What does the alt-right believe about the Constitution?

Though plenty of ink has already been spilled about the controversial movement, steeped in xenophobia and racism, that zealously backed Donald Trump’s campaign, this question has gone virtually unexplored.

In part, this is due to the difficulty of defining exactly what the alt-right stands for beyond explicit white supremacy. Some prominent “intellectuals” of the alt-right include Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute and proponent of “peaceful ethnic cleansing”; Kevin MacDonald, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, known for his characterization of Judaism as a “group evolutionary strategy” deployed to out-compete other social groups for scarce resources; and Jared Taylor, a writer who argued in 2005 that black people cannot sustain Western civilization. Today’s alt-right is an internet-adept mélange of these white-identity activists alongside politically nihilistic pot stirrers.

While many differences exist within alt-right circles—for instance, some members are overtly anti-Semitic, some not—the alt-right rank and file seems to broadly embrace two general positions, both of which were once politically toxic: opposition to globalist economic policies, and opposition to multiculturalism. Neither of these positions is explicitly “constitutional” in character, and, indeed, talk of “restoring constitutional values” is nearly nonexistent in alt-right online forums. An amorphous idea of national identity—one that seems to have nothing to do with the Constitution—undergirds the alt-right’s affinity for Trumpist politics.

In fact, some prominent members of the alt-right go beyond neglect for the Constitution into outright hostility. Here is the influential alt-right blogger Theodore Robert Beale, writing on his website in June 2016:

I think the old conservatives would do well to call themselves Constitutionalists, because it is obvious that the current batch don’t give a damn about it. And neither do we of the #AltRight, because it is obvious that the Constitution has not only failed, completely, by its own stated purpose, but is today being used as a means of hand-cuffing the Right.

This undercurrent is not confined to obscure Twitter subcultures: a striking aspect of the broader Trump movement was a disregard for constitutional values. Trump may have declared, in an effort to win over otherwise skeptical conservative voters, that his Supreme Court appointments will be “constitutional conservatives,” but many more of his fiery and unpredictable comments hint at constitutional violations on a massive scale.

Many factors, ranging from widespread economic frustration to Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity, enabled Trump to unite Republican voters despite his contempt for bedrock constitutional principles. What is disturbing is that, at least among the alt-right, Trump’s anti-constitutionalism isn’t simply tolerated; it is embraced. For the alt-right, the ongoing decline of a white, male, and Protestant cultural majority has severed any link between the Constitution’s principles and contemporary reality. The Constitution, in other words, is obsolete.

As a conservative who values the Constitution, I find this particularly disheartening. Alt-right ideas have slowly wormed their way into the conservative mainstream. This is most obvious in the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist. Bannon, a former executive of Breitbart News—which he has called “the platform for the alt-right”—has claimed to be “an economic nationalist,” not a racist. But in a 2015 interview with Trump, he complained that too many CEOs are Asian. In a 2016 Daily Wire editorial, the conservative writer (and former Bannon collaborator) Ben Shapiro described Bannon as “happy to pander to [the alt-right] and make common cause with them in order to transform conservatism into European far-right nationalist populism.” Trump’s closest adviser clearly sees the alt-right as his core constituency.

As Trump’s administration continues to take shape, Republicans and other conservatives will face a powerful temptation to exempt it from necessary scrutiny—including scrutiny of the anti-constitutional voices lurking in corners of the modern right. They must not succumb to that impulse.

For generations, conservative intellectuals have debated the philosophical foundations of the Constitution. Two thinkers—John Locke and Edmund Burke—loom especially large in these debates. Lockean conservatism is typically associated with civil rights and liberties, laissez-faire economics, and regard for individual autonomy. Burkean conservatism, by contrast, stresses the importance of cultural tradition and institutional hierarchy, the possible need for government intervention in free markets, and individuals’ dependence on kin and neighbors.

The conservative historian and intellectual Russell Kirk wrote that in the Burkean account, the framers of the Constitution rejected Locke’s “misty debatable land of an abstract liberty, equality, fraternity” in favor of the “enlargement” of the British constitutional tradition, which rests not on a written document but on a lattice of local laws, precedents, and norms dating to ancient times. This heritage is closely linked to national ideas of what it means to be truly English. In a 1775 speech, Burke himself praised Americans as members of “the chosen race and sons of England.”

Burke, writing on the failures of the French Revolution, famously argued for gradual change based in community norms, an argument that has long resonated with moderate conservatives like David Brooks. Applying Burkean conservatism to the Constitution means seeing it as inextricable from the particular traditions and practices of the group from which it emerged. But the alt-right takes that approach to a grotesque conceptual extreme: it rejects the Constitution’s role as a national value commitment, and treats the “supreme law of the land” as a document merely incidental to its underlying culture, rather than as a standard to which that culture should be held.

Here is the prominent white supremacist Jared Taylor, writing in the far-right periodical American Renaissance: “You tell yourself that the things you love about America—and I love them, too—are rooted in certain principles. That is your greatest mistake. They are rooted in certain people. That is why Germans, Swedes, Irishmen, and Hungarians could come and contribute to the America you love.” More alarmingly, this sentiment is gaining purchase outside the confines of the self-identified alt-right. In American Thinker, the mainstream conservative writer Ben Cohen expressed sympathy for the alt-right’s critique, noting that “[v]eneration of the founding fathers and the constitution must be tempered with a recognition that the values embodied in that document are not universally held around the world. . . . Nations are held together by a shared sense of identity and patriotism, not simply by a set of laws.”

