Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the USA, held a swastika burning in Georgia this year. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Richard Spencer — coiner of the phrase ‘alt-right’ — infamously yelled “Hail, Trump! Hail, our people! Hail, victory!” at a gathering shortly after the US presidential election in 2016.
He elicited cheers and Hitler salutes from the crowd of like-minded patriots.
But he also provoked derisive laughter from some liberal observers, who dismissed him and his acolytes as strutting clowns in Nazi drag.
Nobody was laughing nine months later when hundreds of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and anti-Semites — many of them armed with semiautomatic weapons — marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia at the Unite the Right rally in August 2017.
Standoffs between the marchers and anti-fascist protesters turned to violent rioting. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville resident, was killed when a white supremacist deliberately drove his car into a crowd.
Suddenly the rise of organised homegrown fascism seemed a clear and present danger.
But the anniversary rally, Unite the Right 2 — which took place on August 12 this year in Washington DC — was a fizzer, with some two dozen far-right participants facing off against thousands of counter-protesters.
Ideological commitment or elaborate trolling?
Richard Spencer is the President of US white supremacist think tank The National Policy Institute and an advocate of the ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ of all non-whites from America.
He claims not to be a neo-Nazi, but his Hitler Youth haircut and dapper three-piece suits are pure Berlin 1939 chic.
White nationalist Richard Spencer popularised the term ‘alt-right’. (Getty images: Joe Raedle)
At his post-Presidential-election conference appearance, Spencer threw in nudge-nudge references that would not have been lost on historically savvy supporters. He denounced his opponents as ‘subhumans’ and referred to the media as die Lügenpresse or ‘lying press’ — a favourite Hitlerism.
But the disorienting hall-of-mirrors effect of the online world — through which Spencer’s public profile is largely mediated — makes it difficult to determine the extent to which he may just be a sort of Milo Yiannopoulos figure, relying more on flash than depth to attract attention.
How much of Spencer’s schtick is serious ideological commitment, and how much is elaborate trolling?
More broadly, how deep and troubling are the parallels between the contemporary American far-right and the Nazis?
It’s a difficult question to answer. The American scene is notoriously fragmented and at odds with itself.
Nativists, authoritarians, white supremacists, ultra-conservative anti-communists and, yes, proper neo-Nazis all jostle for cultural space and periodically denounce each other.
One thing that does unite today’s far-right ideologues is their misguided enthusiasm for the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Crowds protested a planned speech by Richard Spencer at the University of Florida last year. (Getty images: Brian Blanco/Stringer)
Nietzsche: Poster boy for Nazis
Was Nietzsche a proto-Nazi? The Nazis and their fellow travellers certainly thought so.
His anti-egalitarianism, his anti-Judaism and — in particular — the diligent efforts of his fascist-sympathising sister in selectively editing Nietzsche’s works after he died, all combined to make him the National Socialists’ philosophical poster boy.
But few serious Nietzsche scholars today view him in this light.
Nietzsche was, in fact, a fierce critic of German nationalism. While he did make blistering attacks on the Judaic religion, he was an admirer of the Jewish people and railed against the ‘accursed anti-Semite deformities’ at large in the Germany of his day.
But in spite of all this, there are signs that Nietzsche is being embraced today by the contemporary far-right.
Nietzsche’s thoughts on civilisational decay find themselves quoted at uncritical length on such forums as the influential Affirmative Right blog. And Richard Spencer confesses himself to have been ‘red-pilled’ by Nietzsche.
Three quarters of a century after Germany collapsed at the end of the Second World War, and decades since Walter Kaufmann and other scholars liberated Nietzsche’s reputation from the grip of fascism, the renegade ‘philosopher with a hammer’ is being dressed in Nazi uniform once again.
But is the contemporary alt-right misreading of Nietzsche the same as its Nazi-era forebear?
Paul Patton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of NSW, says it’s not entirely the same.
“It’s a different conception of white supremacy — a more culturalist conception of whiteness and white culture; it doesn’t have quite the same biological/racial overtones as the Nazi version did,” he explains.
“It’s a much more defensive reaction to shifts in global power and influence than was at the heart of the Nazi take-up of Nietzsche.”
Professor Patton says the Nazis latched on to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, a superior type of human being. But they missed a key element.
“When the German philosopher created the concept in 1883, he was signifying that European culture was not the final point of human moral and cultural evolution,” Professor Patton explains.
“In the case of the alt-right, there’s less of a looking forward to a new stage of human evolution and human culture, and a much more defensive attitude to the achievements of European and Western civilisation and its peoples.”
Xenophobia and ‘slave morality’
Similarly, for Hugo Drochon, historian and political theorist at the University of Cambridge, the alt-right embrace of Nietzsche is based on a profound misunderstanding of his ideas.
“Nietzsche is writing at the end of the 19th century, and 19th century Europe is dominated by figures like Otto von Bismarck [German chancellor between 1871 and 1890], who’s known for German unification, the Franco-Prussian war, and also for the politics of ‘blood and iron’ — the expansion of Germany through military power,” explains Dr Drochon.
“Nietzsche’s incredibly critical of that type of politics.
“Nietzsche says that this power-politics — which is based on nationalism, xenophobia and philistinism — is an example of what he calls ‘slave morality’, which he rejects.”
But according to Dr Drochon, contemporary alt-right figures, like Richard Spencer, advocate for nationalistic and xenophobic politics grounded in the rejection of the ‘other’.
“Spencer calls for a Christian ethno-populist American state, and these are all the things that Nietzsche hates,” he says.
“Nietzsche attacks Christianity, he hates nationalism, and instead of having some kind of purity, his idea was that the future of Europe would be based on mixing.
“He had this vision of future ‘good Europeans’ who would be mixed race, a mixture of Prussian military officers and Jews — which is obviously very far from the conception that the alt-right is peddling today.”