Prior to the 2016 presidential election, I would bet that most people shared my mental image of the modern-day neo-Nazi movement: a hodgepodge of tatted-up skinheads, gun-toting militiamen, hooded Ku Klux Klan members, and miscellaneous bloodthirsty Turner Diaries cosplayers. While those people still exist, an offshoot of the movement—which calls itself the alternative right, or alt-right for short—has disguised itself in urban chic.
Now, the hardcore reactionaries I’ve met more closely resemble Mike Peinovich—or Mike Enoch, as he’s known in far-right circles—the chubby, preppy, thirtysomething founder of white nationalist website The Right Stuff and co-host of the Daily Shoah podcast.
On a recent April day, Enoch, a New York City–based web developer, stood outside of the White House among dozens of like-minded white nationalists. He’d come to the city to help lead a right-wing “anti-war” rally against Trump’s recent action in Syria. Dressed in a wasp-y vest and gingham shirt with his sunglasses perched on his head, Enoch blended in nicely with the youthful fascists who have become ubiquitous in the bizarro world of Trumpland. Like many other millennials of his ideology, Enoch began as a conservative libertarian before finding his way to white nationalism. By Enoch’s account, he’s also a card-carrying pacifist. “I have been anti-war my whole political life,” he told me. “It’s the thing that got me interested in politics, when the Iraq War was starting, the opposition to George W. Bush’s war.”
He was joined by another libertarian-turned-alt-right-leader, National Policy Institute director and handsome boy of the right, Richard Spencer. Spencer gained notoriety by riding the coattails of the Trump movement, but the honeymoon has apparently ended. Spencer led chants for most of the rally, while one of his websites, AltRight.com, co-sponsored the protest with The Right Stuff.
As I talked with Enoch, about two dozen young men with neatly trimmed Hitler Youth–style haircuts, red “Make America Great Again” hats, and signs featuring Trump’s old tweets about Syria began chanting at a crowd of antifa (or anti-fascist) protesters. Enoch had become visibly annoyed with the proceedings. He wasn’t here to clash with leftists—he was here to get the White House’s attention and show his opposition to “neoconservative wars … wars for Israel, and … Jewish control of United States foreign policy.”
The “Jewish question,” as they refer to it (a phrase with direct Nazi roots), was a common theme among the other alt-right demonstrators I spoke with that day, though it wasn’t exactly clear why. Many believed that the air strikes came due to pressure from “the Israel lobby” and unnamed “neoconservatives.” (Kevin MacDonald, one of the alt-right’s most influential intellectuals, argues that neoconservatism is a “Jewish movement” meant to protect and benefit Jews at the expense of other groups.) Other protesters vaguely cast blame on Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, who is Jewish.
Support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad—whose forces have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own people in the Syrian civil war—was strong, too. Speaking at the rally, Spencer implored Trump to pursue peaceful relations with Assad, whom he called “the rightful leader of Syria” and lauded as “a secular person, a person of strength and stability.” Assad “might not be perfect,” Spencer admitted, “but the world isn’t perfect.”
Despite their stated distaste for foreign interventions, alt-right figures like Enoch and Spencer are about as “anti-war” as the countless other authoritarian-minded anti-interventionists before them. From the John Birch Society during Vietnam, to the Buchananites during Iraq, to Trump, the man who just stabbed Enoch, Spencer, and their pasty followers in the collective back, the far-right’s embrace of anti-war rhetoric has remained a constant. But even though the Trump administration may have fallen out of favor with its adoring alt-right followers, the two groups have a great deal in common—including their use of “anti-war” as a sales pitch rather than a principle.
The God Emperor Versus the World
Neo-Nazis in America are used to not getting what they want, but they expected better from Trump. As excited as they were about their “God Emperor,” Trump now seems to be offering them steady lip service and unsteady leadership. Although numerous white nationalist leaders made it clear early on that they knew Trump didn’t have all of their interests at heart, most protest participants apparently hadn’t connected the dots during his campaign, which would explain why they felt betrayed by a man whose career was built on screwing people over. Indeed, several protesters cited Trump’s long-standing opposition to intervention, an issue on which he was “unwavering” and consistently “toting the line,” in the words of Raph, a thin, pale sign-holder at the rally.
Enoch was inclined to agree. “He never contradicted himself on Syria,” he told me. “Sure, he was all over the place on a lot of things…. But we have our agenda. This is a thing he said he wouldn’t do, and we supported him, and he stabbed us in the back.”
Spencer, too, was at his wit’s end over Trump’s flip-flop on the war. In an episode of The Daily Shoah recorded shortly after the protest, he emphasized that “This is so important—we’re not talking about immigration, we’re not talking about tax cuts or Neil Gorsuch.”
“I can’t look at a Trump meme anymore,” Spencer despaired to his comrades.
Depressed as Spencer and Enoch may be, Trump’s reversal plays perfectly into the hands of alt-right proselytizers, whose ranks are packed with the angry and disenchanted. What better proof of conspiracy than man-of-the-people Trump being coaxed into a war by his Jewish son-in-law?
Though Enoch only mentioned “Jewish control” of the body politic once, several signs proclaimed sentiments like, “We want walls not wars #FireKushner”; “Oy vey Jared! The Goyim know!”; and “>America First >Israel First Pick One,” with a crossed-out star of David.
One protester named Edward—who was clutching a sign proclaiming da goyim know—informed me that the alt-right’s “skepticism” of Judaism was only rational. “They have a dual morality system,” he told me. “They think that Jews have one morality, and they practice a morality for them, and non-Jews, they practice a separate morality for them.”