From that point, the dominoes of the alt-right thought process start falling: the Constitution can only work properly if the culture stays the same—that is, white and male dominated. National identity is fundamentally about people and place, not principles. Accordingly, when culture changes due to demographic transformations, the Constitution becomes essentially irrelevant.

As Kevin MacDonald, writing for the explicitly white-supremacist news site Occidental Observer, put it in a 2016 article, “[H]ow can any rational person suppose that a set of principles, ideas, and values that result in all of these costs to the White population of the U.S. could be anything other than a suicide wish in the present political context? Immigration is the bedrock issue. Nothing else matters.” In a 2016 piece in the white-supremacist Radix Journal, alt-right writer Gregory Hood concurred, arguing that

[a]ll conservatism requires today is certain invocations and rhetorical prostrations before key phrases such as “limited government” and “the Constitution.” But these words are empty. . . . What we are left with is simply a scam, a movement generating an endless series of complicated explanations about why White people are not allowed to pursue, attain, and exercise power to defend their collective interests.

At the heart of this “scam” is the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which officially requires the government to treat all people equally, regardless of race or ethnicity. That guarantee takes race- and religion-based policies off the table, which in the alt-right’s feverish imagination means abandoning the nation to hostile takeover by foreigners—Muslims, Hispanics, and other groups seen as nonwhite—who care nothing for American culture.

The alt-right’s acolytes agree. On the anonymous online message board Reddit, one of the most popular posts in the since-banned AltRight subcommunity speculated whether “if Whites become a shrinking minority in the US, do you really think Mexicans, Africans, and Muslims will embrace our values and our Constitution?” Another poster was even blunter: “Someone needs to start a white separatist political party. It’s platform [sic] should be short and sweet: Suspension of Constitution, expulsion of invaders, carve out a white-European nation out of the United States.”

This hypernationalist anti-constitutionalism would upend decades of existing law. In the 1953 case Kwong Hai Chew v. Colding, the Supreme Court declared that “once an alien lawfully enters and resides in this country he becomes invested with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to all people within our borders.” The constitutional rights emerging from these amendments necessarily include freedom of religion for Muslims, freedom from arbitrary deportations without due process, freedom from racial discrimination in the workplace, and many others—all of which are anathema to the alt-right, and all of which became salient issues in the 2016 campaign.

This dismissive approach to the Constitution represents a sea change in American conservatism. The Tea Party’s frequent calls in 2010—whether motivated by principle or pragmatism—for a recommitment to “constitutional principles” have yielded in 2016 to a populism that barely pays lip service to the Constitution. While both the Tea Party of 2010 and the alt-right of 2016 share a common opposition to perceived federal excesses, they differ in critical ways. For one, the Tea Party skews older, while the alt-right is younger and far more tech-savvy. But more importantly, Tea Party conservatives have generally retained a faith in American institutions that the alt-right has deemed passé—and after their widespread ascent to legislatures across the country, Tea Party conservatives can no longer claim to be political insurgents, leaving the alt-right to fill an antiestablishment void.

In 2013, talk show host and Tea Partier Mark Levin proposed a series of “Liberty Amendments” to the Constitution in an effort to constrain federal power. Despite its potential to upend long-established constitutional dogmas, Levin’s project still rested on a belief that “the Constitution works, if everyone would just follow it more closely. Even the Tea Party’s most revolutionary constitutional vision is still subject to the constraints of American governance: thirty-four state legislatures must consent to the constitutional convention Levin proposed. The alt-right couldn’t care less about such tactics. In the alt-right’s view, if the Constitution is ultimately nothing more than a product of white group identity, there is little reason to treat it with greater reverence than any other expression of “white culture.” By extension, if the Constitution stops serving white interests, it no longer matters at all. So why bother trying to fix it?

The alt-right is a brand-new and strategically untested force in Washington. Even within the Trump administration, its adherents must compete with, and will likely often lose to, others representing more established strains of Republicanism, from Tea Party favorite Mike Pence to various Wall Street billionaire cabinet secretaries. Cleavages in the movement between explicitly neo-Nazi hard-liners and “moderate nationalists” will inevitably emerge. But the alt-right’s most virulent incarnation has lost no time institutionalizing itself: Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute just opened a new headquarters outside Washington, D.C., declaring itself the movement’s “one-stop shop,” and there’s no reason to think its influence won’t grow. Having seen that a politician can run—and win—the highest office in the land on a platform laced with a nationalism of blood and soil, other aspirants to elected office will surely try the same tactic. Spencer himself is floating the idea of a congressional run.

The stakes are more serious than many conservatives are likely to admit. Classical constitutionalism, with all its difficulties and trade-offs, is no longer in vogue: an emergent bloc of Republican voters, with unprecedented access to the new president’s administration, openly despises the document’s historic ideals. If left to fester, this poison will destroy the conservative movement. When whites alone are credited with forging Western civilization, calls for racial unity reek of insincerity. When American Muslims are demonized, defenses of “religious liberty for all” ring hollow. No short-term policy successes are worth those philosophical—and moral—compromises.

The United States Oath of Allegiance pledges newly naturalized citizens to defend the Constitution against “enemies foreign and domestic” (emphasis mine). Today’s constitutional conservatives must have the courage to do the same.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett is a third-year JD candidate at Yale Law School and a student fellow with the Information Society Project.