As curtains fell on 2016, one corner of the internet roiled with sinister applause. The so-called “alt-right” found much to celebrate in a year that saw the movement gain mainstream visibility, and fringe politicians seize national power. Steve Bannon, former executive chair of Breitbart News (an outlet he has described as “the platform for the alt-right”), has the president’s ear on national security. Jeff Sessions, whose federal judgeship nomination was rejected due to a history of racism in 1986, is the U.S. Attorney General. And their candidate—“God Emperor Trump” to some—now sits in the Oval Office.
The “alt-right” base is an anonymous army of trolls, a new generation of internet racists who have pushed a nihilistic movement into the public eye with a mix of shock tactics, targeted harassment, outright calls to violence, and a savvy understanding of social media. During the presidential campaign, the /r/The_Donald subreddit gained notoriety for using bots to game Reddit’s upvote mechanics and boost pro-Trump memes to the front page. Organized bullying has also invited extensive media coverage, such as the campaign targeting National Review columnist David French for having a black daughter. (He was repeatedly exposed to images of his daughter’s face photoshopped into gas chambers and onto images of slaves.) On the first day of the Republican National Convention, Milo Yiannopoulos spurred a horde of Twitter followers to bombard Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, who is black, with a wave of racist harassment that reportedly reduced the actress to tears. While Yiannopoulos’s Twitter account was permanently suspended over the incident, the amorphous structure of the “alt-right” base makes it largely immune to such punitive measures. Spontaneously coordinated mass mobilization has given them an oversized digital footprint, and an online visibility that far outstrips their raw numbers.
As these actions gained attention, journalists struggled to characterize the motivations guiding the anonymous collective. Many opted to tether the trolls’ actions to the words of the self-proclaimed “alt-right” leadership. Richard Spencer, the bright-eyed fascist and non-Marxist Hegelian, believes that the pendulum of history will come to rest on a world map of monochromatic ethno-states. Jared Taylor, the self-styled “race realist,” throws seventy years of anthropology out the window to embrace a “lost” tradition of racial determinism. Kevin MacDonald, the disgraced former academic, breathes fresh paranoia into stale delusions of a Jewish conspiracy. Peter Brimelow, the paleoconservative olive branch, rails against immigrants with surprising vigor for a naturalized American of British origin. Milo Yiannopoulos, “the world’s most dangerous faggot,” hides behind queer identity to justify an obsessive Islamophobia. These are some of the movement’s most visible “intellectuals,” whose repugnant politics have been regurgitated by many a journalist seeking a roadmap to the “alt-right’s” ideological center.
This approach has given way to an understanding of the “alt-right” in terms of historical precedent—that it is the fascism of our time, and draws upon analogous neo-Nazi and white supremacist traditions. Some have argued that we should even refuse to acknowledge the “alt-right” as a novel formation at all, referring to its members simply as “neo-Nazis.” The Associated Press suggests that “alt-right” may be simply defined as “a white nationalist movement,” presumably in the vein of its predecessors.
But if we reduce the “alt-right” to a proxy of traditional white nationalisms, we miss its current significance and fail to understand its many motivations. Yes, the “alt-right” is a reactionary, ethno-nationalist formation that has been fueled and empowered by the rise of Donald Trump. But it is also a movement wracked with internal contradictions, plagued by division, and birthed of an older internet culture that preceded it and continues to inform its tactics, language, and organizational structure. Understanding the role of the “alt-right” in the current political moment means spending less time looking for ideological coherence and more on understanding how it exercises its power.
On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, the “DeploraBall” made headlines for drawing attention to a long-standing “alt-right” fault line. Tim Treadstone—an “alt-right” Twitter personality known for peddling anime memes and fascist platitudes to over 147,000 followers as @bakedalaska—was banned from the event for making a series of anti-Semitic comments. Treadstone’s overtly racial politics posed a problem for Mike Cernovich, the event’s coordinator, who sought to reframe the “alt-right” ideology as a version of American nationalism. The ensuing drama illustrated a persistent divide within the movement between pan-European white nationalists, who see their political identity rooted in their race, and “America First” civic nationalists, whose nationalism is grounded in citizenship. The latter crowd (occasionally referred to as the “alt-lite”) is typified by the attitudes of Breitbart, /r/The_Donald, and comedians like Ramzpaul, who have normalized these views through relatively approachable language. This faction is frequently accused of cooptation by those further to their right, whose politics are more grounded in white supremacy and the “Jewish Question,” and who are more likely to aggregate around websites like the Daily Stormer and American Renaissance, or far-right talk radio shows like the Political Cesspool.
These divisions deepen and multiply as you dig deeper into the “alt-right” media landscape. The Christian nationalist podcast Good Morning White America is a far cry from the aggressive secularism of Richard Spencer’s Radix Journal, and others vary in their emphasis on nationalism, white supremacy, or the superiority of Western culture. Even Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer—two of the movement’s most racist thinkers—have fallen out as a result of disagreements over the infamous Sieg Heil at Richard Spencer’s 2016 National Policy Institute conference. All of these factions share some common beliefs, but a blunt critique misses the significance of the ideological fault lines that divide them.
