Neo-Nazis are rallying in Virginia today. Here’s how to think about the alt-right.
“They believe social taboos are bullshit and want to poke holes in all of it.” —Angela Nagle
Updated by Sean Illing August 12, 2017
Members of the “alt-right” gather on the University of Virginia campus on Friday night. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty)
On Saturday, members of the so-called “alt-right” will converge on Charlottesville, VA for the “Unite the Right” rally. The rally is taking place just a few hours after a group of torch-wielding white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus on Friday night.
The alt-right protesters were shouting chants like “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil” — the latter a direct reference to Nazi ideology.
A new book by Angela Nagle, an Irish academic and writer, offers a timely exploration of the alt-right as a cultural and political force. The book is called Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. It’s a taxonomy of the alt-right — a reactionary political movement whose adherents include white nationalists like Richard Spencer and more influential people like Steve Bannon and Steven Miller, both of whom serve as key advisers for President Trump — and a survey of the subculture that spawned it.
I reached out to Nagle to talk about the book and what she learned while writing it. She sees the alt-right as a product of a cynical age, one defined by skepticism and alienation. On the right, she argues, young men have latched onto a burgeoning counterculture that rejects social taboos around race and gender. On the left, intellectual culture has become increasingly insular, creating space for reactionaries on the right.
The result, she says, “is a complete absence of any kind of hopeful inspiring vision of the future.” This is the broader sickness, she told me, and “the alt-right is just a symptom of it.”
You can read our full conversation below.
Origins of the alt-right
Sean Illing: How did this book come about?
Angela Nagle: I started studying online anti-feminist movements seven or eight years ago. At the time, what was interesting to me about them was their countercultural style, and it didn’t resemble traditional anti-feminist movements. One of the big themes of the book, really, is the fact that the same ideas can be translated through very different political and aesthetic styles. It’s very hard to describe online politics because it doesn’t take the same formation as traditional politics, and that was interesting to me. So I started studying it and just naturally found my way into this world.
Sean Illing: Is there a “Big Bang” moment for the alt-right, a cultural event that helped explode it into being?
Angela Nagle: Trump was the big explosive moment. Obviously there have been reactionary online for many years before Trump, but Trump’s campaign was the moment where it all went completely mainstream. Gamergate was very significant in bringing together a whole cross section of people who were anti–political correctness, but a lot of these people weren’t necessarily right-wing. They were cultural libertarians or free speech enthusiasts, but there wasn’t a lot of political organizing. That changed with Trump. All the anti-PC stuff, the anti-immigration politics, the trolling campaigns — Trump boosted all of that into the mainstream.
Sean Illing: When someone identifies themselves as alt-right, what are they trying to signal? Or maybe a better way to put it is what are they defining themselves against?
Angela Nagle: If they’re using the term in the strict sense, it says they’re against the idea that problems in society are socially constructed or even that most of our experiences are socially constructed. So they would say that gender is not socially constructed but a biological category. They say the same thing about race. They reject the idea that America is founded on abstract principles and instead believe it’s a product of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and that it could be no other way.
Sean Illing: I always wonder when it comes to stuff like this if it’s more about a mischievous contrarianism or if they actually believe what they’re propounding.
Angela Nagle: I think a lot of them start off by trolling and doing the anti-PC thing and resisting what they feel is dogma being shoved down their throats by liberal professors and parents, but where do you go from there? Do you reject all of these principles? There’s not much else there in the way of new ideas to replace them, so it’s very easy to end up going very far to the right at that point.
Sean Illing: Half the time, I can’t tell if they’re waging a civilizational battle or a heroic trolling campaign.
Angela Nagle: At this stage, anyone who thinks they’re doing it for LOLs is either deluding themselves or hiding behind that ironic style in order to avoid being interpreted, because at this point the stakes are actually quite high, and Trump is in the White House, and this movement has spread far beyond the confines of a few obscure message boards.
Sean Illing: For a long while, I saw the alt-right as this weird quasi-nihilistic subculture that latched onto politics purely as a tool of disruption and not necessarily as a means to some actual political outcome. But either I was wrong or at some point this movement shape-shifted into something much more serious than that.
Angela Nagle: Yeah, I think definitely the latter. But there are different components that make up the alt-right; it’s only recently that they’ve melted together. Some of the younger people who got into in the last couple of years just started out trolling and saying outrageous things for its own sake. It was almost like performance art, a kind of game.
Now I would say that it has changed, especially as more extreme and organized elements of the far right have latched onto this movement and, in some ways, helped to legitimize it. I see a rightward drift because the people who thinks it’s all funny and transgressive and ironic are bringing people in but then they have no ideas to keep them there because they don’t know what they believe in. But the extreme right groups, led by people like Richard Spencer, do know what they believe in and they do have solutions for the problems they identify.
“It’s basically a belief that the various societal norms and taboos — around race or culture or gender — are bullshit and that they’re poking holes in all of it. It’s a kind of postmodern questioning of everything.”
The psychology of the alt-right
Sean Illing: Can you give me a typical psychological profile of the kind of person drawn into the alt-right movement?
