“Kill all Normies”: the rise of the alt-right
Manage episode 181953525 series 101471
Following the election of Donald Trump, the alt-right has come to play a significant role in American political discourse. They are an upstart political movement that rejects traditional conservatism and championed Trump and his opposition to political correctness.
But how did a movement rooted in online and video game culture come to be so influential? Angela Nagle (@angnagle) is an Irish writer and academic who has written extensively on the rise of anti-feminism and the revitalised culture wars. She’s recently written a new book called Kill All Normies, in it she documents how fringe online politics and discussion boards have become mainstream.
Alex Burd spoke to Angela to discuss the book. He started by asking when the alt-right became a mainstream force.
Angela Nagle: It has to be the election of Donald Trump. I know that’s very recent. Maybe you could say something like Gamergate brought a lot of different right leaning movements and forums and things that weren’t very overtly political ended up much more closely mingling over Gamergate. Those are the younger ones. The more serious people like American Renaissance and Richard Spencer and people like that, they’re a bit older and have been around for years. They’ve been taking things much more seriously and have been for a long time. But it’s only when all these geeky online sub cultures started to come together that it started to be more legitimate to call them the Alt-Right rather than just the far right.
Alex Burd You reference the Gamergate movement. How is that it went from something that was about ‘ethics in games journalism’ to a political ideology built around the twin pillars of misogyny and white supremacy?
AN: Well essentially, depending on who you ask. Gamergate – the gamers say it’s about ‘ethics in games journalism’, the people on the other side say they were merely pointing out sexism in gaming and ended up getting viciously attacked. The people involved in it love endlessly having these competing stories about the precise details of particular attacks which I don’t find remotely interesting. Even if you take the most conservative estimate of the levels of attack that were going on they were really bad. Even the ones that are out there for the public to see. And you know a critic should be able to argue that gaming is dominated by sexist attitudes, but essentially it was viewed by gamers – where they got the ‘ethics in games journalism’ line from is a very long, boring story – essentially it was over political correctness. What they perceived to be feminists and anti-racists and liberals trying to change the culture and take away their fun hobby and destroy everything through liberal censorship. One of the reasons I’m not very sympathetic to that is I just think that, as in film, there’s room for different viewpoints. These people were not saying games containing sexism should be banned. They were just saying that the kind of style that dominates has an attitude towards women that they had an issue with. It became basically, for whatever reason, it brought together all these different groups from the Daily Stormer, which is a Nazi website, through to apolitical vaguely sort of pro-free speech types. It brought together a whole range of people that saw themselves in different ways as opposing political correctness.
AB: And they were politicised by the fact that a largely white male space was becoming invaded leftist politics and women in particular?
AN: Yeah, definitely. Leftist cultural politics, yeah.
AB: How did it go from a misogynist reaction to that to something that has become heavily based around white supremacy and racial politics?
AN: Well when I started looking at reactionary forums of different types, I started my PHD about seven years ago, I finished about two years ago, I was looking at anti-feminist forums and at that time opposition to feminism was the main issue that really animated these kind of forums. And they really saw feminism as emasculating western men, destroying western civilisation, and the race stuff came later. In a way the arc of it made a certain kind of sense, so white western men are emasculated and then you have the ‘invasion’, as they would see it, of non-white men, and particular of Islam, and then western men are too emasculated to defend their civilisation, that’s how it became about civilisation and feminists are seen as the weakening force.
AB: So if we fast forward, to 2017, are we now seeing the alt-right movement splinter into two kind of sides. There’s the more respectable side which you’ve termed the alt-light, and the other side which is starting to have dangerous manifestations such as the attacks in Portland which left two men dead after a defended a Muslim teenager against a racially motivated attack?
Yeah, I mean the violent stuff.. so they’re all kind of mixed in together. This is the problem. So you’ll have these rallies, I remember one particular one where depending on where you saw it reported and depending on whose twitter you were following, it was called either the ‘Patriots Day rally’ or the ‘Free Speech rally’ and the people who were on the speaking list were a real mixture of alt-right people who think foreigners are invading the West and they need to be deported to alt-light people who want free speech and civic nationalism. So they’re all mixed in together. They’re all just about being held together by their mutual hatred of the ‘campus left’, the online left, the cultural left, that whole aspect of the left, the anti-fascists, and stuff like that.
AB: So at this point they’re more defined by what they oppose than what they support?
