The Alt-Right’s Jewish Godfather
How Paul Gottfried—willing or reluctant—became the mentor of Richard Spencer and a philosophical lodestone for white nationalists
The night America elected Donald J. Trump president, 38-year-old Richard B. Spencer, who fancies himself the “Karl Marx of the alt-right” and envisions a “white homeland,” crowed, “we’re the establishment now.” If so, then the architect of the new establishment is Spencer’s former mentor, Paul Gottfried, a retired Jewish academic who lives, not quite contently, in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, on the east bank of the Susquehanna River. It’s the kind of town that reporters visit in an election season to divine the political faith of “real Americans.” A division of candy company Mars Inc. makes its home there, along with a Masonic retirement community, and the college where Gottfried taught before a school official encouraged his early exit.
Gottfried settled in Elizabethtown after his first wife died, when he decided to put family concerns ahead of professional ambitions and then set out to wage a low-level civil war against the Republican establishment. The so-called alt-right—identified variously with anti-globalist and anti-immigrant stances, cartoon frogs, white nationalists, pick-up artists, anti-Semites, and a rising tide of right-wing populism—is partly Gottfried’s creation; he invented the term in 2008, with his protégé Spencer.
The intellectual historian doesn’t have the look of a consigliere. Gottfried’s round face is covered by a trim white beard and crowned by a nearly bald head. Something about his appearance, maybe the beady, bespectacled eyes and the way his already small frame hunches forward at podiums, makes him look both timid and cantankerous. His voice has a squeaky register but his speeches, which are easy to find on the internet, are erudite and measured, ranging fluently from the legacy of fascism to the ills of multiculturalism and the “therapeutic welfare state.”
Gottfried doesn’t resolve the alt-right’s contradictions so much as he embodies them. He’s a sniffy traditionalist, a self-described “Robert Taft Republican,” with a classical liberal bent, and a Nietzschean American nationalist who goes out of his way to exaggerate his European affect. He opposes both the Civil Rights Act and white nationalism. He’s a bone-deep elitist and the oracle of what’s billed as a populist revolt. “If someone were to ask me what distinguishes the right from the left,” Gottfried wrote in 2008, “the difference that comes to mind most readily centers on equality. The left favors that principle, while the right regards it as an unhealthy obsession.”
Inequality is the alt-right’s foundational belief. In this view, there are inherent, irreducible differences not only between individuals but between groups of people—races, genders, religions, nations; all of the above. These groups each have their own distinctive characteristics and competitive advantages; accordingly, inequality is natural and good, while equality is unnatural and therefore bad and can only be imposed by force. In practice, it is typically a belief in white supremacy and a rejection of universalism.
To the ancient idea that the world is ordered by natural hierarchies the alt-right adds new wrinkles. It shows a nerdish enthusiasm for data-driven attempts to classify group cognitive abilities, an update on the social Darwinist “race science” popular before WWII that often resolves into a genes-are-destiny outlook. It also embraces concepts from the controversial field of evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain the behavior of groups in terms of Darwinian natural selection. Because equality is both impossible and a kind of civic religion as Gottfried sees it, government attempts to enforce it are only pretexts for the state to increase its power and reach.
Railing against meddling bureaucracies and the threats they pose to liberty is a staple of conservative politics, but Gottfried’s arguments are more esoteric and more radical than anything you’d hear at a tea-party convention. Condensed, Gottfried’s theory holds that America is no longer a republic or a liberal democracy—categories that lost their meaning after the postindustrial explosion of bureaucratic apparatuses transformed the country into a “therapeutic managerial state.” Today, we are ruled by a class of managers who dress like bureaucrats but act like priests. This technocratic clerisy justifies its status by enforcing Progressive precepts like multiculturalism and political correctness, which pit different groups against each other as if they were religious edicts. As Gottfried tells it he was banished from the mainstream of political discourse for rejecting this liberal catechism. Now, versions of the same ideas that Gottfried says got him banished will be gospel in Trump’s White House.
“I view it as a partial vindication,” he told me just over a month before the presidential election, about the rise of the alt-right. “Much would depend on what Trump would do if he became president.”
Paul Edward Gottfried was born in 1941 in the Bronx, seven years after his father, Andrew, immigrated to America. Andrew Gottfried, a successful furrier in Budapest, fled Hungary shortly after Austria’s Chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated by Nazi agents in the “July putsch.” He had sensed that Central Europe would be squeezed in a vise between the Nazis and the Soviets and decided to take his chances in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the family moved shortly after Paul was born. Andrew Gottfried opened a fur business in Bridgeport and became a prominent member of that city’s large expatriate Hungarian Jewish community.
The elder Gottfried was a man who “held grudges with extraordinary tenacity,” Paul recounts in his memoir, Encounters. His father had “fiery courage,” and a natural authority that impressed his son. He was a lifelong Republican who nevertheless admired FDR for beating the Nazis. But that was as far as his liberalism went; he had no time for “specious” attempts to draw universal lessons from Nazism about the American civil-rights movement or immigration policy. In all of this it seems, he was a model for his son’s intellectual life.
