Alt-Right, White Nationalist, Free Speech: The Far Right's Language Explained | WBEZ
Skip to main content


Alt-Right, White Nationalist, Free Speech: The Far Right's Language Explained

Alt-right. White nationalist. Free speech. Hate speech.

A number of labels involving the far right have been tossed about once again after a white supremacist allegedly stabbed three people who tried to keep him from shouting at two teenage girls, one wearing a hijab, on the Portland metro.

Fearing trouble because emotions are running high, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler asked the federal government to revoke a permit for a "Trump Free Speech Rally" on Sunday, describing the organizers as "alt-right." But a rally organizer rejected that characterization, insisting he didn't even know precisely what the phrase meant. Left-wing groups also are planning rallies this weekend.

Here's a look at some of the phrases being used to describe the people involved, and what's behind them:

Alt-Right/White Nationalist

White supremacist Jeremy Christian, who has been charged with two counts of aggravated murder, attempted murder and intimidation in the second degree, began his courtroom appearance last week shouting about free speech. "Free speech or die, Portland. You call it terrorism I call it patriotism," Christian shouted. "If you don't like free speech get the f*** out of my country."

So what exactly was Christian ranting about? Was it nonsensical ravings or something more — an exclamation of his political ideology? Was he saying he allegedly stabbed the three men, two of them fatally, because he believed they were interfering with his right to speak to the young women?

Understanding the language of the far right is a good place to start. There's plenty of disagreement and debate about what language to use to describe far right politics and the groups that operate there.

These days, the labels white nationalist and alt-right have become ubiquitous. Radical right and ultra-right are older terms from the 1950s and 60s, and other terms include paleo-conservative, the militia movement, identity movement, American fascists, national socialists, neo-Nazis. But according to Mark Potok, a leader at the Southern Poverty Law Center for the last two decades, essentially these groups can be broken down into two main categories — those who focus primarily on issues of race and those who focus primarily on conspiracy theories. One idea that courses through nearly all of them is the belief that healthy societies are dependent on racial, ethnic and cultural purity — that for the white race, diversity is the path to political and cultural extinction.

The thinking is that each racial/ethnic group should get their own country, but the USA (and Europe) is for white, European, Christian culture. It's why language like Christian's — "get out of my country" — is prevalent among the far right.

This supremacist vision is what separates alternative right/white nationalists from others on the political spectrum. It's an enormous leap ideologically from mainstream conservatism and the main reason why alt-right membership remains relatively low. Where does the term alt-right come from? Paleo-conservative philosopher Paul Grottfried first used the phrase in 2008 but white nationalist Richard Spencer ran with it and helped make alt-right ubiquitous.

Spencer is a new face of the extreme right movement. Well educated at the Universities of Virginia, Chicago and Duke, he is a world away from old images of the Ku Klux Klan. According to Pete Simi, professor of Sociology at Chapman University ant the co-author of the book American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement's Hidden Spaces of Hate, the term alt-right was a successful attempt by Spencer to rebrand himself and his followers as something fresh, young and smart for a new generation.

Among its allies, the alt-right embraces President Trump advisor and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon. Bannon has called the site a "platform for the alt-right."

Free Speech or Hate Speech?

Free Speech has grown into a major issue for both mainstream conservatives and the alt-right. For mainstream conservatives, the belief that the left is more intolerant of dissent than the right is evidenced by the protests against right-wing speakers on college campuses.

White nationalists believe their First Amendment rights go further: that they should have the freedom to say whatever they like and not suffer consequences — for example, getting fired from their job for posting something hateful on Facebook.

The alt-right has developed its own language and symbols on the Internet. Parentheses around a person's name means they are Jewish. "Cuckservative" is a particularly ugly racist and derogatory term describing establishment Republicans who aren't considered conservative enough.

Professor Simi says a key feature of white nationalist belief is seeing themselves as victims. "We're not the haters, we're the victims of white genocide," Simi says, describing the alt-right mindset. Marginalized, oppressed, and fighting an uphill battle against the powers that be, they view themselves as noble, courageous, even heroic warriors.

"Patriot" or Terrorist?

A second category of the extreme right in the American militia movement, which can be characterized by its belief in conspiracy theories. On his Facebook page, Christian praised Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, "May all the Gods Bless Timothy McVeigh a TRUE PATRIOT!!!"

Former SPLC director Potok said the movement's fundamental idea is that the federal government is involved in a conspiracy against its people's liberties. The imposition of martial law will be followed by the forced confiscation of guns and Potok explains that in the end, the U.S. government will be forced into a one world government, the so-called "New World Order" that will be run to serve the global elite. Elements of these conspiracy theories recently made a prominent appearance in Texas in 2015 during an armed forces military exercise, which stoked fear among some worried Texans that President Obama was about to use Special Forces soldiers to confiscate guns and round up resisters. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott responded by ordering the Texas State Guard to monitor the Special Forces soldiers while they trained in Texas.

Martin Kaste contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.