The Strange Future of Trumpism
What I’ve seen of the alt-right mind
Eating breakfast as I watched Donald Trump give a press conference on the morning of July 27th, with a hoarse, quietly gangsterish delivery (on America’s deadbeat allies: “They’re going to pay. And they will pay. They will pay”), I had the impression that his candidacy, which I had followed obsessively since the fall, delighted, fascinated, terrified, depressed by it, was my fault. Not in the sense of a collective responsibility which some commentators are suspiciously quick to draw down on us all — for a moment I felt like it was my personal fault, that the sum of my complacencies and weaknesses had unbalanced the universe and tipped it into this nightmare, and it would be clear to anyone watching the story of me that that was what had happened. This is obviously not the most admirable reaction to the rise of Trump, and I entertained it for only a moment, but there had been a point when I had come closer to embracing that flavor of angst, which I recognized as a psychotic fatalism, a helplessness fused with egomania, an infinite self-pity that calmly watches the whole thing come down, the spectacular collapse of a decadence as present in me as it is anywhere, that sometimes came over me when I was in college and in denial about being gay. And as stupid and awful as it was at the time, I later felt that it had made me a better person, for my mind to have been wrenched into such a different shape, a reactionary one, one that could for example support Trump. It at least kept the other half of the country in view as it drifted further and further away. And now I realized that absolute horror at Trump was absolute support for him viewed from another angle.
I don’t, I should say, have any special real-world insight into why people support Trump. I don’t have any Trump supporters in my family. I’ve never been to a Trump rally, or gone to an old factory town and asked people there how they feel about the election. I do know there are lots of different reasons why people plan to vote for him, even though those shocked by his success tend to view his base as a monolith. Most of these reasons are contingent. People think he is obnoxious but incorruptible. Or they think he is a piece of human garbage but their hatred of Hillary burns away the smell. Some are old-fashioned racists who are gratified to see the Overton window hop back towards them. Some think that ISIS calls for a bad dude at the wheel. Or that Trump is basically harmless and Mitch McConnell will be able to finesse a couple originalist judges out of him. Or they know that if nothing else he will be a message heard loud and clear by Washington. Even his true “floor” of support, those who would still vote for him if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot somebody, is made up of at least two kinds of people. The first has decided that he is the real deal, a genius playboy billionaire and natural-born leader setting aside a life of luxury for the good of America, and conspired against by the media and the politicians because they know he’ll clean house if he gets in. The second, probably smaller, definitely more interesting group are those whose support for Trump is bigger than him, who were Trumpists before Trump ever was.
It’s hard to remember when it started to be taken for granted that the internet was home to a diffuse cloud of right-wing trolls who could materialize at any moment and try to drive you from cyberspace with converging jets of bile, or threats to maim and rape you and your family. When Microsoft created Tay, a Twitter chatbot, to see if it could learn from the internet to communicate like a real teenage girl, and it was instead taught almost immediately to say things like “I fucking hate niggers” and “Gas the kikes- race war now!!!” no one was that surprised. But the term troll, now widely used to describe a person whose inner darkness has been distilled by online anonymity, once had more of a sense of mischief. Someone who had been trolled had been the target of an online prank, especially failing to recognize sarcasm and responding earnestly to it. On 4chan, to post a detailed, emotionally gripping confession that ended with an inside joke which revealed the whole thing to have been made up, eg. the chorus of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” was considered a particularly deft form of trolling. The victim is having as much fun as anyone here. This was the heyday of Anonymous, when the recesses of the internet had an anarchist spirit, and “political correctness” was just one of endless forms of social control to be deflated, if anything less of a target than religious fundamentalism, big business, and law enforcement. And when Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the Occupy movement, and the death of Aaron Schwartz drew the attention of the world to internet-born activism, it saw an unmistakably leftist, anti-statist movement.
