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Long before Richard Spencer grabbed national attention at the tumultuous August “Unite the Right” rally led by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., he’d been spinning his vision of superiority and racism under the banner of the “alt-right,” or “alternative right,” for years.
If the term “alt-right” seems vague, that’s because it often serves as a broad banner for loosely connected groups promoting a range of views rooted in race-based ideologies.
White supremacists peddle the notion that other races are inherently inferior to whites. White nationalists sometimes deny they’re white supremacists, but they push for a societal structure based on racial categories. They see a person’s identity as fundamentally rooted in his race and urge white people to band together for what they see as their common good.
Such views are antithetical to Christian teaching: God creates all men in His own image, and our identity is rooted first in our Creator, not in our race. Christ breaks down dividing walls between races by saving people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Spencer’s fundamental message isn’t about border protection or legitimate questions about immigration levels. Instead, he hails white people as the rightful owners of America and dismisses the value of other groups.
As he gave a speech last fall to supporters of his organization, the National Policy Institute, a crowd of white men hailed Spencer with Nazi salutes and cheered when he declared: “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
Regarding race relations, Spencer added: “We don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us, and not the other way around.”
That’s not a new idea, and John West of the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank, notes the ideology of white supremacists is often rooted in another historical theory: evolution.
Evolutionary hero Charles Darwin offered his racial theory in The Descent of Man: “The Western nations of Europe … now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilization.” He added: “The civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”
West says Darwin’s writings make clear he thought African blacks and Australian Aborigines were lowest on the evolutionary scale of humans, and his notion of natural selection predicted races would be unequal: “In Darwin’s theory we are not the result of some beneficent plan or Creator, we’re really the result of this process of survival of the fittest.”
That theory fueled the eugenics movement in the early 20th century and led to dozens of U.S. states passing laws to allow the forced sterilization of citizens deemed unfit to reproduce. Other states passed laws forbidding mixed marriages.
Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger embraced eugenic ideas and thought birth control was the best way to prevent what she and other eugenicists considered undesirable populations (often the lower class, poor, or disabled).
After Adolf Hitler embraced eugenics and slaughtered millions of people he deemed undesirable, most scientists began rejecting the use of Darwin’s theory to promote racist ideas. But the seeds remain embedded in Darwin’s writings, and West says some modern-day supremacists have co-opted his theory as part of their own racist views.
Most people in the so-called “alt-right” don’t issue public calls for violence, but the ideas of supremacists are still dangerous, including the rejection of the pro-life movement by some. A presumably pseudonymous writer in the alt-right journal Radix, Aylmer Fisher, warned in a column against succumbing to the “pro-life temptation.”
Spencer, who says he’s an atheist, has criticized the pro-life movement for promoting human rights: “You do not have some human right, some abstract thing given to you by God or the world or something like that. You’re part of a community, and that’s where you gain your meaning or your rights.”
In an online video, he lamented that “smart people” are the only ones using contraception and said intelligent people don’t normally use abortion as birth control: “Smart people are using abortion when you have a situation like Down syndrome or … the health of the mother is at risk. I would say that it is the unintelligent and blacks and Hispanics who use abortion as birth control.”
Spencer warned his supporters to be “genuinely suspicious of people who think in terms of human rights and who are interested in adopting African children and bringing them to this country.” Abortion, he added, isn’t “this kind of ‘good or evil’ binary that the pro-life movement and the Christian movement want to use. We need to be more adult than they are.”
POST-CHARLOTTESVILLE, members of white nationalist and white supremacist groups have said they’ll gather for rallies again. They’ll likely continue to face counterprotests from Americans opposed to their noxious ideology. Counterprotesters may also include those who have a much broader agenda than protesting racism.
Among the counterprotesters throwing punches in Charlottesville were supporters of the radical movement known as “antifa”—an abbreviation of the term “anti-fascist.”
Antifa activists showed up in force in Charlottesville, and New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg tweeted after the chaos: “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as the alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”
Much like the term “alt-right,” the label “antifa” is an umbrella for groups of radical leftists. While they gained attention for protests in Charlottesville, they’ve also created a brand out of opposing legitimate conservative thought.
In April, the group Direct Action Alliance opposed the Multnomah County Republican Party participating in Portland’s annual Rose Festival. (They claimed fascists planned to infiltrate the group, according to a report in The Atlantic.) The group told supporters, “Nazis will not march through Portland unopposed.”
The group Oregon Students Empowered chimed in on Facebook: “Shut down fascism! No Nazis in Portland!” After receiving anonymous threats of violence if the Republicans marched, organizers canceled the parade. At a June 4 rally organized by Trump supporters, antifa activists threw bricks until police dispersed them.
Two weeks after the Charlottesville violence, crowds of protesters, including antifa demonstrators, forced the cancellation of free speech rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif. Some protesters openly attacked and beat Trump supporters they found.
Though antifa isn’t a centralized movement, similar protests have broken out at other conservative events. In March, a mob of students and protesters drove out conservative author Charles Murray from a speaking engagement at Middlebury College in Vermont. The crowd shouted down Murray, pulled a fire alarm, and surrounded his car as he left. Some in the group attacked a Middlebury professor accompanying Murray, pulling her hair and injuring her neck.
The crowd chanted: “Charles Murray, go away! Racist, sexist, anti-gay!”
That chant vocalizes a primary tactic of the antifa movement: Lump together any groups you oppose and accuse them all of being hate-filled. The convoluted logic: If antifa opposes both white supremacists and traditional marriage proponents, then proponents of traditional marriage must also embrace white supremacy.
That kind of logic has already played out in other settings, but it could increase if antifa protests continue. Even as the Southern Poverty Law Center condemned white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan, it has continued to label several evangelical organizations as “hate groups” alongside them.
Meanwhile, antifa activists seem determined to continue demonstrations. In an article published online before the Charlottesville violence, The Atlantic commented on the goal of the chaos:
“As members of a largely anarchist movement, antifascists don’t want the government to stop white supremacists from gathering. They want to do so themselves, rendering the government impotent.”