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The White Nationalist Origins Of The Term 'Alt-Right' — And The Debate Around It


The so-called alt-right is associated with a white nationalist movement, and it has received a lot of attention since the presidential election. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team reports on the debate emerging about whether alt-right is even the best term.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: I met two of the alt-right's intellectual leaders at a meeting and press conference they held in Washington, D.C., last weekend. The first was Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right. And I asked him to respond to the argument that the term is really just a euphemism for white supremacy.

RICHARD SPENCER: In some ways the alt-right is arbitrary. I mean, the whole point is that this is a movement of consciousness and identity for European people in the 21st century. That's what it is. If you don't like it, you can, you know, talk about linguistics.

FLORIDO: Jared Taylor, another of the alt-right's leaders, also took issue with my question.

JARED TAYLOR: The suggestion in your question is that this is some kind of attempt to hide the ball, to pretend that we are not who we are. No one is guilty of that.

FLORIDO: They both said that alt-right is simply a name, and they rejected the suggestion that the movement is either racist or white supremacist. Ian Haney Lopez, a professor at UC Berkeley who has been closely observing the alt-right movement, says both of those statements are absurd.

IAN HANEY LOPEZ: All you have to do is look at their website or read their material, and those conversations are replete with claims of white superiority, with the notion that whites are destined to rule, whites are destined to conquer. There is no doubt but that this belief in white nationalism is rooted in a claim of white supremacy.

FLORIDO: Further evidence, he said, is a video that emerged this week showing Richard Spencer shouting hail Trump at the end of that conference last weekend, as supporters flashed Nazi salutes.


SPENCER: Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory.


FLORIDO: Lopez says use of the term alt-right is an effort to make white supremacist views more palatable.

LOPEZ: It's clearly a strategy designed to obfuscate the central tenets of the movement in a way that will hopefully allow that movement to enter mainstream discourse. That was the goal, and they've largely achieved that goal.

FLORIDO: He points to how pervasive the term has become in just the last few months. Heidi Beirich tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. She thinks the term alt-right is just the latest way white supremacists have rebranded themselves since the Civil Rights Movement made their beliefs socially unacceptable.

HEIDI BEIRICH: If you said I'm white supremacist, you weren't going to get talked to. So they rebranded to white nationalism in an attempt to still be in the conversation about politics in the United States. So it went from white supremacy to white nationalism and now from white nationalism to the alt-right or the alternative right.

FLORIDO: But Beirich says this latest term has done something new and ingenious.

BEIRICH: It specifically ditches the term white - right? - and it puts right in there. And what white supremacists were doing was to say we are part of the conservative coalition. We are part of the right wing.

FLORIDO: The alt-right's leaders say that this is the kind of recognition they are trying to achieve. The president-elect has condemned the Nazi salutes in that conference video. He is standing behind his appointment of Steve Bannon, who the alt-right's leaders consider their strongest advocate in the Trump administration. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.