Although Enoch and other alt-righters aren’t ashamed of airing their anti-Semitism more provocatively—especially for closed-minded liberals like me—they have made some effort to hide its more repellent expressions when trying to woo conservatives. A clear example of this came when Spencer was filmed declaring “Heil Trump” and exchanging Nazi salutes at a conference last November. He tried to downplay the speech as “ironic” and now jokingly refers to the subsequent outcry as “Heilgate.”
To many alt-right leaders, the process of “red pilling” the masses begins by getting “normies” to start thinking seriously about “the Jewish question.” Translated from alt-right speak: preparing average conservatives for radicalization starts with getting them to see Jews as manipulative, disproportionately powerful, and inherently untrustworthy. As alt-right agitator Eli Mosley told Enoch and his co-host, Jesse Dunstan, on a recent episode of The Daily Shoah, he frequently approaches conservatives at Trump rallies hoping to nudge them into the alt-right.
At one rally in Philadelphia, Mosley and others steered the crowd into chants of “Open borders for Israel!” when confronted by a group of antifa, and yelled “Are you a Jew? You must be a Jew!” at counterprotesters. When a “normie” Trump supporter asked Mosley why Jews would be opposing Christians, he carefully explained the difference between ethnic and religious Jews, then pointed her in the direction of Marching to Zion, a conspiratorial Christian documentary on the history of Judaism. Mosley also handed out “red pill cards” with a list of alt-right websites like The Right Stuff. Whether such discussions happen to be effective is unclear, but many alt-righters see them as a key part of their expansion strategy.
Peace Through Strength
Despite the warm reception Trump’s Syria strikes received among many mainstream pundits, the alt-right’s loose coalition has remained steadfast in its opposition to more war.
Well, at least this war.
In early March, Enoch’s Right Stuff blog published an article by a pseudonymous author, “Padishah Emperor Julius Ebola”—a play on the name of the late Italian far-right philosopher Julius Evola. Rather than embrace the notion of an anti-interventionist white ethno-state with closed borders—which is what Spencer and many of his followers advocate—the author lambasted the notion that such an Aryan paradise could exist peacefully with other ethnically homogenous states.
“A foreign policy based on mutual assurances of noninterference or nonaggression is rooted in weakness and built to be destroyed,” our “King Emperor” asserted. “Secession from the [international] System is never an option. It demands an all-or-nothing mindset, because either it survives or the Aryan State survives.”
In other words, he concluded, borrowing that old Latin adage: “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” or, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
As his Right Stuff essays show, Ebola has worked tirelessly to flesh out a white nationalist foreign policy. In one, he proposes the formation of a “Golden Axis,” an initiative that would encourage a hypothetical Aryan state to spread its dominion over the entirety of the Americas. Like most alt-righters, Ebola is obsessed with viewing conflicts through the lens of civilizational clashes. In a recent post, he framed the civil war in Syria as a battle between “Eurasia” (Russia, its allies, and client states) and “Zion” (the United States, Western Europe, and Israel), hinting at why many on the alt-right think intervention in Syria equates to going to war for Israel:
Zion is overtly anti-Aryan, whereas Eurasia is more oblique. Zion is the perpetrator of global White genocide and represents the combined power of the international Jew whether in Israel, America, Europe or elsewhere.
Apparently haircuts aren’t the only thing that Nazis haven’t changed in the last 70 years. Although today’s alt-right borrows terminology from a variety of sources—including an eclectic mix of European far-right philosophers, Russian nationalist theorists, and good ol’ fashioned American racists—its vision of the future continues to rely on Hitler’s obsession with an eternal, animalistic, and—more importantly—violent struggle among the races.
Consider yet another Ebola article, “Manifest Destiny Means Lebensraum,” in which he glorifies American frontier settlers and bemoans their negative treatment in the history books. “The most central aspect of American history,” he writes, “is … the expansion of the Aryan race in the New World from a beachhead to a transcontinental empire.”
“A vast land was cleared with the hatchet and the rifle,” Ebola rejoices, “as the men of the stone age were beaten back by men of blood and iron.”
As historian Timothy Snyder has pointed out, Hitler himself paralleled the American idea of “manifest destiny” with his own philosophy, wherein the conquest of Eastern Europe was a natural expansion for the German people to find Lebensraum (“living space”). “Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians,” Snyder writes in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin: “The Volga River in Russia, [Hitler] once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.”
If the alt-right were remotely anti-war, its members would be making a point to articulate their moral opposition to violence. Instead, its prescriptions—from the “peaceful ethnic cleansing” that Spencer promises, to The Right Stuff’s pining for settler colonialism—are both inherently cruel and destructive. And though the alt-right may be presenting itself as an ally of anti-war activists on both the left and the right, these efforts are fooling no one. No anti-war activists worth their salt would support a candidate like Trump, who mused about using nuclear weapons on isis and flaunted his desire to “bomb the shit out of ’em.” So it’s no wonder alt-right leaders mostly shrugged when U.S. forces dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan just days after striking Syria.
But these contradictions are inherent in the alt-right ideology. They worship violence while portraying themselves as devoutly anti-war; they condemn U.S. interventions as neoconservative regime change, but would have no qualms reshaping their world in their own vision. It is the ultimate “have your cake and eat it, too” movement, advocating cruel and backward ideas while demanding to be taken seriously in the public square. But in the end, regardless of the alt-right’s highbrow pretensions, the tenets of their “anti-war” movement are little more than Mein Kampf written in the voice of The Economist.
Trip Brennan is a writer living in Washington, D.C.