The controversy of the 2016 presidential election has continued to dominate America’s public forum long after the inauguration in January. Among the many interesting byproducts of Trump’s candidacy and surprise victory is the now widely talked about “alternative right,” or “alt-right,” the generally young, meme-loving conservatives whose trollish rhetoric has sparked a huge deal of debate and controversy since their rise to prominence during the election. Sources have given varying portrayals of the alt-right, some claiming them to be far-right neo-Nazi sympathizers and others asserting that they are no more than tongue-in-cheek pranksters. Given that the movement’s influence has continued to expand, despite lacking any central organization, it is perhaps time to investigate the true nature of the alternative right, evaluate its appeal and influence, and understand the role the internet is playing in this new era of politics.
At its core, the alt-right is made up of a group of loosely aligned online communities including Breitbart, InfoWars, 4chan, and 8chan, among several others. While none of these factions share the exact same beliefs, there are several important viewpoints linking them that may be considered the definitive traits of the alt-right. In general, the alt-right embraces center-right beliefs, with added elements of nationalism, while rejecting the traditional, Protestant morals that have come to dominate mainstream conservatism, which hints at the movement having its roots in Libertarianism and Paleoconservatism. Support for Donald Trump, or at least the Make America Great Again objective, is also almost unanimous among alt-right members. Like Trump, the alt-right is known for being radically opposed to political correctness, which often manifests in the form of elaborate trolling operations. A notable case was the alt-right’s attack on DIY “safe space” warehouse venues in response to the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland. Following the nationwide crackdown on such locations that were in violation of fire code, alt-right affiliated users of 4chan’s politics board, “/pol/,” sought out “safe space” venues in order to report them in hopes of having them shut down (the subsequent closure of at least four DIY venues is thought to have been influenced by /pol/). And while there is no official leadership of the alt-right, there are several notable individuals that could be cast as the most accessible and coherent voices of the group.
The most prolific of the alt-right’s figureheads, and probably the closest to being a definitive spokesperson, is Milo Yiannopoulos, the 32-year-old, flamboyant British conservative who served as the senior editor of Breitbart up until February of this year. Usually referred to by his first name, Milo seems to embody much of the general philosophy of the alt-right: he is highly critical of social justice, multiculturalism, feminism, Islam, and the deterioration of the right to privacy. In addition, Milo’s vernacular is usually cheeky, with little regard for social sensibilities, which has caused him a great deal of controversy, including bans from popular social media platforms such as Twitter and several college campuses. Not too far off from Yiannopoulos ideologically is Alex Jones, a radio host from Austin, Texas whose podcast and news site InfoWars has become a staple of the alt-right community. Since 1996, Jones has made a name for himself through his libertarian outlook and accusations of conspiracy by major world governments (which include chemtrails, allegations of various politicians having New World Order affiliations, and claims that the 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre was fabricated). These alternative, conservative positions preached by Jones made him a perfect fit for the Alt-Right, whose members share much of the same distrust for government and big business.
If the alt-right was made up of only Milo’s and Jones’s there would likely be far less fuss surrounding the movement. However, there are extremist communities and entities within the alt-right that have been widely responsible for its labelling as a racist movement by a variety of sources, including The New York Times, Anti-Defamation League, and Southern Poverty Law Center. The best example is that of Andrew Anglin, founder and owner of The Daily Stormer, an openly white nationalist news site that is self-proclaimed alt-right. Anglin and his website express views that are usually racist, anti-Semitic, and pro neo-Nazi, and harbor a hostility towards social justice and liberalism that is typical of the alt-right. Similarly, members of 4chan’s /pol/ are known for producing memes and other alt-right themed content expressing extremely racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, which has also attracted criticism. Nonetheless, many other alt-right figures, including Milo (who, as mentioned, is openly gay) and Alex Jones (who is staunchly pro-Israel), have made a point to distance themselves (and the alt-right in general) from radicals such as Anglin, strongly defending the alt-right as having no core philosophical connections to any form of fascism, Nazism, or racism.
The division between such alt-right sects remains generally unclear, and is made even more complicated by the alt-right’s ambiguous means of communication. Memes are especially favored by the alt-right as a vehicle for conveying political ideas in a short, often snarky manner that, when worded cleverly enough, can be one of the simplest ways to generate support. The other side of memes, however, is that they generally fail to establish a sense of ethos for those who are not “in” on the joke. This lack of traditional reverence for political discussion is another key characteristic of the alt-right, one born of its origins in the online cult of Anonymous.
The now infamous hacker group Anonymous in many ways was the predecessor of the movement. Much like the alt-right, Anonymous started on 4chan and gained infamy for its outlandishly offensive opposition to political correctness. It built a massive online following through memes and pranks that would eventually create what was arguably the most monumental hacker community in history. From roughly 2005-2010, “Anonymous” embodied the 4chan users’ collective angst and frustrations. For instance, Pepe, the green cartoon frog (originally from the unrelated comic series Boy’s Club) that has come to be a mascot of sorts for the alt-right, originated as a popular meme on 4chan before becoming more widely associated with the alt-right.
The eventual “death” of Anonymous was likely just as significant to the formation of the alt-right as well. After years of wreaking havoc on the internet, Anonymous would change directions completely and begin fighting governments and institutions that they viewed as being corrupt, leading to Anonymous’ involvement in projects such as OpPayback, Occupy Wall Street, and Project Chanology. Many 4chan users, however, were not impressed with Anonymous’ efforts at rebranding the group as “freedom fighters.” And, with Anonymous no longer thought of as the collective identity of 4chan, a group such as the alt-right could fill the gap.
Because Anonymous’ withering end was brought about by its identification with certain political dogmas, it’s probable that the alt-right’s success has to do with their lack of an intelligible structure. A possible key to understanding how the alt-right uses this tactic lies in the idea of post-irony. Post-irony, a developing concept in academia and pop culture, describes a state in which the distinction between irony and sincerity becomes obfuscated. /pol/’s “official” flag is a good reference point for the alt-right and post-irony as, being modeled after the flag of Nazi Germany, it is unknown whether /pol/ intends to offend only in jest with the flag or to represent legitimate neo-Nazi interests.
The alt-right, in many ways, serves as a perfect example of post-irony: their earnest, political goals are expressed through the ironic lens of memes and trolling, which altogether create an image that is next to impossible to logically decipher. Basically, it’s impossible to tell how seriously aligned with Nazism they are.
This same concept also gives the alt-right the freedom to change its aims and objectives at any given time, which has likely been responsible for the survival of the group after the fundamental goal of electing Trump to the presidency was achieved. In the same light, the alt-right, without even having a clearly defined, genuine central identity, can be interpreted not as a “legitimate” organization at all but rather as a widespread inside joke that has hoodwinked outsiders into believing it is much more.
The attention and controversy surrounding the alt-right in itself is a clear enough sign that the internet is beginning to have an inescapable influence on the development of American culture, with the online alt-right now extending its influence all the way to the White House. Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon for White House Chief Strategist, for example, was made especially controversial due to the fact that Bannon had served as executive chair of Breitbart, having strong alt-right connections. Regardless of the alt-right’s intentions, whether they are ironic, sincere, or some combination of the two, there is obviously some power to their message.
By Robert Alexander
Featured Image of Steve Bannon Courtesy of DonkeyHotey on Flickr