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2016: The Year The ‘Alt-Right’ Breached The Moral Quarantine On Racism


If the Left is turning against liberalism in any meaningful sense of the word, then it is time for the Right to take up the banners of liberty and progress. Or it could embrace its own virulent strain of illiberalism.

That is the alarming prospect raised in 2016. This was the year the “alt-right,” a rebranded version of racist nationalism, crawled out from under its rock, gained a loud online presence, and—with a little help from the Donald Trump campaign—cracked open a breach in our culture’s moral quarantine against racism.

In response to a few attempts to make the alt-right seem like charming troublemakers who just like being politically incorrect, I took apart the real essence of their doctrines.

This ‘alt-right’ agenda is not really part of the ‘right’ because it is thoroughly collectivist in a vile and personal way. It says that your most personal, individual, deeply meaningful decisions—such as whom you marry and have children with—should be determined by some larger social program based on group identity.

That’s why they are openly opposed to free markets in favor of economic nationalism: this is an anti-freedom, anti-individualist movement. And it’s a big reason why the distinction between ‘identitarians’ and white supremacists is a false one. Both are joined by the premise, “Du bist nichts; dein Volk ist alles.’ You are nothing, your race is everything.

The irony of having to take on the task of fighting resurgent racism was not lost on me.

For as long as I can remember, people like me—by which I mean advocates of capitalism and free markets and freedom of speech—have been accused by the left of being secret racists who pine for the good old days of the antebellum South…. Then along comes a group of actual, declared racists who really do pine for the antebellum South, and who is one of the main targets of their invective? People like me.

Kind of ironic, eh?

That we have to do this is a testament to the fact that the Left, for all its self-congratulatory noise about fighting racism, has failed at the job.

You could argue that the alt-right is a consequence of the left’s abuse of the stigma against racism. By reflexively denouncing as a racist everyone who disagrees with them about economics, and by making every detail of ordinary life into a minefield of hidden racial transgressions, they have burned up their own credibility. In the process, they have weakened the culture’s immune system against racism and made it possible for a young cohort of racists to repackage their odious creed as resistance to Political Correctness.

As tempting as it is to point this out, we still have to take responsibility for dealing with the problem. If the left has destroyed the credibility of its own resistance to racism, then it is up to us to take up the slack and do the job right. It’s up to the right to take the lead in fighting the ancient scourge of tribal hatred and to diligently purge these new racists who are trying to attach themselves to our movement.

The way to suppress the alt-right is not through censorship but through exposure, and through the withdrawal of any form of moral or material support.

The decision to shun someone or exclude him from ordinary social connections is not an issue of freedom of speech, since you have a right to associate or not associate with whomever you like. In fact, one of the biggest free speech issues of our day is precisely about this right of disassociation: the right not to bake somebody’s wedding cake. (Who would have thought this, of all things, would become a civil rights issue?)

But as a rule, in a free society, casting someone entirely out of polite society should be reserved for only the most serious issues. Racism qualifies for that treatment, particularly because it is an evil we thought we had suppressed and contained by imposing a strict cultural inhibition against outright expressions of racial animus. The best analogy I can think of for this is the idea of a “moral quarantine,” an attempt to isolate an evil idea, contain it, and prevent it from spreading beyond its last few festering swamps.

In another context, as a contrast against the tolerance appropriate to ordinary differences of political opinion, I explored the proper application of this concept.

In this country, there are very few issues that we subject to what you might call a moral quarantine, where someone who commits certain acts or holds certain views is cast out of polite company. There is basically child molesting and racism. Yet those issues are by necessity rare exceptions. Every society has to have some basic standards of civilized behavior and some things that are considered beyond the pale. But the zeal to expand these cultural taboos reveals a troubling totalitarian impulse.

Let’s put it this way. The spirit of a free society is that the normal rule of discussion is free-wheeling and anything goes, and there are very few ideas that get you shunned from polite society. The spirit of a totalitarian society is that the normal rule is conformity to approved political opinions, with a few tenuous carve-outs where a mild expression of dissent is tolerated.