But then, like others before, this revolutionary ferment changed colors. In 2014, corners of the internet revolted against social liberalism. The precipitating event was a blog post written by the ex-boyfriend of an obscure text-based game designer, accusing her of having slept with game journalists to further her career. If this sounds like nothing much to get worked up about, that’s because it isn’t, and it was quickly left behind by a spiraling outrage over the alleged penetration of the video game industry by lilac-haired campus leftism. This “scandal” was called Gamergate by those it scandalized, and that hashtag was used as a banner on Twitter. The original antagonists, women without any kind of fame or power, who stood accused of nothing more dastardly than preachiness or trading in sexual favors, did not look like the previous targets of internet uprisings. And they could not engage its concentrated fury for long. Instead the enemy became the online presence of the Social Justice Warrior, or SJW, depicted as a flabby, naturally unattractive person further disfigured by some level of body modification, who majored in something useless in college, especially gender studies, and finding xirself afterwards without anything to contribute to society seeks to parasitize and ultimately castrate things other people enjoy, a bit like the rootless jew in Nazi mythology. The ensuing campaigns of harassment against outspoken women in gaming, whose lives were sometimes derailed for years by doxxing and bomb threats, drew broader attention to the structural hostility women face online.
After Gamergate, emergent internet hiveminds increasingly saw their enemy as cultural Marxism not social conservatism, globalism not global capitalism, and rather than Western state violence its most visible targets: black people and Muslims. Disdainful of religion, and even the concept of morality, these commenters didn’t fit easily into the American political tradition, and have been called the alt-right, a term that seems to have been popularized by white nationalist Richard Spencer. It is easier to fit them in today, as the most intense supporters of Donald Trump. The internet was and remains a vast and colorful place, home to a spectrum of native ideologies, but the alt-right has become one of its most vocal and defined.
Why did this shift take place? Milo Yiannopoulos, a mainstream if roguishly conservative tech writer who made himself persona non grata and it seems relatively rich by becoming a tribune of Gamergaters and then the alt-right, once wrote that people are “drawn to the alt-right for the same reason that young Baby Boomers were drawn to the New Left in the 1960s: because it promises fun, transgression, and a challenge to social norms they just don’t understand.” There are currently, it’s true, more things that “you aren’t allowed to say” about race, gender, disability, etc. than there were in the 60s, as well as many more things that you are allowed to say about everything else. But this seems like a better explanation for the humor of South Park than a growing fascination with race war. What might be a bigger factor is that with the fall of the Soviet Union and the failure of the revolutionary left to produce any kind of heir, the banner of resistance to the liberal world order, to capitalism, to mass media, to democracy, to an alienating modernity has been snatched by the other team, by jihadism and more recently by nationalism in Western countries, which have declared themselves mortal enemies but are for now symbionts. All things that were once cool are made cool again. Today if you spend much time on Twitter, you are likely to come across someone who wears a brownshirt as if it caught their eye at a flea market no one else has heard of, yet.
It makes sense to ask at this point why anyone should care about these people. As Republican strategist Rick Wilson puts it, “most of them are childless single men who masturbate to anime. They’re not real political players. These are not people who matter in the overall course of humanity.” It’s true that the alt-right has not so far organized into a cohesive political movement. You won’t see them in the streets, or even doing much concerted hacktivism. They have no artists or intellectuals with any name recognition. Their current standard-bearer, Donald Trump, appears to be aware of their existence only as a stream of nice things said about him that he occasionally retweets, and also incapable of taking an interest in their vision of the world let alone understanding it. Even the little nods he gives them on Twitter seem to be a function of his constitutional inability to refuse a compliment no matter who it comes from, which also led him to try to convince Reince Priebus to let boxing promoter Don King speak at the Republican National Convention even after he protested that King had been found guilty of stomping an employee to death. But a diagnosis of political correctness as a or the thing that is wrong with society is now broadly fashionable in the same way that of decadence was in 1930s Europe, a diagnosis as vague as the cure eventually decided upon was substantial. More troublingly, “political correctness” is becoming “politics.” Sure, you could go back to any point in American history and find people with an unromantic view of the political profession. But today the actual process of coalition-building is seen by many as inherently corrupt. And another word for that process is, you know, democracy. Congress has single-digit approval ratings, and the press doesn’t do much better. Legislators are widely referred to as not having a “real” job. People who talk like this don’t think of themselves as being fascists or Leninists, they don’t even think of themselves as not being democrats, but the alt-right do. It is becoming possible again to be a Miss Jean Brodie, eyeing Mussolini over in Rome from an Edinburgh girls’ school, absently wondering if this New Man might be what the 20th century needs.
