The Aesthetics of the Alt-Right

M. Ambedkar

Editor’s Note: This article includes an in-depth inquiry into the online activities of political groups for which misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism become defining features; as such, images and mentions of those topics are found in the text.

Estimated read time: 29 minutes.

For the greater part of the past year, I’ve been surveying the aesthetic sensibilities of nationalist internet hubs such as Breitbart, /pol, r/the_donald, and similarly affiliated Facebook pages. These communities constitute what journalists and theorists have come to refer to as the alt-right—online neo-fascist groups whose growth mirrors and informs the growing nationalist, nativist sentiment as it is represented in the recent electoral success of the UK Independence Party, the Trump campaign, Austria’s Freedom Party, the French National Front, and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland Party.

Briefly, before I begin thematizing the aesthetics of the alt-right, it is necessary to outline the definition of fascism that I am using in this essay. Fascism is an amorphous term with a multitude of definitions; the task of defining fascism has been attempted by numerous theorists including Deleuze and Guattari, Walter Benjamin, Arthur Rosenburg, Wilhelm Reich, and more. One useful definition I have encountered comes from semiotician Umberto Eco, who himself was a child during Mussolini’s fascist regime. In his essay Ur-Fascism, Eco identifies themes and rhetorical habits that underpin fascism (although his interrogation is limited to describing what fascism looks and sounds like, as opposed to the mechanism by which it emerges).1 Some of the characteristics that I will refer to in my aesthetic survey include:

 

  1. the cult of tradition which idealizes a primordial past (think Make America Great Again, or Mussolini’s call to build a new Rome, a call recently echoed by White Nationalist Richard Spencer2).
  2. fear of difference, whether difference be sexual, gendered, religious, or racial.
  3. a cult of masculinity that, tends to manifest itself in an obsession with sexual politics (refer to online pick-up artistry and the heteronormative gender roles embodied in the nuclear family.)
  4. a hostility towards parliamentary politics, criticality, and reason.
  5. a belief in permanent warfare and a corresponding cult of action for action’s sake.
  6. a worship of technology, not in the manner of an Enlightenment-esque worship of reason, but faith in technology to conquer and to reaffirm inegalitarianism.

 

The online neo-fascist movement, the alt-right consists of a number of different groups, although certain tenets (all of which align with Eco’s criteria for ur-Fascism) are quite consistent throughout these communities in some form or fashion—a preference for authoritarianism over democracy, scientific racism and misogyny under the palatable term “human biodiversity,” and suspicion towards what they perceive to be the cultural hegemony of the left as evidenced in the liberal leanings of the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and academia. Their economic views are difficult to discern, with protectionism, accelerated free market global capitalism, and anarcho-capitalism all being advocated in different communities.

(fig. a)3

Indexing these movements across a two axis chart (fig. a) is productive for the intents and purposes of this paper; however, what is most interesting to observe is instances in which these communities convene in internet “public spaces” (which are not public at all), most notably reddit and 4chan. Their creative propagandic images are disseminated throughout social media and oftentimes matriculate all the way up to the Twitter accounts of political leaders, activists, entertainers, and of course, into our national consciousness. As I will refer to this chart throughout this essay, I would like to clarify its organizational logic. Groups, terms, and individuals are plotted according to their variations on the central tenets of the alt-right’s ideological disposition, namely in regards to Nationalism and Faith.

Nationalism in general is a defining characteristic of the alt-right; however, within the nationalist ideology there are degrees of variation, particularly in regard to the status of Jewish people and Israel. Representatives from groups that more closely embody economic nationalism can still be considered mainstream figures since their rhetoric skirts around social issues such as race and religion. On the opposite side, the groups share a nationalist ideology, but the rhetoric takes on a distinctly racialized, often anti-Semitic, tone—a stark contrast to the staunchly pro-Israel economic nationalist groups epitomized in the Trump Administration itself.

