testing the Southern Strategy in preparation for 1968.

    Trump’s appeal is all about the bigotry. Period.

    He won the lily-white Republican base by being openly bigoted where his GOP rivals, mindful of the eventual need to pivot to the general election, confined themselves to increasingly ineffective dog whistling. That’s the power of bigotry among American whites.

    It’s the same bigotry that so frightened FDR that it kept him from extending the New Deal to apply to blacks as well as whites (and kept him from openly citing saving European Jews as a reason to go to war against Hitler). The same bigotry that punished LBJ for doing what FDR feared to do.

    The same bigotry that is so immovable that it ensured Barack Obama in 2012 got slightly less a percentage of the white vote than did Mike Dukakis in 1988.

    The same bigotry that studies show is just as prevalent among white Millenials as it is among their parents.

    So why did Obama win? Why will Hillary win? Because while the percentage of non-bigoted whites hasn’t increased, the overall percentage of non-white people definitely has. People of color are now nearly 40% of the electorate, and still growing.

    This point is something white progressives are loath to admit. Very loath.

    They want to think that a Bernie Sanders would win over their fellow whites, and they plug their ears when you try talking to them about the Southern Strategy, or the intractable nature of white identity politics that keeps most American white voters placing racial, religious and/or cultural concerns over their own economic interests. (See also: Kentucky gubernatorial election, November 2015, when white Kentuckians voted for a man who ran on taking away their excellent state health insurance exchange because he TIG-welded himself to anti-gay county clerk Kim Davis.)

    The no-struggle-but-class-struggle “New Left” Naderite types have to realize that economic appeals to the white working class are powerless in the face of the half-century-old Southern Strategy that strongly links government social spending to POC. Even union membership is no guarantee that white working-class voters will resist the Southern Strategy – just look at Wisconsin.

    The good news for the no-struggle-but-class-struggle folks is that Americans are indeed becoming more progressive. But it’s not because whites are becoming more progressive. It’s because Americans are becoming less white.

    And that is that.

    • Spotted Toad

      This argument completely leaves out changes in Democratic and Democratic-affiliated groups’ behavior as causal variables, as well as in the general culture. I don’t just mean “Republicans are reacting against Obama” or “white people are resistant to an increasingly diverse society”- those may both be true. Iny view, there was a sea change in the intensity of identity politics in the last four years, not just on social media or on college campuses or in the actions of the Justice Department but in almost every corner of the country.

    • Phoenix Woman

      Spotted Toad: White attitudes towards POC, at least as expressed in the voting booth, have remained remarkably stable over the past fifty years.

      Contrary to popular progressive belief, whites didn’t start leaving the Democratic Party in 1966 because they thought LBJ was a neoliberal. They left because he thought he was a POC-lover. (Except they wouldn’t have used the term “POC”.)

      Let’s look at that period of 1966 for a moment. The white middle class was in excellent shape, the best it would ever be. So was the overall economy. America’s involvement in Vietnam had not yet become unpopular. Yet white voters chose to punish the party that had made their prosperity possible. Why? Because the GOP dumped tons of subtle and not-so-subtle bits of racial dogwhistling at them. Perlstein’s books have the details, some of which were hinted at in this podcast.

      That’s why the Southern Strategy – which, remember, proposes cutting rich guys’ taxes and thus cutting social spending (aka “government”, said with a snarl) as a way to hurt anyone not WASP or straight – has vaulted the GOP to political dominance over the decades, and why the only thing that’s ever effectively counteracted it is the rise, both in numbers and in percentage of the voting pie, of people of color.

      From :

      “When it comes to explicit prejudice against blacks, non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different than whites belonging to Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). White millennials (using a definition of being born after 1980) express the least prejudice on 4 out of 5 measures in the survey, but only by a matter of 1 to 3 percentage points, not a meaningful difference. On work ethic, 31 percent of millennials rate blacks as lazier than whites, compared to 32 percent of Generation X whites and 35 percent of Baby Boomers. (Question wording and methodology at the end).


      “The fact that today’s young whites are not much different from their elders on racial prejudice shouldn’t be all that surprising, as it matches past research on policies designed to alleviate racial inequality. Comparing ANES surveys over two decades, University of Michigan political scientist Vincent Hutchings found “younger cohorts of whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988” in a 2009 article.

      “Whatever expectation that millennials’ diverse racial makeup would spawn especially tolerant views has not yet come true.”

    • George

      I am always leery of the “one reason to explain them all” approach. I agree that the racist/xenophobic contingent is ‘yuge’ but also think that the impact of authoritarian personality is also important. I remember first reading about that way back in my high school days – when introduced to try to explain Stalin and Hitler, and then sort of fading into the woodwork over the subsequent decades – only to resurface to try to help understand a large contingent of the Republican voting base. But we have our own small share of authoritarians on the left that we have to watch out for as well.

    • Phoenix Woman

      By the way, another popular progressive myth – that American non-voters stay home because they don’t like their choices or candidates or just don’t care – has been neatly exploded by three successive Census Bureau polls. Seems that at the very most, only around a quarter of the electorate feel that way:

    • Phoenix Woman

      George: The reason I focus on white racism and its electoral intractability is that it’s the big fat elephant in the room that the major US media don’t like to discuss. It is hands down the most powerful factor in U.S. politics, and it’s almost never discussed honestly in places the average American is likely to see it.

      It’s why the Southern Strategy has led the Republican Party to seven presidential election victories since 1966, as well as control of Congress for the better part of the past quarter-century and current control of most of the nation’s statehouses and Governor’s Mansions.

      Trump’s blatant racial appeals are why he’s the GOP’s nominee. Yet they, and the fact that non-Hispanic whites are down to barely 60% of the electorate and falling, are also why he’s going to lose in November. Live by the Southern Strategy, die by it.

  • Harold Bridges

    Liked the discussion with Pearlstein. Wish it was longer to hear RP’s thoughts on the Tea Party, among others. Why isn’t it longer? What does it mean to “run out of time” on a podcast anyway?

  • Trump+Democratic Congress?

    The discussion was uneven in quality. The divide is better described as globalist versus nationalist not high church, low church, which is labeling that obscures the fact that the Trump movement is in large part about rejecting globalization, neo-liberalism and Reagan-Ryan Republicanism. Trump’s main demographic consists of a lot of the victims of neo-liberalism.

    • Michael Coppola

      There are nowhere near enough actual victims of neoliberalism to constitute Trump’s main demographic. The median Trump supporter is a beneficiary of neoliberalism who perceives him/herself to be a victim of preventable demographic shifts.

    • Trump+Democratic Congress?

      The demographic shifts were definitely preventable because they have come about as a result of deliberate public policy. How have Trump’s core supporters (downscale whites) concretely benefited from these shifts?

      I’m always open to sincere criticism and an opportunity to learn something.

    • 538 Refugee

      19 states have refused to expand Medicaid thereby depriving some “downscale whites” from benefiting. These have all been Republican decisions. The real “deliberate public policy” here is Republican obstructionism designed to keep people unhappy to try and hold onto power.

  • Amitabh Lath

    This discussion is interesting, it clarifies that the electorate may diagonalize better with nationalist-tribal vs. pro-racial-coastal-values eigenvalues than it does with traditional Democrat/ Republican axes.

    Certainly christian evangelicals being extremely divided, with white evangelicals being largely Republican and black evangelicals being largely Democratic only makes sense when you ignore the “christian” part and focus on race.

    But we need a more quantitative discussion. How big is this alt-right cohort? In what states? And how is that evolving over time? How do we go about measuring this?