A yellow flag depicting a rattlesnake and four words written below: “DONT TREAD ON ME” is increasingly a common sight at rallies connected to the Alternative Right in the US.
The Gadsden flag, as it’s called, is a symbol from 1775 traditionally used by the libertarian movement but curiously it’s now flown at rallies alongside the Confederate flag, as well as those adorned with swastikas and a myriad of symbols belonging to different far-right groups whose main cause is certainly not the protection of individual freedom.
It seems paradoxical. Libertarianism is individualistic while the Alternative Right is ostensibly collectivist. Libertarian philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand herself wrote that “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism” while racism is absolutely central to the alt-right, even celebrated. Libertarianism is anti-authoritarian and advocates for a minimal state while those Nazi flags found at Alternative Right rallies represent one of the most authoritarian regimes in modern history.
Yet, despite these inherent contradictions we have a seen a convergence between the two movements with libertarianism being both a route into the Alternative Right for some and an ideological strain within it.
The Alternative Right and libertarians cross paths time and time again. In August 2017 The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis identified a phenomenon that he called “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline” after having observed that many well-known Alternative Right activists have previously called themselves libertarians and many still do. Moreover, the pattern is prevalent in both the culturally concerned faction of the Alternative Right, the alt-light, and in the racially concerned faction, the alt-right.
While many in the Alternative Right have publicly renounced libertarianism, often with the motivation that it is too lax on immigration and socially “deviant” behaviour, some have openly identified with it. In the alt-light, activists that have called themselves libertarian include big names such as Stefan Molyneux, Gavin McInnes and Milo Yiannopoulos. In the alt-right we find the likes of Tim Gionet aka‘Baked Alaska’, Christopher Cantwell and figurehead Richard Spencer who has attended and spoken at libertarian conferences.
Kevin Vallier, an associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, Ohio and a writer at the left-leaning libertarian blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, writes that “it takes particular personality types to be open to taking unpopular views” and that some “simply enjoy holding outrageous and provocative views”. Vallier argues that we should expect there to be a large amount of these “contrarian” personalities in the libertarian movement and that some of them would also be inclined to join other unpopular or provocative movements – a perfect fit, of course, for the Alternative Right.
But the types of people the two movements attract doesn’t tell the whole story. Some still have one foot in each camp and don’t find that contradictory. ‘Augustus Invictus’ (born Austin Mitchell Gillespie) was billed as one of the headline speakers at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and is a frequent speaker at Alternative Right associated rallies across the country, though he also stood as a candidate for the Libertarian party in Florida in the 2016 election.
The desire of some in the Alternative Right to fuse the two is demonstrated by online groups on Facebook and Reddit calling themselves “alt-libertarians”. Their logo takes the Gadsden rattlesnake and coils it around the original symbol of fascism; the fasces. The text underneath reads “DON’T TREAD ON US”. The substitution of “me” for “us” gets to the core of the difference between the Alternative Right and libertarianism, yet also points to how libertarians’ responses to the contradiction of individualism and collectivism reflect their political values beyond just the valorising and privileging of freedom over all else.
However, in these forums we also find libertarians that cannot be described as alt-right – in the sense of desiring an ethnostate for its own sake – but who still believe that racial homogeneity, and the supposed social trust that comes from it, is a means to achieving their political end of a libertarian society. Similarly, an article on alternative-right.blogspot.com titled “Can’t have libertarianism without nationalism” written by an author who calls themselves libertarian, argues:
Without a high trust society, you won’t have a significant capitalist class developing and, without that, you can kiss the manifestation of libertarian institutions good-bye. In short, if you love freedom, you’ve got to love homogeneity
A Common Cause
Even moving away from those who have rejected mainstream libertarianism, there are still core issues the Alternative Right and many libertarians will agree on. Although the motivation for doing so might be fundamentally different.
One reason libertarians often oppose affirmative action and other policies which introduce guidelines for discrimination beyond merit, is because they believe these disrupt free competition and the freedom of a business owner to run their business as they see fit. The Alternative Right also opposes such policies but not because of a breach of a principled ideal of freedom for individuals, businesses and competition but because these policies represent what they perceive to be unjust and harmful discrimination against whites.
Libertarianism is also for a minimal state which doesn’t chime well with the authoritarian far right. But it does strike a chord with common far-right conspiratorial and antisemitic ideas such as that the state is either run by a Jewish cabal (often referred to by the far right as a “Zionist Occupied Government”, or “ZOG”), or that it is influenced by “Deep State” (left-leaning) unelected officials. Although they are not against an extensive state in general, the far right are against most current states which they perceive to be corrupt.