AN: Kind of. If you get into the details of it, they distinguish themselves in a very particular way. They get totally outraged if you don’t recognise the different gradations and different sub-cultures within the whole thing. But they all go to the same protests and they all retweet each other, they all go on each others shows, and then they laugh at journalists who think that they’re all the same. But they are, they all have somewhat similar views. I’m only very pedantic about it because I know that they will dismiss me as someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about if I don’t spell it out every time. So you have the alt-right who are explicitly about race, the alt-light who are more of the civic nationalists and pro-free speech types, some of them call themselves ‘cultural libertarians’, that kind of thing. But the violence? – they watched in rage for a long time all the campus wars and the violence, like the one at Berkeley, which was supposed to be Milo’s [Yiannopolis] last talk, and things like that. They think this is civilisation on the brink of collapse and they think it’s worth fighting over.
AB: You mentioned a guy – Milo, Milo Yiannopoulos – who started out in the UK as a tech journalist and somehow became one of the leading faces of the alt-right in the US. He was briefly shunted to the side earlier following some comments he made about pederasty. How does that fit with a movement based around transgression, and saying whatever you want, and everything being a joke – at least to them?
AN: It’s funny. That was their style. But the transgressive style of the movement comes from 4Chan and other forums, and by the time Milo got to that point 4Chan had moved much further right of him and were no longer sympathetic to him. The alt-right in the strictest sense was never really that sympathetic to him and was certainly no longer sympathetic at this point. Because he’s flamboyant, and he’s gay and he’s very pro-American, and he believes in American exceptionalism – which they loathe – and so by the time this happened he’d alienated a lot of people and he’d also kind of served his purpose for those to the right of him. Because he moved the ‘Overton window’ to the right, he broke all the taboos, and once he’d served his purpose, they were happy to get rid of him I think.
AB: Milo is from Kent in the UK, he’s British. Then we have people like Paul Joseph Watson, another fine British export. Why is it that they’ve found a bigger audience in the US than here in the UK?
AN: Well this is a very American movement. It makes sense in America more than anywhere else. It’s often said that the left won the culture war and lost the economic war. America is the place where that is most evident. There is a kind of cultural liberalism but people have not seen the benefit of the left in economic policies. So identity politics is very strong, and obviously there are more long running racial tensions there. But also the alt-right’s main idea, if you could put it down to one thing, and this is the alt-right in the strict sense, is that equality is lie. The idea that all men are created equal is a lie, and that America is based on a lie because it is based on the idea that America is based on abstract ideas like liberty when in fact they would say it was about race. It was founded by Dutch and British WASPs and the character of America is what it is because of the racial component of its founders. So the essential idea of America, American exceptionalism, the idea that the state is not an ethno-state but a state founded on abstract ideas is really what they’re targeting. And so that doesn’t really apply elsewhere to the same extent so it’s a very American phenomenon. It’s also an American phenomenon because it’s a product of a very deep longing for identity. In America obviously if you are an ethnic minority you have an identity. And up until recently if you were white you had an identity by being able to say ‘I’m Irish-American’ or ‘I’m Italian-American’ but at this point that kind of Ellis Island wave is so many generations on that you’re just a white person at this point. So those people, particularly young men, young white men in America, feel that they have no identity. The only identity that they’re allowed to have is one of feeling shame for their own heritage. So then the alt-right comes along and says your heritage is brilliant, and white people achieved more than anyone else, and you should be proud and your heritage goes back to Rome and it’s very powerful for them to hear that you know.
AB: Just to tie into Donald Trump, as you said – really the coming out party for the alt-right – what do they see in him as a leader? Is he just part of the joke? An ironic championing of this ridiculous man?
AN: No, there’s definitely something they identify with. They don’t like him as much now because he hasn’t done as much on immigration as they would like and the airstrikes in Syria and other things. He’s become a lot closer to the standard American president. He’s not doing as much crazy stuff as people thought or as much as in the early days of his presidency. But, they like the fact that he’s taboo breaking and anti-PC because they understand that a lot of how a pluralistic society holds things together is through a system of etiquette and manners which some people call political correctness which allows people with different religions and world views to live together. And they want to smash those. They know he is doing that – and there is absolutely no doubt that he has done that. The conversations that are going on now around race would have been inconceivable months ago. They like that he has been very open about anti-immigration. For them the first steps is deporting illegal immigrants but that’s just the first step, but he would be willing to do that. The funny thing is that they see Islam, and Islamism, as the main enemy. But Donald Trump is sword dancing with the Saudi monarchy while people on the left, like Jeremy Corbyn, have proposed banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia. So one thing I find frustrating about them is that they only want to address issues when they can attack people with absolutely no power, so they want to attack refugees on boats who are drowning in the sea, but they won’t support a political leader who might actually target much more significant figures in the rise of the ultra-reactionary Islamist movement. That’s why we have to say that this isn’t about challenging these people but only about attacking those who have no power.