Though he wasn’t very religious, the younger Gottfried attended Yeshiva University in New York as an undergrad. On the plus side for the pudgy teenager, the school was full of “nonthreatening geeks,” who couldn’t bully him. But Gottfried was put off by his “bright” but “clannish” outerborough Orthodox Jewish classmates. New York was farther from Connecticut than he’d imagined. His fellow students “seemed to carry with them the social gracelessness of having grown up in a transported Eastern European ghetto.”
It used to be common even among assimilated Americans Jews from Central European backgrounds to look down on what they saw as the poorer, more provincial Jews from the Russian empire. You can see this prejudice in Hannah Arendt’s work, another author who blended “Teutonic pedantry and Jewish moral righteousness,” as a friend of Gottfried’s once described him. His classmates are clever but harried, whereas he has the aristocratic equanimity of Germanic high culture, which allows him true insight. It’s important to note not because this particular prejudice is more disqualifying than his others, but because of how deeply it informs his later writing. When Gottfried goes after the mostly Eastern-European-originating Jewish “neocons” and “New York intellectuals” he blames for kneecapping his career and refusing to give him his intellectual due, it’s not just the actual injury that wounds him, but the indignity of being laid low by his inferiors.
After graduation, Gottfried returned to Connecticut to attend Yale as a doctoral student, where he studied under Herbert Marcuse. A chapter of his memoir is devoted to Marcuse, one of the seminal intellectuals of the Frankfurt school whose critique of mass democracy profoundly shaped the new-left. Though he belonged to the Yale Political Union’s Party of the Right at the time, Gottfried “studied under Marcuse as a rapt, indulgent disciple.” In later years, one reviewer called Gottfried a “right-wing proponent of the Frankfurt school.” That description, while not strictly accurate, gives a sense of the overlap between Gottfried’s radical criticism of modern liberalism and a certain left-wing line of attack.
After graduating from Yale, Gottfried began his work as an academic and embarked on a prolific writing career, which he maintains. Over the course of 13 books and countless speeches and articles, he developed his major themes: the nature and force of history; the meaning and forms of conservatism; and in his “Marxism Trilogy,” an account of liberal democracy and the therapeutic managerial state as the hegemons of the modern world. While admiring aspects of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, Gottfried argues that Marxism was discredited by socialism’s economic failure. In the wake of this failure, Marx’s economic critique metastasized from an analysis of material conditions into a morality play. For the new post-Marxists, leftist politics were repurposed as a never-ending struggle to defeat fascism. Acting out this universalist crusade, Gottfried argues, the left became the afterlife of Christianity. “A Christian civilization created the moral and eschatological framework that leftist anti-Christians have taken over and adapted,” he wrote. “It is the fascists, not the Communists or multiculturalists, who were the sideshow in modern Western history.”
At the heart of the alt-right is a project, carried out by Gottfried and others, to revise the historical record of WWII. If there has been a left-wing political impulse to expand the meaning of fascism far beyond its original context, part of the right responds by making it so particular to interwar Europe that it defies any historical analogy.
In his book Fascism: The Career of a Concept, Gottfried argues that Spanish and Italian “generic fascism” belonged to a different genus than German Nazism. Hitler, the argument goes, was not really a fascist in the generic sense, but a far-right counter-revolutionary response to Stalin. A few years ago this might all have been interesting enough, grounds for contentious but seemingly abstract historical debates. Today, it’s clear that it also serves a political purpose. It takes away the power of “fascist” to stigmatize far-right politics. At the same time, it also helps to rescue a whole host of concepts tainted by association with fascism, like ethnic nationalism and “race science,” making it safe again for the right to openly advocate them.
The alt-right is the direct heir of the paleoconservatives, a first-draft attempt at a conservative insurgency in America that appeared to peak in the 1990s. The name “paleoconservative” was coined by Gottfried himself in 1986, which means he is batting a thousand when it comes to naming right-wing opposition movements.
In the decade before Gottfried arrived at Yale, postwar conservatism was born in a “fusionism” that brought together southern and religious traditionalists, Libertarians, and other disparate groups who shared a commitment to aggressive anti-Communist policies. It evolved as “a series of movements rather than the orderly unfolding of a single force,” Gottfried wrote in his 1986 history, The Conservative Movement. Not all the movements got along, and not long after they came together, the conservative establishment, led by the influential magazine National Review and its editor, William F. Buckley, started kicking people out. The so-called purges started with the John Birch society, radical right-wing anti-Communists and conspiracy theorists—think Alex Jones followers—whom Buckley excommunicated from the movement in 1962. After the Birchers, conservatives, again led by National Review, eventually pushed out white supremacists and anti-Semites, including some of Gottfried’s friends. These are major events in the official conservative history that showed the movement grappling with the legacy of WWII and the right’s own history of racism and bigotry.