Epistemic Status: A hypothesis, but a hypothesis that seems moderately supported by evidence.
One of the more astute observations in the recent culture wars is that the term ‘alt-right’ is a master-level rhetorical play. It convinces ordinary civil libertarians that they’re actually on a spectrum which goes from ‘civil libertarian’ to far right extremist. The genius of this particular branding is so compelling that it’s easy to imagine it was the result of conscious effort on the part of some nefarious mastermind. It may very well have been, but I’m not so sure. Rather, a confluence of factors in recent political discourse have come together to create a right-wing super coalition that can simultaneously unite Libertarians, Neo Nazis, Conservatives, the center right, religious fanatics and the religiously moderate, liberal discontents, and a growing list of purged.
The purged are actually of most interest, because their fate is what’s driving everything else. As the range of conservative opinions that can be expressed in public gets smaller and smaller, communication of these opinions has begun to happen in a very narrow bandwidth which hints at deeper beliefs by using ostensibly acceptable ones as code. This practice, known as dog whistling results in a necessary compression of the right wing political spectrum. Since even ‘mild’ conservative beliefs can be code for deep seated hatred, the reaction from the left converges on accusations of Nazism against even the center right. It also reduces the features that conservatives have to judge each other on, and makes it easier for them to form alliances because in many cases they’re not really even sure what their allies believe.
Popularization of ‘ironic’ belief takes the previous dynamic and boosts it to 11, which is what really allows for the super coalition. It’s a situation that increasingly comes to resemble everyone of any sort of even mildly conservative opinion strongly allied together against everyone else calling them Nazis. For the left this is actually a dire situation, as it would imply solidarity and voting turnout they have to beg for even at the best of times. Worse, the range of acceptable left wing opinions has grown wider over the same timespan and had the side effect of causing the left coalition to breakdown fractally into a million contentious shards of a previously solid political structure. Going into 2018 we may be looking at a united right wing against an increasingly fractured and quarrelsome left.
Or to put it another way, conservatives live in a shrinking public political universe in which the distance between potential alliances is getting smaller and smaller. Meanwhile the left is living in an expanding political universe that constantly threatens to pull the rug out from members in previous good standing and creates more and more barriers to solidarity. The left of all political factions should understand the importance of advertising loyalty and solidarity, but we haven’t and we’ve ceded that ground to conservatives. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, this is a real NRA ad. This is the worldview you’re reinforcing every time you call someone an actual Nazi because they’re concerned real differences might exist among protected classes.1
It shouldn’t take significantly more than five minutes reflection to notice that of the million and one forms of racism in the world, only a narrow band of them converge on genocide, let alone the totalitarian industrialized genocide practiced by Nazi Germany. Nazis are actually fairly rare and modern use of the term increasingly trivializes the terrible horror we witnessed in WW2 Germany. ↩