Making Sense of the Alt-Right

George Hawley. Columbia Univ., $28 (208p) ISBN 978-0-231-18512-7

A scholarly analysis of a leaderless, largely online movement devoted to white nationalism is a tricky undertaking, but Hawley (Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism), a political science professor, makes a game try in this slim volume. He acknowledges the challenge of understanding a vulgar, racist movement that “rejects... basic American values” and “indicates that a ‘postracial America’ is farther off than most people—liberal and conservative—have long hoped.” He provides a straightforward, plausible history of the “identitarian” antecedents to today’s amorphous “alt-right” phenomenon. Crucially, Hawley writes, the alt-right is not part of the traditional American conservative movement, which it views as its current main opponent, as establishment conservatives are too religious and ideologically inclusive and, once in office, they are too unwilling to fight for the policies they suggested to capitalize on white voter anxiety, such as curbing immigration or ending affirmative action. Hawley’s observation, while trying to grasp how the “alt-right” came to prominence, that “the organized conservative movement is at the nadir of its existence, despite the GOP’s electoral dominance,” is telling. So is his observation that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign speech assailing the movement supplied oxygen to fan its flames and broaden its exposure. What comes next remains unclear, but Hawley’s survey represents a good early effort at understanding a strange time in American politics. (Sept.)