Other overlaps include views on gun control and, of course, their conception of freedom of speech. What is apparent is that, despite generally having different motives behind their policies, these superficial overlaps help explain how people sympathetic to Alternative Right ideas fit quite comfortably in libertarian circles and, likewise, how the latter can be drawn into the former.
In his book, The Structure of Liberty, legal theorist Randy Barnett argues that “libertarian principles themselves are highly abstract – often too abstract to handle anything but the most basic social conflicts”. The effect is that key libertarian concepts, such as those concerning property rights and individual liberty, can be used to defend positions which are traditionally understood as incompatible with libertarianism. In an article for The Washington Post, writer John Ganz points out that this is how the alt-right can make conceptual space for racism within libertarianism.
It can also explain why people with prior racist views turn to the libertarian movement and later transition over to the far right. Because the libertarian movement, while still somewhat fringe, is less stigmatised than the Alternative Right while still proposing policies that they mostly agree with, it offers them a framework for beginning to express these underlying positions.
Freedom, freedom, freedom
We need to recognise that libertarianism is also simply useful for the far-right. Nothing is more important for a libertarian than freedom and the wider far-right have long known the power in framing their aspirations as a struggle for freedom. They often argue that they are breaking the bonds of an oppressive elite, whether it be the “ZOG” or the left’s supposed war on freedom of speech. It’s an effective strategy because it manages to simultaneously advance far-right views by exploiting distrust in elites whilst mobilising around an idea that most people have positive connotations towards. Simply put, most people want to be free, however they choose to define that word.
The Alternative Right has consciously made use of the freedom discourse, especially when it comes to opposing political correctness. Making the opposition a threat to a value such as freedom of speech is an effective way to mobilise sympathy for one’s cause. The struggle between protecting freedom of speech and the far right continues to confound liberals, conservatives and libertarians alike, often to the benefit of the far right. A recent example is the ACLU choosing to defend the organisers of the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017.
It’s important to note that agreeing on specific policies does not mean that principled libertarians directly enable the far right. However, historically libertarian groups and scholars have not been innocent when it comes to allowing fascism in their own camp.
It’s worthwhile to go back to the early 1900s to see that far-right sympathies in the libertarian movement are nothing new. Austrian-American libertarian scholar Ludwig von Mises was born in Austria in 1881 and emigrated to the USA in 1940, becoming quite influential in American libertarian circles. In Mises’ book Liberalism, from 1927, published five years after Mussolini had come to power in Italy, he wrote:
It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization.
In Mises honour, the Mises Institute was founded in 1982. Compared to other libertarian think-tanks, such as the Cato Institute, it’s less recognised but the institution and its scholars are frequently cited by the Alternative Right. Likely because of its work in joining anti-immigration policy with libertarian thought.
The Institution prides itself on spreading the teachings of Mises and one of his students, Murray Rothbard, who believed in “voluntary” separation of races and wrote positively in 1992 of the then KKK-leader candidate David Duke. Explanations for the above quote from Mises’ Liberalism are periodically offeredon the Institution’s website, yet in practice they continue to converge with the far right. One of its notable former scholars, for example, is Paul Gottfried, the man named as a mentor of Richard Spencer and the first person to use the term “alt-right”.
Within the Mises institute today we also find another man particularly liked by the Alternative Right. Hans Herman Hoppe is a libertarian scholar who believes that “restrictive, highly selective and discriminating immigration […] is entirely compatible with libertarianism and its desideratum of freedom of association and opposition to forced integration”. According to Hoppe, forced integration is the effect of open immigration policies, providing another way to frame anti-immigration ideas inside the libertarian discourse of individual liberty and property rights.
The ideological overlaps and potential for supporters haven’t passed the Alternative Right by unnoticed. In a video for the alt-right YouTube channel Red Ice Radio, the shows host Lana Lokteff and fellow vlogger Faith Goldy discuss how best to bring libertarians into the alt-right’s ethno-nationalism, agreeing that they should argue that their conviction for individualism and enlightenment values will not survive in a society where the majority is non-white. White people, they go on to argue, are generally individualistic while other groups are collectivist, and so for this individualistic lifestyle to survive, white people must be more collectivist.
Despite their inherent differences in terms of goals and values, there’s a clear pattern of libertarians moving into the alt-right. You can, of course, find alt-righters with backgrounds in many seemingly opposing ideologies, but, perhaps more than anything, the distinctly abstracted nature of the libertarian conception of social relations has clearly made those now drifting to the alt-right fit more comfortably here than in other movements. Evidently, libertarian circles have also shown to be fertile ground for the Alternative Right to recruit. With not just its followers but its symbols and language being appropriated by the far right, this is as issue for the libertarian movement itself and no minor one at that.