Of the multitudes contained in Donald Trump’s electoral coalition – and it should surprise no one that an endlessly flexible populist would have diverse appeal – no faction has been the subject of more lurid fascination than the so-called “alt-right”. These folks, who reject virtually every standard of conservative propriety and dwell on free-for-all message boards like 4chan and an archipelago of pseudonymous blogs, are among The Donald’s most fanatic fans, the sorts of people who create unironic artwork celebrating him as the “savior of western civilization” or a beaming sun enlightening the world.
The oddity is much of this support is based on false premises. The issues the alt-right talks about the most and loudest, including biological differences between the races and genders, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the media and economy, and the need to reject manifestations of modernity in all its forms, up to and including the United States constitution, are simply not present in Trump’s agenda. As Jeffrey Goldberg noted with pointed understatement in an Atlantic article on the pro-Holocaust hate-tweets he routinely receives from alt-right Trumpites: “Donald Trump himself has expressed absolutely no interest in opening concentration camps for Jews, should he win the presidency.”
Alt-right support for Trump often carries the air of a cargo cult – a fanatic faith born from a fantastical reimagining of something not terribly impressive. This is because at its core the alt-right is best understood not as a reflection on the presidential campaign of Donald Trump one way or another, but rather a burgeoning radical movement of young white men on the internet desperate for an extremist identity.
In his famous 1951 book on radical politics, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer made what was at the time a fairly contrarian claim. The backbone of wild new political movements, he said, from Jacobin France to Bolshevik Russia, was not the poor or oppressed, but men of the relatively comfortable middle class experiencing a sharp psychological anxiety, usually a sense of incomplete identity. Meet the young, white American males of 2016.
Today these young men enter an economy that is unprecedentedly hostile – or at least vastly more hostile than anticipated. It has increasingly little use for their manual labour, and even the college graduates among them struggle with degrees rendered unimpressive through overproduction. The outcome is a vast army of young men working jobs that are deeply unsatisfying in terms of financial self-sufficiency, lifestyle stability, or – most critically – a metric of personal success and self-esteem. Their frustration is especially acute within a modern culture drenched in images of men who reach the pinnacle of life before age 30, from Bieber to Zuckerberg.
In the realm of relationships and social interaction, meanwhile, the rules of the world seem to be changing at a head-spinning clip. They feel uniquely targeted by the wild, experimental liberalism of campus politics and its current obsession with crafting ever-more precise theories regarding what distinguishes feminists from misogynists, seduction from rape, culture from colonialism, and privilege from oppression. Such theories are deeply anti-majoritarian, in the sense that they explicitly view white masculinity as a problem to be solved. It can make the delicate dance of dating, or navigating a multiethnic society, seem all but impossible.
By many metrics, of course, young white men are still doing well. They have access to more helpful technology, exciting entertainment, and eclectic cuisine than any generation in human history. Yet their well of anxiety is not easily filled. They sense the world they enter as men does not love or respect them. Their sense of self is a reigning emptiness of purpose and place.
The savvy have learned to capitalize on this incompleteness. Just as the back pages of comic books aimed at teenage boys once advertised Charles Atlas exercise plans, “X-ray specs”, and hypnosis lessons, today’s internet is awash in products tailored to fill the voids of the 21st century millennial male. There are supplements to make your muscles grow, insoles to make you taller, colognes to make you irresistible. There are endless ebooks promising ironclad “life hacks.” Abstain from masturbation to gain superhuman virility! “Peacock” and “neg” to scramble women’s brains into sleeping with you! Earn a fortune blogging from Thailand!
And so too is there alt-right politics (many proponents of which, it must be noted, have side gigs hawking miracle cures for masculine socio-economic impotence).
Alt-rightism does not preach complicated messages: in its most virulent forms it urges men to consider the world around them hostile and grotesque, and embrace ideas that let them be hostile and grotesque back. They should be sexist to women, racist to blacks, Islamophobic to Muslims, and anti-Semitic to Jews, because these are the groups who form the coalition working against their interests. Like all radical ideologies, they see no allies within the system – all mainstream conservatives are emasculated “cucks;” all traditional institutions that ask for faith or patriotism are false gods in on the con.
And like all radical ideologies, it inevitably drifts into preposterous otherworldliness. It is not uncommon to come across alt-righters who believe the illuminati control the Vatican, or that America should establish a monarchy, or that Taylor Swift is a Nazi Princess, or, that a certain reality TV star is a Moses-like statesman who will lead his faithful to utopia. It embraces theatric edginess and apocalyptic imagery to appear frightening and powerful, awash in tropes of “forbidden knowledge” that have long been common in movements promising activists a fresh identity as heroic dissidents and revolutionaries.
There are elements of alt-rightism that are creative and inspiring – a focus on the moral imperative of self-improvement, for instance. But there are at least as many elements of the young white male victim narrative that are overblown and immature. Kevin D. Williamson’s National Review essay describing “young men being raised without fathers and looking out the window like a kid in an after-school special…waiting for the father-führer figure they have spent their lives imagining” is a must-read in this regard. Regardless, the politicization of alienated youth into a movement equal parts reasonable and ridiculous is nothing new, nor is this one’s uncertain destiny.
Perspective is important. Despite their loud presence online, there’s little evidence that hard-right millennials are an electorally formidable force. Such things are difficult to measure, but if we use Trump primary voting as a proxy, the results are underwhelming. Though he often captured a plurality of the Republican youth vote in states whose primaries he won, they were generally his least loyal demographic, and the general election polls have him trailing Hillary Clinton among youth by 20 points or more.
If young white men do have a preferred political vehicle this cycle, the numbers suggest it’s Bernie Sanders, a mirror-image Trump who enjoys a cargo cult of his own. Their populist appeals can overlap, as Noah Rothman noted in a Commentary essay entitled “A Revolt of the Comfy and Bored” (which could have doubled as a headline for a piece on the alt-right). According to Rothman, many young Sanders supporters harbour not-so-secret desires for a Trump presidency if the Bern can’t have it. They break from the alt-right only in that they endorse Trump’s imaginary fascist agenda because they presume it will spark a socialist counter-revolt. These young white male demographics may be poles apart politically, but they are ominously alike in their enthusiasm for a violent overthrow of the status quo.
A movement does not have to be large to impact politics and the culture, however. The radical student protestors of the ‘60s were always marginal in numbers, yet a whole generation of liberal writers and politicians – including Bill and Hillary Clinton – calibrated personal ideologies in their context, accepting yippies and bra-burners as legitimate intellectual voices of their class and generation. Many mainstream conservative commentators of millennial age, such as Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro and Federalist publisher Ben Domenech clearly view themselves similarly “in conversation” with the alt-right on some level, while others, particularly Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart, evidently believe their careers will be buoyed by pandering to it.
What ultimately subdued the ‘60s counter-culture was a wave of economic growth that made “fighting the system” seem less pressing to maturing boomers, combined with a growing distaste for the late-stage decadence and violence of folks who fought in the name of the far-left – the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army. With current economic growth stagnating in the two percent range, that particular variable appears unlikely to appease today’s angry young men.
It must be said that even though terrorists like Anders Breivik and Dylann Roof clearly drew some influence from alt-right websites, there’s little indication America is on the precipice of anything comparable to the leftist violence inspired by the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. But angry young white males from both the far-left and alt-right are expected to cause trouble at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions later this month. Neither will be happy if Clinton wins the presidency in November, as seems increasingly likely. And ironically, in the socio-economic environment that exists for them today and for the foreseeable future, they may well find that there is more that unites than divides them.
J.J. McCullough is a writer and cartoonist based in Vancouver.