Authoritarianism, a characteristic of the far-right, has developed anew in the 21st century and has presented itself in multiple guises and in multiple loci to an extent that poses an increased threat and risk to democratic societies. For good or ill, I choose to label this phenomenon as the Alternative Right (Alt-Right), although recognizing that others may have a narrower definition for the Alt-Right or may prefer the label Radical Right. My definition of Alt-Right is: (1) as an ideology, the spectrum of right-wing world-views outside traditional conservatism, which begins with dissatisfaction with the mainstream political process and character and a frustration with perceived impotence of traditional conservatism, and runs through populist, hard-right, ultra-right and extreme-right ideology, and (2) as an identifiable group, those who have such world-views. This definition ensures that populist radicalism is fully captured and so avoids the pretence that somehow it is less dangerous than more hard-line views e.g. since it provides mass support for policies and electoral success by hard-line politicians as witnessed in Italy, Hungary and the US. However, the problems of definition remain: for example, how does one capture in a definition the characteristic indignant anger of Alt-Right protagonists?
My latest book The New Authoritarianism: A Risk Analysis of the Alt-Right Phenomenon is a two-volume anthology of chapters from 13 authors, which considers from a risk perspective the current phenomenon of Alt-Right authoritarianism in the US and Europe and whether it represents ‘real’ democracy or an unacceptable hegemony potentially resulting in elected dictatorships and abuses as well as dysfunctional government. The characteristics of the far-right are examined and concur with the UK far-right overview by Lee (2019) commissioned by the Commission for Countering Extremism and with Pettigrew (2017).
Alt-Right Contradictions and Juxtapositions
There are notable observations on the internal contradictions of Alt-Right ideology and conduct. For example:
On the one hand, the Alt-Right claim to offer freedom against alleged oppression by national and/or federal governments, alleged abuses by large corporate interests and globalisation, alleged suffocation of the populace by damaging liberal ideas, and alleged failure to stop immigration as a source of alien creeds and cultures that are an ‘obvious’ driver of crime, unemployment, terrorism and the replacement of the native white Christian population by a multi-ethnic multi-religious chimera. Many Alt-Right parties and movements include the word ‘freedom’ in their titles (e.g. in Austria, Netherlands). On the other hand, Alt-Right leaders typically form close alliances with corporate interests to the detriment of society and enjoy the support and largesse of “wealthy oligarchs, financiers, newspaper proprietors, and business tycoons (e.g. Arron Banks, Robert Mercer, William Regnery II…. – and of course Donald J. Trump), the very Establishment that the same Alt-Right say they will overturn”. Existing liberal elites are being supplanted by new illiberal ones and socialist terminology and concepts are being hijacked by the radical right. As historian Michael Burleigh noted drily (The Times, May 28, 2018, page 24), this new Alt-Right Establishment has “adopted ‘the people’ in the way a regiment acquires a goat as a mascot”. Aurelien Mondon (2017) argued that “the concept of ‘the people’ has been taken away from its traditional emancipatory character usually defended by the left and become the embodiment of a nationalist reactionary wave, reinforcing here the fear of the masses”. (See also David Neiwert’s 2017 book, which analyses in detail the traits and tropes of this new elite). Moreover, the so-called ‘freedom’ that the Alt-Right offers is reserved exclusively for those it regards as the most deserving (i.e. themselves and favoured classes based on nativism and typically white Christian identity), while necessarily denying such freedom to the poor, the vulnerable, immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, and political opponents, all of whom it regards as an underclass of worthless victims/losers. Such juxtaposed classification is typical of social dominance orientation and authoritarianism (Pettigrew, 2017). The continuing importance of this theme was illustrated on July 17, 2019 when Donald Trump at a political rally orchestrated chants of “Send them back” regarding four political opponents having a non-white immigrant parentage. The freedoms the Alt-Right demands for itself are not the same freedoms expected by its opponents, such as liberals and the ‘loser’ underclass. The Alt-Right’s freedoms are all egregious, seeking to coerce, control or harm the underclass or dupe and manipulate wider society e.g. ‘freedom of speech’ meaning freedom to express racial or religious hatred and incitement to violence, while attacking press freedom in order to suppress critical public scrutiny of it.
