Rise of the nasty nerds
LookLeft talked to Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies: From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the altright, on the rise of the internet based extreme right movement.
What is the alt-right and who are its major proponents or particularly interesting proponents?
In the strictest definition, the alt-right includes openly white supremacist thinkers like Richard Spencer, who wants an American white ethno-state. The broader milieu includes figures like Jared Taylor who calls himself a ‘race realist’ and Steve Sailer who writes about ‘human biodiversity’, in other words genetic race differences. Then there is the Neoreaction or NRx movement, with figures like Nick Land who writes about the idea of the ‘Dark Enlightenment’. All of these are to varying degrees preoccupied with either IQ, civilizational decline, cultural decadence, or rejecting egalitarian philosophies.
They oppose political ideologies that take for granted egalitarianism and argue instead for all kinds of things from Monarchism to an elitist right-wing application of transhumanism, which is really just old-fashioned eugenics with some Silicon Valley packaging. Some of them follow Peter Thiel and are interested in the Seasteading movement, which could allow them to live in a separate state that need not use electoral democracy as its method of governance, which Thiel has openly criticized.
There are also masculinist anti-feminist online subcultures who all use the same memes and language, like ‘the Red Pill’, which are concerned with the decline of western masculinity, some of whom advocate things like the separatism of MGTOW (Men going their own way) while others advise a more aggressive style of pick-up artistry and male assertiveness. Then there is a much broader orbit again of the alt-right, known as the alt-light, that includes online celebrity figures like Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich, Gavin McInnes, Paul Joseph Watson and Lauren Southern. These figures tend to be charismatic, telegenic and media-savvy in a way that their nerdish neoreactionary counterparts or the Pepe-mememaking gamer types are not. Some of these have a pretty major online following and they tend to be excellent at using online platforms, especially YouTube. Infowars, Brietbart and The Rebel media are all part of this broader orbit, sharing many of their ideas in a less extreme form while sometimes interviewing and flatteringly referencing them. Then there are anonymous trolls in the style of chan culture who revel in being un-PC, playing pranks and making memes but who don’t take political ideas very seriously, yet can be called upon pretty quickly to harass and orchestrate hate campaigns against opponents of the alt-right.
While we were all looking the other way a huge alternative right wing media was developing
Where does the Alt-right originate from in your view?
What we now call the alt-right, which is much broader than the strict white nationalist definition, is really a fusing of lots of separate tendencies that grew somewhat independently but which were brought together under the banner of online anti-PC politics in recent years. The irreverent troll style associated with 4chan [an online community based on a chat site that mainly used images ed.] grew in numbers partially in response to the ultra-sensitive cultural politics of tumblr [an online chat site], which itself spilled over eventually into ‘real life’ in the ramping up of campus politics around safe spaces and trigger warnings and so on. That has all been developing for many years. The right-transhumanist and ‘human biodiversity’ blogosphere had also been emerging quite separately for a long time, with a more serious scientific tone that has little in common stylistically with the ironic nihilistic 4chan trolls playing pranks on people just for their own amusement. While we were all looking the other way, a huge alternative right wing media that I already mentioned was developing in the form of sites like Breitbart, The Rebel, Infowars and so on. For years people have been saying that these guys are just a wacky fringe, even while some of them were beating major established international media outlets in audience figures right before the US election.
Did the Alt-right just ride to media prominence on the coat tails of Trump or did it have any real role in bringing him electoral victory?
I think the emergence of the alt-right and the online identity movements it hates, if you were observing them over the course of the Obama administrations as I was, are a barometer for some broader shifts happening in the mainstream. These include the backlash against political correctness and mass immigration, the emergence of conspiracy theories online like the ‘birther’ conspiracy, which claimed that Obama had faked his birth certificate. For years, pretty mainstream liberal outlets like Salon.com have been ramping up a kind of antiheterosexual-white-male rhetoric. It’s not a coincidence that one of the main predictors of Trump’s win was his popularity in [US] counties which rely most on male-dominated routine job sectors that are most likely to be offshored or automated in the coming years. The non-college-educated American white male demographic has been hearing liberal media pundits being contemptuous of them for years and then Trump arrives with an unapologetic masculine swagger and a re-industrialisation message. It’s not hard to see why it appealed. Remember too that the alt-right loathe the neocon right wing establishment, preferring a more isolationist, overtly nationalist anti-globalist and in some cases a more proletarian right wing politics. They regard the neocon establishment as globalists, cosmopolitans and elitists and there is sometimes an implicit or totally explicit anti-Semitic element to this rhetoric too.
Is there an Irish alt-right? And if there is what impact, if any, has it had?
It’s small and not very significant really. This is a largely US phenomenon. There are some, for example there is a YouTube video channel whose creator goes under the name Gaelic Neoreactionary who posts about the National Party, immigration, O’Duffy and the Blueshirts and so on. I think this is simply because the configuration of identity in Ireland is not really conducive to the hard alt-right politics emerging in the US because our nationalist tradition was also an anti-Imperialist one. Having said that there is definitely an Irish-American kind of anti-immigrant racist rhetoric, hilariously ironic, I know, that often makes reference to the idea of the Irish having been slaves too but triumphing through hard work, integration and not complaining. If it does influence Ireland I think it might be through the more 4chan style of meme-making and South Park-ish humour, which is likely to take the form of a youthful kind of anti-PC backlash but it’s unlikely to be traditionally conservative.
Held together by its sense of grievance and martyrdom against a liberal establishment
Where do you think the Alt-right would like to go from here? Where do you think it will actually go from here?
