JULY 30, 2017
SOME DISRUPTORS HAVE a greater sense of occasion than others. Take, for example, Samuel F. B. Morse, who devoted himself to inventing a means of rapid communication after the typical delays in mail delivery meant that he was unable to be with his wife when she died in 1825. The first public message sent upon the debut of his commercial telegraph system in 1844 — “What hath God wrought?” — was appropriately portentous. In 2006, by contrast, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founding chief executive officer, sent this: “just setting up my twttr.” One wishes, in retrospect, that Dorsey had followed Morse’s lead. The latter had been going for a “miraculous signs and wonders” sort of thing, Dorsey was more “lol hello world”; but in 2006 it might have given us an inkling of the horrors to come.
Twitter, now fully envoweled, is one of the fronts, along with Facebook, 4chan, and Reddit, in a new culture war that, in the words of Angela Nagle, raged on for years “below the line and below the radar of mainstream media” until the 2016 presidential election thrust it into the spotlight. Part intellectual history, part ethnographic study, Kill All Normies: From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right probes the reactionary online subculture that is now widely understood to be both catalyst and crucible for the insurgent populism that carried Donald Trump to the White House.
Books like Nagle’s need to be written. The alt-right’s origins and constituents remain somewhat obscure to a national media that was devastatingly slow to apprehend its significance, and has since scrambled to gain purchase on its exponentially broadening influence. This has taken the form of long, solemn profiles of key figures like White House Senior Advisor Steve Bannon and “dapper” white nationalist figurehead Richard Spencer, as well as detailed analyses of symbols like Pepe the Frog, a character lifted from a webcomic and Photoshopped into various racist and pro-Trump memes.
Nagle takes care not to collapse the distinctions between these groups, or paint the movement with too broad a brush. “What we now call the alt-right,” she writes, “is really [a] collection of lots of separate tendencies that grew semi-independently but which were joined under the banner of a bursting forth of anti-PC cultural politics through the culture wars of recent years.” She positions the alt-right as the product of both short- and long-term historical forces, a born-digital political phenomenon anchored to older ideological moorings. Rather than parsing the beliefs of the alt-right’s best-known figures — Bannon, Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos — she contextualizes them within a disparate, mostly anonymous cohort bound less by common belief or opinion than by a shared sensibility of nihilism and irony, a “love of transgression for its own sake.” This cohort, in Nagle’s words, is a “strange vanguard of teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers, and meme-making trolls.” They view politics not as a series of principled commitments but as a repertoire of disposable personae, inhabited (and abandoned) in the service of creating chaos. The result is the “death of what remained of a mass culture sensibility, in which there was still a mainstream media arena and a mainstream sense of culture and the public.” “Alt-right,” then, is something of a misnomer, suggesting a stronger core of conservative (or, for that matter, fascist) conviction than most of the participants in this movement possess. The movement’s real accomplishment, as Nagle sees it, was mainstreaming hatred of the mainstream media; securing a win for Donald Trump was collateral, in whichever direction you prefer.
Nagle’s story begins in 2011, when a series of leaderless social movements propelled by social media seemed to portend the fulfillment of long-held leftist cyberutopian fantasies. But the left’s jubilation didn’t last long: the Arab Spring movement in Egypt ultimately resolved in the return of the military dictatorship; Occupy Wall Street ended with the ignominious and unceremonious eviction of its passionately aimless constituency from Zuccotti Park. The “political rootlessness” of the networked society that gave rise to Occupy Wall Street had also allowed for the cultivation of a politically anarchic hacker and hacktivist culture that had thus far skewed left-libertarian, but became increasingly reactionary and rancorous. What 2011’s internet-assisted social movements had in common was not ideology but leaderlessness and anonymity; and the leaderless, anonymous network, as Nagle points out, “can express just about any ideology even, strange as it may seem, that of the far right.”
Meanwhile, the style of what would become known as the alt-right began to coalesce in online environments that are not, strictly speaking, political. The anonymous image-sharing board 4chan, which debuted in October 2003, “fostered an environment where the users went to air their darkest thoughts” and where depravity, however ironically presented, was prized. A fair number of the early 4chan memes were benign, and even sweet or funny, like adding weird captions to pictures of cats, tricking people into clicking on links to Rick Astley videos, or sending a lonely old man lots of birthday cards. (Okay, they also sent strippers.) But many were far more sinister, especially those dreamed up by users of the site’s /b/ message board, where mocking suicide victims and harassing their families are regular preoccupations.
This chaotic sadism only became politically weaponized when 4chan’s denizens began to cross-pollinate with other online subcultures. The catalyzing event was the 2014 Gamergate controversy, in which videogame fans resentful of the growing influence of women in the gaming industry launched a series of vitriolic campaigns against feminist developers and game critics. Gamergate, in Nagle’s telling, was a moment of cosmic convergence for the alt-right: it linked angry reactionaries to other online subcultures that shared their violent “opposition to political correctness, feminism, multiculturalism, etc.” Indeed, the emphasis on anti-feminism is key: if any shared belief unites the alt-right, it’s the sense that Western masculinity is under sustained assault, on and offline.