AB: In the book you cite a lot of political thinkers who form the basis of the Alt-Right, there is also the treatise written by Milo Yiannopolis and others. Richard Spencer, whenever he’s interviewed, has always got a long list of political thinkers. I guess Richard Spencer may be different because he’s doing it for so long, but for the majority of the alt-right is there a political spine or is it just dress-up as the latest political fad or political phase that’s most objectionable to the PC culture they’re opposed to?
AN: It’s just such a mess of all these different cross-pollinating groups and forums that it’s not a coherent movement. It is therefore hard to refer to a ‘they’ when talking about them. There are definitely people, especially young men, who haven’t really thought through the gravity of what they’re saying. For example, the actual stated goals of someone like Richard Spencer would involve genocide. There’s simply no way you could achieve them without war and almost certainly genocide. He wants America to be white again, he wants a white ethno-state in America, he wants Europe to be white again and to have a white empire that goes from America to Russia to Europe. If you think of any conflict where there was an attempt to move a minority off their land they tend go on for a very long time and be very bloody even when the piece of land is the size of a small town. So the idea that you could do this on a continental basis.. well it’s not ridiculous because you could do it through sheer force, but it would require war and genocide. And the people who are serious must know this. But I think the average teenage boy who has a Pepe avatar and a fake name on twitter and hates feminists and is a troll, I don’t think someone like that has thought through the stated goals of the senior figures of the alt-right. And the alt-right is constantly growing. And the broader milieu of the Pepes and the alt-light is growing, because they’re constantly responding to what they see as a takeover by the left in the cultural realm and on campuses.
AB: As you say, one of their stated goals is to return to a patriarchal society where women are homemakers and there to provide and look after the family, but there’s no real thought as to how this would affect the workforce or would happen in reality at all.
AN: Yes, they would have to shrink the workforce by half and then the West would decline as a geo-political force immediately, so how would they do that? Second-wave feminism is a mass movement; feminism has come before but wasn’t a mass movement until there was an economic drive behind it which was the massive economic expansion after World War II in the mid twentieth century. How do you just shrink the economy back down to pre-WWII levels? But they’re never asked questions like that unfortunately. They hate traditional establishment conservatives because they have this libertine streak which is contradictory to the traditionalist stuff. But I don’t really see that they have a way of doing it, it doesn’t make any sense economically, how would they ever get women to go along with it, it’s just not something that they’ve thought through, but it’s a desire that they have. They want it both way. They want to be able to be on 4Chan and not have feminists take away their porn, but they also say they want a traditional marriage. They would have to have a very different online life if they were to create the traditional life they claim to want.
AB: Do you think the idea of wanting something without having to give anything feeds into a generation on both sides, on the left and the right, that wants to have the benefits without giving anything in return? So the liberals want the benefits of globalism and multiculturalism without having to think about the consequences of these policies, and the alt-right wants to have all the good things about the kind of volkisch lifestyle without having to give up any responsibility and having to spend less time on the internet?
AN: It makes sense in a certain kind of way. We are in a strange moment. It is why people in this world reacted so badly to Hilary. She is the 60s person who was involved in the feminist movement and stuff like that. And she is now part of the establishment and a lot of young people no longer see the benefits of the cultural freedom that was won in the sixties.
And there are other things. They know they’ll never own a house, they’ll never be in a stable lifelong relationship, they’ll never have any of these tings. You can have as much freedom as you want in a way, but you don’t really benefit from any of it. So I can see why there has been a right wing turn. In a weird way this is the generation that has come after the Iraq War and all the subsequent different invasions in the Middle East. This may seem like a tangent but I think it’s significant, I think those military adventures made it seem like the world is just too complicated and it’s not possible. You have the Utopian and universalist ideas that the Christopher Hitchens types had, their articulate advocacy of military invasions, the universalism, the internationalism they got from their Marxist background. The disaster of that, the repeated disaster after disaster of that, and the development of ISIS and the whole thing made younger people think that the exporting of democracy is a sham, the idea that there is some human desire for the things that a democracy would bring is a lie, and the idea that different people around the world could be united in a common purpose is just impossible. The world is a dark place, full of strange people that you can’t really understand. This is a feeling that the younger generation has, as a result of – among many other things – this generation is a product of that kind of death of a whole generation of cosmopolitan and internationalist sort of intellectuals. ON the right you had the neo-cons, on the left you had the Hitchens export democracy to the world people.