The latest turn in the alt-right story is that many of the more mainstream figures like Joseph Paul Watson and Mike Cernovich have turned against Richard Spencer, who popularised the term alt-right, after he emerged on film shortly after Trump’s election shouting ‘Hail Trump! Hail victory!’ to a room of his supporters, some of whom were doing a Nazi salute. This of course caused a problem for those more mainstream figures who had been friendly with people like Spencer but who always claimed their own use of far-right imagery and ideas was an ironic and performative kind of anti-PC trolling. Mike Cernovich (a Trump supporter and masculinist who also writes about demographics and ‘white genocide’) immediately came out against Spencer after the ‘hail Trump’ video, and now claims that Spencer and some around him are FBI-orchestrated ‘controlled opposition’. Then Cernovich backtracked but Paul Joseph Watson from Infowars held his position, so he’s their current hate figure. I think it will split in lots of different directions because it was only being held together by its sense of grievance and martyrdom against a liberal establishment, which can no longer quite hold now that their guy is in power. The element likely to emerge most triumphant will be the media-savvy types at Brietbart, Rebel, Infowars and so on, people who are charismatic and have mainstream appeal. Then again, some figures who were once sympathetic to them like Cathy Young and Ben Shapiro have broken away because of, among other things, the anti-Semitic undercurrent, and they’ve endured terrible abuse for it. I hope we’ll see more of those break aways.
Where do they want to go? Well, Spencer said Trump’s victory has taken white nationalists ‘from zero to one’ so it’s pretty obvious where he wants things to go. I wonder what will happen though if Trump turns out to be more diplomatic and centrist than they had hoped. They’ll find that intolerable and they are extremely vicious when they turn on their own (perhaps a bit like the left in that regard). That seems likely to me right now because he can’t possibly live up to their expectations but really anything could happen. We are once again living, as the apocryphal Chinese curse goes, in interesting times.
It’s time to put down the self-care cookies, rediscover our sense of humour, toughen up and actually start winning arguments again.
How can it be effectively countered?
In short, I think we need to learn from their highly effective online media techniques, which entirely circumvent mainstream media and use videos, humour and irreverence to communicate often very well researched and well thought out ideas. While Trump himself worked hard on the campaign trail, doing politics the traditional way and it paid off for him, the alt-right gained influence through media, not grass roots organising or institutional organising or through any old conservative channels. I think we need to get better arguments and start trying to convince people of things instead of shaming and scoffing at them. People like Richard Spencer are a lost cause of course, but others are formidable enough debaters winning over mainstream audiences with their viral videos because they’ve had to hone and perfect their arguments for years. People on the left always disagree with me about this but I’ve been watching these guys for many years and I think that when it comes to actually making convincing arguments directly challenging theirs, we’ve basically exited the public stage completely and we have left it to terrible liberals who make emotional, moral and economically illiterate arguments and inevitably make fools of themselves.
For example, I’m a feminist but I’m deeply embarrassed to be associated with sites like Everyday Feminism, a website which publishes absurd listicles in which painfully middle class Americans agonise over the most mundane of things being potentially ‘problematic’ and chastise men for manspreading and mansplaining and so on. I remember reading Bitch magazine, a popular US feminist magazine, right before the election results and it was advising its readers to engage in ‘self-care’ to emotionally get them through it, which involved face masks, cookies and cuddling. This is pathetic stuff. When you see the heroic struggles of feminists going on in places like Turkey now, for example, they’re so inspiring and they have exactly the toughness women are going to need in the Trump years if you think about all the battles coming down the pipeline. But it’s not hard to see why the western style of elite permanently offended Lena Dunham [writer and star of the TV series ‘Girls’ ed.] feminism is absolute comedy gold to people like Milo Yiannopolous. I’d go as far as to say this style of identity politics has been the single most useful thing for people like him in terms of propaganda and gaining followers through comedy. We must create an alternative to that. We also have to prepare for the fact that every time a major popular male left wing candidate is run he’ll be smeared as a ‘brocialist’, not by the right but by liberals. I have no doubt I’m going to be attacked from both sides for this book because it does also critique this style of liberal identity politics, but I really think it’s time to put down the self-care cookies, rediscover our sense of humour, toughen up and actually start winning arguments again.
Is there a case for creating an Alt-Left, or could such a thing be created?
I don’t like the term and I don’t think the alt- prefix is salvageable really, but I would love to see a funny, irreverent style of left emerging that rejects the prim call-out culture of the liberal-left. I also really believe that once you break the stranglehold they have over the free exchange of ideas you will start to see the left flourishing intellectually again. You can already see the beginnings of an irreverent and funny style in things like the hilarious Chapo Trap House podcast in the US, who are sometimes called ‘the dirtbag left’ because of their foul-mouthed approach to the alt-right, or in popular Facebook pages like Red London, who make fun of the absurdities of liberalism and the anarchist left using memes. Jacobin have been excellent in response to Trump – a magazine whose two key figures are the children of Jamaican and Trinidadian immigrants much to the annoyance of liberals trying to dismiss it as the magazine of privileged white brocialists – and others like Amber A’Lee Frost, Connor Kilpatrick, Liza Featherstone, Adolph Reed, Doug Henwood, Catherine Liu, Walter Benn Michaels and Thomas Frank. That’s where the hope lies for me in terms of ideas.
What sparked your own interest in the Alt-right?
I began researching online anti-feminist movements about seven or eight years ago and there’s a big overlap there. The alt-right is obsessed with ‘cucks’ meaning cuckolds or men who support their wife having sex with other men. In the antifeminist alt-right worldview, the woman here often represents the nation and the sexual male partner is typically the virile and still masculine black or sexually aggressive foreign male, while the weak western cuck is too emasculated to fight back. So gender is very tied up with the way they think about everything else from the economy to race to national borders.
Kill All Normies: From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right by Angela Nagle is published by Zero Books.