hen the journalist Julia Ioffe published a profile of Melania Trump for GQ, she had reason to expect that supporters of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee would be disappointed by its portrayal of Donald Trump’s third wife. “Her journey to marrying The Donald is like a fairy tale, or a too-crazy-to-believe rom-com,” Ioffe revealed. “It’s a story full of naked ambition, stunning beauty, a shockingly Trump-like dad, and even some family secrets.” What Ioffe, who is Jewish, did not expect was a torrent of anti-Semitic abuse and death threats.
On Twitter, the candidate’s anonymous backers superimposed images of Ioffe’s face over those of concentration camp inmates. On her voicemail, they left recordings of Hitler speeches. “This is not a heavily critical article. There is nothing in it that is untrue,” Ioffe told the Guardian. “If this is how Trump supporters swing into action, what happens when the press looks into corrupt dealings, for example, or is critical of his policies?”
It’s a good question. For any journalist or political figure who has been remotely critical of Donald Trump over the past year, Ioffe’s treatment came as no surprise. It was hardly news that his backers would traffic in this sort of filth—all the more so if the critic is Jewish, a woman, gay, or not white. Of course, crudity has always existed in American political life, on a bipartisan basis. But there is something new in the pervasive and relentless nastiness of Trump’s supporters, especially as they represent themselves online. While it’s certainly true that most of Trump’s supporters are neither racists nor anti-Semites, it appears to be the case that all of the racists and anti-Semites in this country (and many beyond) support Trump.
To take but one of countless examples, one of the most active pro-Trump Twitter accounts, with 27,000 followers, goes by the handle @Ricky_Vaughn99. Unlike many of his Internet brothers-in-arms, who utilize the likenesses of obscure interwar European fascists and nationalists as their avatars, this troll features the visage of actor Charlie Sheen from the film Major League. What he lacks in visible nostalgia for the Third Reich, @Ricky_Vaughn99 makes up for in his concern about “#whitegenocide,” interpreted as any sign of nonwhite racial advancement. “The Trump presidency will probably be bad for neocon jews, bad for liberal jews, but good for jews who are believers in the nation-state and American nationalism,” he told Armin Rosen, of Tablet magazine, via Twitter. Contrary to most Americans, @Ricky_Vaughn99 thrills at Trump’s every insult, derogatory comment, and affront. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself as a “free speech activist,” an identifier defiantly adopted as a mark of resistance against an alleged campaign by “SJWs” (social-justice warriors) to circumscribe the freedom of white men.
“Free speech activist” is a curiously prevalent appellation on the medium of Twitter for members of the “alt-right,” short for “alternative right,” a populist movement that has been emboldened and bolstered by the fortunes of the Trump campaign. Existing largely on the Internet, which makes the size of its following difficult to gauge, the alt-right is proudly ethno-nationalist, protectionist, isolationist, and culturally traditionalist. It takes intellectual guidance from publications and websites like American Renaissance, Radix Journal, Occidental Observer, Taki’s Magazine, and, increasingly, the popular news website Breitbart.com.
It was at Breitbart that, in March, an extensive article appeared defending the alt-right. While “establishment” conservative institutions and intellectuals have criticized the alt-right as little more than a bunch of gussied-up white supremacists, authors Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari explained that these arbiters of good conservative taste have the alt-right all wrong. Praising the “youthful energy” and “taboo-defying rhetoric” of alt-right writers and activists, the two Breitbart columnists led readers through a sort of ideological safari, applying their own taxonomy to the various types of personalities who comprise this “dangerously bright” movement.
Their “Guide to the Alt Right” is a prolix defense of juvenile racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and other assorted bigotries as much-needed “provocation” to the enervated conservative movement. One might quickly object that when so much of the alt-right’s rhetoric consists of terms like “peak negro,” “Niggertech,” and “ovenworthy” (the latter meaning “anything that would be substantially improved by immediate incineration”), it becomes difficult to know where the “taboo-defying rhetoric” and intellectual “provocation” end and where the monstrousness begins.
Our politics are becoming darker, our peoples more susceptible to the promises of demagogues, and the rise of an explicitly anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian right seems more possible in America than ever before.