The Alt-Right’s ‘Alternative Universe’
The psychology of fear, Islamophobia, and radicalisation, and the conduct of high profile Alt-Right demagogues, rhetoricians, and extremists have received much examination e.g. Neiwert (2017), Pettigrew (2017), Waring (2018, 2019). Also becoming clear is how Alt-Right ideology and assertions have begun to permeate down into society from Alt-Right regimes (e.g. Hungary, Italy and US) or mainstream parties heavily influenced by Alt-Right groups and their ideas (e.g. Austria, Germany and potentially Britain). For example, rejection of science in favour of pseudo-scientific theories that support Alt-Right beliefs and agendas, such as human-created climate change being based on ‘fake science’ and a conspiracy by anti-capitalists, liberals, and left-wing activists to spread fear and undermine national economies. As Neiwert (2017) put it, the Alt-Right have created an ‘alternative universe’ of invented facts and strange and often conspiratorial explanations to replace known facts and scientific explanations. Moreover, the Alt-Right is characterised by their keenness to believe in easily disprovable falsehoods. Alt-Right science denial has also been influential not only in political evasion of climate control and environmental protection (e.g. Trump) but also in child anti-vaccination campaigns, especially against Measles, Mumps and Rubela, which have resulted in measles epidemics in France and Italy and some fatalities. Nationalist imperatives have seen Alt-Right regimes and their supporters execute controversial zero-sum economic theories in the pursuit of making their country supposedly more secure e.g. Trump’s trade wars with China, the EU and others.
In an overall analysis, there is a need to avoid over-focussing on high profile policy issues, such as Islamophobia, radicalisation and trade wars, in order re-focus on commonplace ‘lesser’ far-right risks that may be just as insidious and damaging. It is the humdrum, low profile, routine, day-to-day and ad-hoc expressions of far-right beliefs that are likely to facilitate creeping authoritarianism and to embed itself in the fabric of state and public policy, employing organisations and corporate policy, and professional practice. As Lee (2019) notes, whereas personal predispositions and thematic narratives predominate on anti-minorities, demographic threats, conspiracism, anti-elites, and historical revisionism, a premeditated organisation and ideological focus are not evident in most activities by far-right supporters. For example, Copsey et al (2013) found that most hate crimes – rather than by organised far-right groups – were committed by individual sympathisers-at-large, characterised by their ‘ordinariness’, on an opportunistic or spontaneous basis. As a participant observer in corporate boardrooms for decades, where biases and prejudices are often masked by impression management and double-speak, I can attest to innuendo and slurs from individuals of a racial or religious nature, whether subtle or not, being neither abnormal nor always censured. Amoral calculation among populist far-right supporters is legion.
Amoral Calculation Against ‘The People’
As an example of amoral calculation, some employers have enthusiastically sought for a return to Victorian attitudes and standards in the employer-employee relationship and they are aided and abetted in this by the stated policies of Alt-Right parties (e.g. UKIP, AfD) and regimes in power (e.g. Trump). Radical right-wing academics such as George Reisman (Mises articles passim, 2003-2008) and employer groups have openly argued for a wholesale dismantling of environmental and occupational safety & health protections. The Trump administration has already begun diluting and curbing such protections. As I argued in a recent Safety Science article, advances in occupational safety & health over the past 200 years (the five pillars) and the benefits derived are at risk of being significantly reversed by a return to Reisman’s authoritarian, 19th century model of simple hire-and-fire employment, minimal safety systems, volenti non fit injuria defences, and even ‘danger money’ bartering for higher wages. Contracting-out, zero-hour contracts, and the ‘gig’ economy provide a convenient vehicle for some employers to implement pathological Alt-Right economic theories and policies that glorify amoral calculation and dismiss employee injuries and ill-health as merely collateral damage. ‘The People’, now so beloved in populist far-right rhetoric, appear not to include the workforce.
