How I didn’t join the “Alt-Right”

One of the debates currently raging across the Twittersphere concerns how we in the metropolitan liberal elite should treat some of the people who voted for Trump and Brexit. Should we try and “understand” racists, sexists and other flavours of the so-called “alt-right”, or should we unreservedly condemn them? Or, to caricature both viewpoints: should we pander to unrepentant hatred and bigotry, or should we shout at people we don’t agree with until they finally change their mind?

One of the few pieces that has walked the tightrope between these two poles has been this one, by the Guardian’s Abi Wilkinson. In it, she looks at the dark corners of the internet where angry, confused young men are “radicalised” by the various fascists, white supremacists and misogynists, who offer them flattering narratives about how their problems are all the fault of women and minorities.

Of course, Abi is right to point out that the low-earning blue-collar workers who switched to Trump probably weren’t frequenters of “meninist” subreddits; what’s happening in the “manosphere” does not explain Trump’s victory. But it is an important and fascinating piece of the puzzle.

Part of the reason I find this so interesting because I suspect I could have very easily fallen into the same trap. As a socially awkward white male teenager with an unhealthy interest in video games and internet forums, few female relationships, and far too much regard for my own intelligence, I was pretty much a prime demographic candidate to develop into the sort of alt-right troll who have become the foot soldiers of the Trump movement. And, though I hate to admit it, whenever I read about them I feel an awkward pang of recognition.

In a society where social confidence, sexual conquests and athletic ability are still seen as the markers of successful manhood, it can be kind of depressing being an autistic-spectrum fat kid at an all-boys school who barely speaks to girls and hides in the changing room to avoid having to play football*. Throw in a toxic combo of hormones and a serious World of Warcraft habit and it’s not exactly a recipe for rigorous intellectual analysis of the state of the world. Looking at the sort of websites Abi discusses in her piece I can’t help but cringe when I see dark funhouse-mirror versions of exactly the kind of things I remember feeling not all that long ago: that somehow the deck was stacked against me (despite all evidence to the contrary); that I wasn’t receiving the boons my superior intellect merited; that my inability to get laid was a crisis of epic proportions that was clearly the fault of our antiquated attitude to sexual relationships. It’s very easy to imagine how I could have turned those feelings outward into resentment towards others.

Does the fact that I didn’t do so mean I’m just a better person? Far from it. I was blessed with certain advantages that kept me from going to the dark side: a left-wing family, some excellent teachers who opened my eyes to social injustice (thanks Dr. Whitwell!) and an environment where liberal and progressive views were commonplace (first London, then Oxford). This all probably helped immunise me from any attraction to the far right. However, it didn’t protect me from those feelings of inadequacy and loneliness: only time and the process of growing up that caused them to diminish.

To return to the question of “reaching out” versus “confrontation”: I don’t think there’s much point talking to the Steve Bannons of the world. Some people are just irredeemable dickheads. But many others can, I think, be saved. There are thousands of unhappy, lonely young men out there who would much rather blame the world for their woes than the fact that they haven’t had their hair cut for three months and think that putting moody Muse lyrics as their MSN status makes them seem like a cool, tortured artiste***. If there’s a way to reach out to them, to give them some sense of worth and purpose, to tell them that it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a girlfriend and that life will probably be OK****, then we might be able to deny the bad guys at least a little bit of their support.

*i.e. me, aged 15.

**Indeed, quite the reverse: I briefly flirted with Marxism, brandishing my mum’s copy of The Communist Manifesto on the school coach like some sort of Leninist Billy Bunter.

*** Again, me, with a reference that really shows my age.

****And if it’s not, it’s probably capitalism’s fault.