Yiannopolous and Bokhari insist that the alt-right “is best defined by what it stands against rather than what it stands for.” This makes it the perfect intellectual base of the Trump campaign. Building walls, banning Muslims, “bombing the shit” out of people—there is nothing aspirational or positive about Trump, other than his vague and windy promise to “Make America Great Again.” In this important sense, Trump is truly an anomalous phenomenon, as he has replaced the perennially optimistic message of the American presidential campaign with something more suitable to Venezuela. Though we all have reason to be annoyed by the cultural resurgence of political correctness, the alt-right remedy is the oratorical inverse of the problem they claim they despise. Social-justice warriors needlessly shut down debate and proscribe certain words and ideas to assuage the feelings of allegedly vulnerable minority groups; the alt-right needlessly flings around racial epithets and Der Stürmer cartoons purely to transgress accepted social codes. And that’s only the most charitable explanation for their behavior, assuming as it does that they don’t “really” mean what they say.
But what about that element of the alt-right that actually does have a political agenda beyond annoying its adversaries? The primary alt-right constituency, according to Yiannopolous and Bokhari, consists of “natural conservatives,” largely white, male, middle-class Americans “who are unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritizes the interests of their own demographic.” These voters are “conservative” not so much in the American sense as in the European one; they show no interest whatsoever in the GOP’s traditional free-market economic agenda of trade, low taxes, and flexible labor regulations, preferring instead a strongman leader promising trade protectionism, entitlement expansion, and the assertion of white male privilege.1
Illiberalism is sweeping the globe. Coming from left or right—and, as evidenced in this country by Trump and socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, often converging in that place where extremes meet—political leaders and movements across the democratic world are advocating economic and ethnic nationalism, the closing of borders, the imposition of trade barriers, the dissolution of multilateral alliances, and accommodation with dictatorships. Our politics are becoming darker, our peoples more susceptible to the promises of demagogues, and the rise of an explicitly anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian right seems more possible in America than ever before.
f the alt-right does have an intellectual forbear, it is a 43-year-old computer programmer named Curtis Yarvin. Along with fellow “neo-reactionary” thinker Nick Land (a former lecturer at the University of Warwick), Yarvin is the father of “The Dark Enlightenment.” This is a 21st-century, tech-friendly philosophy that, as its name implies, rejects democracy, egalitarianism, and the Whig interpretation of history. It is delineated in a 30,000-word pamphlet of the same name, written by Land and available for free on the Internet.
Yarvin’s contribution to the Dark Enlightenment oeuvre began in 2008 when, writing under the pen name “Mencius Moldbug,” he produced a series of long blog posts that eventually congealed into two separate treatises: An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives and A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations. Along with “The Dark Enlightenment,” these works can be seen as the foundational texts of neo-reactionary ideology.
Around the time Trump’s rise began in 2015, his alt-right fans began slamming right-wingers of more conventional stripes with the term “cuck-servative” —a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative” with racist undertones.
What distinguishes neo-reactionaries from traditional conservatives is their complete and utter rejection of reform. Since the Western system of liberal democracy itself is corrupt and hopeless, working within it legitimates liberal democracy’s fundamental illegitimacy. Those who adhere to the model of consensual politics and systematic reform, therefore, are not only to be distrusted; they are the font of evil itself. Around the time Trump’s rise began in 2015, his alt-right fans began slamming right-wingers of more conventional stripes with the term “cuck-servative” —a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative” with racist undertones implying that certain conservative leaders and intellectuals have allowed their cause to be hijacked and violated by black people. Long before this slur was being flung at everyone from Karl Rove to Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee (who has since endorsed Trump), and John McCain, Land theorized that life had simply become one long series of shame rituals for right-wing white men like himself. “The principal role of conservatism in modern politics is to be humiliated,” he wrote. “That is what a perpetual loyal opposition, or court jester, is for.”
