The Unflattering Familiarity of the Alt-Right in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies

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Over the last few years, a cottage industry has emerged attempting to explain the ascendancy of a new style of far-right politics characterized by a countercultural sensibility and trafficking heavily in memefied versions of the sort of overt racism and sexism long thought to have been banished from the civilized world — an intellectual and political movement that has come to be known as the “alt-right.” While a number of entries into this genre have attempted to uncover the alt-right’s deep ideological roots, Angela Nagle’s newly published book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right makes the alt-right into something both more recent and familiar — a spawn of the internet, as well as a bastard child of the counterculture.

As her subtitle suggests, Nagle’s book places the alt-right within a broader context of the “online culture wars” of the 2000s and 2010s, from which a number of contemporary political currents emerged. Although the alt-right draws somewhat eclectically on European reactionary philosophy and the work of older white nationalists like Jared Taylor, it is, Nagle argues, in many ways a thorough product of the 21st century. Much of the movement’s sensibility, characterized by a taste for anonymous and often abusive pranksterism wrapped in dense layers of self-protective irony, originated in 4chan’s anarchic /pol/ and /b/ forums, while many of its characteristic ideas about gender — intense anti-feminism; a disillusioned view of sex; and a preoccupation with male sexual hierarchies — were ported over from “Manosphere” hangouts such as r/TheRedPill and Return of Kings, themselves offshoots of mid-2000s pick-up-artist culture. Nagle also distinguishes between the alt-right proper — open white-nationalists like Richard Spencer as well as mostly anonymous 4chan and Twitter users — and the “alt-light,” a rogue’s gallery of trolls and media manipulators such as Mike Cernovich and Milo Yiannopoulos, who act as the movement’s bridge to the mainstream while attempting, usually unconvincingly, to play down its hard edges.

Of course, to say that the alt-right is a recent creation is not to say it is sui generis. In terms of explicit intellectual influences, Nagle points to Nietzsche, the Italian fascist Julius Evola, and French New Right theorist Alain de Benoist, among others. But her book is a welcome rejoinder to the common-enough notion that the alt-right has merely repackaged old or discredited ideas about race and masculinity in a newer, edgier form. There is some of that, especially in the revival of intellectual anti-Semitism, yet Nagle is also sensitive to the fact that not only are the alt-right’s outward cultural signifiers of recent origin, so too are many of the particular social pathologies that have contributed to its rise, including social isolation, millennials’ perpetually extended adolescence, the Darwinian dating world fostered by Tinder, and a general lack of meaning in life. (Nagle doesn’t make this explicit, but it is no surprise that many of the alt-right’s favorite thinkers tend to denigrate materialism and advocate a return to the transcendent and spiritual.)

Nagle’s origin story here will be familiar to people who have followed the alt-right — Rosie Gray, David Auerbach, and others have long pinpointed its debt to chan and Reddit culture. Yet more than most writers on this issue, Nagle’s account of the alt-right puts a heavy emphasis on the extent to which it emerged alongside, and defined itself in opposition to, an analogous left-wing subculture that over the last five years came to exert a powerful influence in online political discourse. This subculture, which Nagle calls “Tumblr liberalism” but whose members are better known by the pejorative term “social justice warriors,” developed on Tumblr, social media, and in certain sections of the academy before spilling out into the mainstream during the late Obama years, thanks in part to signal boosts from websites like Salon, Upworthy, and BuzzFeed. Nagle’s book is as much a polemic against the unforced errors committed by this brand of left politics as it is an assault on the new right, which, for the unconverted at any rate, tends to discredit itself.

Tumblr liberalism, as Nagle calls it, had a number of strange outward markers, including hyperconstructionist gender politics, a fixation on pop culture, and a penchant for the public call-out. It became most famous, however, for something with the evocative name of “crybullying,” or, in Nagle’s words, a “culture of fragility and victimhood mixed with a vicious culture of group attacks, group shaming, and attempts to destroy the reputations and lives of others within their political milieu.” Nagle gives a number of examples of crybullying in action, many of which will be familiar to those who spend a lot of time reading about politics online. Perhaps the most indicative example, although it isn’t mentioned by Nagle, was the cringeworthy “Jacobinghazi” scandal, in which Megan Erickson, a female editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin, was hounded for being a “rape apologist” (an accusation that made it into Newsweek) after defending one of her authors from the baseless charge of having mocked another writer’s rape threats.