One of the interesting things that has been revealed this year is the extent to which the Left has depended on the Right to maintain this kind of moral quarantine against racism—while still denouncing us all as closet racists.

At the same time, the Left was busy reviving racial collectivism for its own purposes. Fellow Federalist writer David Marcus explained how political correctness helped sow the seeds for racism’s alt-right resurgence.

White people are being asked—or pushed—to take stock of their whiteness and identify with it more. This is a remarkably bad idea. The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal. The result of this tribalism will not be a catharsis of white identity, improving equality for non-whites. It will be resentment towards being the only tribe not given the special treatment bestowed by victimhood.

Given the Left’s obvious hypocrisy and political opportunism on this issue, many people on the Right have concluded that the Left’s moral panics over racism are all a joke. But rather than relying on their own principled opposition to racial collectivism, some have chosen to show a reckless lack of regard for the issue, dropping their own standards.

This was manifested in a few small but significant ways in Trump’s campaign for president, which made its own contributions to the cracks in the cultural quarantine on racism.

It’s more than the fact that Trump launched his campaign with a slur against the character of all Hispanic immigrants, betraying a vulnerability to ethnic stereotypes that caused the alt-right to hail him as their savior. It’s also that Trump encouraged his supporters to live down to the worst caricature of themselves, which feeds into what I summed up as the alt-right’s pitch for loosening cultural inhibitions: “They think you’re a bunch of racists? Fine, then, be racists! That’ll show ’em.”

Most of all, there is the way Trump and his campaign staff became notorious as a transmission belt for arguments and Internet memes originating from the alt-right, including an attack on Hillary Clinton that featured a very prominent Star of David meant to represent how she’s the pocket of Jewish bankers, or something.

[W]e know exactly where that Trump meme came from: it was created by a white supremacist and posted to a racist discussion group. And we know exactly how it made its way onto Trump’s Twitter feed: his campaign team is deeply tied into so-called ‘alt-right’ racist social media networks, whose memes regularly make their way into Trump’s social media feed.

So, hooray! The Democrats voted for a candidate whose e-mail was probably penetrated by Russian and Chinese security services. And now Republicans are about to nominate a candidate whose entire campaign is penetrated by the Aryan Nation.

It certainly raises the question: “is his susceptibility to memes from anti-Semites and white nationalists just part of a general lack of inhibitions—or does he specifically lack an inhibition against racism?”

That’s the ominous thing about this year. It revealed that there are a lot of people on the Right who have seen so many false and exaggerated accusations of racism that they now reflexively dismiss any such claims. Instead of training people to have an inhibition against racism, the Left has trained a significant minority to have an inhibition against accusations of racism, to instantly dismiss all such charges as media fabrications. Even when they’re true. This is a breach in the moral quarantine, which needs to be re-established—if anyone now has the credibility to do so.

It has been so long since racism was a truly significant force in American politics that I think we have forgotten how deeply it distorted the political debate, particularly by preventing advocates of free markets and small government from making common cause with each other or from bringing their devastating case against big government to those in the inner cities who suffer most from its meddling.

The Republicans’ much-vilified Southern Strategy has been smeared as an attempt by Republicans to appeal to latent racism. But its actual effect was to re-align politics around other issues, bringing conservative Democrats into the Republican fold on issues like free markets, patriotism, and traditional moral values.

The alt-right is an attempt to reintroduce the old racial issues and agenda—which, if successfully imported into the political mainstream, will instantly become a massive wedge issue dividing the Right into irreconcilable factions. Trump’s 46 percent of the popular vote, barely enough to eke out an Electoral College victory against an unpopular opponent, should be taken as an ominous warning of this potential future.

Instead, it will be ignored because “we won.” This foolish overconfidence will be one of the big stories to watch for in 2017.

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