By Damon Berry
After the horrendous attacks in Christchurch, many people understandably have questions about the motives and ideology of the alleged attacker. The Big Q has already explored some of the nativist ideology that informed the attacks in an article written by Dr Chris Wilson. The attacker’s manifesto and his Internet history portray him as a self-confessed white nationalist and conspiratorial xenophobe who felt only violent action could repel what he viewed as an invasion of the entirety of the Western world by immigrants and Muslims. And while his actions were extremely and shockingly violent they are an indication of the increasingly common and powerful influence of such ideation.
The alleged killer’s manifesto references the terrorist attacks committed by Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik, and Breivik is specifically mentioned as a powerful influence in the decision to commit the attack. Both Roof and Breivik made claims similar to the Christchurch attacker, that they were doing violence to preserve Europeans against racial and cultural enemies. And in these terrorist attacks, including the Christchurch attack, the Internet played a key role in the radicalization of the attackers and was the preferred mode for sharing their ideas before the attacks were committed. In Christchurch incident, the Internet was used to livestream the attacks, and while they were ongoing observers made comments, often of support, in chatrooms and shared screenshots of the attacks with commentary.
In addition to being inspired by the violent actions of Roof and Breivik, the Christchurch attacker was clearly influenced by the writings of a French far-right writer named Renaud Camus. He coined the term ‘The Great Replacement’, which was also used in the title of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. At the core of this rhetoric is the idea that Western culture and Western peoples are being replaced in their lands by immigrants from non-European countries, and especially by Muslims, as part of a coordinated and intentional act of colonisation. Camus argues in his English language book You Will Not Replace Us, that resistance to this colonisation means expelling all these immigrants from European lands. “You will not replace us” was, of course, the chant of torch-carrying marchers on the eve of the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 until that chant morphed into “Jews will not replace us.”
The attacker also referenced President Donald Trump in his manifesto, crediting him with a revival of white nationalist sentiment, which demonstrates further the multiple tributaries that informed the attacker’s decision to allegedly murder fifty people, ranging in age from three to seventy-seven. And in carrying out the attacks the Internet was indispensable. The attacker uploaded his manifesto for public consumption, live streamed the shootings for others to see, and discussed his ideas in the imageboard website 8chan.
The attacker’s extreme xenophobia, pronounced Islamophobia, adherence to white identity politics, and prolific use of the Internet for ‘shitposting’ and for researching and sharing conspiratorial nativist narratives are all too common in what has been called the Alt-Right. Recently ABC Radio briefly explored “alt-right culture in New Zealand” in the wake of the attacks, but to help with a more precise understanding of the Alt-Right I want to introduce a little more material that might help establish further context for understanding the attacker’s motivating ideology.
Richard Spencer is credited with coining the term ‘Alt-Right’ in 2010, which is an abbreviation of the term ‘alternative right’. Alternative Right was the title of a website he founded, but he also gave new meaning to the term. The idea of an organized alternative conservatism, meaning a more far-right movement, was the ambition of a paleoconservative and critic of neo-conservativism named Paul Gottfried. What Gottfried expressed as a criticism of mainstream conservatism as being too close to liberalism, Spencer took as a redefinition of even basic conservative tenants. Moreover, where the old guard of the paleoconservative movement was not necessarily openly racialist, the Alt-Right was aligned via Spencer and others with the ideology of white nationalism.
Taking to the Internet and establishing a number of websites, the new alternative right began to establish itself in cyberspace as the Alt-Right. With the adoption of Pepe the Frog as their mascot, the meme army of the Alt-Right peppered social media and sites like 4chan with their ‘meme magic’ to advocate for candidate Trump in the 2016 election, and to ‘shitpost’ to ‘trigger libs’—code for provoking anger and shock in their political adversaries.
The Alt-Right has not since coalesced around any single individual or group, nor is it likely to do so anytime in the future. ‘Alt-Right’ is rather a designation used to describe a milieu of groups and individuals that occupy a spectrum of ideas. Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Western chauvinist organisation the Proud Boys, has often pointed out that views on race, sexuality, and who can actually be a part of Western societies differ between people like himself, Richard Spencer, and those he describes as insane Nazis on the far right of the spectrum. But there are some issues that seem to be important for all of them.
