Trump victory brings 'alt-right' into full view

Richard Spencer attends the largest white nationalist and Alt Right conference of the year, in Washington.

Associated Press

Less than two weeks ago, a man named Richard Spencer gave the closing speech to a highly charged gathering of white nationalists in Washington in the shadows of the White House under the banner of something called the National Policy Institute.

Spencer's words dripped with anti-Semitism, and at one point he lashed out at American journalists at the "Lugenpresse," a phrase for "lying press" that was popularized by, ahem, a well-known German leader of the 1930s and '40s. At the end of Spencer's bombastic address in which he described America as "a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity," the speaker blurted out, "Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!" Cameras recorded scattered, enthusiastic patrons thrusting their arms forward in a full-on Nazi salute.

I'm not 100 percent sure what to call such a loathsome figure as Richard Spencer. But I do know this: I'm sure as hell not going to let him decide what we call him, or his "people."

Spencer, you see, is credited with coming up with the phrase "alt-right" to describe his movement of folks who say they celebrate their cultural heritage and identity as white people; white nationalism, the notion that America should have a government and a culture of the white people, for the white people; and the rise of President-elect Donald Trump as a leader who truly "gets" them and their cause.

If you're like me, you probably never heard of the "alt-right" before the 2016 presidential campaign -- but the phrase caught on like the proverbial wildfire. It was the kind of re-branding success that a Coke or a Chevy would desperately wish to emulate.

And the biggest reason it caught on was because of the feckless American media, which was flabbergasted by the surge in Confederate flags, the open support for Trump by various elements of neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and the popularity of publications like Steve Bannon's Breitbart News, which wore white nationalism on its sleeve and even branded conservative Trump critic Bill Kristol as "a renegade Jew."

But most journalists panic at the idea of boldly labeling people from a not-insignificant social movement as "neo-Nazis" or "white supremacists" -- even if they are. This new, ambiguous, and mealy-mouthed term -- the alt-right -- gave them an out.

There was a dangerous implication in the term alt-right, the idea that this was some new idea -- something ferocious, even daring, that dangerous thoughts of the 20th Century had been streamlined and updated for the way we live today. The basic problem with that is there's zero evidence of any worthy, let alone new, thinking behind the so-called alt-right.

The alleged "intellectual underpinnings" of this alt-right are the same tired notions of white supremacy that gave birth to the Klan during Reconstruction, the White Citizens Councils of Mississippi or the John Birch Society in the 1950s and '60s and the militia movement of the 1990s -- the movements that historian Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed "the paranoid style in American politics."

In other words, why call these people the alt-right when there's a slew of perfectly good words and phrases -- "white nationalist," "white supremacist," "neo-Nazi," and sometimes just plain "Nazi," or "racist" -- to describe who these despicable people are and what they believe. Many news organizations are coming to the same conclusion. Major journalistic enterprises such as the Associated Press are limiting the use of the phrase alt-right to only direct quotes of speakers.

"Avoid using the term ("alt-right") generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters' actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience," wrote Associated Press' standards vice president John Daniszewski. "In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist. We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them."

I could not agree more. Like the AP, I won't be using the term alt-right here from now on unless it's part of a quote. Let's define the Richard Spencers of the world by their deeds and their beliefs, not by their clever use of Madison Avenue tactics.

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To be clear, extreme white nationalists are a small sliver of the 64 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. And it's doubtful that, percentage-wise, America harbors more white supremacists now than it did in 1965 or 1865. This cancer has long existed.

But their existence -- and how we talk about them -- matters more than ever because a man who was elected with their full-throated support will be serving in the White House. And the publisher of their favorite news site will be that president's chief strategist.

That's just one more sign that America is experiencing a situation, a historical moment, that is #NotNormal. And we won't fully understand the risks unless we are clear and bold in exactly who -- and what -- we are talking about. Our incoming president is adored --hailed, even -- by racists and neo-Nazis, not by some hip and modern "alt-right."

Throughout history, authoritarian rulers have used and abused language to confuse and change the terms of the debate, as a means to ultimately impose their will on the governed. To survive the Age of Trump, the American people will need to win the war of words.

Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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