Nagle’s alternative genealogy of the alt-right — starting with 4chan in 2003 rather than, say, the creation of the white nationalist website Stormfront in 1996 — suggests that the popularity of certain right-wing ideas have more to do with the format they’re delivered in than their content. Stormfront started as a text-driven bulletin board system (BBS); 4chan is an image board. What’s more, the increasing dominance of image-based social media platforms has allowed alt-right ideas to circulate more quickly. But Nagle goes further into the past, arguing that the left, in fact, created the conditions under which the alt-right has been able to flower. Since the 1960s, she argues, a liberal left increasingly focused on identity politics to the exclusion of political economy has, at its own peril and everyone else’s, valorized countercultural transgression as fundamentally progressive and inherently liberatory. Ultimately, “the most recent rise of the online right is evidence of the triumph of the identity politics of the right and of the co-opting (but nevertheless the triumph) of 60s left styles of transgression and counterculture.” The identitarian excesses of the ’60s countercultural left led eventually, Nagle thinks, to an online constituency disparagingly referred to, by the alt-right, as “social justice warriors” (or “SJWs”), an antagonistic constituency with politics
so destructive and inhumane [that it] has made the left a laughing stock for a whole new generation. Years of online hate campaigns, purges and smear campaigns against others — including and especially dissident or independent-minded leftists — has caused untold damage. This anti-free speech, anti-free thought, anti-intellectual online movement […] has substituted politics with neuroses.
In theory, Nagle’s argument favors parity: “both sides,” she says, meaning SJWs and the alt-right, “have become increasingly unmoored to any cultural mainstream, which scarcely resembles either bleak vision.” But this is a false equivalency; Nagle is patently unable to present a left subculture as destructive and enervating as the alt-right. When she describes the online left community, she describes a constituency that includes overly enthusiastic genderfluid teenagers, “adults who identify as babies and able-bodied people who identify as disabled people,” women with chronic illnesses, and straight men who check their privilege as some sort of S&M practice. This cohort reveals that the identitarian left is “a culture of fragility and victimhood mixed with a vicious culture of group attacks” that believes only in suffering, not in political principles. The microblogging site Tumblr is ground zero for this decline in political meaning, as well as the corners of Twitter where mouthy women say callous things about the sufferings of white men.
Let’s leave aside the fact that Tumblr is significantly less popular than Twitter. (More people use the Microsoft search engine Bing each day than use Tumblr. I was surprised, too!) Alt-right political culture has fomented acts of real-world violence; to the best of my knowledge, accusations of ableism haven’t. The swastika is a symbol of a genocidal regime, unlike, say, an “ever-expanding list of genders, now in the hundreds.” Furthermore, representing this left as the left — but for the brave, brave Bernie Sanders voters who care more about single payer healthcare than you do — strikes me as disingenuous. As much as she has to say about whiny leftists who abuse social media, Nagle seems largely uninterested in how the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, has used such digital organizing tools since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
I’m troubled by Nagle’s implicit suggestion that the emergence of the alt-right is a logical consequence of leftist hysteria. Who among us, Nagle seems to ask, wouldn’t have a violent reaction to the “absurd peak” of “a particular style of humorless, self-righteous, right-on social media sentimentality”? Spend too many years crying wolf, she says, and “the real wolf eventually arrive[s].” While she explicitly rejects racism and misogyny, she also thinks they’re of secondary, even tertiary, importance in theorizing the significance of the alt-right. But I’m not sure it matters if “pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers” don’t actually subscribe to Nazi ideologies. Does it not matter because “online” and “offline” are so ontologically distinct that only the latter constitutes the space of “real life”? This strikes me as a difficult distinction to maintain in 2017.
For all of Nagle’s interest in distinguishing “the liberal left and the materialist left,” peculiarly absent is any speculation on what all of this transgression might have to do with capitalism. The prophet motive is also a profit motive; a great deal of the rise of the alt-right is about money at least as much as anything else. The alt-right Breitbart News Network, formerly directed by Bannon, has, of course, egged on all of this with unknown millions in ad revenue to gain. But mainstream outlets, too, have benefited from the rise of the alt-right. Condé Nast is owned by the same parent company as Reddit, one of the sites that produces the very misogynistic and nationalist memes that provide fodder for liberal writers at The New Yorker and Teen Vogue. In 2016, Facebook, whose algorithm has done so much to circulate alt-right perspectives, reported a $10 billion increase in profits over the prior year. Google racks up a little more ad revenue whenever some alt-right YouTube screed goes viral. And while it ultimately backfired, Harper Perennial projected enormous sales for Milo Yiannopoulos’s book. (It almost feels spiteful to add, in this context, that Twitter has never turned a profit.) In a book that argues that the left has lost sight of the importance of political economy, the neglect of these issues is surprising.
Just as I don’t buy her account of the movement’s origins in leftist pathology, I’m ultimately unpersuaded by Nagle’s assertion that the alt-right “defeated” the mainstream media. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago while I was at the gym, where the arrangement of the televisions is such that I can’t watch my stories without having Fox News in my peripheral vision. (Life is suffering. Also, this gym costs $10 a month.) That day’s scandal was the president’s admission to NBC’s Lester Holt that his firing of James Comey may have been unconstitutional; Fox’s reporting was built on footage from NBC, which is a standard practice among the networks, but that day I had the sense of seeing in real time how the same material, which was widely agreed to be quite damning, could be put to an entirely different reportorial agenda. Fox and NBC have always been at war with each other, sure, but they also need each other, and I’m not so sure that the alt-right and the mainstream media aren’t similarly enmeshed. A truly ubiquitous meme requires amplification by legacy and mainstream media outlets at some point; after all, Pepe the Frog made it to The Wall Street Journal. News produces and constitutes the cultural zeitgeist at least as much as it indexes it. So do books, of course, and Kill All Normies, like lots of other analyses of the cultural present, is as much symptom as critique. It’s hard to stand outside the shitstorm and say which way the wind blows while it’s happening — but we’re all of us shoulder to shoulder on that one.