Beyond Alt: Understanding the New Far Right

Simon van Zuylen-Wood et al., New York Magazine, April 30, 2017

When did the right wing get so bizarre? Consider: For a brief and confusing moment earlier this year, milk somehow became a charged symbol of both white supremacy and support for Donald Trump. The details are postmodern, absurdist, and ominous — not unlike the forces that brought them about. In January, the actor Shia LaBeouf mounted an art installation designed to protest the president. The next month, neo-Nazis who organized on the message board 4chan crashed the show, where they started chugging from milk jugs — because northern Europeans digest milk well, or because milk is … white. In other words, an innocent dairy beverage as old as time had been conscripted as a Donald Trump surrogate on the internet. It was yet another message-board in-joke — freighted with political meaning — suddenly in the news.

But weirdness, perhaps, is what happens when a movement grows very quickly and without any strong ideological direction — from a disciplined party, from traditional institutions like churches and chambers of Congress, from anything more organized than the insurrectionist internet.

Here in America, in trying to describe our brand of the reactionary wave currently tsunami-ing the entire developed world, we’ve leaned on the term alt-right, which had been coined by white supremacists. Richard Spencer, the most press-hungry of that group, takes credit for it. For much of last year, the term was often used as shorthand for “racists, but … young?” Which is helpful, as far as it goes, but the full reality is much more complicated. The alt-right — or the new right, if you prefer to sound more like Tom Wolfe than Kurt Cobain, or the radical right, to properly acknowledge its break from mainstream conservatism — is a coalition comprised of movements like neo-reaction, certain strands of libertarianism, tech triumphalism, and even the extreme-populist wing of the Republican Party. All share with Spencer’s white-ethno-nativism the ideals of isolationism, protectionism, and nationalism: a closed nation-state. Along the way, the coalition swept up “men’s rights” advocates and anti-Semites and cruel angry teenagers and conspiracy theorists and a few fiendishly clever far-right websites and harassing hashtags and even a U.S. congressman or two. Not to mention the White House.

But to approach the big messy tent of the new retrograde right — the international brigade of nativist-nationalists, tech-savvy anti-globalists, the porn-loving gender traditionalists — as primarily a political movement is to wildly underestimate its scope. Reactionary energy helped deliver all three branches of government to a Republican Party in the grips of an alt-right-curious anti-PC bomb-thrower the faithful called their “god-emperor” (or at least helped him along with last year’s affirmative action for white people, a.k.a. the Electoral College). But at no point during the campaign, even, could you have mistaken the unruly energy on the right for anything so organized as a party or as purposeful as a protest movement. It was — and is — a counterculture. One formed in the spirit of opposition to everything the existing Establishment stood for: globalist, technocratic liberal elitism. The amazing thing is, in November, for the first time in American electoral history, the counterculture won everything.

This didn’t happen out of nowhere; the new reactionary spiderweb is just as much of a referendum on our world as the Obama coalition was. This still-young century’s most potent political movements have been about reckoning with the rapid progress of the last one; in the Obama surge, there was contained the hopeful notion that the changes had been good, that they were not an end in themselves but merely the beginning of something even greater and brighter still to come. And in this far-right movement, there is instead a backlash to those same changes and those same symbols — to a black president, to a woman candidate, but also to the idea that diversity and inclusiveness and the other major social movements of the 20th century even represent progress at all, rather than its inverse. To many on the radicalized right, social progress is a zero-sum game in which minority groups and women have been winning at the expense of the previous kings of the castle. Moreover, other forces are ransacking the castle, too — namely, technology, globalization, and financialization. Yet how they believe one should actually go about addressing those problems can be difficult to parse, especially when the complaints are often filtered through 140 characters of unprintable vitriol and hate.

So what follows here is an attempt to really reckon with the alt-right and its fellow travelers: to organize and catalogue influences, philosopher-kings, and shit-posting foot soldiers; to track the movement’s history, its future, and the story of how the modern internet made it possible; to study its grievances, its media savvy, its symbols, its heroes and villains, its president and its critics of the president, its billionaire supporters and the underemployed message-board-dwelling “advocates” who serve as its creative engine. The movement is not a monolith — though it would also never be mistaken for a rainbow coalition — and part of what we’ve focused on is just how the various wings work together in concert. How does Steve Bannon relate to Russia Today, and what do conspiracy theorists have in common with pickup artists and Nazi Furries? How do memes like milk become weaponized, and just when did 4chan get political? How do its beliefs get amplified into the larger culture?

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[Editor’s Note: This 12,000-word article (which links to several companion articles) is a comprehensive attempt to understand the Alt-Right. It contains the usual slant and half-understandings, but it is yet another sign of our growing influence.]

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