AB: It’s the idea that cynicism and nihilism has overtaken grand ideas, especially on the left and crushed the life out of them. No-one really trusts in any kind of positive ideas, not that there seems to be many of them around at the moment.
AN: It’s so true, it’s real bunker politics. Everything will end in disaster, all we can do is close down everything. Close down the borders, bring in all these isolationist policies, and just hope that things get better. Because I don’t see how when they’re trying to spin their ambitions as a positive thing I don’t really believe the Alt-Right talk about their ambitions that they have any positive vision of the future. But as you say, there’s not much of that around anyway. In many ways the emergence of the Alt-Right is due to an absence of anything else. There’s a total absence of the vision of the future, now that that whole internationalist, cosmopolitan, intellectual milieu was disgraced in a way and their whole view of the world was made to look absurd and nightmarish, that there’s nothing that’s really replaced them. If you want to make the argument for continued immigration levels that we currently have, I mean who’s really making that argument. The only thing holding it together it the idea that you should have these views because it’s polite or something like that. There’s no-one making a positive case other than a kind of bunker politics, like close the borders, close everything down, try and avoid disaster.
AB: Do you think that’s why the culture war has become so important? Because politics is unable to deal with anything of significance, it’s become bogged down in who can use what bathroom, and interpretations of Julius Caesar?
AN: Absolutely, cultural politics has become everything. It’s in part because we’ve been in long economic decline, wages have been stagnating for decades, everything seems to be declining and declining, younger people are less likely to be upwardly mobile than their parents and grandparents. So everything is in decline but no one seems to be able to stop it. And we have this vast network of experts and economists but no-one seems to be able to stop this. And I think the hopelessness in the economic and hopelessness in the political realm, in the sense of ideas can reshape society has led to a retreat into purely cultural politics. Which is very individualistic, very self-absorbed, very much about my feelings and my self-expression and that’s definitely evident on both sides for sure.
AB: What do you think, as you said it’s hard to speak about the Alt-Right movement, but it largely seems to be a younger movement than is generally active in politics? What do you think happens to them when they grow up? Will they become like Donald Trump, in that they become more moderate and more by the book republicans, or is this the new face of the republican party in America?
AN: It’s very hard to say, but I will say that a bit of age does change people’s politics. The cultural politics are very prominent but age tends to beat that out of you a little bit because you start having to pay taxes and pay rent and the material day to day stuff starts to matter an awful lot more. So it’s at that point that they won’t care exclusively about cultural politics. So if Donald Trump can’t give them what they want economically they may look elsewhere you know. And it looks like he’s going to be a pretty typical president in that way. He was supposed to be someone who would invigorate infrastructure, he was supposed to be ripping up all the international trade deals, he was supposed to be reinvigorating the industrial economy, but I don’t really see that panning out. On healthcare he’s taken the standard Republican line on that so I don’t know. I think time will change the priorities of all these young men. The single biggest achievement of the alt-right and the very broad milieu around them, going all the way over to Donald Trump, is that they have moved the Overton window, they have moved acceptable speech way, way, way to the right of what it was a year ago.
AB: Just to finish, I think it was Slavoj Zizek who supported, who, as a Marxist, put himself behind Donald Trump as a way of forcing a reaction out of a pretty moribund left, to force them out of their complacency. Do you think that now with the alt-right becoming, if not a major player, then a significant movement, and now with Donald Trump in the White House, do you think this will force more intellectual rigour out of the Left?
AN: Yes, I think the way the Left has to approach this is not just to dismiss these right-wing movements but to see them as a sign of things to come if you don’t find a way to really provide a convincing alternative. I have been excited to see people like Sanders and Corbyn but I think we haven’t really worked out how we’re going to deal with the fact that there is a lot of anti-immigration sentiment out there, people like Le Pen doing very well, there is a desire for change, and it could go in a lot of different directions. The kind of stagnant decline that we’re in now can’t just continue and people are going to look in all different directions to blame someone for that or to try and fix it. So the Left has to rise to that challenge and it’s going to be very difficult and it’s going to involve rethinking itself and having an internal culture of robust debate where ideas are not shut down, because that’s what we have had and it’s produced a Left that has been very unable to respond to the challenge to the Right.
Kill All Normies is published by Zero Books and is available from June 30th.
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