In Yarvin’s Hobbesian view, history is an unending game of Risk, and the only way to achieve the ideal political state is to destroy the current one and replace it with another. In his eyes, there is no reason to believe that the life of humans in the West in 2016 is at all superior to the way men used to live in 1788, the fateful year before the French Revolution, when everything started going to hell. “We have no reason to think that the political designs we have inherited from this tradition are useful in any way, shape, or form,” Yarvin writes of the Anglo-American political inheritance. “All we know is that they were more militarily successful than their competitors, which may well have been flawed in arbitrary other ways.” Yarvin is more explicit about the future of the American republic: “This thing is done. It is over. It is not fixable by any form of conventional politics. Either you want to keep it, or you want to throw it out. Any other political opinions you may have are irrelevant next to this choice.”
Largely motivating this civilizational pessimism is an obsession with “human biodiversity,” which is code for racism that finds its basis in pseudoscience. Both Land and Yarvin believe in a hereditary determinism positing that whites are genetically superior to blacks, and that because the races are fundamentally unequal at birth, there is no use or sense in promising them equality in a political contract.
When Yarvin’s counter-history arrives at the Civil War, he laments that the federalist impulse that traditionally characterized Anglospheric political culture (which, followed through to its natural conclusion, would have seen the Union settling its differences by breaking in half) was discarded. “Union victory determined that the emancipatory sense of liberty would prevail, not only in America, but throughout the world, and the eventual reign of the Cathedral was assured,” he writes (neglecting the perspective of the slaves).
More harmful than the Civil War’s result was the way in which it has been used, 150 years hence, to further progressive ends, the righteousness of the cause of racial “equality” having now been bonded inextricably to the growing power of Leviathan. “The moral coherence of the Union cause required that the founders were reconceived as politically illegitimate white patriarchal slave-owners, and American history combusted in progressive education and the culture wars.” As with everything Yarvin says, there is a kernel of truth in this, but it is buried in a cornfield of rage.
One way to understand the neo-reactionaries is to view them as arch-libertarians who have accepted that the liberal democratic state will never wither away—and therefore that more extreme means must be taken against it. “A libertarian democracy is simply an engineering contradiction, like a flying whale or a water-powered car,” Yarvin writes, because the voting masses are too fat and spoiled to ever do something like vote their social-welfare state out of existence. With the option of “exit” foreclosed, the only alternative to living under an oppressive state is to seize control over it.
The softness of the populace can only be reversed through the workings of strongmen who will cut through the sclerotic brush of liberal democracy, clear the path, and set things right. This leads our neo-reactionaries to venerate authoritarian states past and present, like the People’s Republic of China, whose political-economic model Land lauds as “Modernity 2.0.” Achieving this state of affairs, however, “depends upon the West stopping and reversing pretty much everything it has been doing for over a century, excepting only scientific, technological, and business innovation.” It is therefore more likely, in Land’s view, that we will see the onset of “post-modernity,” a democracy-induced “dark age” where “Malthusian limits brutally re-impose themselves.” Should that fate come to pass, Land holds out hope for the prospect of transhumanist accelerationism, a futurist concept in which the select few free themselves from the bonds of the state by evolving into human-computer hybrids, reaching “bionic horizon,” and forming a new cyber-citizen.
Seven years before Donald Trump descended on an escalator in his office building to announce his candidacy, Yarvin declared that his ideal form of regime would be a “sovereign corporation” and that America “needs a CEO.” More practically, he advocates “martial law” in “every major American city,” and, if necessary, that we “hand plenary power to the Joint Chiefs.” (While willing to entertain a system that extends the franchise solely to homeowners, Yarvin argues that “mere freehold suffrage is a poor substitute for military government, and it too is not stable in the long run.”) Oddly for a man who fervently defends Senator Joseph McCarthy and who constantly reminds his readers that Communism exacted a higher death toll than fascism, Yarvin exalts Deng Xiaoping as the greatest figure of the second half of the 20th century.