However the relationship between the alt-right and their New Man is even more tenuous than that between the proto-fascists of the early 20th century writing about velocity and Achilles and death machines and war as national hygiene, and the new men who eventually realized their vision. The totalitarian future is often deadly to those who first dreamed it, but it is particularly strange to see people who drape themselves in shut-in culture anonymously urging that the weak be culled from society, or denouncing their opponents as “cucks” (as in cuckold) and “betas” (as in beta male), charges which it is impossible to shield yourself from while anonymously insulting people on the internet. The tension between the medium and the message, that the only good is strength and the only truth is struggle, is captured in the pinned tweet of one alt-right twitter account, @RenderUntoC, whose avatar is a beaming blond anime boy in a “Make America Great Again” hat: “I look forward to the day when the fascist government I help put into power purges me for being a degenerate.” Is it a parody? Who knows. He has over twenty-two thousand Trumpist tweets.
This is a weird environment for an ideology to develop in, especially one whose central demand is hierarchy. None can be established in a masqued orgy of internet irony, and any earnestness is dropped naked into an ocean of acid. Only total self-abasement can survive. There is always someone less squeamish and more disabused than you, someone more redpilled than you, a term which comes from a scene in The Matrix where Morpheus offers Neo a blue pill which will wipe his memory and return him to his old simulated life, and a red pill which will expel him into the real and desolate world. The platforms where the alt-right has taken root, mainly 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter, are a purgatory from which they can touch the rest of us only feebly. If any of the stuff that they want to happen somehow does, if professors of critical theory are rounded up and sent to camps, if brown people are expelled from the US or made into a serf class, if an Emperor of America is declared, it won’t have been because of them. The only thing left to do is to create a testament of just how rotten things truly are — the fully committed alt-righter turns himself into a font of degeneracy in order to do so. And this is the appeal of Trump to his most clear-eyed supporters. Not that he is the New American Man, but that he is a bolus of filth larger than any which could be formed even by their combined efforts.
Somehow I didn’t give my sexuality much thought until I got to college. I had a sheltered and privileged upbringing: I grew up in Park Slope, a neighborhood of Brooklyn which had begun rapidly gentrifying at about the exact point my parents moved there, and went to an extremely touchy-feely private school for K-12. Ironically the sex-ed program there was so woke, and tried so hard to give me an expansive view of what was normal to have go on in your head, that I dismissed the homoerotic fantasies which regularly took place in mine, assuming they were more or less part of going through puberty. And I was more interested in an ideal of ruddy male camaraderie that I had come up with, a thing I’d only ever caught longing glimpses of from the sidelines, unaware that it wasn’t actually what I wanted. Instead of having a crush on any one boy at my high school, I had one on the broiest guys there as a group, on their shared history, on what I imagined they did when no one else was around, and I adorned this idea as feverishly as a teenager in love for the first time. And I felt that the real me, stripped of everything else, belonged with them. It wasn’t the worst high school experience that any young queer ever had, I was actually really happy most of the time, but it still created this odd repression in me. When I got to college, my freshman roommate was exactly the kind of guy who had belonged to this group, he was if anything much more that kind of guy than any of them had been. He was a soccer player from outside Boston, and was friends with a broad circle of jocks and auditioning frat stars that tended to congregate in our room. I realized after first meeting him that the universe was calling my bluff. It was no longer possible for me to pretend that this was the sort of person I really was, or that I was not in fact the opposite sort of person. I was terrified of him and desperately wanted him to like me. I knew that he never would. That he should somehow discover the possibility that I wasn’t totally straight became the ultimate horror, unspeakable even in my own thoughts. But I still felt that I was meant to have been a person he would accept, and the loss ate away at me. I blamed it on myself, on my own neuroses, on the softness of the culture I had been born into. When I had homoerotic thoughts I was now disgusted by them, I saw them as the mark of a warping atmosphere, of too little exposure to masculinity during my childhood. This mindset stayed with me when I left his room at the end of the year. It was so retrograde by then that there was no way for me to confide in other people I had met at college. I knew even at the time that it was an ugly, slimy thing that couldn’t be exposed to direct sunlight, and I made sure to be a different person when I wasn’t alone. But I also had such a brimming self-hatred that it sloshed onto anyone who saw anything to like in me, and I pushed people away. I saw myself, grandiosely, as caught between the two social poles of my school, an unreconstructed blue-blood jock culture and the queer stoner lefties, a vital masculinity that I could never partake in and a shrill effete mediocrity that had dragged me away from it. I never really became a reactionary, and even in my darkest moments I knew that this was all crazy. The craziness of it was even the point, to allow myself to nearly become this bad thing was a way of screaming silently. Instead I had alter egos that I was able to bar from the control room: a grimy, hatefully gibbering thing that reveled in sick humor, that was a hidden affront to the stated values of the place where I was so unhappy, and a maudlin nostalgia of the closet, that imagined me to have been born a hundred years too late, that romanticized a world which would have killed it dead.
