Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has elevated a set of radical groups, generally understood to be on the extreme right of the American political spectrum, to their greatest prominence in the modern era. Some mainstream publications have struggled to describe these disparate groups, especially those that openly espouse racism.
To help understand the distinctions and relationships between these groups, here’s a brief taxonomy.
White supremacists and white nationalists
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there are genuine ideological differences between them. White supremacists believe that people of European descent are biologically and culturally superior to people from non-European regions. In multiracial societies like the United States, they espouse a racial hierarchy in which white people enjoy a privileged status.
White nationalists, on the other hand, oppose multiracial societies and instead support the creation of a white ethno-state. How this state would be created is an open question: Richard Spencer, who runs a white-nationalist institute and occasionally garners genteel profiles in mainstream publications, has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Others support more violent means to their ultimate end.
Nazis and Neo-Nazis
The term “Nazis” is generally reserved for former members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945 under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and oversaw the Holocaust. The Allies legally abolished the party at the end of World War II; only a handful of its original members are still alive. The most-wanted Nazis still sought by the Simon Weisenthal Center, the most prominent Nazi-hunting organization, are elderly ex-guards who served in concentration camps in eastern and central Europe.
Neo-Nazis idolize Nazi Germany and adopt its symbolism. Like their namesakes, neo-Nazis espouse a virulent hatred of Jews as well as non-whites, people with disabilities, and the LGBT community. George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party was among the most prominent organizations to take root in the United States after World War II, but had little widespread appeal. Today, hate websites like Stormfront act as a decentralized hub for neo-Nazi ideas and discussion.
Ku Klux Klan
The first Klan was founded by ex-Confederate officers in the aftermath of the Civil War. During the Reconstruction era, Klan groups intimidated and murdered black freedmen and white Republicans who sought to build a functioning multiracial democracy in the South. President Ulysses Grant and the newly founded Justice Department successfully eradicated the Klan by the mid-1870s.
The Klan’s second iteration in the 1920s and 1930s functioned as a social fraternity of sorts dedicated to preserving white supremacy. In addition to its hostility towards black civil rights, this version also incorporated anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. Those themes would carry over to the third and modern version of the Klan, which emerged as a response to the African American civil-rights movement’s success in the 1950s and 1960s. The contemporary Klan is more of a movement than a single organized group, ranging from militant factions that support violence to figures seeking mainstream reputability like David Duke.
A largely regionalist ideology grounded in Confederate revivalism and nostalgia for the “Old South.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups nationwide, neo-Confederate ideology “incorporates advocacy of traditional gender roles, is hostile towards democracy, strongly opposes homosexuality, and exhibits an understanding of race that favors segregation and suggests white supremacy.”
What separates the neo-Confederate movement from other white supremacists is its historical narrative. A cornerstone of the ideology is the “Lost Cause” mythology of the Civil War, which portrays the South as a victim of Northern aggression against states’ rights. It also favors a hostile view toward Reconstruction-era reforms towards multiracial democracy, often relying upon the Dunning School of history that overemphasized Republican corruption and elided white Southern violence.
The term “alt-right” was coined in 2008 by Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who has called for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of the United States. Spencer is best known for giving a speech met with Nazi salutes at a white-nationalist conference in November to celebrate Trump’s victory. While many of those who identify with the alt-right also identify with white nationalism or white supremacy, not all of them openly espouse such beliefs.
What nearly all alt-right groups and advocates share is a hostility toward Muslims as well as opposition to immigration, modern feminism, egalitarianism, and pluralistic societies. Some entirely reject liberal democracy. Internet culture shapes the alt-right’s rhetoric and provides a lingua franca for its ideologically nebulous followers. It also draws heavily in tone and tactics from the Gamergate movement, a loosely affiliated connection of online trolls that harassed feminists in the video game industry.
Those affiliated with the alt-right portray themselves as steadfast defenders of American society against left-wing political correctness enforced by a globalized elite. Some alt-right members use anti-Semitic tropes and describe the globalist elite as Jewish; others do not. Many prominent alt-right figures have been lightning-rods for controversy. Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart writer, was permanently banned from Twitter for inciting harassment of black actress Leslie Jones.
The movement gained increased prominence due to its enthusiastic support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Most notably, Breitbart News chairman and Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon declared his publication to be the “voice of the alt-right.”