Like the alt-right, this brand of leftism was primarily a creature of the Internet and social media, with its most vocal supporters and critics concentrated among the young, the college-educated, and those working in the media and the academy — a small but influential population that exerts a heavy influence on the shape of online discourse. Originally, this worked to make certain pathological tendencies seem more widespread than they actually were — sectarian fights that a generation ago would have been fought out in the offices of small magazines were now out in the open for all to see. But once the pattern of destructive behavior had been established, the alt-right, realizing the propaganda value of such left-wing hysteria, did what it could to amplify it, as seen with Milo Yiannopoulos’s “Dangerous Faggot” campus-speaking tour and the riots it provoked in Berkeley.

Nagle, of course, is herself on the political left, and Kill All Normies reflects her frustrations with intra-left political disputes of the last five years, which have tended to pit identitarians against a more explicitly socialist left. At one level, Nagle suggests that there was a symbiosis between the social-justice left and the alt-right: The left’s tendency to focus on racial and sexual identity while explicitly demonizing privileged groups — notably straight white men — may have pushed members of these groups into the arms of the alt-right, while the stronger the alt-right became, the more it confirmed the social-justice left in the belief that its critics, even those on the left, were either Nazis or Nazis’ useful idiots. But aside from such direct symbiosis, Nagle suspects — rightly in my view — that the real damage of the “Tumblrization of left-politics” may have been to spur a “brain drain from the left,” as people fled from a political brand increasingly associated with hysteria, witch-hunting, and intolerance of dissent. She writes in her conclusion that the left’s “embarrassing and toxic online politics” have made it “a laughing stock for a whole new generation” — a dynamic typified by the recent student protests at Evergreen State, which, to outsiders at least, look totally insane.

Nagle’s criticisms of the left are harsh and will no doubt anger some, but they will also find grateful readers, especially in segments of the left where frustration with the Tumblr liberals has been bubbling under the surface for some time now. Yet aside from her account of the online culture wars, there is another, deeper line of argument running through Kill All Normies that is both more radical and more conservative than most critics seem to have noticed. In addition to tracing the alt-right’s conservative and reactionary predecessors, Nagle makes an intriguing connection between its nihilistic, transgressive sensibility and the antinomian creed of aestheticized revolt characteristic of the modernist avant-garde and, more importantly, the New Left counterculture that arose in the 1960s, and which still exerts a heavy influence on contemporary thought.

Building on Joy Press and Simon Reynolds’s work in The Sex Revolts, Nagle traces this sensibility from its roots in the Marquis de Sade and Nietzsche to its explosion in the youth movements of the 1960s, noting how the basic form of revolt — transgression against the dominant morality for its own sake — stays the same even as the nominally “left” or “right” political content changes depending on the morality it rebels against. When the dominant morality was that of the white Christian America of the 1950s or even the moral majority of the 1970s, transgression assumed a progressive air. Yet in the last two decades or so, the moral code preached by the commanding heights of American culture has been a sort of neutered Baby Boomer liberalism, one that champions multicultural tolerance, a soft, health-conscious hedonism, and the entrepreneurial spirit — a marriage between ‘60s social progressivism and the conservative economic turn of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Many of the values of the alt-right, including its ethno-nationalism, slacker shitposting ethic, and antipathy to the sexual revolution are best understood as negations of this progressive status quo.

For Nagle, this is not a coincidence but rather the logical culmination of elevating transgressive revolt to the status of a value in itself. (Not coincidentally, given the alt-right’s misogyny, moral conformity is often gendered as feminine — a sort of overbearing mother against which real men must rebel.) Channeling Christopher Lasch, she writes that “for progressive politics anti-moral transgression has always been a bargain with the devil, because the case for equality is essentially a moral one.”

This gets to another unity that Nagle sees between the descendants of the New Left and the alt-right, the latter coming to look, in her telling, like a heretical sect of the former. Amoral transgression, after all, is always an expression of a certain form of elitism; an aversion to the rules and tastes of the herd that, as Nagle argued in a 2016 essay for The Baffler, bridges our partisan divide. Right-wing message-board subcultures, with their hatred of “normies” and “basic bitches,” are radicalizing — albeit with a much different political valence — a contempt for normality inherited from the champions of Piss Christ.

Kill All Normies is an important book, albeit one whose conclusions are likely to prove unflattering and potentially unpopular. In it, the alt-right emerges as something not quite as alien as many would like to think. Rather, it is a bastardized version of the cultural currents that most of the book’s likely readers — myself included — participate in and valorize. And although there may be no easy way out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into — stabbings in Portland, riots in Berkeley, and Trump in the White House — the book’s indictment of our elitist culture wars does point toward an inevitable, if slightly horrifying conclusion: Perhaps the normies aren’t so bad after all.

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