George Hawley


On his book Making Sense of the Alt-Right

Cover Interview of November 05, 2017

The wide angle

This project was a natural outgrowth of my earlier book, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism. That book, written before Donald Trump announced his candidacy, predicted a major disruption of the conservative movement. I argued that mainstream conservatism had a long record of accomplishment in terms of policing and corralling the American right, keeping certain voices and sentiments out of mainstream politics. This was one of William F. Buckley’s major projects throughout his life. After explaining how conservatives engaged in periodic housecleaning within their own ranks, I argued that it was beginning to lose that ability, and new right-wing forces would soon emerge and become a major part of the national conversation. I argued that mainstream conservatism was losing its control of the right for three reasons: its ideology was increasingly anachronistic, stuck in an outdated Cold War paradigm; its major institutions and voices were at a nadir of credibility following the disastrous Bush years; and changes in the media (especially the rise of online media) was diminishing the importance of conservative institutions like National Review.

I felt vindicated after Donald Trump won the 2016 GOP primaries, in spite of ferocious opposition from the organized conservative movement – National Review dedicated an entire issue to denouncing Trump. Yet I should also be up front about what I got wrong. In Right-Wing Critics, I was optimistic about the political future of moderate libertarianism, embodied by politicians like Rand Paul and Justin Amash. I did not foresee a rapid rise of explicitly racial right-wing thought, which suggests I was not reading the nation’s mood correctly.

Since completing that book, I have been carefully watching events on the political right, especially the part of the right that rejects mainstream conservatism, and I took notice when the Alt-Right began to make waves. As its impact on the political landscape became more pronounced throughout the election cycle, the Alt-Right became the focus of my attention. I watched it transition from a political irritant, pushing racial polarization on the margins of the political debate, to a household name that Hillary Clinton denounced directly – it was actually the main topic of one of Clinton’s speeches last summer. Watching this unfold as it occurred put me in a unique position to write this book.