How did the “alt-right” manage to permeate mainstream American consciousness?
People around the world were aghast this summer at the horrors of Charlottesville, Va. — brutal violence between white nationalists and counterprotesters; a white supremacist tragically weaponizing a Dodge Challenger; Donald Trump’s reluctance to condemn white nationalists, blaming the violence on “many sides” and saying “some very fine people” can be found on the far right. (When he finally did denounce racists and bigotry, Trump sounded, at best, perfunctory.)
Charlottesville prompted Canadians to wonder if a white nationalist event of comparable magnitude could happen here.
The United States suffers from a degree of political polarization that’s not present in Canada, at least not to the same extent.
America’s white supremacist movement — or the “alt(ernative) right” as it has rebranded itself — has managed to gain mainstream traction in a way it hasn’t managed to in Canada.
But Canada is far from perfect.
Social inequalities in Canada
Poverty and inequality are also highly racialized in this country, even if not as pronounced as below the 49th parallel. Tensions between police and particular racialized communities continue to fester. Indigenous and Black Canadians are perennially over-represented in prisons and academic outcomes and opportunity gaps based on race and class pervade our schools.
And of course, there’s the historical racist mistreatment and continuing marginalization of Indigenous peoples.
Yes, Canada is generally more egalitarian — with greater openness to social justice values — than the United States. The election and popularity of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals is evidence of this.
Still, Canadians need to be careful.
Trump’s election last fall can be attributed to numerous variables, but one factor was the populist, right-wing backlash to the “social justice left” that has become prominent in recent decades.
Even as the social justice movement fights for important causes such as racial and gender equality and LGBTQ rights, it’s also seen as stifling debate and dialogue in order to forcefully promote its agenda.
On U.S. college campuses, talks by right-wing commentators like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are disrupted and sometimes shut down by often violent demonstrations.
As American journalist Bret Stephens highlighted in a recent New York Times op-ed, the list of luminaries who have recently had speaking invitations rescinded or shut down on American campuses includes former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, geneticist and DNA discovery pioneer James Watson, conservative Pulitzer Prize winner George Will, and the list goes on.
Canada is no stranger to this.
Ryerson event cancelled
A free-speech event scheduled for Aug. 22 at Ryerson University was called off when officials cited safety concerns. James Turk, the director of the school’s Centre for Free Expression, criticized that decision in a piece for The Conversation Canada.
The most dispassionate observer has to be struck by the irony of a university cancelling a “free speech” event.
Even before Charlottesville, the proposed Ryerson event was vociferously opposed by activists who planned to protest the function.
Such opponents contend that the views articulated by many on the right, including those scheduled to speak at Ryerson, contribute to the ongoing oppression of marginalized people. They believe that allowing right-wing speakers to voice their perspectives on campuses defeats efforts to create “safe spaces” for targeted individuals.
Also underpinning left-wing activism is a belief that social justice is inherently virtuous and, in the interest of building a more inclusive and egalitarian society, should be insulated from critique and debate.
That’s a problematic line of thinking. And it actually galvanizes support for the “free speech” crusade of the right, and I argue it’s helped the alt-right move from fringe status to mainstream relevance.
Conservatives like Ben Shapiro, Dinesh D'Souza and Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor who’s critical of gender-neutral pronouns, are not white nationalists who equate Western civilization and values with whiteness.
Some conservatives have condemned alt-right
However objectionable their views may be to the left, arguing that the words they speak constitute violence is ultimately counterproductive.
These and other mainstream conservatives have actually spoken out against the far right, but when we tag them as white supremacists and Nazis (as Ryerson activists have branded Peterson and other speakers scheduled for the ill-fated August Ryerson event) and prevent them from speaking, we homogenize the right. That allows true white supremacists to infiltrate and contaminate mainstream conservatism.
This is what’s happened in the U.S. The impulse to silence mainstream conservatives and indiscriminately label them racists and fascists has blurred the boundaries between relatively moderate and far-right conservatives.
Fertile ground for the far right
This, combined with the president’s reluctance to denounce white supremacy, provides the far right with fertile political ground.
The far right’s adaptation of the ostensibly palatable moniker “alt-right,” now used in lieu of more inflammatory labels like “white nationalist” or “KKK,” is a reflection of its increasing acceptance in mainstream U.S. politics.
And the right’s narrative of “left-wing violence” and free speech being under attack reverberates powerfully in Trump’s America. It’s resulted in the unfair perception of the social justice movement as uniformly comprising irrational, left-wing ideologues bent on policing discourse and violently dismantling Western civilization.
We are left with an American political culture polarized by two warring factions, each actively portraying the other as the undifferentiated enemy — gradation and complexity, not to mention constructive dialogue, be damned.
The U.S. is an increasingly divided place where hateful ideology enjoys growing resonance, and important ideas and issues are denied the vital process of rigorous debate.
Canadians take heed. Not all right-wing thought constitutes hate speech, and we need to identify the dividing line. Open debate and dialogue in a university lecture hall is a far better scenario than a Canadian Charlottesville.
A version of this article was previously published in The Hamilton Spectator