Angela Nagle: I think it’s slightly different depending on where you get drawn in. There are all kinds of characters in this movement that appeal to different people for different reasons. But I suppose the main things that they have in common, and this is why they use the term “red pill” so much, is that they feel they have stumbled upon this dark truth and that nobody is willing to reckon with or to think about what they have discovered.
Sean Illing: And what’s that dark truth?
Angela Nagle: It’s basically a belief that the various societal norms and taboos — around race or culture or gender — are bullshit and that they’re poking holes in all of it. It’s a kind of postmodern questioning of everything.
Sean Illing: The people you describe in the book, especially the younger, more online-oriented people, seem to be struggling with a contradiction: They want to be relevant in a culture they claim to hate. Or maybe they just read too much Nietzsche.
Angela Nagle: Yeah, definitely with those guys, I think they are both participants in and very disgusted by what they consider a degenerate culture. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that a political ideology that is so disgusted by modern libertinism and gender-bending sexuality and porn and everything would find a home in 4chan of all places, because these are people who spent years watching the most horrific and dehumanizing porn you can find on the web, and they all suddenly went right-wing reactionary.
Sean Illing: What does that suggest to you about the psychology of the alt-right?
Angela Nagle: I think it says that their sense of the world gone to hell was actually influenced by their own immersion in the forms of culture that they eventually saw as degenerate and ruined. But if they spent more time in the mainstream culture and in society in general, perhaps they wouldn’t have this sense that everything is degenerate and Western civilization is in ruins.
Members of the alt-right march through the University of Virginia campus. Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The new left
Sean Illing: You use the phrase “Tumblr left” to describe the part of the online left that has made a religion of demonstrating its “wokeness.” What’s your criticism of this corner of the web?
Angela Nagle: I think that you cannot take the left out of the picture and make any sense of what’s going on, because particularly in these very online younger forms of politics, there was a battle of the subcultures going on online and then it spilled over into campus stuff as that generation of teenagers went to college.
People on the left were annoyed with me because they thought I portrayed a very small subculture on the left as representative of the left in general, but I don’t think that’s the case. I had to describe the online left accurately as I saw it, and the right was in an absolute state of panic about the fact that they were seeing all of these things happening on college campuses: speakers being shut down, platforms being denied, large groups of people ganging up on dissident voices.
Sean Illing: What have your critics on the left got wrong?
Angela Nagle: I think parts of the left have conflated my attempt to criticize this identity-based internet subculture with all of identity politics, and that’s simply not true. Identity politics gave us the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement, the civil rights movement, and so on. It would be absurd to conflate that entire radical history with this small internet subculture.
What I criticized wasn’t identity politics in general but a specific version of identity politics that was about performative wokeness, and in particular the reason I didn’t like it was because it was very inclined to censor and it was very inclined to gang up on people. I hate that, and I think it deserves to be criticized.
Sean Illing: You touch on an argument to which I’m increasingly sympathetic, which is that the intellectual culture on the left has become narrow and reactionary in its own way.
Angela Nagle: I think you’re right, and you can see this in the free speech debate. People who are very emotionally heightened about this cannot see why you would want to invite a bad person like Milo Yiannopoulos onto a college campus, because they think why would you bring in someone who’s going to say hateful things and make minorities feel intimidated and so on.
But in shutting down its political enemies, the left has also shut down its own internal dissenters, who have always made the left intellectually vibrant. These are the people who keep the ideology from becoming fossilized because they force everyone to constantly rethink things, and these are the very voices that have been shut down. No one on the left wants to discuss taboo subjects anymore. Everyone is shut down for the tiniest of transgressions and anyone who is off message is attacked, and that’s a climate in which ideas die.
“The crisis of liberalism is that it became so cocky about the hegemony of its own ideas that it lost the ability to make the case for itself”
The future of the alt-right
Sean Illing: We seem to have reached something like peak alt-right, but in the book you suggest that the movement may not have staying power. Why?
Angela Nagle: Subcultures come and go, and the thing we now call the alt-right probably will go away. Scandals will come up. The movement will splinter into various groups. There will be infighting. But the central ideas they have put on the table will have to be dealt with, and it is very difficult to deal with them when you have such an intellectually stifling culture.
Whatever we call the alt-right now may go away, but something with a different style and the same central ideas will reemerge in its place.
Sean Illing: To be perfectly honest, I’m not confident our current political culture is capable of challenging these ideas as forcefully as we need them to be challenged.
Angela Nagle: The crisis of liberalism is that it became so cocky about the hegemony of its own ideas that it lost the ability to make the case for itself. There’s this assumption that our ideas are brilliant and beyond question and anyone who questions them can be dismissed as sexist or racist or whatever. Well, that’s not good enough, and the taboos have been broken.
It’s not enough to say what you are against. We have to specifically say what we are for and defend it. We’re in an age of enormous cynicism, and there’s a complete absence of any kind of hopeful, inspiring vision of the future. This is the real problem, and the alt-right is just a symptom of it.