They hate Jews and adore swastika swag, but don’t you dare call them that . . .
Dallas — ‘Window ninja, what’s your twenty?”
The militia is here, in the park next to city hall, on patrol, pretty decently armed up with 7.62×39mm rifles, pudgy faces concealed behind olive-drab keffiyehs, radios crackling with status reports, eyes presumably alert behind the polarized aviators they’re not quite ready to give up in spite of the weak light of the early dusk, and they are ready — and by-God eager! — to stand tall in Texas and enforce justice for the law, an eagerness that is kind of hilarious even if it is something a lot less than amusing to the actual law-enforcement officers here, standing stiff-necked and rigid behind steel-tube barricades with their riot batons and helmets casually arranged on the thick August summer grass behind them, watching as the setting sun sends the long shadow of Robert E. Lee falling across the various and sundry wackos, prodigal sons of the Confederacy, sad little left-wing collegiate tomboys playing radical dress-up with red bandanas over their faces like spaghetti-western bandits and Smash the Fash! placards, conspiracy theorists who want you to know what the Federal Reserve — the creature from Jekyll Island! — is really up to, old-fashioned rednecks whose T-shirts proclaim them Stone Cold Country by the Grace of God, weird skinny twitchy guys who mention in every other sentence that they served in the Marines and who probably didn’t actually serve in the Marines, self-described free-speech activists, that inevitable dude with the mullet waving the Confederate flag, guys in home-made riot gear slapped together from dusty hunting and motorcycling equipment, acres of sad dreary desert-camo cargo pants over coyote-tan boots from the Army-surplus shop, Communists, anarchists, extravagant beards, TV cameras, dreadlocks, ponytails, banana magazines protruding from matte-black Kalashnikov’s knockoffs, cases of bottled water by the City of Dallas for your dissident convenience, Antifa and Antifa wannabes, Democratic-party organizers, cotton-candy vendors, at least three kinds of police, including Dallas mounties on big fine gray horses, the whole mess kind of milling about counterclockwise, a slow-motion hurricane of human angst and rage and boredom and more rage.
A couple of hundred people are here at the side protest in a largely Confederate cemetery, trampling on the graves of Civil War veterans and widows and on group graves for young children felled by the many terrors of the 19th century. The main show, with the speeches and sound system and all, is across the way at city hall.
Somewhere in the shadows, Window Ninja is watching. A silent sentinel, a watcher in the dusk.
At the eye of the hurricane, at least for a minute, is the local ambassador from the Republic of Kekistan.
Maybe you don’t know about Kekistan. Here’s the deal, from the website Know Your Meme: “The Cult of Kek, also known as the Church of Kek, is a satirical religion based around the worship of the ancient Egyptian deity Kek (also spelled Kuk or Keku), an androgynous God of darkness and chaos who is often depicted as a frog or frog-headed man in male form or a snake-headed woman in female form. On 4chan, the character Pepe the Frog is often considered a modern avatar of the diety [sic], who uses ancient Egyptian meme magic to influence the world, often by fulfilling the wishes of posts that end in repeating numbers.”
Kek is another silly in-joke from the Dumb Green Frog Gang, the Internet apfelstrudelführers of the so-called alt-right, and it’s a pretty good example of their modus dumbasseri. The flag of Kekistan is a Nazi battle flag with the blood scarlet replaced by Pepe green and the swastika at the center transformed into a Kek cross, four “K”s arranged around a central “E.” When three “K”s aren’t enough . . .
“It’s a parody!” screams the slightly porky man from Kekistan, who has literally wrapped himself in the flag, wearing it like a superhero’s cape. The crowd isn’t having any of it. “It’s based on a Nazi flag!” comes the response from the skinny little kid in the yarmulke. “That’s . . . not okay!” The crowd moves in on the Kekistani, who insists that he isn’t a racist or a neo-Nazi or anything like that — in fact, he says, he doesn’t even particularly care about the Confederate statues here in the park adjacent to city hall, which, in theory, is what this pageant of rage is really all about — he is, he says, simply here to exercise his free speech. Free speech about what? He either doesn’t know or won’t say.
“I’m not a Nazi!”
