Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right looks back at the past decade and attempts to answer the question, “What happened?” At the start of Obama’s presidency, the culture of online social media was firmly leftist. The Arab Spring protests seemed to confirm the power of online social media to effect positive real-world change. So where did it go wrong? How did we go from the Arab Spring to the alt-right?
The problem, as Nagle sees it, is that the online left became so enthralled with the stylistic trappings of postmodern identitarian politics, they forgot how to defend the actual ideas that those trappings were meant to boost. Then, when the alt-right used the same style to advance radically different ideas, the online left was caught flat-footed and couldn’t mount a response. Instead, the left doubled down on identitarianism, narrowing the range of acceptable opinions and purging moderates who advocated even-handed treatment of the other side. While this is an understandable reaction – no one wants to support giving aid and comfort to the enemy – this narrowing of acceptable opinions caused the left’s base to shrink, and alienated many of its supporters. The alt-right took advantage of infighting on the left to advance a radically different political agenda using the same postmodernist style as the left, and reached the pinnacle of its success in the election of Donald Trump.
Key to the rise of the alt-right, in Nagle’s eyes, is the philosophy of Anthony Gramsci. This philosopher, a favorite of the French New-Right of the 1960s, coined the phrase, “political change follows social change”, or in Breitbart’s terms, “politics is downstream of culture”. The alt-right is the first right wing movement that acknowledges that it lost the first round of the culture war. It openly acknowledged that there was no longer a “silent majority” that would come out to support conservative candidates. This gave it the freedom to embrace the transgressive political style of the postmodernist left, while using it to push right-wing ideas, like immigration controls and traditional gender roles, combined with populist ideas like restrictions on free trade. While twentieth century American politics paired social liberalism and economic interventionism together and social conservatism along with economic libertarianism there’s no rule that says that values have to be paired this way. The alt-right can thus be viewed as the next iteration in a series of periodic realignments of the American political system.
In addition to allowing the right to embrace new, more transgressive styles of discourse, Gramscian philosophy also pushed them to seek new constituencies. The beginning of this process was GamerGate. GamerGate started out as an internal controversy over reviews of an obscure indie game, Depression Quest. When attacks on the game escalated into attacks on its author, Zoe Quinn, the online left quickly rushed in, labeling those who attacked her as “problematic” individuals. This allowed the nascent alt-right to ally with the gaming community in an effort to preserve the nature of the gaming subculture against those who sought to make it more like the mainstream. The alt-right to influenced the heretofore inchoate politics of the gaming community, creating a bridge between the fringe right-wing ideas of the online hard-right and a growing group of people who were increasingly disaffected with the identitarian politics of the online left.
Central to this process was Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo, a gay conservative columnist and commentator, was one of the first to embrace the transgressive political style of the ’60s counterculture and apply it to right-wing ideas. Defying conventional stereotypes of what a conservative commentator should look and act like, Milo made an art of exploiting leftist outrage against him to make himself appear in a sympathetic light and gain further publicity for his ideas. By speaking and acting outrageously, provoking protests (both online and off), and deliberately transgressing the norms of normal political discourse, Milo perfected a recipe for virality that allowed him to go from an unknown columnist to a leading figure of the alt-right. While his star would eventually fall when he took his transgression one step too far, Milo set the template for a number of other right-wing media outlets, like Rebel Media, Mike Cernovich and Richard Spencer.
What was the left doing while its enemies gathered? According to Nagle, it was enabling them. The online left embraced Judith Butler’s theories that identity, gender, and sexuality were all cultural constructions, and brought academic terms like “intersectionality” and “privilege” into the mainstream. In doing so, they normalized anti-male, anti-cis, and anti-white rhetoric, and accused anyone who questioned this increasingly strident identity politics as racist, misogynsitic or “problematic” in some other way. This led to an arms race, as members of the online left sought to define their identity more expansively and more rigidly, in an effort to show that they were the most oppressed by mainstream culture. This fixation on suffering, weakness and vulnerability, combined with a culture of publicly shaming those who were insufficiently deferential to one’s own oppression and lived experience created deep fissures and led to a brain drain that sapped the left’s ability to respond to the ideas of the alt-right in a coherent way. Instead, the left responded by doubling down on its protest tactics, not realizing, as a collective, that it was having a counterproductive effect.
Nagle concludes, depressingly, with no real way forward. She hopes that the Internet will “contain” the alt-right, and that they’ll dissipate their political energy fighting symbolic but substantively meaningless battles over cultural shibboleths with the extremist left. Meanwhile, she hopes that a new liberalism, focused on ideas, rather than identity will emerge to challenge the alt-right, hopefully leading to a more moderate politics that is better able to address the real issues facing this country.
So what do I make of all of this? I think that Nagle did an excellent job of identifying and cataloging the online spaces that were key to the online political struggles of the past decade. Her analysis of the issues with the alt-right and the “Tumblr left” is accurate and timely. As she points out, the old modernist style of Republican conservatism died out in the US with the Bush Administration. The alt-right (to an even greater degree than the Tea Party) embraces the social construction of truth, reaching its apotheosis in the “#fakenews” meme. The new generation of right-wing media uses the liberated transgressive styles of speech and action of the ’60s, while pushing deeply reactionary ideas about the social order and gender roles, combined with populist economics.
While I don’t think the alt-right are literally Nazis, after reading Nagle, I do think that their rise parallels the rise of Naziism in one interesting way. The fascist movements of the inter-war period took advantage of new modernist media (radio, movies, mass media) which had been previously the exclusive domain of the left to push right-wing ideas. In the same way, the alt-right is using new post-modernist media (blogs, social media, online video) to do the same thing. They’re making beachheads in territory that was once exclusively colonized by the left, and which the left assumed would be theirs in perpetuity.
Where this book falls short, in my opinion, is in drawing connections between the online struggle of the alt-right and actual electoral outcomes. Both the alt-right and the Tumblr left are relatively small subcultures. Most people only have a vague idea of who Milo Yiannopoulos is or what “otherkin” are. Other than talking about protests against alt-right speakers in places like Berkeley or college campuses (which are hardly bastions of conservative voters), Nagle is remarkably short of evidence of alt-right online ideology translating into offline action. Without this, the evidence of the rise of the alt-right being a primary cause of the election of Donald Trump is circumstantial, at best. We know that the alt-right was influential in a number of online communities, but more sociological research is needed to determine whether this influence directly translated into votes.
UPDATE: JD Pressman points out that there were people at the Trump rally in Everett who were shouting alt-right related memes. The presence of people who were tied into the online alt-right community at offline events like rallies forms a plausible mechanism of transmission for these online, fringe ideas into the broader political discourse. It remains to be seen whether these people formed a reliably large voting bloc, or were successful in persuading non-voters or independents to vote for Trump, but I’m willing to credit them for some influence.
Nevertheless, I think this book is a worthwile guide to the new media landscape of the 21st century. Nagle provides a useful primer so that when subcultural venues like Rebel Media, Chateau Heartiste, or Tumblr get coverage in the broader press, I know at a basic level the history and affiliation of what is being mentioned. Moreover, politics is influenced by culture, and our culture is increasingly influenced by the memes and stories we share on social media. Knowing where those memes and stories originate is valuable for anyone who is trying to seek a path forward towards a more substantive, moderate politics that addresses matters of policy rather than issues of identity.