First, the issue of race is significant to anyone affiliated with the Alt-Right. Whether they, like the Proud Boys and McInnes, call themselves proud Western chauvinists, or if they call themselves race realists, like Spencer and Jared Taylor, founder of American Renaissance, race in some sense is important for them. Racism among the Alt-Right is usually expressed in terms familiar to white nationalists. But sometimes, among what has been called the ‘Alt-Light’, racial ideology is coded in terms of Western cultural norms. That is to say that though many in the milieu code race as a biological reality, some code their racism in terms of culture.
Second is the issue of gender. Alt-Rightists uniformly adhere to the idea that feminism is damaging to society and dangerous for everyone. In fact, some of those who now identify as members of the Alt-Right say they arrived at their current affiliation via men’s rights activism and critiques of feminism. This is what is known in Alt-Right circles as ‘Red Pilling,’ a term taken from the 1999 film The Matrix to signify one’s journey to ‘reality’. Even the few visibly active women among the Alt-Right advocate for recognition of tangible and innate differences between genders, and that social roles should follow these supposed biological realities. One particular trend among the Alt-Right is called ‘Rad Trad’, or radical traditionalism. This position signifies a wedding of Alt-Right political ideology with right-wing Catholicism that advocates for ‘traditional’ gender roles within the norms of the nuclear family.
Attitudes toward sexuality seem to parallel views on gender. There is a libertarian streak among those in the more ‘Alt-Light’ end of the spectrum that tends to leave one’s sexuality to the side, but with the strong emphasis on traditional gender roles, homophobia to varying degrees seems to be the norm. Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, has been derided by some in the Alt-Right as not really belonging to the movement in part because of open homosexuality. In some cases, also because of his partial Jewish ancestry.
And finally, regarding my own scholarly focus, religion, there is even less uniformity of opinion. Many of those associated with the Alt-Right identify as atheist or agnostic, as does Richard Spencer. Some are attracted to right-wing Catholicism or other forms of Christianity. Others still are followers of racialised versions of Paganism. But the stronger emphasis is that one’s religious position reflect ‘pro-white’ pro-Western ideals. Along these lines, too, Alt-Right Pagans, Christians, and atheists tend to advocate for religious tolerance among their ranks so long as everyone conforms to the racial and cultural concerns that they share more or less in common. But apart from that trend of religious toleration, those associated with the Alt-Right share a pernicious mistrust of Muslims and antipathy toward Islam. They regard Islam as completely incompatible with and even hostile to supposed Western values. Muslims themselves are regarded as existential threats to the European peoples and culture.
The variation of views on specific political strategy notwithstanding, the public face of the Alt-Right has been scenes of violence. Arrests and prosecutions stemming from the violence perpetrated by those who attended the Unite The Right rally continue even after James Alex Fields, Jr. was convicted of several crimes after driving his vehicle into a crowd of counter protestors, including the first degree murder of Heather Heyer. And while Spencer and Taylor shun violence as counterproductive to their political strategy, McInnes and others openly embrace it. Violence and threats of violence are part of the movement’s identity. Even as Spencer sardonically suggests a ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ to create a white ethnic homeland, violence seems to be the preferred method of most Alt-Rightists.
We should also consider that though the Alt-Right is not likely to become a powerful political force in its own right, we cannot ignore the salience of xenophobic and racist narratives in politics today. Anti-Muslim and more general anti-immigrant rhetoric has been used to great effect of late to solicit support for far-right candidates and parties. Richard Spencer himself famously celebrated President Trump’s electoral victory by exclaiming “Hail Trump! Hail our people!,” after championing resistance to the alleged marginalisation and replacement of European Americans. That the Alt-Right adored Trump’s position on immigration and his Muslim ban is common knowledge. Former Klan leader David Duke praised Trump at the Unite The Right rally, exclaiming that he and those he represents fully support the President. And far-right parties in Denmark, Italy, and other European countries find favor by mobilising the replacement narrative that mimics much of what the American Alt-Right has popularised. And while there are many details specific to each context, what seems to be driving these political successes is motivating the terrorism—conspiratorial narratives of white victimisation. Bill Braniff, director of the START consortium at the University of Maryland, a center that tracks terrorism, commenting for NPR shortly after the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania argued: “What are the characteristics of an individual that allows them to go from non-violence in support of one of these ideologies, to violence? We find that believing in this collective sense of victimhood is a near necessary condition.” This sense of collective victimhood more than any other element characterises the ideology of the Alt-Right. It is the motivation for political activism and terrorism alike.
Damon T. Berry is an Assistant Professor of American Religion at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He is the author of Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism.