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What's So New About the Alt-Right?


Ever since Donald Trump hired a bunch of unemployed actors to stand in the lobby of Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, and cheer his announcement that he was running for President, many observers, including yours truly, have opined that he brought an entirely new approach to politics on that day.

Now granted, his use of social media was certainly far more extensive than how Twitter and Facebook formed the core of the communications effort of other campaigns. And Trump’s complete lack of experience in previous campaigns also marked a new and some would say fresh standard in 2016.

But what made Trump so different was the message he delivered at all those large rallies, along with almost daily pronouncements on Fox News. And the message was an angry, almost phobic, and certainly hate-filled, racist rant which focused on how non-white immigrants were tearing the country apart.

It turns out that this rhetoric, both in terms of style and content, wasn’t all that new. In fact, it was described in very accurate detail by the historian Richard Hofstadter, who delivered a lecture and then published an article, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics,’ seventy years ago.

Hofstadter fashioned his piece to explain the surge of alt-right political rhetoric and behavior which was unleashed by Barry Goldwater’s Presidential campaign, a campaign which has been described as the ‘birth’ of a new conservative movement within the GOP.

Here’s how Hofstadter characterized this style: “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In the paranoid style.”

He then goes on to say, “As I conceive it, the feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy.” [my italics]

Now if this statement, written seventy years ago, doesn’t exactly characterize the style and substance of what Donald Trump brought to the political lexicon beginning in 2015, I don’t know what does.

Hofstadter, of course, wasn’t talking about Donald Trump. He was referring to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who first gained national prominence in 1950 when he claimed to possess a list of Communists employed by the State Department, and then held a series of highly publicized hearings into what he referred to as ‘twenty years of treason’ which threatened to destroy the United States. The treasonous behavior not only involved Communists, but also was found, according to McCarthy, in the behavior of Jews and – ready? – gays.

This was the first time that sexual preference became a focus for alt-right concerns, but it certainly wasn’t the last. After all, is there a current news cycle which doesn’t include some hysterical ranting from someone in the GOP about the ‘threats’ represented by the transgender movement in classrooms and sports?

How do we connect Donald Trump to Joseph McCarthy? The connection was made by the individual who had an important presence in both their lives, namely, a lawyer named Roy Cohn. The latter served as McCarthy’s chief counsel when McCarthy held hearings to attack all those Communists, Jews, and gays, even though Cohn was both Jewish and gay himself.

Cohn first represented Trump in 1973 and helped settle an action brought by the government against Trump for violating fair housing practices in his rental properties in Queens. Trump responded to this charge by having Cohn file a countersuit against the government, with the entire deal eventually being settled out of court.

Trump ultimately dropped Cohn like a hot potato when the latter was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. But lately, Trump has been telling friends and associates that he needs ‘another Roy Cohn.’

What Trump really represents today is not so much the beliefs and rhetoric of the alt-right, but what I would refer to as the anxieties and fears of the alt-white. By this I mean people who still have an idea that being white is better than being anything else. The bad news is that there are still enough of those dopes around to help Trump get back on the ballot in 2024.

But that’s also good news because no matter what the polls say today, if Trump heads the 2024 GOP ticket, Joe and Kammie will win another four years.

Think there’s one Democrat out there who doesn’t like Joe but will turn that dislike into a vote for Trump? Yea, right.


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