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Actually, I’m not terribly interested in understanding the alt-right as a movement; what I find fascinating is the evolution of the term itself. There are two wildly different definitions being applied, and I believe that the left is using that confusion of terms, intentionally and with malice aforethought, to denigrate a large portion of the population as racist, right-wing oppressors.
I first heard the term during the 2016 election cycle, when I started getting a large part of my news and analysis from various YouTube channels. Although I was not aware at the time, the meaning of the term had already morphed away from the original. In those days, the term alt-right was said to refer to a loose collection of people who, while generally of the right, were not happy or satisfied with the established leadership of the Republican Party and the mainstream conservative movement. Given that public polling routinely shows about twice as many people identifying as conservative as identifying as Republican, it seemed this had the potential to be a large and broad coalition.
And as far as I could tell, it included me; by that definition, I am alt-right, being of the right, though not mainstream, but rather representative of an alternative point of view.
It was only after the election that word began to filter out about an earlier, original definition for the term. We found out that the name was originally coined by a guy named Richard Spencer, the leader of a very specific, fringe group of white nationalists. Looking at their actual policy proposals, in that case alt-right seemed to refer more to being, well … leftist. It is a variant of socialism, essentially identical to several other identity-based movements in this country, populated by people who are black or Hispanic. But, while all those other movements are considered left-wing, this group, apparently for no other reason than them being white, are labeled as part of the right.
Spend any time listening to this group, and you’ll quickly come to realize that the reason it is a small, fringe group is that it is a toxic blend of white supremacy and socialism, the sort of movement that has been unable to gain any meaningful level of traction in this country since about the time I was born.
I’m more than fairly certain that I’m not one of those.
Thus far, the evolution of the term had followed a fairly typical path. A term starts with a specific meaning that applies to a small group of people with a specific set of beliefs or characteristics. Then over time, the term is generalized to refer to a much larger group, many of whom do not share those original beliefs or characteristics. This is something that happens with almost any movement that becomes a sizeable group of people. Most political movements start with a small, dedicated group of hardcore believers. If it grows to significant size, over time the original beliefs are usually watered down and tempered, to appeal to a larger audience. It is not unusual for the original beliefs to disappear almost entirely.
This is the point where the evolution of the term takes an unusual, and in my experience, unique turn. After having been generalized to a much broader meaning, it was retracted back to the original belief set, so that it no longer legitimately refers to anyone outside of Richard Spencer’s group.
I promised malicious intent on the part of the left, and here it is. They use the two definitions almost interchangeably, but with a very distinct pattern of usage. They use the broad, generalized definition when assigning membership to the alt-right, but the original, specific meaning to ascribe beliefs to the people so labeled. The practical result of this is that if you are not an elected Republican official, and are also anywhere to the right of Che Guevara, they will call you alt-right. And that membership justifies their certainty that you are a white supremacist follower of Richard Spencer’s loony white socialist utopia.
It would be as if we labeled large numbers of random Democrats as communists, and therefore in favor of killing off a substantial portion of the US population to achieve their communist paradise. Of course, for a valid comparison, we would have 90 percent of the media repeating those claims and having earnest panel discussions about their plans for genocide.
So, am I alt-right? Are you? It depends who you ask, and what they intend. And the left isn’t really interested in your opinion; they’ll be deciding for you.