The girls in the red bandanas creep in, eyes wide, ready to Smash the Fash! as hard as their soft pink little fists can smash it. He’s sweating and squealing and wide-eyed and pretty clearly thinking about when he read Lord of the Flies in high school as the crowd tightens in around him, the eye of the rage hurricane contracting on his person. But nothing happens. It’s like kids at a junior-high dance: Somebody has to make the first move, otherwise the boys and the girls just stay on their own respective sides of the gym and never start dancing. The bandana brigades came for a riot, but they will go home disappointed.
Slick takes it all in. Slick has traveled to this protest from . . . somewhere . . . and he doesn’t want to be interviewed or to give his name. Amid the various kooks and cranks and goons and mall-ninja militiamen, he’s a slick little f***er indeed, neat church-boy haircut, button-down shirt, khakis, pristine Nikes. No fatigues and swastikas and Confederate flags for him. He’s like a miniature Richard Spencer, 20 years younger and still enjoying his anonymity. Aloof and ironic, he’s an organizer, on the phone at intervals with somebody somewhere, making his report.
“The mayor of Charlottesville is a Democrat,” he explains, “and a Jew.”
This gets the attention of the little gaggle of protesters who had spent the better part of an hour standing around a Confederate flag and swapping cigarettes and conspiracy theories — fluoridation and the other classics — among themselves before Slick showed up on the scene. “So, he wanted chaos, and he got it. He wanted all the havoc he could. And people died.” He tells an exculpatory version of the Charlottesville story in which the police, not the white nationalists, are at fault: The “free-speech activists,” who were chanting about Jews and flying swastika banners, were a peaceful bunch, he says, not looking for any trouble, and, rather than do the usual thing and keep the police between the “free-speech activists” with the Nazi regalia and the Antifa thugs looking to Smash the Fash! the Charlottesville police plotted to push them together in order to provoke violence that could be blamed on the boys from Kekistan.
Someone lays a hand on the Kekistani’s chest: “Do not touch me!” he screams, and what ensues is a little game of “I’m Not Touching You!” that will be familiar to anybody who ever spent much time in the back of a station wagon on a long family road trip.
The cotton-candy guy does steady business. A fair profit, nothing more.
A guy shooting video on his iPhone interviews one of the militiamen, and he’s going on and on about the militiaman’s rifle and its ammunition: “Full metal jacket!” he repeats, over and over, obviously ignorant of the fact that the rifle in question can be loaded only with jacketed ammunition, since this isn’t 1899. A young black woman on a cheerful pink bicycle rides past and pauses to take in the show. The dramatic contrast is of interest to the guy shooting the video, and he points it out to the militiaman. “You’re here with your rifle, with your full-metal-jacket ammunition, and here’s this little girl on her bicycle.” She leans in to speak to him. “Here’s this 30-year-old woman on her bicycle,” he corrects himself.
Slick puts on his red Make America Great Again cap and wades into the scrum.
‘Conventional Republicans” is how he describes his parents, chuckling. “Episcopalians,” he adds with a little snort.
“I had a very normal childhood in Dallas,” says Richard Spencer, the slickest and most notorious racist in American public life since David Duke. “I went to St. Mark’s” — that’s a $28,000-a-year prep school — “and I was on the football team. But I was interested in some more avant-garde things.” He directed and starred in a school performance of K2, Patrick Meyers’s 1983 Broadway play about a doomed mountaineering expedition. “It’s a real . . . masculine play,” Spencer says, with just a hint of self-derision in his soft voice. “It’s about two mountain climbers climbing K2. One leaves the other to die. Very Nietzschean.” His interest in theater continued into his adulthood. “At UVA, I directed my own productions, including a very avant-garde, Robert Wilson–like version of Hamlet. I was looking for something beyond pedestrian reality and bourgeois society.”
Richard Spencer isn’t a storm trooper. He’s a theater kid.
