The sudden emergence of the so-called alt-right from the dark recesses of the internet into the American mainstream was at first more baffling than shocking. The young people sharing strange, coded frog memes and declaring their commitment to white identity politics on obscure websites remained in the realm of the unserious—or at least the unknowable and weird.
Then, last November, The Atlantic published footage of a prominent alt-right provocateur, Richard Spencer, raising a glass to Donald Trump’s election at a conference in Washington, D.C. “Hail Trump!” he shouted, and in response, audience members saluted in unmistakably Nazi style. The incident made waves—here were young men behaving, in public, like fascists. But Spencer laughed it off, claiming that the gestures were “ironic.” The methods and meaning of the alt-right were as yet elusive.
It wasn’t until the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August that the alt-right took on a form that most Americans could finally grasp as a real, and unambiguous, political movement. A disciplined, torch-lit procession snaked through a college town, with white men shouting explicitly white-nationalist slogans in chorus. A true believer drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters and was charged with killing a woman named Heather Heyer. Could it be that these “ironic” young men had meant what they were saying all along?
To answer this question—and to comprehend the powerful and unexpected effect Charlottesville is having on the alt-right itself—we need to understand what the movement is, and what it is not. Unlike old-fashioned, monolithic political movements, the alt-right is a fractious, fluid coalition comprising bloggers and vloggers, gamers, social-media personalities, and charismatic ringleaders like Spencer, who share an antiestablishment, anti-left politics and an enthusiasm for the political career of Donald Trump. Older theorists who predate the 2016 election—men such as Jared Taylor of the “white advocacy” organization American Renaissance and the neoreactionary Curtis Yarvin, who writes under the name Mencius Moldbug—exert influence. But what is new, and unusual, about today’s far right is the large number of young people, most of them men, who have been drawn into its orbit—or, as they would put it, “red pilled.” The metaphor comes from The Matrix, the dystopian science-fiction movie in which the protagonist, Neo, is offered a red pill that allows him to see through society’s illusions and view the world in its true, ugly reality.
For eight years, I have been closely observing an array of rightist forums as they have followed a strange and marked evolution. Initially, at least, taking the red pill was more closely associated with antifeminist and men’s-rights forums like Reddit’s /r/TheRedPill, which launched in 2012, than with the nativist or racist corners of the online right. TheRedPill was infamous for its mix of virulent misogyny and retrograde dating advice. The young men who frequented it obsessed over the male pecking order, evolutionary sexual psychology, and the decline of Western men, who had become too meek to stand up to their women. It also played a significant role in popularizing terms now associated with the racial politics of the alt-right, including cuck, a derivative of cuckold first used to describe an emasculated man and later adapted to brand conservatives who were seen as weak on immigration, or just weak.
Over time, this online “manosphere” would embrace an increasingly hard-line antifeminism, one that began to shade into broader critiques of a fraying social order. Daryush Valizadeh, known as “Roosh V,” launched his writing career with the Bang series of books, many of them essentially travel guides for pick-up artists. His site, Return of Kings, was at first dedicated to crude misogyny and pick-up advice. But by 2015, he was ranging further afield in his search for the source of male woe, writing pieces like “The Damaging Effects of Jewish Intellectualism and Activism on Western Culture,” a positive review of an anti-Semitic conspiracy text popular among the alt-right. The Proud Boys, a group founded by the former Vice impresario Gavin McInnes to fight the forces of emasculation (in part through a renunciation of masturbation), also blended sexism and creeping nativism. While some adherents were attracted by the campaign against self-abuse, or the fraternity-like initiation rituals, membership also entailed support for closed borders and what McInnes called, in a clever stroke of euphemism, “western chauvinism.”
The anonymous forum 4chan provided another portal into the nascent movement. Some of the young geeks who populated the site were interested in transgression for transgression’s sake—the fun of trolling what they saw as an increasingly politically correct culture. One running joke, captured by the phrase the current year, mocked Baby Boomer liberalism for constantly undermining those who refused to keep pace with its progressive pieties, its cries of “You can’t still think that—it’s 2017!”