Towards the bottom of the chart, the religio-philosophical underpinnings of the alt-right contrast.  On the left side of the chart are the individuals and movements that place their faith in inegalitarian readings of traditionally recognized religion. Perhaps echoing Julius Evola’s spiritual racism, various communities re-read Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, and Hindu polytheism, ultimately and bewilderingly drawing White Supremacist conclusions. On the bottom-right, we see a more technocratic, hypercapitalist neo-fascism that places its faith in markets, accelerated capitalism, and “empirical” science to reveal the truly inegalitarian hierarchy key of racial classification. In a sense, there is a loose historical allegory to be found here: the spiritual quadrant of the alt-right finds coherence in Julius Evola’s spiritual justification for fascism (a concept that was quite appealing to Mussolini), while the techno-determinist quadrant draws influence from Nazist racism, which uses a biological justification. Thus, opposite axes should not be understood as antithetical; the axes are constitutive and relational, accounting for variations in nationalism and faith.

* * *

(fig. b)

Economic Nationalism

The faction of the alt-right that I’ve labeled as “economic nationalist” (fig. b) is the most recognizable aspect of the alt-right; it can be argued that they now occupy the executive branch of the United States government. At the very least, they (via the appointment of Breitbart News executive chair Steve Bannon as Trump’s new strategist) occupy the position of the President-Elect’s right-hand man. Beyond Bannon and Trump, self-identified major contributors of the public alt-right include Breitbart, its tech editor Milo Yiannopolous, and international populist movements such as the National Front. These movements, figures, and publications have found a receptive audience in a number of online communities that are defined by gamer culture and what has been in the past referred to as the Manosphere. Almost exactly as it sounds, the Manosphere refers to a loose affiliation of anti-feminist men’s rights groups across the internet, including the subreddits r/theredpill, r/mgtow4 and forums such as bodybuilding.com and a variety of smaller blogs.5 The Manosphere also focuses on pickup artistry (PUA) or seduction training, which attempts to pathologize female personality types and empirically develop strategies to seduce them. One popular figure in the Manosphere is social media personality Mike Cernovich, who was recently profiled in a New Yorker article entitled Trolls for Trump.6 Cernovich is the author of The Gorilla Mentality, which epitomizes the interests of “the mansophere,” including gender essentialism, pickup artistry, “alpha-male” culture, rape apologetics, anti-feminism, and being redpilled7.

(fig. c)

This image (fig. c) is pulled from the Facebook meme page Edgy Memes and Fashy Dreams. In it, we see a number of racist and fascist tropes—the depiction of the animalistic black male figure pursuing a white woman epitomizes the basic dynamic of world depiction in many fascist movements. The other is presented as both a subhuman degenerate and an existential threat; in Eco’s words, he is “at the same time too strong and too weak.”8 Alluding to the overlap between the manosphere and the gaming community, signifiers of virtuality—the game-packaging design, the logo, and the title Europe Simulator 2016—place faith in the computer simulation in accurately modeling a current state of affairs. Note that there is nobody to identify with in this depiction; we are certainly not the foreigner and, since we are entering from a fundamentally male space, we are not the victim. It is only possible for us to identify as the simulation itself. This is a motif that, as I will describe throughout this essay, is highly desirable for the alt-right. Ultimately, this religious faith in technology to make sense of and organize the world reflects the alt-right’s faith that science will undermine the propagandic, false ideology of racial egalitarianism, revealing that people of color truly are, empirically, beasts to be subjugated, rejected, or annihilated.

The overtly sexual-political fantasy here cannot be ignored of course; after all, a key rhetorical strategy against immigration has been to pigeonhole the immigrant as a rapist, drawing from admittedly real and troubling events such as the New Years 2016 Cologne sexual assaults. Trump’s comments that labeled Mexicans as rapists during his campaign serve a similar role to these fear-mongering tactics. However, we find a contradiction in the perceived threat of rape, since the Manosphere tends to engage in rape-apologetics and victim-blaming. Thus, we can postulate that in this image, the alt-right and its Manosphere constituency does not take issue with rape itself (which is not to say, of course, that rape and its depictions are not of great importance and concern), but that the rapist is black. This fear and revulsion at the prospect of a black man having sex with a white woman has been analyzed by a number of prominent figures that precede my discussion, most notoriously by Frantz Fanon9 and in a more autobiographical manner by Malcolm X.10 Furthermore, it is not difficult to associate this image with the full-page ad taken out by Donald Trump calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of black and latino youths that were accused of sexually assaulting a white female runner. Years later, DNA evidence revealed that the youths were not in fact guilty; however, Trump adamantly refused to change his stance.11