Is the Alt-Right for Real?

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New Yorker, May 5, 2016


The suspicion that populist revolutionaries might not mean everything they say has surrounded Trump’s campaign from the beginning. His personal ambition to be President has seemed almost painfully obvious, but about the populist nature of his candidacy there has been more room for doubt. The wall at the border, the religious tests for immigrants: Could he really mean that? Last week, Paul Manafort, one of Trump’s chief advisers, tried to reassure Republican National Committee members that the candidate has been simply “playing a part” for the primaries. Then Trump doubled down on some of his most outrageous positions. The wink between Trump and his supporters has been so sustained that it’s hard to tell which parts of his populism each side understands as theatre, and which parts are for real.

You could ask some of the same questions about the alt-right, the loosely assembled far-right movement that exists largely online, and that overlaps with both the Trump campaign and with the politics of Zero Hedge. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who came up with the term “alt-right,” described the movement in December as “an ideology around identity, European identity.” But the alt-right has often seemed more diffuse than that, more of a catch-all for the least presentable elements of the online right: white nationalists, neo-reactionaries, the male-victimhood clique of GamerGate. Late last year, BuzzFeed proclaimed that the movement, with a boost from the Trump campaign, “has hit it big,” and ever since anxious alarms have been issuing from the conservative mainstream. {snip}

And yet, as an ideology, it can be hard to take the alt-right seriously. When Spencer named the movement, he was the managing editor of Taki’s Magazine, whose founder and namesake, Taki Theodoracopulos, is a monarchist man-about-Gstaad and the society columnist for the London Spectator. Its own propagandists often say they are joking. The right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, of Breitbart, himself a leading fellow-traveller, claimed that some “young rebels” are drawn to the alt-right not for deeply political reasons but “because it promises fun, transgression, and a challenge to social norms.” The alt-right exists mostly online, and so it is shrouded in pseudonyms.

The strains that run through the alt-right–that wrap together the vicious misogyny and plaintive victimhood of GamerGate with Prussia-venerating neo-reactionaries–are in their essence not matters of substance but of style. They share with the Trump movement a haughty success theatre that complicates their populism: the alt-right’s defense of the white working class, Yiannopoulos insisted, is not an instance of self-preservation but of “noblesse oblige.” The two also share the instinct for provocation. “If you spend 75 years building a pseudo-religion around anything–an ethnic group, a plaster saint, sexual chastity or the Flying Spaghetti Monster–don’t be surprised when clever 19-year-olds discover that insulting it is now the funniest fucking thing in the world,” the blogger Mencius Moldbug wrote to Yiannopoulos.

The alt-right often seems to be testing the strength of the speech taboos that revolve around conventional politics–of what can be said, and how directly. Can you insist that science supports racial differences in intelligence? Can you threaten rape? Can you Photoshop an image of a Jewish reporter who has written critically about the Trumps so that she appears to be in a concentration camp? How far can you go? It is easy to notice the flood of Nazi imagery that has been tweeted from anonymous accounts at reporters, and harder to determine how many people are sending these images. Even the most careful reporting into the less crude edges of the movement usually has to resort to calling the alt-right’s influential voices by their message-board monikers (CisWhiteMaelstrom, JCM267) rather than by their real names.

{snip} The tone of Trumpism and of the alt-right conceals a more familiar politics. Partisans of the alt-right are often described as “shock troops” of the Trump phenomenon, in the same way that Trump voters are understood to be outsiders invading the Republican Party. But my suspicion is that these descriptions get them wrong, by imagining that they are a new group of people rather than the same old group during their off hours, trying out a different form of play.


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