If the meaning of the “alt-right” is up for grabs among the movement’s leadership, the rank-and-file is even more divided. When Richard Spencer gave interviews to pitch his new website altright.com as a “one-stop shop” for the “alt-right,” 4chan’s politics message board was ablaze with speculation that the clean-cut neo-Nazi had been in the pocket of the CIA from the beginning. “Literally no one here likes Richard Spencer and we believe he is controlled opposition,” summarized one contributor. When Spencer was punched by an Antifa protester outside of Trump’s inauguration ceremony, many on the “alt-right” rejoiced.
This level of distrust is not reserved for Spencer alone. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, 4chan contributors wrote that Milo Yiannopoulos is a “race-mixing Jew who prefers blacks”; that Jared Taylor is “obviously a controlled opposition crypto kike”; that Steve Bannon is “a literal CIA ZOG [Zionist Occupation Government] media mogul Goldman Sachs banker”; that Mike Enoch, founder of neo-Nazi website the Right Stuff, ex-co-host of the Daily Shoah podcast, and originator of the (((echo))), is “a fat coward with no self-awareness who should kill himself” because of a January 2017 revelation that he had been married to a Jewish woman. Any effort to consolidate or legitimize the burgeoning movement is inevitably seen by some as a plot to distract, discredit, or dissolve it.
The “alt-right’s” base is thus the body of an inverted ouroboros, always devouring its own head. Lacking a cogent political platform, the movement’s disparate factions are instead bound together by a shared politics of negation: against liberalism, egalitarianism, “political correctness,” and the like. This has made them into equal-opportunity villains for political commentators across the ideological spectrum: while fiscal conservatives point to the “alt-right” as a way of excusing the subtler racism of their politics, liberals—and many on the left—paint it as the intellectual vanguard of the GOP, an exposition of the filthy underbelly of the American conservative movement. Ironically, both of these negative representations tend to give the “alt-right” exactly what it wants: exaggerated influence, an intimidating image, and a deliberate political project. (Many members are simply amused at the fact that they are taken seriously at all.) Rather than being unified around a coherent politics, the “alt-right” is more easily identified by a common cultural shorthand: a thick stew of memes, inside jokes, and recurring phrases like “shitlord,” “fashy goy,” and “cuckservative” that satirize liberals, conservatives, and even themselves. The “alt-right” may have gained attention for its association with a newly ascendant reactionary populism, but the online movement is really a product of an older internet culture that revels in the political nihilism that online anonymity permits.
Almost every quality that characterizes the culture, structure, and tactics of the “alt-right”—its distaste for authority, its meme fluency, and its love of trouble for trouble’s sake—are part and parcel of the sequestered forums that nurtured its rise. Indeed, they are traits shared by the freewheeling hacktivist collective Anonymous, whose radically decentered structure is well formulated by the old internet meme, “Not Your Personal Army.” While Anonymous’s anarchic politics are a far cry from the white nationalism of the “alt-right,” their common 4chan roots have manifested in certain similarities. Many of the strategies employed by the “alt-right”—coordinated Twitter harassment or Reddit upvote manipulation—are reminiscent of early Anonymous operations. As with Anonymous, internet culture and a love of memes are fundamental conditions of the “alt-right,” and not merely tactics or incidental manifestations.
The “alt-right’s” penchant for conspiracy similarly evokes an older tradition of collective investigation. Long before /pol/ (4chan’s politics board) had become a site for sifting through leaked emails to iron out the details of imagined Clinton scandals, amateur investigators were using it as a space to spin conspiracy theories about almost every major news event with political implications. The board near-unanimously accepted events like the Boston Marathon Bombing and the 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt as false flag operations, while Chris Dorner, the homicidal ex-cop who declared “unconventional and asymmetric warfare” against the LAPD, was widely believed to have survived the brutal manhunt that ended in his incineration in a Southern California cabin. This conspiratorial tendency was merely refitted to the 2016 election cycle, where it resurfaced in the form of delusional fantasies surrounding Pizzagate, Spirit Cooking, and the puzzling insistence that Hillary Clinton had used a body double during many of her major campaign events. Given that the “alt-right” milieu tends to doubt the official narrative in almost every case, it is not difficult to see how they have come to believe that their own leaders are controlled by the government. Owing to the movement’s “lulzy” cultural heritage, the rank-and-file is often driven to action by the same catalyst of distrust and paranoia that dissolves any semblance of a firm ideological center.