This incredible misidentification of the source of my problems may seem unique to a tradition of sad gay men. But it’s also something found, to a lesser degree, among sexually frustrated young men in general, large numbers of which have mobilized online to fight not just the erosion of their privilege, but of the regressive values that have shaped their alienation. The “manosphere,” a constellation of male spaces for the discussion of social theory, self-improvement, men’s rights, and pickup artistry has become one of the most important recruiting grounds for the alt-right, precisely because people are drawn to it for practical reasons and without already being political exotics. The most infamous of these is /r/TheRedPill, a subreddit with about 160,000 subscribers. Its name comes from the previously mentioned scene in The Matrix, which here refers to a group of realizations you need to have in order to be sexually successful. The unifying theory of these is that even in the 21st century the sexual marketplace is driven by evolutionary psychology, while social conventions tend to deprive men of sexual autonomy. “Embrace Rejection. They’re Just Women” or “Oh, The Feminist Jimmies This Will Rustle” are typical post titles. Quotes like “Love is what you feel when you don’t think you can do any better” or “A woman is not happy until she’s unhappy and her life is filled with drama” are circulated approvingly. There is a deep glossary, some of which is in wider usage (alpha male, beta male, gaslighting, the friendzone), and some of which isn’t (alpha widow, hamstering, white knights, monk mode, oneitis, the dread game). /r/TheRedPill has a black reputation throughout much of the rest of Reddit, something you can immediately tell it is pleased by. One of the points emphasized in the sidebar is that sexual strategy is amoral. The object is to figure out how to have the most sex with the hottest women, not whether that is a good thing to do. But in order to do it, before anything else you have to be rational. These two labels quickly become interchangeable.
The solution for me was to finally admit to myself that I was gay, which brought enormous and sudden relief. But for many other alienated young white men whose resentments can’t be squared with their privileges that isn’t an option, because they aren’t. There is even a sense in which they have it worse than me, because modern heterosexual hookup culture, which shames women for having lots of sex and shames men for not having enough, is fundamentally unkind even to straight white men. But instead of concluding that the answer is for the sexual revolution to be carried out the rest of the way and gender expectations disassembled completely, many of them decide that the sexual revolution is the original cause of their problems, that “evolution” demands a world where women are faithful to one partner and men are not. Young men who come to these places looking for a way to overcome social anxiety, which we all agree can be a miserable and confusing dilemma, instead find a sophisticated program of radicalization which first convinces them that the secret to getting women to like you is just mastering a bit of game theory, and then that it also requires an ability to view them as disposable, because the moment you treat a woman as an equal or try to be friends with her you will cease to be a sexual being in her eyes, and she will even despise you for your weakness. And then that modern Western societies have been feminized, giving women a sexual monopoly and emasculating men, and that what women find truly hot is a man that resists this, who doesn’t allow himself to be shaped into a beta male, who rejects the concept of feminism, of gender equality, of political correctness and social tolerance, of Enlightenment values, at which point it is no longer really about getting laid.
