What explains the strange pathologies of the alt-right?
It was announced this week that Milo Yiannapoulos will appear on Bill Maher’s Real Time. The conjunction of two prominent Islamophobes mugging for the camera under the unblinking eyes of studio light announces the alt-right’s planet is now bathed in the full, flagrant glare of our new Orange Sun. The signs are everywhere. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer, even after being humiliated by crowds at Berkeley, is still abroad in the land, peddling his story.
According to an article in The Algemeiner, Spencer,
who garnered national attention with his controversial appearance at Texas A&M University last December, plans to sow his white nationalism on college campuses across the country in 2017. Known for using phrases like “Hail victory” (the literal translation of the Nazi phrase “Sieg Heil”) and mimicking the Nazi salute, Spencer traffics in far-right ideas that center around the preservation of the white race and Western civilization. He peddles his message through a think tank known as the National Policy Institute, an online publication called Radix and, now, a planned college speaking tour.
These are fat times for the nationalist set, and even if you strike out Milo as a wagon-hopping unbeliever, the talking heads of the Trump front are doing fairly well for themselves. Not in the sense of being successful; more in the sense that a man with two arms and no legs is doing better than a man with a single leg and no arms.
Which raises a question. There have always been bizarre cranks in any political ecosystem. But a resentful river of victimology runs the length of the alt-right’s belief structure, and is hardly attributable to their social status—middle class—or their privileged demographic position in the world. Where does it come from?
The alt-right claims to be the inheritors of a movement which they style the “natural conservative” coalition. Even allowing for conservatism’s tendency to play dog-whistle politics, the two are very different. Cathy Young, writing for The Federalist, notes that “Indeed, the irony is that Trump is almost certainly the least socially conservative candidate to come within reach of the Republican nomination in recent years. If the Trumpian rebels were disaffected traditionalists, they’d have flocked to Rick Santorum.”
What is demonstrably not happening is a huge popular upsurge in alt-right beliefs. Trump got roughly the same number of votes as Romney. Therefore, if the alt-right cannot offer strength, numbers, or continuity, what can it give to its believers?
Let us consider its founder. Arguably, Spencer’s greatest contribution to modern political discourse was getting clocked in the face. This innovation was his, and his alone. It made him famous. If he could trademark the many remixes of him being punched which are now spread on the intra-webs, he would never have to call collect to Pinochet’s old generals again.
However, Spencer’s second greatest contribution was to name the movement he is a leader of. Per the Southern Poverty Law Center, the phrase “alt-right” refers to
a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value. In 2010, Spencer, who had done stints as an editor of The American Conservative and Taki’s Magazine, launched the Alternative Right blog, where he worked to refine the movement’s ideological tenets.
What this actually means is a bunch of weird dudes—and they are almost all dudes—who hang out online. If I have a complaint about the Law Center’s description, it is the phrase “heavy use of social media,” which implies the alt-right is a real-world movement which uses a lot of social media. This is backwards: it is an online movement which occasionally appears in the real world. Where it gets punched.
In truth, the alt-right is wholly a creature of the Internet. Older journalists, who grew up with a more sedate view of politics, see the rancor of Spencer’s followers online and imagine they possess a genius for bile. But this is the character of the Net. If you were born in the late eighties or afterwards, you’ve never known a world without all-caps comments. We’re all part of this magic circle. The alt-right is born from, and of, this online world.
The Net explains much (but not all) of Spencerism. The major difference between the alt-right and old conservatism is one of temperament.
Most conservatives know how the game is played, and will muddle through this Orange Presidency, taking what they can, bargaining when they will, dealing with the Presidential train-wreck, staring winsomely at pictures of Lincoln and Reagan. George Will’s squad knows how to sigh. The conservative worldview makes its peace with tragedy. This may explain why so many of their intellectual class are fond of the Lord of the Rings: the series is about an autumnal land, where everyone is sort of bungling through lapsed days. Conservatives generally see the same world as everyone else. As a group, they are typically dissatisfied with the Earth, but satisfied with themselves. You can easily imagine a happy conservative.
By contrast, nothing pleases the alt-right. They treat this Earth as an alien prison, full of people engaged in actions they don’t understand. Their effect on the world is grotesque, but their pathologies are consistent, and priceless from a clinical point of view.
For instance, what are we to make of the alt-right and their insistence on this term, “virtue-signaling”? They seem to seriously believe that people commit good acts only because others are watching. They don’t understand how being nice works. They are befuddled at why Meryl Streep would throw shade at the President for making fun of handicapped people. It is a mystery to them why anyone famous would cast scorn on the powerful for oppressing the weak. It confuses them that the rich would ever, in a million years, have a care for the poor.
In the world of the alt-right, an intellectually lazy place, the culture—which does not agree with them and never will—assumes a monstrous, shadowy shape. To them, Streep isn’t a successful character actor and Vassar grad who decided to sympathize with a reporter on her own dime; she must be the spear point of a gigantic Soros ploy.
Charlton Heston was wrong when it came to firearms, but few of us doubted that he was sincere. Hollywood is a collection of theater kids and business-people. Some of them are noble, some are clueless, some generous, some greedy, some selfless, some outlandish, some boring. Knowing this, what conclusions can we make? About the only thing that connects them is that they want to be seen by the public. Show-people lean left, just as bankers tilt conservative. None of this is surprising.
How could the alt-right get it so wrong? The answer is simple.
They believe in the world of the tribe. It explains everything about them. Like most shut-ins, they are convinced the outside universe is obsessed with them. This may account for their insistence that anything they do is aimed at trolling liberals and traditional conservatives. Which is precious. The alt-right is trolling us in the same way a lonely sophomore doing basement bong rips on Prom Night is trolling everyone with a date.
They are incapable of seeing the world in a non-tribal way. Every person only exists as an extension of an identity. Yes, this is the absurd extension of the identity politics they pretend to despise. Which is why they can label a billion Muslims as part of a terror network; why they can look at Mexicans and see them as a plot to invade America; why they burble out anti-Semitic screeds. The alt-right doesn’t see the world, they see their idea of the world. They gaze through spectacles which are tinted.
Most prejudiced persons who distrust Muslims will still admit there are “good ones.” Not so with our friends on the alt-right. By their lights, one cannot be a Muslim or a Mexican who is the exception; by being part of that group, one’s complicity in the group is unbreakable. All politics is sinister, coordinated, tribal politics. This also explains why conspiracy theories have such a truck with them. If you already believe in massive inside-group coordination, then what’s a few 9/11s or Pearl Harbors or Pizzagates?
How do I put it gently? The tragedy of the alt-right is that their beliefs are not merely incorrect or mean, but castrating. Their philosophy isn’t just offensive and based on bad data: it’s a humiliating set of positions to hold. It disappoints them not merely on the level of rationality and effectiveness, but on taste. It succeeds nowhere: there is no evidence for it; it cannot secure a majority for Trump; it only offends the most anxiety-ridden of the liberals; it will not win allies among conservatives; it is not beautiful in itself; its principles are question-begging and scientifically hollow.
The alt-right is like a guy who wears a belt made of spikes that dig into his flesh, and shouts out that everyone else is offended to see his blood. Yes, it’s gross. So what? Imagine a man who is convinced his ugliness offends everyone, when all it does is make them pity him.
The poor alt-right. How very sad it must be, to be deluded into seeing the world as a patchwork of armed camps, and knowing in the very same instant, deep in your soul, where no trolling success can ever reach, that you will never be a chosen people, of any kind. Feels bad, man.