Far-Right Entryism and Subversion of Mainstream Conservative Parties
Masking of Alt-Right proclivities by dissimulation, impression management and double-speak is not confined to the boardrooms and executives of bad employers. For example, mainstream conservative parties have been infiltrated by Alt-Right protagonists who seek, often covertly and surreptitiously, to persuade their host to adopt a more far-right tone and policies. Such ‘fifth columnist’ insurgencies have occurred, for example, in the US where large numbers of Republican Party congress members deny they are Alt-Right or Radical Right but support far-right tropes, policies and instruments. As Roger Paxton observes in the final chapter of The New Authoritarianism, “With few dissenters, the Republican Party stood by as Trump repeatedly displayed bigotry, ignorance and contempt for science, facts, and the compromises required for democracy to function”. On the Charlottesville Massacre in August 2017, after which Trump commented that “some very fine people” had marched alongside the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, Paxton also noted that of 146 Republican state party Chairs and National Committee members asked whether they were satisfied with the President’s comment and whether they approved it, only 7 expressed any criticism or disagreement. A similar picture emerged after Trump’s vilification in July 2019 (see above) of four non-white Democratic Congresswomen on racial and ethnic grounds who had been critical of his policies, implying that they were unpatriotic because of their origins and stating they should ‘go back’. Fewer than 50 Republican lawmakers out of 250 voiced any criticism or censure (UK Reuters, July 18, 2019).
The book reports on infiltration of the UK Conservative Party membership by members or former members of far-right parties or groups such as UKIP, Britain First, and English Defence League. Many members of the European Research Group (ERG), the staunchly pro-Brexit faction of Conservative Party MPs, exhibit far-right characteristics, such as authoritarian nationalist and nativist commentary and a tendency to utter strident, intimidating Alt-Right rhetoric in tune with such populist far-right leaders as Nigel Farage of the Brexit Party and Gerard Batten of UKIP, and such hard-right activists as former EDL leader Tommy Robinson (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon). Senior ERG member Jacob Rees-Mogg MP was widely criticised in April 2019 for retweeting a video from the German far-right party AfD. On 29 March 2019, Mark Francois MP, the deputy leader of the ERG, along with Nigel Farage leader of the populist far-right Brexit Party, addressed a ‘March to Leave’ protest rally in Whitehall. Francois’ delivery was reportedly characteristically bombastic, hectoring, bullying and menacing. Coincidentally and within eyesight of this rally, Gerard Batten the UKIP leader, and Tommy Robinson the former EDL leader with multiple criminal convictions to his name, were addressing their own ‘Make Brexit Happen’ protest rally. The far-right language and tone of the two rallies was indistinguishable. The strident clamour for a hard ‘no deal’ Brexit, while dismissing the high risk of extremely damaging direct and indirect consequences for the population, represents a glorification of amoral calculation. For them, Brexit is not an end in itself but a convenient stepping-stone to a permanent Alt-Right governance of Britain.
More recently, as a further example, the new head of Conservative premier Boris Johnson’s social media team, Chloe Westley, is reported (Oliver Wright, The Times, July 26, 2019, page 8) to have described Anne Marie Waters, the former deputy leader of Pegida UK (linked to the German Pegida far-right anti-Islam group) who jointly launched Pegida UK with Tommy Robinson, as a “hero” whose work should be widely published. Waters is recorded as demanding a complete ban on immigrants from Islamic countries, deportations, and compulsory closure of mosques. There is already wide speculation about a potential electoral pact between the Conservatives and populist far-right Brexit Party. Moreover, with his determination to push through a highly controversial no-deal Brexit on 31 October 2019 and his prorogation of Parliament which would, in effect, prevent Parliamentary scrutiny and debate, many have concluded that this amounted to an attempted putsch by the executive against the legislature whereby the risk of elected dictatorship and a permanent Alt-Right stamp on the governance of Britain would come much closer.