The nexus of fascism and the avant-garde is familiar territory, from the Italian Futurists to Le Corbusier. Poor rotten old syphilitic Freddy Nietzsche provides the shared philosophical basis, or at least the shared intellectual posture: The new man and the new civilization must be pulled forth out of the corruption and decadence of the present by intellectual and/or physical violence. If a white nationalist’s name-checking a gay experimental-theater icon sounds weird to you, you aren’t paying close enough attention. The so-called alt-right is not about politics: It is about aesthetics. And though it shares some political space with conservatism and, thanks to Donald Trump, with the Republican party, the alt-right isn’t exactly right, either: Richard Spencer is a pro-choice atheist with some substantial reservations about capitalism, a man who mocks the Republicans as a bunch of Babbitts who cannot see that life contains “more than free trade and tax cuts.” And he is, inescapably, a deep-dyed Nietzschean. Or at least he thinks he is, and he describes his first encounter with The Genealogy of Morals as “a shattering experience.” He is insistent in his belief that people do not really change over time, a point to which he returns several times, and reading Nietzsche is as close to a transformative experience as he’ll allow.
Transformation is a theme in his life. He talks about having lost a lot of weight after “bulking up” to play offensive tackle in high school, and is famously vain about his looks. He affects a “fashy” razor haircut with a little lock arranged to casually fall just so over his right eye and often dresses in pastoral tweeds like he’s hunting grouse on an English country manor. He is much more interested in the aesthetics of his movement than he is in any specific policy ideas, a subject about which he is in fact quite vague. “I recognize the power of spectacle,” he says. “It could even be something as simple as looking good — something conservatives could learn from. Politics isn’t just about dusty ideas or arcane policy matters. The question isn’t whether you’re about politics or about theatrics, because those aren’t different things. But is it just theatrics? Speaking for me, absolutely not.” Asked for his top three policy-agenda items, he gets to No. 2: a net-zero immigration policy and “a tremendous change in foreign policy.” He says the usual thing about “neoconservatives” hoping to bomb the world into democracy.
He likes Depeche Mode and “peaceful” ethnic cleansing and rejects the label “white supremacist,” and he is obviously and painfully embarrassed by the swastika flags and silly costumes that invariably show up in the crowds he attracts, though he has been known to throw out a Heil or two himself — he’ll cop to being “trollish” on occasion — as he did when celebrating the election of Donald Trump, the alt-right hero whose shine has quickly worn off, at least for America’s most infamous white nationalist. “Swastikas are not my style. But once you declare, ‘I am a white American, I am proud of my heritage, my identity matters, I am not just an individual, not just interested in free markets and tax cuts,’ then you get the ‘H’ word or the ‘N’ word. People get called ‘Nazi,’ and they want to throw it back in the face of their adversary. And some people are stuck in the past, and they’re not able to understand that we need to live here and now, and not in the 1920s or the 1940s. Others want to alienate themselves from society. My strategy is to be provocative and radical in the best sense, but also to communicate with” — here is a favored bit of alt-right lingo — “the normies.”
Spencer’s career traces the arc of the alt-right’s intellectual development. He thought of himself as part of the Right, broadly attached to the conservative movement, in spite of his secularism and his distaste for religion and religiously informed politics. He studied at Virginia and did a master’s in humanities at the University of Chicago, and worked at The American Conservative, the right-wing periodical co-founded by Pat Buchanan. When his views proved too extreme for that journal, he moved on to Taki’s Magazine. He founded a website of his own and soon occupied a number of high positions in the relatively tiny world of white-nationalist intellectual life: executive director of the race-obsessed Washington Summit Publishers, founder of the white-nationalist journal Radix, director of the National Policy Institute, a racist think tank supported by William Regnery II. Playing a game of Six Degrees of Separation between mainstream conservative institutions and white-nationalist nuttery is an uncomfortable exercise for many on the right. There’s a great deal of political and intellectual space between a traditionalist Christian conservative such as Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and a guy waving a swastika flag and raving about “white genocide,” and Richard Spencer inhabits some of that space, with a foot and a history in both camps. He is frank — more than frank — about his white-identity politics, but he does not so much as mention Jews, blacks, or any other traditional target of fringe-right hatred. “What’s misunderstood is that people think our movement is about hate, that it can be equated with past movements and cartoon versions of past movements, with Nazis and the Klan foaming at the mouth about hatred. I would not do what I do if I were dominated by hate. Hate is an emotion we all feel. I hate injustice. But what is truly motivating is hope: a vision of a better, more beautiful world.” What’s important for Spencer isn’t winning elections or changing public policy but changing the culture, developing a new and publicly acceptable ethic in which “white people think of themselves as part of a greater story and broader community.” He went on Israeli television and described himself as a Zionist for white Americans.
