SEPTEMBER 5, 2018
IN This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, the academic Whitney Phillips explored at close quarters the world of online trolls. She embedded herself among the natives of websites like Reddit and 4chan and studied the toxic banter that is their stock-in-trade, a blend of postmodern nihilism, overt bigotry, and “voluntary, gleeful sociopathy over the world’s current apoplectic state.” The trolls’ knack for appropriating and repurposing mainstream media tropes prompted Phillips to label them “cultural dung beetles.” At the time of the book’s publication in 2015, one could have been forgiven for thinking that its subject was a niche subculture — a marginal if disturbing societal pathology on a par with any other sort of hooliganism. Within a couple of years it had become, by some accounts, something like a political force. There is a widespread perception that the enthusiastic support of a broad constituency of trolls, online pranksters, and far-rightist cranks played a decisive role in propelling Donald Trump into the White House in the 2016 election. This assessment sat very nicely with the trolls themselves, who were all too happy to take the credit for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. In the days after Trump’s election, a triumphant post appeared on 4chan’s notorious /pol/ message board: “We did it. /pol/ saved America.”
In Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House, the BBC broadcast journalist Mike Wendling casts doubt on this take. Wendling points out that the Republicans’ share of the white vote had barely budged compared to Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful run for president in 2012. For all the hype around Trump’s unorthodox and brashly chauvinistic campaign, his electoral victory had more to do with the Democrat vote slipping away than with any right-wing surge. Moreover, it is doubtful whether the alt-right was ever a self-aware and contiguous movement in the months leading up to the election. Wendling cites Google Analytics data indicating that the term “alt-right” was relatively little known prior to Hillary Clinton’s alluding to it in her Reno speech of August 2016. Clinton’s attempt to warn voters about this burgeoning radical fringe appears, in retrospect, to have put wind in the sails of the American far right, giving a sense of unity to what was in fact a hodgepodge of disparate elements. Wendling argues that the influence of sites like 4chan has been similarly overestimated: “[I]t is […] quite clear that the average voter in a key Midwestern state was much more likely to come into contact with Facebook, or someone who’d been on Facebook, than they were to be ‘red-pilled’ by 4chan.”
Alt-Right’s concise survey of the 21st-century far right begins by introducing the reader to the world views of various neo-Nazi ideologues, such as Richard Spencer, who is forthright about his white nationalist agenda: “I want what could probably be called a global empire […] a homeland for all white people, whether you’re German or Celtic or Slavic or English.” Wendling observes that the standard tactic deployed by trolls when arguing with liberal or left-wing opponents online — “exaggerate, simplify, burn down the straw man” — is echoed in the rhetorical modus operandi of media outlets like the far-right news organ Breitbart: “They are up front about their biases, which resonate with and whip up their core audience. It’s a messy, shouty tabloid mainlining hashtag steroids.” The book features pithy pen portraits of some of the main players, like Milo Yiannopoulos (prior to getting the Breibart gig he was “a megaphone looking for a movement”) and Alex Jones, whose Infowars program boasted some eight million viewers prior to being shut down. Jones’s bizarre brand of paranoiac extremism reached its nadir when he told the grieving parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook that the massacre had been staged, and that they themselves were active participants in a liberal conspiracy designed to compel Washington to pass gun control laws.
Wendling’s prognosis is relatively sanguine. He observes that many of the alt-right’s alliances have splintered since Trump took office, and that several of its big personalities have fallen out with one another. The alt-right brand certainly seems to have lost some of its luster of late: it is indicative of the term’s disrepute that even someone as petulantly obnoxious as the far-right journalist Paul Joseph Watson recently felt the need to expressly distance himself from the alt-right in a tweet, even though — as Twitter users were quick to point out — he had aligned himself with the movement in a number of older tweets. The Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, who is perhaps a few centimeters to the left of alt-right but shares some of its obsessions, recently claimed not to know who the alt-right are. None of this quite amounts to repudiation, but it does point to a telling ambivalence, at the very least, about the connotations associated with the label. Wendling is probably right to speculate that this particular iteration of American far-rightism will be crushed by the weight of its own contradictions and the feckless incompetence of some of the personalities involved. But it will persist in some other guise so long as its underlying pathologies continue to proliferate, particularly if mainstream news outlets like Fox News continue to provide a platform for bigotry and hatred.
The most illuminating insights in the book are Wendling’s brief but revealing interviews with various ordinary people who identify as alt-righters. Taken collectively they constitute a somber and pathetic portrait of stunted and self-pitying manhood finding consolation in chauvinism. That a great many of them are single and or childless would be unworthy of note were it not so conspicuously off-brand: “For a group obsessed with the promulgation of a race,” Wendling notes wryly, “many activists seemed supremely disinterested in actually breeding.” Another common trait is their apparent inability to grasp the connection between discourse and real-life events — a somewhat ironic failing, given their fixation on the power of media. One particularly conscientious interviewee tells Wendling that he takes “great pride in making sure that nobody I meet or interact with from any race […] is affected by my beliefs in any physical way.” The archetypal alt-righter wants to have his fascist cake and eat it: one moment he is railing in blustering earnest; the next, when people are murdered — as happened in Charlottesville in August 2017 — it’s all just an ironic lark.
Wendling draws an apt analogy here between the radicalization of young would-be jihadists and the creeping brainwashing that ensnares vulnerable and credulous young men in right-wing online communities: “Once drawn in, they are conveyor-belted along a path of ever-more-extreme content, and slowly drawn into a radical bubble which warped their sense of reality.” A penchant for MAGA caps and Confederate flag-waving is merely one manifestation of the phenomenon at hand; the loose-knit community of self-styled “incels,” or “involuntary celibates,” several of whose members have carried out mass-casualty atrocities in recent years, is another. Though stereotypically populated largely by scrawny “beta” types, theirs is unequivocally an ideology of radical chauvinism every bit as dangerous as the militaristic machismo of common or garden neo-Nazism. “Alt-right” was only ever a buzz phrase; it may be fading from prominence, but the death cult remains at large. Homicidal mania is the logical end point of all such movements: both in the macropolitical context and at the level of the individual, they stand for nothing except the negation and destruction of the other. As one 4chan poster put it in those dog days of 2016: “I wanted to see everything burn and get lots of happenings.”
Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017).