Something is rotten with liberalism’s reigning manifestation, its stench discernible to everyone but itself. A sterile managerialism — signposted as what Oscar Wilde decried as “the monstrous worship of facts” — distilled in the form of policy wonkery and modish Vox explainers, had the rug yanked from under it on Nov. 8. It was an unexpected stumble across the Rubicon — one in which the ruling consensus was forsaken, crestfallen, and discombobulated within a ruptured sociopolitical milieu that was no longer recognizable.
In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Emmett Rensin diagnoses liberalism’s paralysis as one plagued by the censorious impulse of technocratic reason. Donald Trump was the expression of the id, animated by libidinal whims, repressed desires, and resentments; the liberal establishment was the moralizing superego, directing commands toward appropriate conduct and policing discourse. Upon losing control of the id, the compulsion to fact-check and bellow “This is not normal!” into the post-truth abyss turned liberals, Rensin proclaims, into “the blathering superego at the end of history.”
In this political order, transgression and libertinism appeared as cathartic outlets. Irony was weaponized, and guileful wordplay camouflaged bigotry. Such was the transgressive thrill of Trumpism: the enjoyment of publicly stating what is not said openly, which tapped into what Jacques Lacan termed jouissance — the desire to go beyond the limits of publicly accepted discourse.
Unsurprisingly, the shift toward social sadism is echoed in online culture, especially with trolling. The so-called alt-right embraced trolling, shrugging off accusations of racism and sexism by adopting a sardonic dispensation to wring its hands clean from charges of prejudice. “You just don’t get it,” went the customary rebuke.
They know their liberal opponents well, homing in on their conscience and sanctimonious virtue-signaling. Witch-hunting and online harassment is employed as a popular strategy to hound feminists, social justice warriors, and other moralists. Equivalent disdain is reserved for establishment conservatives, branded “cuckservatives” for having stood pat as the positional gains of minorities emasculated White America.
Trump’s unabashed vulgarity, scorn for political correctness, and occasional deployment of alt-right memes made him a unifying symbol for this vanguard. Making sense of the shifting terrain of far-right politics demands an understanding of a fringe movement that was “memed into existence” after being thrust into the mainstream spotlight during the Trump electoral campaign.
In “Kill All Normies,’’ Irish journalist Angela Nagle attempts to carry out such a task. Nagle documents the meteoric rise of the alt-right through the turbulent online culture wars. While the movement’s indecipherable jargon led many to portray the alt-right as conservative iconoclasm as opposed to neofascism, its ideas were imported from a diverse mélange — the French New Right, the Identitarian movement, and American white nationalism — before getting truncated and popularized through anonymous forums like 4Chan.
As Nagle observes, the early iterations of this assemblage was a “strange vanguard of teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers and meme-making trolls whose dark humor and love of transgression for its own sake made it hard to know what political views were genuinely held and what were merely, as they used to say, for the lulz.”
There is an inclination to reduce the alt-right’s pranksterism to a pop-cultural spectacle, as opposed to a crucible of virulent ethno-nationalism that needs to be confronted and refuted. While the profusion of irony, memes, and in-jokes does not a movement make, it is important to eschew the revulsion that characterizes much of the response to this nebulous amalgam.
Conservatism, after all, can summon a radical undercurrent when necessary. Fundamentally reactionary as opposed to rigidly traditionalist, it is willing to absorb and redirect the potency of new revolutionary actors toward counter-revolution and new relations of domination. Political scientist Corey Robin identifies this tendency in “The Reactionary Mind,” where he points out that the right is more than happy to violently upend an anemic ruling class to install a more dynamic one in its place, even if it means using the tactics and rhetoric of their ideological rivals. As Robin notes, “While conservatives are hostile to the goals of the left . . . they often are the left’s best students.”
Indeed, some of Nagle’s engaging commentary revolves around the emergence of the alt-right’s more watered down, media-friendly face that she terms the “alt-light.” She argues how the alt-right understood the significance of manufacturing an alternative culture and media ecology in response to the establishment’s cultural dominance.
From Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos to Vice cofounder Gavin McInnes and InfoWars conspiratorial huckster Alex Jones, these digital-savvy alt-light figures flourished in shaping popular culture through new-media platforms. They were the self-styled new punks, fermenting a loyal right-wing fan base that had the benefit of consuming “alternative” content while steadily accumulating subcultural capital. Managerial liberalism’s failure to tackle economic disparities, while paying lip service to a fetishistic form of identity politics, paved the way for virulent forces of reaction to repackage their Weimaresque regalia into an edgier postmodern register.
However, unlike the strategies of the left that they attempt to mimic, the alt-right’s “meta-politics” is saddled with a problem of realization. How do you develop into a mass movement when you are not grounded in organizational struggle? Baiting progressives and racist troll-storms is one thing, but can it translate its success in cyberspace into political power? The evidence so far has been found wanting.
Nevertheless, the alt-right has managed to punch above its weight; the incorporeal battlefield they waged war on has had real consequences. Their mythologized conflict with conformity has them tirelessly hunting for a narrative of self-determination. Yet, by having reached a critical mass without the ability to transfer and regenerate its momentum, it appears that “meme magic” and Trump’s cantankerous tweets will have to suffice for now.
Amar Diwakar is a writer and research consultant. Follow him on Twitter @indignant_sepoy.