You see in discussions on these platforms a now-familiar pattern: endless argument over the definition of a true Alpha Male, by people whose original need to go online and look for advice on how to pick up women has disqualified them from ever being a true Alpha Male. Is he a sociopath who can rack up Wilt Chamberlain numbers without ever getting attached? Is he successful and well-liked, with a photogenic family and a roster of side chicks? Can he be poor, stupid, or kind? Do any still exist? Sure, by lifting enough weights, making enough money, and putting enough notches in your bedpost you can succeed in deconditioning yourself and becoming less of a Beta Male. But this is a kind of secular and inverted Calvinism where you can never hold yourself to be one of the truly bad. It gives rise to an atmosphere of communal self-flagellation, and the kind of hatchet job on The Person You Were Before that we associate with cult inductions. As vaguely-defined as the Alpha is, the Beta is vivid and familiar: though there are many kinds of Beta Males, the archetype is a cringing, self-pitying incel nerd, who escapes from his pathetic life using media whose inferiority he either can’t recognize or is in denial about. He is an ever-present cautionary figure, drawn with grotesque detail verging on body horror, a fat pimply neckbeard whose fingers are stained with Cheeto dust and whose rank bedroom is cluttered with old used tissues. He is hooked up to a computer or a gaming console like a sci-fi lotus-eater, and here the red pill metaphor makes sense in a different way. This figure is anathema, the lowest thing there is, because peace and comfort are evils in and of themselves. The fully-initiated redpiller uses the language of a Buddhist or Evangelical when he talks about awakening to reality, but instead of eternal bliss he offers ejection into a desperate, colorless jungle. And just as the shattering truth for their counterparts on the left is that civilization is fundamentally exploitative, the alt-right says that civilization is fundamentally enervating. That peace is the enemy of greatness.
The social gap which gave rise to Donald Trump’s animating resentments, the ones that are supposed to give him such an affinity for the white working class, is outrageously narrow by the standards of the rest of the world. He was born to a massively wealthy family in Queens, and wished that he had been born to a massively wealthy family in Manhattan. A Gatsbian young Trump staring out over the East River at all those lights may have only ever existed in the imagination of people writing profiles of him, but the impenetrability of America’s most rarefied social strata seems to have been something he was genuinely obsessed by. Trump is a notoriously opaque subject for even the most resourceful interviewer, even for the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, but eventually you get a sense of the secret war between Trump and the snobs that created the person we see today. The barrier, for Trump, was less that the money he came from wasn’t old enough, but that his particular strain of narcissism repelled his social betters even as it ached for his inclusion among them. And so he is driven to offend and sully what he cannot have. He buys Mar-a-Lago, a loosely Moorish-style Palm Beach estate built in the 20s by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in part out of bits of Europe shipped across the Atlantic, giving it some of the studied otherworldliness of Hearst Castle, and while Trump is nearly as taken with its romance as that of the Plaza Hotel in the end he can’t help sticking ballrooms or spas or sports equipment stores onto it, or filling it with terrible portraits of himself that regard him with as mawkishly worshipful an eye as propaganda depicting Kim Jong-Un. It’s as if an old WASP couple down the road chatting on their veranda over their morning coffee about what Trump has done to Mar-a-Lago is the hidden fulcrum of his universe. Even before he’s actually bought the place, he threatens to buy the lot next door and build the most hideous structure he can conceive of if the owners won’t play ball. When he is blackballed by the venerable Palm Beach Bath and Tennis Club, he builds a flagpole in his driveway that exceeds town zoning limits by forty feet as revenge. And while for his first election night press conference at Mar-a-Lago he tries his best to turn it into a plausible winter White House (interestingly, what Marjorie Post had once hoped it would be used for), for his second, after Mitt Romney criticized him for lending his name to a string of failed, embarrassingly penny-ante ventures, he appears onstage with a bounty of Trump products as if hosting an infomercial, Trump Wine, Trump Ice, and “Trump Steaks,” which are actually Bush Brothers steaks still in their original packaging, though they are Trump steaks in the broader sense of being steaks that now belong to Trump. In fact throughout his presidential campaign he has alternated between coveting the gravity of that office and gleefully defiling it.