While outright electoral wins for Alt-Right parties are rare (e.g. Fidesz in Hungary), coalitions and electoral pacts have become a successful formula for Alt-Right parties to gain a measure of power and inclusion of Alt-Right policies e.g. in Austria and Italy. Elsewhere, Alt-Right parties seek to ensure a permanent Alt-Right stamp on national governance by persuading mainstream parties to shift their centre of political gravity towards that of the far-right. The Dutch Alt-Right have been successful to an extent in Holland with the ‘poldering’ principle (see van der Valk’s chapter in Waring, 2019a). Whether such a shift will occur in Britain within the new Conservative regime of Boris Johnson, a beleaguered minority government under electoral pressure from the populist far-right Brexit Party, remains to be seen. Such amoral calculations as the replacement of all moderates in his cabinet by predominantly hard-line ERG members, together with his close affinity with Trump and Trump’s style, his appointment of a far-right sympathiser as his social media chief, his abuse of Parliamentary prorogation, and his expulsion from the Party of 21 Conservative MPs who challenged his ‘no deal’ Brexit programme, may provide pointers. As at 5 September 2019, the Brexit outcome and the future of Johnson’s government remain uncertain.
Trans-national Alt-Right Co-operation
The trans-national appeal of the Alt-Right reveals a considerable degree of collaboration and support between Alt-Right parties, groups and supporters in different countries. For example, the Alt-Right revolutionary zeal of American Steve Bannon (Trump’s former strategy adviser) has seen him visiting many European countries in 2018 and 2019, where he gave rousing speeches at far-right gatherings in France and Germany, backed The Movement group of national far-right parties seeking to gain insurgent influence in the European Parliament, and on London Broadcast Radio described the far-right activist Tommy Robinson who holds multiple criminal convictions as “the backbone of this country”. In Hungary, the Swedish far-right activist Daniel Friberg, a close associate of the US far-right champion Richard Spencer, has attracted a ‘colony’ of disaffected far-right activists from the US and elsewhere. In addition, there is evidence that European far-right parties and groups are willing to engage in mutual cooperation agreements with – and receive funds from – Russia’s President Putin e.g. Marine le Pen and France’s Front National (National Rally) and Salvini’s Lega party in Italy.
In summary, the abundant evidence of the Alt-Right threat is clear and the need for a sustained response of ‘muscular moderation’ all the more pressing.
Dr Alan Waring is a retired risk analyst and former Visiting Professor at CERIDES (Centre for Risk and Decision Science) at the European University Cyprus. He is author of several books on risk, including editing and contributing to the two-volume anthology The New Authoritarianism: A Risk Analysis of the Alt-Right Phenomenon (2018, 2019 Ibidem Verlag).
© Alan Waring. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
Copsey, N., Dack, J., Littler, M. et al. (2013). Anti-Muslim Hate Crime and the Far Right. Report 3, June 2013. Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist, and Post-Fascist Studies. Middlesbrough: Teesside University.
Lee, B. (2019). Overview of the Far-Right. Paper commissioned by the Commission for Countering Extremism and funded by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats. 19 July 2019. Lancaster University: CREST.
Mondon, A. (2017). Limiting democratic horizons to a nationalist reaction: populism, the radical right and the working class. Javnost/The Public: Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture, 24(3), 355-374.
Neiwert, D. (2017). Alt-America – The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. London: Verso.
Pettigrew, T.F. (2017). Social psychological perspectives on Trump supporters. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Vol 5, No 1. doi: 10.5964/jspp. v5i1.750.
Waring, A.E. (ed). (2018). The New Authoritarianism: Vol 1 A Risk Analysis of the US Alt-Right Phenomenon. Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag.
Waring, A.E. (ed). (2019a). The New Authoritarianism: Vol 2 A Risk Analysis of the European Alt-Right Phenomenon. Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag.
Waring, A.E. (2019b). The five pillars of occupational safety & health in a context of authoritarian socio-political climates. Safety Science, Vol 117,152-163.