Last week, two prominent intellectuals in the conservative movement, Hugh Hewitt and Jonah Goldberg, took to talk radio to grapple with “the alt right.” Who are they? For what does their faction stand? What should conservatives do about them?
“The one thing they all agree on,” Jonah Goldberg argued, “is that we need to organize this society on the assumption that white people are genetically superior, or that white culture is inherently superior, and that we should have either state-imposed or culturally-imposed segregation between the races, no race mixing with the lower brown people. And I take them at their word, that that’s the stuff that they believe. And I think rather than poisoning or blurring that distinction, we should take them at their word and say we want nothing to do with any of that.”
Hugh Hewitt agreed that a faction like that exists, and that they should be shorn from the conservative movement. But he added that while the core of the faction is racist, there are other people who have taken to describing themselves as “alt-right” without knowing what it means, and who want nothing to do with a racist project. He urged that in the process of exiling racists from the right, care should be taken to avoid folks who say they’re on the alt-right but reject that abhorrent agenda.
Their whole conversation is here. Few prominent figures on the right have grappled as frankly or openly with the racists who’ve recently gained power in their coalition.
For this they deserve credit.
“My genuine question,” Hugh Hewitt said, cutting to the heart of the matter, “is how to achieve vis-à-vis the alt right what Buckley achieved vis-à-vis the Birchers. And the reason it was easier for Buckley is there were membership cards for the Birchers, right? There was a society that you joined. There isn’t such a thing for the alt right.”
Jonah Goldberg agreed that today’s atomized media landscape has made the challenge before the right more difficult. National Review is not the gatekeeper it once was.
Their proposed solution? This is as far as they got:
Hewitt: The real problem is Paul Ryan’s problem, Mitch McConnell’s problem and Reince Priebus’ problem, which is they have to exile the alt right as you and I have agreed to define it, but which I do not believe is generally agreed upon in the media to define it. And in fact, I believe the left will attempt to brand people as alt right who are not alt right, because there are some people with a foot in both camps. One of them is Ann Coulter, another of them is Milo, right? These people live on that border, and they sell on that border, and it makes it very hard to patrol on that border.
Goldberg: Yeah, well, I find it easy to patrol that border, because I want nothing to do with Ann Coulter, and I want nothing to do with Milo. I mean, I’ve known Ann for 20 years. I like Ann personally. I think the way she has behaved herself has been utterly repugnant and irresponsible.
And I am personally, you know, I don’t have that much power. It’s not like I can excommunicate anybody. She is a hotter commodity in this world than I am. But at the same time, you know, I do what I can, and I think the important thing is to draw bright lines, and you have to ask people, you know, we used to ask people whether or not they were, you know, pro-communist or anti-communist, or what it was, and hold people accountable to their answers. And my guess is the alt right would lose a lot of members once it became very clear to people what it actually means.
They go on to discuss whether working for Brietbart.com, a Web site that courts the alt-right audience, will come to be regarded by the mainstream as “a toxic credential.”
But that is beside the point. As inconvenient as it is for Hugh Hewitt, who has argued that voters should hold their noses and support Donald Trump because he will appoint better judges, the outcome in 2016 will determine the alt-right’s trajectory.
A huge Donald Trump loss could be catastrophic for the alt-right. Its members would return to relative irrelevance as mercenary politicians regard them as toxic losers. They would have no access to power, and the most popular outlets that cater to them, like Breitbart.com, would be regarded as ignorable, discredited echo-chambers. As Goldberg said elsewhere of the alt-right, “I think the wisest course would be to ignore it utterly, but thanks to the demons the Trump campaign has aroused—and even hired—that hasn’t been possible. I think it will be again, soon enough.”
A narrow Trump loss would weaken the alt-right, though perhaps not fatally.
And a Donald Trump win? That would make the alt-right more powerful than it has ever been. In GOP primaries, opportunists would try to mimic Trump’s brand of identity politics in hopes of succeeding as he did; actual white nationalists would be emboldened to vie for power; and alt-right politicians would win victories in some regions and transform the tenor of local politics in others. Breitbart.com would be read as a source of insight into what the people running the executive branch might do next.
Meanwhile, the divides with the Republican Party would not disappear. GOP governors in blue states and representatives in purple districts would distance themselves from a polarizing Trump Administration in a bid to retain their seats. And as a result, Trump himself would likely have an added incentive to pander to his base—the part of the GOP coalition that is least motivated by principled conservatism and most motivated by racism and xenophobia (which is not to say that all Trump voters are motivated by those abominations).
If Hewitt faces the choices before him with clarity he will agonize.
To get a Republican in the White House to appoint Supreme Court justices, he will have to live with the relative empowerment of the faction that Goldberg describes as “these guys who send pictures of me in gas chambers, and of David French’s black adopted child being gassed.” To exile that faction as decisively as possible from power in the conservative movement and the country at large, he will have to live with a victory by Hillary Clinton, which he regards as catastrophic.
For now, despite it all, Hewitt believes that conservatives should vote for Trump, for the sake of the Supreme Court, while Goldberg has vowed that he will never vote for Trump. To the question, “How far are you willing to go to exile racists from the Republican coalition?” I believe Goldberg has an answer that is both morally defensible and likely to benefit the conservative cause in the long run. And I think Hewitt underestimates how much a Trump victory would irrevocably fuel the alt-right, harming the conservative project that he believes in for many decades to come.