This is, viewed one way, a lifelong tantrum, a caricature of white entitlement. And any pop psychologist will tell you that Trump’s behavior is motivated by profound self-loathing. But if such an emotion exists in Trump, no one seems to have ever observed it directly. Even another image ready-made for magazine profiles, of a Trump on the ropes, billions in debt, holed up in a small apartment at the bottom of Trump tower and living off cold cuts from a deli across the street doesn’t bring any documented alteration in his psychic state. This makes Trump the ultimate troll, one who hasn’t broken character since people started watching, over four decades ago. But while this is the reason he is celebrated by the alt-right in a way that no boring old David Duke-style ethnonationalist could ever hope to be, it also means that he cannot be the answer, because he is too much one of them. He has a lot of money, but not compared to the real players. He beat out what was billed as the deepest field of candidates in a generation to win the Republican primary, but he did so in a sloppy and demeaning fashion — he is a disruptor, but a bumbling one. He is, by nature, a joke. His most hardcore fans on Twitter often can’t help snickering a little even as they lionize him. Posters on the major pro-Trump subreddit, /r/The_Donald, refer to him as the “God Emperor,” and even “The Donald” is a bit silly, suggesting the slang meaning of so many other common male first names. It’s not that the alt-right doesn’t actually want Trump to win, or that they think any other politician could govern better, because “governing,” as in running a democracy, is besides the point. This attitude is brought into focus if you compare their view of Trump with their view of Putin, who Trump himself talks about as if he were a childhood sports hero.
Putin is not a joke. Putin is never silly, even when riding a horse without a shirt on. He is alien mesmerizing deadliness. Videos of him speaking rarely go viral on Western social media, you just see stills of his blank face, his mournful hitman’s brow, and sometimes the probability of a Mona Lisa smile. Putin does not tweet insults at people, he kills them in real life. Putin is, at last, silent.
By now it requires at least some amount of mental acrobatics to deny that Trump fits the widely agreed-upon definitions of a fascist: machismo, preoccupation with national decline or humiliation, obsession with a plot, contempt for democracy and conventional morality, celebration of violence, etc. Except for two secondary characteristics of fascism: his is not a youth movement, and some polls have even shown him coming in fourth among millennial voters, behind Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, nor is it one of mass mobilization. Trump rallies draw huge crowds, but these people are coming to see a show as much as anything else, and few of them leave having been inspired to form paramilitary cells.
Rather, what’s scary about Trump is that the choice of whether or not to put the entire machinery of the executive branch at his disposal comes bizarrely out of nowhere, to one of the most secure and well-fed populations that ever existed, one which outside of groups that have shown little interest in Trump doesn’t even have an ancestral memory of repression. One of the problems with comparing Trumpism to fascist movements of the past is that their triumph was preceded by sometimes decades of agitation — flurries of manifesti, mass demonstrations, nationwide streetfights, seats in parliament accumulated a handful at a time. The average German who voted for the Nazi party in 1932 had a relatively well-formed idea of what they were about.
This proposal, however, to make Donald Trump president, to grant him fantastic powers limited only by an increasingly politicized judiciary, a Republican Party that has shown itself to be incapable of offering him any meaningful resistance and an opposition that will have descended into bitter infighting over its unthinkable failure to stop him, comes pretty much out of the blue. Eighteen months ago it wouldn’t have been possible for someone to consider how they would react to it, because it wouldn’t have occurred to them to do so, unless they were one of the very few that took his chances seriously. And even then he hadn’t yet become what the world knows him as today.
The comparison to interwar Europe is reassuring in a way: despite yawning income inequality, the US doesn’t have the problems that Italy or Germany had, and neither Trump nor, should he lose in November, Trumpism, has the organization or discipline of the enemies of democracy in those countries. But that means that instead we are seeing a democracy free from war or depression, and in fact the richest, most powerful nation ever, playing Russian roulette with itself out of sheer perversity. After the Brexit referendum, not exactly the end of a republic but still paralleling Trump versus Hillary, there were widespread reports of Leave voters regretting their decision the night the results were announced. We are being taught to wonder if security can threaten democracy as well as insecurity. And with that in mind the fact that Trump’s army is not made up of goons in the streets but of people tweeting anonymously from their own homes is no longer so comforting.