Over the six months of the Trump administration, the confidence of the alt-right has been growing by the day. “We’re winning” was the buoyant slogan in alt-right gatherings and chat rooms, and the movement’s leaders regularly said that they believed their ideas would soon become second nature in the culture of American politics—in much the same way that the once-marginal cultural radicalism of the early sixties had moved into the mainstream. In recent months I was starting to worry they might be right.
But I believe now that Charlottesville marks the end of a significant phase of the alt-right. Their seemingly rapid growth was fueled—or at least bulked up—by an online culture of shared hatred for the cultural left. This collective reflex acquired an ironic, countercultural edge among a growing corps of transgressive shitposters and anti-PC trolls—and was duly amplified by a media infatuation with everything subcultural and extremely-online.
This was no shambolic gathering of weedy LARPers or neckbeards with silly grins and Pepe signs but a uniformed procession of politically serious white nationalists.
But how many of these racist trolls are committed to the real-life violence and potential state repression that the movement’s goals will now summon forth? The standard online shtick for politically serious members of the alt-right has been to flirt with Nazism but then to laugh at anyone who took these gestures at face value. But in the wake of James Alex Fields’ alleged terrorist assault in Charlottesville, which claimed the life of antifa protestor Heather Heyer, ironic dodges are foreclosed to the alt-right. In addition to Fields’ usage of a car as a deadly weapon—a tactic borrowed, ironically enough, from ISIS sympathizers in Europe—the show of fascist strength in Charlottesville made it abundantly clear that the most vocal and committed leaders of the movement are not basement-dwelling geeks but heavily armed militiamen. This was no shambolic gathering of weedy LARPers or neckbeards with silly grins and Pepe signs but a uniformed procession of politically serious white nationalists prepared for violence and employing deadly serious chants of “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us.”
When Trump was elected, the term “alt-right” was granted a broad, and for its adherents, a usefully vague, ambit in our media culture. At the time, Milo Yiannopoulos was the best-known celebrity of a new, youthful Trumpian trollish right-wing sensibility. Writing for Breitbart, a web publication that Steve Bannon called a “platform for the alt-right” Yiannopoulos wrote about the alt-right in relatively sympathetic terms. To Milo’s chagrin, however, the favor was never returned. Many alt-right enthusiasts rejoiced in characteristically homophobic language when his career fell apart.
Meanwhile, in the full heat of the campus wars over free speech, after Gamergate and other massive online culture-war mobilizations, it was the “alt-lite”—figures such as Milo, Mike Cernovich, and Paul Joseph Watson—who had the large online audiences. They warned about the threat of Islam and mass immigration, railed against feminism, egalitarianism, political correctness, and so on. But as the momentum built up behind them for more and more edgy transgressions, it became clear that they didn’t have much in the way of ideas or solutions. On his Dangerous Faggot tour, Milo whipped up students into a kind of hysterical frenzy with large groups of male students in MAGA hats shouting “Build the wall!” Such clearly authoritarian outbursts of xenophobia pushed the boundaries of cruelty and dehumanization directed at refugees and migrants into a clear fascist register of expression. But if western civilization really was in a state of freefall and the Muslim savage really was at the gates, as the Milo crowds insisted, surely something stronger than a bit of do-what-you-want “cultural libertarianism” would have to be summoned in order to address such threats. And so those who did profess to have solutions and transformative ideas—the alt-right proper— filled the vacuum.
The alt-right itself presents a clear danger to our democracy even if it is diminished by the events at Charlottesville—but as it now seems poised to recede in national politics, there are other dangers we might be too distracted to notice. This fraught new moment of political reckoning will assuredly bring new hazards with it—and after taking stock of the mud-slinging and rushed hyperbolic takes online in Charlottesville’s aftermath, it seems some of these hazards are likely to grow into serious long-term threats. The almost cartoonish villainy of the far right will enable the center to consolidate its power—and that could, perversely enough, produce another wave of purification and witch-hunting of the kind that a newly vibrant and increasingly popular Anglophone left was starting to finally overcome. We may see, for example, a resurgent American centrist and neocon embark on a cynical guilt-by-association bid to use alt-right rhetoric against leftist opponents of Syrian “regime change,” because the alt-right also argued against U.S. intervention in Syria. Similarly, leftists who opposed Hillary Clinton or have stressed the role of “economic anxieties” of downwardly mobile whites in the rise of the Trumpian right may start catching flak for excusing and thus enabling Nazis. Indeed, if any of the great historians of the Nazi period wrote their books today, they’d be denounced for larding their accounts with such interpretive context, as they all did, because context has now been reclassified as blame-shifting.
At a tragic moment like this, few will want to take a step back and ask the genuinely difficult questions. What is it about the alt-right that has captured the imagination of so many young people and at least intrigued a great many more? And if it is true that the committed alt-right becomes more isolated but more militant, what will become of all those young people—especially the young men, who have been radicalized by the alt-right’s ideas and never convinced otherwise? What will be the real-world consequences of forcing such figures out of their semi-ironic anonymous online fantasyland, and potentially thrusting them into a toxic flirtation with violent offline tactics?
Characters like Richard Spencer and online figures like Millennial Woes had appeal for a significant reason. They spoke the language of the end of history and restarting history again. They evoked the meaninglessness of modern western life, the vacuousness of our atomized nihilistic consumer culture and denounced a society that stands for nothing and believes in nothing. Spencer’s rousing speeches promised the pride and dignity of identity, the epic story of ancient ancestry and a future of beauty and a Promethean spirit of limitless possibilities, in a world of strip malls and strangers and diminishing life expectations. The passion that this movement has stirred in young people, young men in the main, came from something real—the desire to belong to something bigger than the individual and to a story longer than the span of one individual, solitary life.
Fighting the far right will be a game of eternal whack-a-mole if the only vision of the future is the nightmarish Silicon Valley model of modernity.
And that is why the present moment feels like a key inflection point in the unfolding saga of the alt-right’s self-definition. In all of my time observing the alt-right, I have never seen its adherents so uncertain, floundering, excuse-making and on the back foot. On 4chan’s /pol/ list, for instance, posters debated whether open talk of a white ethno-state is any longer a good tactic—and if the movement’s most confident and unapologetic spokespeople should be ditched for figures espousing a less extreme line. Significantly, the alt-lite and the entire broader milieu around the white nationalist alt-right proper have now distanced themselves permanently from the most volatile leaders of the Unite the Right in Charlottesville, and it seems likely that this crucial nexus of political affiliation is permanently sundered for the disaffected online legions of the alt-right. What will happen to these militant young white men? Will they reinvent themselves or fade away in the absence of a guiding vision of the future?
At the risk of putting my own work out of date, I believe that chapter of the alt-right story that my book was about—the anonymous online trolling culture, the constant evasions and ironic styles, the hodge-podge of disparate groups united by the “anti-PC” crusade—is over and a new one has begun. The alt-right in the strict sense will now become more isolated, more focused and unambiguous—and perhaps more militant.
But the part of the movement that is willing to go all the way is still very small. The most popular figure in U.S. politics right now is Bernie Sanders—a Jewish socialist—while Trump’s popularity is at an all-time low. A purely oppositional politics to the far right will be a game of eternal whack-a-mole if the only vision of the future to be found in the aimless desert of meaning created by the political establishment is the nightmarish Silicon Valley model of modernity. The creation of a politics that offers something meaningful, beautiful, hopeful, new, and utopian is the project for which there is no shortcut. To take the bigger picture from this sorry story, it should be the job of our generation to create it.