The Roots of the Alt-right

During the last presidential election cycle, you may have read reports describing the alt-right—a loosely organized group of anti-PC, anti-feminist, race-obsessed online warriors—as a strange, newly created beast. But in many ways, the movement is simply a continuation of dark trends that have long been present in American society.

A few disparate elements came together to create this motley 2016 insurrection: the videogame culture war that became known as “Gamergate,” the outrage, fanned by mainstream outlets like Fox News, of white men offended by perceived censorship on campuses, and a backlash to movements like Black Lives Matter. But most of all, the so-called alt-right united behind a populist politician with nativist rhetoric, a cruel authoritarian streak, and little heed for the rules of political decorum.

Is the alt-right over? With Trump as a less-than-reliable ally, Steve Bannon out of the White House, and the mainstream media losing interest in gently portraying its protagonists, you could argue that it is petering out. But the lessons from American history are clear: these ideas have always been with us. Reading the books below, you get the feeling that it will take a radical shift—one that is frankly hard to envision—for the movement to truly fade away.

Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

It’s hard to remember a time when the paranoid fringes of society seemed quaint—even laughable—rather than scary, powerful, and dangerous. But most of the material for Ronson’s book was collected in a pre-9/11 world, where Omar Bakri Mohammed, one of Britain’s most notorious radical jihadists, roamed freely and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Thomas Robb was the most notable manifestation of a flickering and (supposedly) dying white nationalist movement.

Some of the characters in Ronson’s book went on to notoriety, others to obscurity. A good bet for the least likely to succeed among them was Alex Jones, a bulky radio host in Texas who at the time was blaming the Oklahoma City massacre and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing on the government. “Endearingly,” Ronson writes, “Alex was hollering his powerful apocalyptic vision down an ISDN line from a child’s bedroom in his house, with choo-choo train wallpaper and an Empire Strikes Back poster pinned on the wall.”

Despite his scrappy origins—and conspiracy-mongering so crazy it often seemed like a parody—Jones—and his Infowars program—became a key figure on the paranoid right, and a conduit for a particularly extreme slice of Trump’s base.

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman

Before Edward Snowden released NSA secrets via The Guardian or the Arab Spring’s Twitter revolution, there was Anonymous, a collection of awkwardly named “hacktavists” dispensing their own vigilante internet justice. They started with silly raids and more or less meaningless pranks, like redirecting hyperlinks to YouTube videos of pop star Rick Astley. But upon realizing their collective power to organize and transmit political messages, the group brought their electronic firepower to bear on a range of targets, from the Church of Scientology and copyright lawyers to the government of Tunisia.

In Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, Gabriella Coleman brings an anthropologist’s approach to bear on the hackers, going deep inside the Anonymous subculture and teasing out some of the ideological strands and tensions that developed within it. Although offshoots and alumni have gone on to do interesting things, like fighting against corruption and for global internet freedom, Anonymous as a real force had petered out by the time the 2016 presidential election rolled around. Although several hackers trumpeted news of an “Operation KKK” directed at far-right groups, in the end the revelations turned out to be nothing particularly new or interesting and had little effect on the election’s outcome.

Perhaps they had strayed too far from home. Over at 4chan—the message board that had spawned the Anonymous movement in the first place—white nationalists and race obsessives had moved in. They didn’t even bother to change the furniture or the drapes, nicking Anon methods and tactics and eventually turning the site into one of the key nodes of the alt-right.

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle

One of the arguments that alt-righters strategically deploy to hook in new recruits is an absolutist defense of free speech. It’s a pose that appeals to a certain slice of young video gamers who are kicking back at campus ideas like trigger warnings and safe spaces, which they claim infringe on their rights. Their first amendment claims give them license to insult and belittle others, but, of course, the free speech defense is never extended to groups the alt-right disagrees with.

Nagle’s book outlines the contours of these new and strange online battles. There’s a new culture war, she argues, that is playing out between liberal Tumblr users and alt-right 4chan members, who feel the requests for “white/straight/male/cis people to ‘listen and believe’” coming from the former are unreasonable. “Tumblr was one of the most important platforms for the emergence of a whole political and aesthetic sensibility, developing its own vocabulary and style—very much the reverse mirror image of rightist 4chan in this way,” Nagle writes. “Symbolic representative diversity and recognition became its goals, as it admonished transgressors for ‘erasing my identity.’” In parts, this book assumes some working knowledge of the Tumblr left—the average “normie” (that is to say, most of us), might get lost in the weeds. But Nagle’s analysis of internet subcultures comes from meticulous research and her descriptions of online absolutism—on both sides—are undeniable. (Recently, the book has been flagged for questionable sourcing.)

The alt-right “was able to mobilize a strange vanguard of teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers and meme-making trolls whose dark humor and love of transgression for its own sake made it hard to know what political views were genuinely held and what were merely . . . for the lulz.”

Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump by David Neiwert

Any lingering doubt about whether the alt-right is just in it “for the lulz”—in other words, to annoyingly, yet largely harmlessly, mock other people’s discomfort—pretty much disappeared at the University of Virginia last August, when three people protesting a White Nationalist rally were killed. Among the alt-right are some very serious people, and some have deadly intentions.

The murderous nature of the most extreme alt-rightists was confirmed by a February, 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center report, which linked the movement to forty-three murders since 2014. The SPLC identifies the first alt-right killer as Eliot Rodger, a twenty-two-year-old who killed seven people in California after posting a violent, hate-filled manifesto online. But as the movement’s influence has spread, so has the violence. Over half of the incidents detailed in the report occurred in 2017.

A veteran contributor to the SPLC, Neiwert builds on his two decades of experience studying the far-right, tying the emergence of their newest manifestation to the extremist undercurrents of the 1990s.

“In American public life there is an alternative dimension,” he writes, “a mental space beyond fact or logic, where the rules of evidence are replaced by paranoia.” This space includes the parallel world of far-right media, the most militant corners of the Tea Party, and the Trump glue that brought all those disparate groups together. Neiwert identifies the motivations of those drawn to the far right, including fantasies about being a hero, saving the nation, and winning an impending race war: “Alt-America, thanks to Donald Trump, is no longer merely the stuff of these fantasies.”

These ideas predate Trumpian politics, but they were carried to mainstream attention on the back of the president. More alarmingly, far-right activists hold positions of real power in the White House. Someone like senior policy adviser Stephen Miller didn’t just pop out of nowhere. As these books show, it doesn’t take much to mobilize the deeply-felt resentment and xenophobia of motivated trolls who view every egalitarian ideal as a personal attack.

Mike Wendling is editor of the social media investigation unit BBC Trending and the author of Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House.