Posters in these online forums became adept at using offbeat humor and new media to wrong-foot the establishment. Anyone caught fretting about the right’s online youth movement was met with the contention that the entire thing was a joke—and anyone taking it at face value was a clueless outsider. Last winter, for instance, an elaborate hoax originated on 4chan. “Operation O-KKK” called for pranksters to flood social media with claims that the “okay” hand gesture was a symbol of white supremacy. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy,” wrote the original poster of the hoax plan. “We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that shit.” In April, when the pro-Trump writers Mike Cernovich and Cassandra Fairbanks were photographed in the White House press-briefing room making “okay” signs, Emma Roller, a reporter at Fusion, wrote on Twitter that the writers were “doing a white power hand gesture.” Fairbanks sued Roller for defamation.
At a moment in history when the right seemed to have died of terminal uncoolness, this strategy of making the left seem puritanical and humorless represented no small cultural revolution. Ever since the 1960s, the right, holding fast to stuffy tradition, had struggled to compete with the youthful vibrancy of the left. But the earnestness and fervor of contemporary progressives, particularly on college campuses, opened the left up to mockery.
One of the most successful propaganda weapons the alt-right produced was its caricature of the Social-Justice Warrior. Rightists flooded YouTube with “cringe compilations” depicting liberal vloggers, protesters, and college students—mostly young women—screaming at opponents, calling out their racism, sexism, and hate speech. In an interview, Richard Spencer described these figures as a gift from the left to the alt-right. “I love Social-Justice Warriors,” he said. “I might donate money to them or something. I want them to become even more, just, ridiculous.” Andrew Anglin, who runs the alt-right site The Daily Stormer (and is profiled in this issue), wrote, “Right now, a divide is happening. And there are only going to be two sides. Either you are with the SJWs or you are with the Fascists.”
Watching YouTube videos of college-age liberals decrying microaggressions and demanding safe spaces, the young men of the alt-right may have cheered Anglin as he threw down this gauntlet. Then Charlottesville happened, and it became clear what, exactly, it meant to be “with the Fascists.” The useful idiots of the less extreme “alt-lite” tier of the new right had successfully deployed irony to confound the alt-right’s critics. But they had also given cover to its most radical elements. The rally brought into the open the movement’s racist core—not the winking shit-posters and fuzzy-faced geeks wearing obscure-internet-joke T-shirts, but a small army of unapologetic white nationalists. Anyone who flirted with the alt-right now understood what they were pledging allegiance to.
Charlottesville splintered the alt-right, though along fault lines that had appeared well before the violence there. The rally had been dubbed Unite the Right, but it proved to be the culmination of a vicious period of internecine squabbling. In June, the alt-right and the alt-lite had held rival free-speech rallies in Washington, D.C., with Spencer whipping up the hard-liners at the Lincoln Memorial while Cernovich hosted a tamer group outside the White House. Spencer accused the alt-lite of being “cucks.” Cernovich said the alt-right’s “big tent” had folded after “Hail-gate.” After Charlottesville, he disparagingly called its members “Nazi boys.”
Gavin McInnes also took pains to distance himself from the movement. “Charlottesville changed everything,” he said to Boston Herald Radio. “I don’t advocate the alt-right. I don’t advocate their politics.” Even Steve Bannon, who, as the head of Breitbart News, had done more than anyone else to disseminate alt-right ideas into mainstream American politics, and had once proudly called his site a platform for the alt-right, now described its adherents as “losers” and a “collection of clowns.”
For those, like Spencer, who wanted the movement to pursue its most radical goals, the Charlottesville rally looks like a fatal mistake. It happened too soon, before enough young recruits had had time to steep in toxic ideology and see their ironic pranking curdle into something more like real conviction. (A common path to the worst sorts of extremism begins with a search for camaraderie and tribe; the adoption and hardening of truly extreme ideological views come later.)
