Remember the alt-right? The sludge of white supremacists, misogynists, neo-Nazis, and various chauvinists leaked out of the putrid corners of the internet in the years leading up to Donald Trump’s election. Although their various hatreds, grievances, and conspiracy theories were old, they saw themselves as something new. Their very name placed them in opposition to the status quo. They weren’t the American right, the coalition that included politicians like then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, as well as the Wall Street Journal editorial board and the intellectuals in the conservative think tanks and magazines. No, they were the blood-and-soil, tiki-torches-and-khakis alternative.
The one new thing about the alt-right, apart from its embrace of internet anonymity as a modern-day successor to the Klan hood, was its leaders. There was Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist proprietor of InfoWars, famous for his concern over gay frogs, and Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi provocateur known for getting punched. For those who preferred stronger flavors, there was Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier and self-described “Campus Conservative,” and Milo Yiannopoulos, who mixed white nationalism with defenses of pedophilia. The chief impresario was Steve Bannon, who made the website he took over, Breitbart, into a “platform for the alt-right.”
That was then. By its own definition, the alt-right is no more. Because it’s no longer an alternative to the right. It is the right.
Most of the Republican party is now more or less where the alt-right was four years ago, at least in embracing conspiracy theories—starting with the most consequential conspiracy theory of the last year: that Trump won the 2020 election but it was stolen from him by some combination of Democratic fraudsters, foreign and domestic socialists, and voting-machine companies, backed up by Big Tech. Courts asked to weigh in on these claims repeatedly slapped them down, and the pro-Trump lawyers who filed them increasingly revealed themselves to be unhinged. But about three-quarters of Republicans believe that President-elect Biden’s victory was illegitimate. And a majority of the Republicans in Congress supported the baseless claims: Two-thirds of the GOP representatives objected to certifying Electoral College votes last Wednesday, and over a quarter of GOP senators did (and/or said they intended to do) the same thing.
And what of the other big conspiracy theories in recent years? Among Republicans who have heard of QAnon, 41 percent say it’s somewhat good or very good for the country. Just 26 percent labeled it “very bad.” A plurality of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that the statement “the coronavirus outbreak was intentionally planned by powerful people” is probably or definitely true. The figure is even higher for self-described “conservatives.”
Of course, belief in conspiracy theories isn’t an isolated metaphysical phenomenon. It brings with it moral and political ramifications. Rare indeed is the conspiracy theorist who believes the world is controlled by a secret, powerful cabal—be it the Jews, the Illuminati, or the lizard people—and decides to stay on its good side. Embedded in the conspiracy theory itself is the need to fight the conspiracy, often violently. No wonder Republicans are so tolerant of violence. According to one poll, more than two-thirds of Republicans said the storming of the Capitol on January 6 was not a threat to democracy. A plurality (45 percent) approved of the insurrection.
Nor are most conspiracy theories (and for that matter, conspiracy theorists) devoid of other ideological stains: The QAnon conspiracy, after all, is based in part on a warmed-over version of the thousand-year-old anti-Semitic blood libel. Some Republicans spent years defending themselves and their co-partisans against accusations of racism, only to have the regime of “they’re not sending us their best,” the Muslim ban, “good people on both sides,” “go back where you came from,” “shithole countries,” family separations, kids in cages, and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” make racism an integral part of the modern Republican platform. Last week, QAnon apostle and Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert live-tweeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s location as the U.S. Capitol Police were being overrun; Republican Rep. Mary Miller told a crowd that “Hitler was right about one thing” (she has since apologized); and Trump himself told those engaged in armed insurrection against the U.S. government, “you’re very special.”
Bannon, for his part, having been discarded by Trump in early 2018, was arrested last August aboard a 150-foot yacht belonging to Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui in what turned out to be the perfect metaphor. After a relatively short stint as Trump’s senior advisor, he had become obsolete. The president didn’t need a theorist of white-grievance politics whispering in his ear; he didn’t need the man who gave a platform to the alt-right. Trump had become the embodiment of the alt-right, its leader and avatar, a human Pepe the Frog meme.
Yes, there are still non-racist, non-conspiracy-theorist, “normal” Republicans left in the party. Some freshman Republican members of Congress, like Reps. Nancy Mace and Peter Meijer, bear no responsibility for the ugliness of the last few years and have reacted with suitable outrage to recent events. But they and Larry Hogan and Mitt Romney and Adam Kinzinger aren’t the dreaded “GOP establishment” against which Trump has channeled such hatred and contempt for the last six years. Today, they are the alternative, and Trump and his team are the establishment.
Lisa Murkowski, in almost the same breath as she called for Trump to leave office, considered what she had in common with her fellow Republicans anymore. “If the Republican party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me.”
Good question. Parties have reinvented themselves before, including the Republican party, in its conservative turn of the 1960s-70s and again over the last few years. But it’s hard to imagine a new, reasonable, reality-minded Republican party building itself from the wreckage of today’s GOP.