The unapologetically racist element of neo-reactionary thinking connects intellectuals like Yarvin and Land with the masses they otherwise disdain, evincing the rumblings of a nascent neo-reactionary political coalition. But what really ties together all these seemingly disparate strands—the neo-reactionary intellectuals, the crude Twitter trolls, the highfalutin white supremacists, and the billionaire presidential candidate—is misanthropy. Pollsters may need to develop a new category in the wake of the Trump phenomenon: “resentment voters.” Within the demographic of lower-middle-class white men, Trump is popular in a variety of misanthropic subcultures, many of which did not really exist until the Internet provided them with a way to communicate and organize. Unsurprisingly, he is the subject of a great deal of discussion and admiration in the pickup-artist, or “seduction community,” of men who chat online and gather at conferences to complain about how feminism has destroyed dating culture while simultaneously discussing strategies for bedding as many women as possible. After Trump declared early in the campaign season, apropos of nothing, that supermodel Heidi Klum was “no longer a 10,” a popular blogger from the “men’s rights” movement approvingly wrote, “The alpha does not qualify himself to women, ever. He expects women to qualify themselves to him.”
What also unites the alt-right is a conspiratorial anti-elitism. Policies and principles don’t matter, nor do obsolete ideological divisions like left and right, because the American system itself is a sham. “Why are sh-t-tier whites voting for Trump, a barbarian who can’t even write a grammatical tweet in fourth-grade English?” Yarvin asks. “Because they’re done with being sh-t on by their ‘betters,’ who think invading Iraq and starting civil wars in Syria and Libya is a brilliant use for a third of their income.” In distinction to Bernie Sanders supporters, who at least know what they want to do with the reigns of power, these people loathe our social and political institutions and offer no alternative. Trump and the alt-right want to break everything and watch the world burn, like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, and they believe (hope?) that somehow everything will sort itself out. America, using a term that will be familiar to the real-estate tycoon, is a “tear down.”
What we are seeing here is a convergence of three phenomena: neo-reactionary philosophy, popular discontent, and a charismatic leader. Successful political movements need all three. As far-right traditionalists, Yarvin and Land claim to despise populism, and people more generally. “Predisposed, in any case, to perceive the politically awakened masses as a howling irrational mob, [neo-reaction] conceives the dynamics of democratization as fundamentally degenerative: systematically consolidating and exacerbating private vices, resentments, and deficiencies until they reach the level of collective criminality and comprehensive social corruption,” Land writes. And like many of the Republican office-holders and conservative media personalities who’ve glommed on to Trump while railing against “elites,” the neo-reactionary thinkers are themselves elitists.
But they, too, are just as unscrupulous in hitching their wagon to a popular movement in hopes that it will advance their agenda. In a 2008 installment of his Open Letter, Yarvin mused about himself as the Vaclav Havel of neo-reaction—the philosopher king who may one day find himself carried on the shoulders of a society demanding revolutionary change—or, failing that, its Machiavelli. For, “in order to make an impact on the political process, you need quantity. You need moronic, chanting hordes.” Well, he has them now.
One doesn’t have to share the normative interpretations of alt-right counter-history to believe that these thinkers have a point in arguing that human societal development is not a process of inexorable progress. Though conservatives have criticized President Barack Obama’s frequent invocation of “the right side of history” to justify his positions on issues ranging from gay marriage to counterterrorism, Americans have become largely inured to the idea, expressed by Ronald Reagan, that their country’s “best days are yet to come.” What if they’re not? What if things are about to get a whole lot worse?
1 In alt-right discourse, “white” is often erroneously conflated with “Western civilization,” so that all of the latter’s achievements can be attributed to the virtues of a particular race rather than a universalist set of ideas. When I once asked on Twitter what constituted “white culture” (in response to a horde of alt-right commenters demanding to know why white people did not have the same right to “protect” their “culture” as other groups), I was instantly bombarded with images obviously found by typing “renaissance cathedral” or “Vatican” into Google Image, along with YouTube videos of Handel’s “Messiah.”
2 For all his faults, Yarvin is an engaging writer with a very dry sense of humor, bringing the pompousness of a Silicon Valley know-it-all to abstruse 18th-century European political thought. Public opinion, he says, “has nothing to do with the difficult craft of state administration, any more than the passengers’ views on aerodynamics are relevant to the pilot of a 747.” Meanwhile, “Democracy is to government as gray, slimy cancer is to pink and healthy living tissue.”