Arriving when it did, Unite the Right was devastating for the movement. The euphoria of the first, tiki-torch-lit night was followed by arrests and humiliation. The names of rally attendees were exposed, which in several cases resulted in the loss of jobs. Online-infrastructure companies booted the alt-right websites they’d hosted and supported, including Anglin’s The Daily Stormer.
Even so, the young men who found brotherhood and a sense of purpose in the movement have not disappeared. In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, forums like 4chan’s politics board were full of discussions about the need to shift tactics and do damage control. But I’ve seen nothing to suggest that those who were convinced that civilization is in decline—and that feminism, liberalism, and demographic change are to blame—have been unconvinced of those things. “This was fucking ignorant and now it was all for nothing,” one 4chan poster lamented. “Liberal media will blast this for years and scare younger generations from our cause.” By definition, those who have been red-pilled feel that they have seen the world as it really is and can never go back. So where will they go now?
At this still-early stage, it is guesswork to say. Some, certainly, will continue to gravitate toward the nastiest corners of the movement—those who were motivated by racism, cruelty, a desire to punish the weak. Others may find new leaders to follow, new movements to join. Many of the young men who first came to the politics of antifeminism in their teens or early 20s are now in their late 20s or early 30s, and may have aged out of some of their more rebellious impulses to shock and offend. The popularity of the Canadian academic Jordan B. Peterson, a contrarian who has decried political correctness but claims to be as suspicious of the radical right as he is of the radical left, suggests one alternative path. Peterson’s videos, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, encourage young men to take personal responsibility for their future and to resist blaming women for their failures.
The more politically engaged may drift back to the somewhat less extreme positions that had red-pilled them in the first place—opposition to political correctness and immigration reform, support for cultural libertarianism and free-speech absolutism. Candace Owens, a popular young black conservative also known as Red Pill Black, has mastered new media platforms, but in service of advocating for something closer to a traditional strain of conservatism: She’s critical of the press, feminism, and open borders, but supports gay marriage.
Can Owens, or anyone else, bring these young men into the political mainstream? To the unhappy forum dwellers who identified themselves as “beta males” and neets (“not in education, employment, or training”), what the alt-right offered was a revalorized masculinity, a sense of purpose, and a collective identity. Identity has become the coin of the realm in American culture, but one that’s not accessible to the heirs of white male hegemony. While everyone else was telling these young men to check their privilege, the alt-right was speaking powerfully to their Millennial woes—their diminished place in society, their dwindling economic prospects, their growing alienation. Asked recently what had attracted him to the far right, Frank Meeink, a former neo-Nazi, responded: “Just the belonging. Feeling like I was part of something.”
It is often said that the left won the culture war and the right won the economic war. From the point of view of angry young white men, however, neither side has scored any victories. A generation ago, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher championed the individual and the market, while liberals abandoned institutions like religion, national pride, even the nuclear family in favor of individual freedom. Together, right and left created a world in which a young person could invent his own identity and curate his own personal brand online, but also had dimmed hopes for enjoying what used to be considered the most basic elements of a decent life—marriage, a job, a house, a community. (Liberalism claimed that a village could raise a child, but never got around to building the village.)
Amid this desert of meaning into which Millennials were born, the new far right expertly pinpointed the existential questions, particularly for those who couldn’t be permitted a collective identity, namely straight white men: Who are we? What is our story? What is our future?
The alt-right overplayed its hand, fracturing before it coalesced and consolidated its gains. But the forces behind the movement, not least the rapid demographic transformation of the Western world, are not going away. Those who do not want to see the far right reassert itself—not this year or next year, or in five or 10 or 20 years—must provide a different vision of the future, one that is based on a joint sense of purpose and that delivers on the promise of material progress. Figures like Bernie Sanders and, in the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn have brought back a spirit of class solidarity and a vision of society as more than a collection of individuals. Theirs, of course, is only one possible approach, and it may have limited appeal to conservative voters. Whether any vision will be strong enough to unite increasingly fragmented nations remains to be seen. Even if the alt-right doesn’t survive in its current form, a generation of young white men now harbor the dangerous belief that they have no future—a belief that will be that much more dangerous if it proves to be true.