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Brains From Which the Alt-Right Sprang
By Marc Parry JANUARY 22, 2017

The "alt-right" did not come out of nowhere. The racist movement’s founders, like Richard B. Spencer and Jared Taylor, built on ideas concocted, in some cases, by academics. "There’s an entire intellectual inheritance, produced in university classrooms and research facilities, that led us to this moment," says Heidi Beirich, an expert on extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Those intellectual roots are at the heart of a forthcoming study by Thomas J. Main, a professor at Baruch College’s Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Main, a self-described moderate conservative, formerly served as managing editor of Irving Kristol’s journal The Public Interest, a platform of neoconservative thought. His book promises to be one of the first to attempt a political-science-based analysis of the alt-right, which he has called the "first new philosophical competitor to liberalism, broadly defined, since the fall of Communism." The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Can you tell me about your project?

It’s looking at the alt-right as a political and ideological phenomenon. There are several prongs to that investigation. One is looking at the digital and web presence of the alt-right, with the idea of trying to get a sense as to whether it has reached a point where it can actually have some kind of influence on American political culture. And then I’m doing this intellectual genealogy — where they came out of. And then I’m also looking in detail at some of their arguments. They’ve got this whole philosophy of what they call "race realism" — what other people would call scientific racism.

Who are some of the most important intellectual influences on the alt-right?

I don’t know if I could point to one or two figures that were so important. For instance, if you look at the libertarian movement, you would point to people like maybe F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises as intellectual progenitors. I don’t know that there’s anybody quite at that kind of level with the alt-right.

An intellectual trickle-down process dilutes and simplifies the ideas of academic theorists. You have to think about the alt-right as being the latest incarnation of what used to be called, back in the early ’60s, right-wing extremism. What I mean by that is everybody to the right of, let’s say, National Review. The conscious policy of Bill Buckley was to throw out everybody from the conservative movement who was in any way unrespectable. Over time, the conservative movement started to penetrate the political center. Part of that manifestation was the growth of neoconservatism, and the phenomenon of critics of the Great Society, and critics of the New Left, moving rightward. So, between pushing out the extreme right, and bringing in some of the moderate left, the conservative movement took a couple of steps toward the mainstream of American political culture.

If you fast-forward now to the ’80s, the so-called right-wing extremists are now known as paleoconservatives, because they don’t like the fact that the movement has moved somewhat to the left. And they especially hate the neoconservatives, whom they see as corrupting the movement. So the question was how to take the conservative movement back.

Whose ideas shaped that response?

One person who was very influential here was a writer by the name of Kevin B. MacDonald, who was a psychologist at California State University at Long Beach. In 1994 he wrote a book, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (Praeger Publishers). He revived the strain of anti-Semitism on the right by making a Darwinian analysis of Jews. He argued that Jewish culture — and in particular the fact that they had a married clergy — resulted in boosting the average IQ of Jews, because the smartest people, unlike in the Catholic Church, didn’t take themselves out of the gene pool. Jews were analyzed as a subspecies invading a new ecological niche. And part of the Jewish evolutionary strategy was that Jews do better if the host society is pluralistic, multiracial, multiethnic.

Also you had a guy by the name of Michael Levin, who was a philosophy professor at City College here in the City University of New York. In the late ’80s, early ’90s, he started developing a racialist theory. He suggested that, gee, maybe we should have separate subway cars for black young men because they’re more likely to commit crimes. And he delivered a series of speeches along those lines, which created a scandal. Out of this came a book, published in 1997, which was called Why Race Matters (Praeger Publishers). So, again, this was an evolutionary, genetic theory that was applied now not against Jews but against blacks. This takes a step beyond saying that there are average differences in intelligence, whatever you want to make of that argument, to saying, on average, whites are better people.
What is the evidence of these writers’ influence?

Maybe some people might doubt their influence. But one of the things that I find striking is the embrace of racialism by the extreme right wing in a way it wasn’t embraced explicitly by the extreme right wing throughout the ’60s. And among the people that first articulated this genetic, pseudo-­Darwinian account of blacks and Jews, and the politics of race and ethnicity, were MacDonald and Levin. And I think that had an impact. If you talk to Jared Taylor, as I have, he says explicitly that you identify with your race, and you incorporate into your ideology the axiom that the aim of political action is to advance the interests of your race, at the expense of other races if necessary, and with the understanding that nonwhite races are inferior.

What about the Breitbart crowd? Your Los Angeles Times op-ed mentions that, of all the alt-right media, Breitbart is the most allied with Trump. And Stephen K. Bannon will be in the White House. Who provided the intellectual foundation for their worldview?

There’s an intellectual trickle-down process, where you have a relatively small group of "elite" figures — and I’m using that in a totally value-neutral sense. At the top maybe there are people like MacDonald and Levin and a few others. And then their ideas trickle down to popularizers and communicators like Taylor and Spencer and perhaps VDARE [a right-wing website] in some respects. And then the ideas get watered down still further by media figures like Breitbart. And as these ideas trickle down, they become simpler and they moderate somewhat. Bannon often talks about how politics is about war. That conception of politics as a matter of war, and the focus on ethnic and racial identity — that’s a watering down of the racialist theory of politics as being all about the assertion of one race against another.

Marc Parry is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.
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