In addition to a vague set of racist and pro-Western ideals, the “alt-right” is built upon an utter refusal to take political consequences seriously. While its leaders are committed white supremacists, a significant portion of the “alt-right” base simply gets a rise out of pushing MSNBC to run segments on racist memes, or the Anti-Defamation League to add 4chan slang to its hate symbol database. A good example of this tendency lies in the history of Pepe the Frog’s connection to the “alt-right,” which dates back to a late-night /pol/ thread from the beginning of 2016. When one poster noticed that GOP consultant Cheri Jacobus had tweeted that “the green frog symbol is what white supremacists use in their propaganda,” they were amused that someone would think such a thing. After some conversation about how the meme had been coopted by “normies” (one user noted that Katy Perry had recently tweeted a Pepe), the thread decided to make Jacobus’s observation true, in order to reclaim 4chan’s intellectual property and ensure that nobody would want to be associated with the depressed green frog. Harassing people with racist images on Twitter thus became something of an inside joke, with a gaggle of nihilistic troublemakers indistinguishably aligning themselves with committed racists.
For the bulk of the “alt-right” base, the embrace of an oppressive and violent politics has just been another way of having fun by pissing people off. To grasp the extent of this cognitive dissonance, consider the opening description from Donald Trump’s page on Encyclopedia Dramatica, a wiki of self-documented internet subculture:
His Grace, the Imperial Majesty on the Iron Throne, the Immortal God-Emperor of Mankind, Donaldus I of the House of Trump will make Warhammer 40,000 real. He is a pretty cool guy and is the 45th president of the United States and doesn’t afraid of anything. Never half-piss around when President Donald is around cause He’ll rape you for not fully pissing around, fire you for being unproductive, sue you for libel, and pillage your clan of its cattle and fertile women. President Donald Trump is a fucking genius.
These are not the people who champion Donald Trump in spite of the immediate danger that he threatens upon millions of people, but precisely because of that threat. In this vein, the “alt-right’s” gleeful adoption of the name that Hillary Clinton gave them, “deplorable,” is significant: its members want to be villains, and are far more committed to antagonizing than proselytizing. (Another popular “alt-right” self-descriptor, “shitlord,” has a similar history: it migrated from the Something Awful forums to Tumblr, where it was used as a detractor against people with racist, sexist, or otherwise exclusionary politics.)
Milo Yiannopoulos grasped a kernel of truth in describing the punk rock appeal of “alt-right” bigotry as “simply a means to fluster their grandparents”—but we should reject the qualifier “simply.” In the vein of teenagers sneaking out to egg cars or teepee houses after bedtime, “alt-right” agitators are largely looking for a rise. But unlike those acts of biodegradable vandalism, the words and ideas of the “alt-right” have the potential to manifest as direct violence, such as when the Daily Stormer published a November 9 blog advising readers that: “You can troll [Clinton supporters] and definitely get some of them to kill themselves.” A dangerous line was crossed far before Pizzagate conspiracist Edgar Welch opened fire into the ceiling of Comet Ping Pong, or when a Seattle man was shot in the stomach for protesting at one of Yiannopoulos’s speeches.
The people most threatened by this violence are women, immigrants, people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ communities, and almost anyone who isn’t straight, white, cis, and male. The “alt-right’s” anonymous structure makes it difficult to gauge its exact makeup, but 4chan’s advertising demographics serve as a proxy: 70 percent male, primarily aged 18–34, the majority of whom attended or are currently enrolled in college. This secure and privileged population represents one of the only cross-sections of society who could possibly laugh about putting Jews in gas chambers, bringing slavery back to the United States, or reinforcing a rigid hierarchy of the sexes. With nothing personal at stake, they are free to embrace a politics of radical discrimination, incite justified outrage and fear from marginalized groups, and even seek to drive victims to suicide, “for fun.”
It is possible that the “alt-right” will shrivel of its own accord. The movement’s ideological core is already buckling, and the diaspora of Tweet-happy shock troops may grow bored as their antics fade from the news cycle. We cannot take this dissolution for granted, but even if the “alt-right” fades, its tactics and origins should not be forgotten or underestimated. While its beliefs may seem rooted in contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake, the “alt-right’s” casual embrace of overt racial violence can have real consequences for those who its members target—women, people of color, and others—offline too.
Sensationalizing a fringe group can play directly into its demands for attention, even if that attention is exclusively negative. It was gratifying to watch Richard Spencer get punched in the face by the black bloc, but the truth is that most people associated with the “alt-right” will never publicly reveal themselves to be punched, nor do they necessarily feel represented by those who would. Outrage is exactly what they seek to provoke, and many “alt-right” adherents only commit to their racist and exclusionary ideology insofar as it brings them attention. In covering and confronting the “alt-right,” necessary opposition should be seasoned with an understanding of this context. In dealing with the movement, one might slightly qualify an old internet adage: “don’t overfeed the trolls.”
Evan Malmgren is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn. In 2016, he contributed to an investigation into the “alt-right” and its support for the Trump campaign with the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.