What Spencer gets — and exploits — is the American sensitivity to unfairness, real or perceived. That deeply rooted sense of justice as fairness, combined with the American tendency to universalize principles, is why, for example, gay-rights groups have been so successful in adopting the rhetoric of the African-American civil-rights movement. The American fairness ethic is basically good-for-the-goose-good-for-the-gander-ism. And so Spencer, and others like him, ask: If blacks are permitted pride in themselves as black people, and if we accept a collectively self-interested black politics as legitimate, why are whites not permitted pride in themselves as white people, and why is a collectively self-interested white politics not also legitimate? Spencer says that it is inaccurate to describe him as a “white supremacist” in that he has no interest in seeing whites dominate other races. What he wants, he says, is a “safe space.” If the Jews can have a physically secure ethno-religious state, Spencer asks, then why not white Americans, including “cultural Christians” like him?
Highlighting these perceived hypocrisies and acts of unfairness is what the style adopted by Spencer and the rest of the alt-right — he coined the term “alt-right” — is intended to do. It is all but impossible to argue someone out of a perception, and the “mimetic warfare” of the alt-right, all that Internet ugliness and trollery, is designed to change perceptions. It appeals to the adolescent appetite for transgression, the épater les bourgeois ethic of radical youth movements around the world. A generation ago, when Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols performed wearing a swastika T-shirt, no one thought it was because punk rock was anti-Semitic or that the Sex Pistols hated Jews — it was shocking for the sake of being shocking. That is the shelter into which the alt-right retreats when it is challenged — the Kekistani guy at the city hall protest shouting “It’s a parody!” while wearing his Nazi-inspired flag. But the act of being shocking, as the Sex Pistols’ accountants could tell you, is effective. The Sieg Heil stuff may be done partly — not entirely — tongue in cheek, but the next part of the pitch — “Let me tell you why the white-nationalist movement is like Zionism” — is deadly serious. It’s a performance, but not one without a purpose.
In other words: “Let’s put on a show!” And there’s no business like show business, until somebody gets killed.
Hear, oh hear, this tale of woe, this poetical lament:
Many of us have student loans on degrees that are worthless.
Many of us fought in wars for Jews.
Many of us have struggled with substance abuse.
Many of us are out of shape.
We feel emasculated.
Many of us feel we have never had power.
We crave power.
We lust after power. We want to be part of a group, which will
give us power. A group that will confirm our worth as men.
We do not have identities.
We want identities.
We want to be productive. All men want to be productive. We
want to build things. We want to build, we want to create, we
want to be needed.
We have problems with women. All of us do. We lie to each
other and claim that we don’t.
We are a generation of throwaways, which (((those who write history before it happens))) have slated to be the last generation
of Heterosexual White Men.
We are angry.
There is an atavistic rage in us, deep in us, that is ready to boil over.
There is a craving to return to an age of violence.
We want a war.
Andrew Anglin is the founder of the Daily Stormer, a now-defunct neo-Nazi website that served as a clearinghouse for alt-right white nationalism and also as a bellwether for its aesthetic. The above complaint, written for some reason as though it were lines of verse, is his confession, his apologia pro sad little vita sua. The Daily Stormer has been disappeared from the Internet by the Corporate Powers That Be, but Anglin is still moping around.
Anglin is more frank about the Nazi stuff than is Spencer, and once wrote that he asks himself “WWHD” — “What Would Hitler Do?” But get what he means by that: “I ask myself what Hitler would do if he’d been born in 1984 in America and was dealing with this situation we are currently dealing with and also really liked 4chan and anime,” he writes. Anglin, like Spencer, says that he thinks it is important for the alt-right to forgo the old style of “White Nationalism 1.0,” as he puts it, and try to be, in his word, “cool.” But what you really find in Anglin is the cultural intersection that is the home to the alt-right, the nexus between the transgressive and provocative politics of white identity and the saddest and uncoolest and cringiest of all American social movements: the men’s movement. It’s easy to make jokes about how all this fringy rage is just the natural outcome of a bunch of 4chan geeks who couldn’t get laid in a sex-doll factory, but their own rhetoric and discourse continually returns to that theme. It is an ancient story: The sons of the effete white ruling class feel emasculated in comparison to the swarthy high-testosterone primitives from . . . that part gets kind of interesting, inasmuch as there was a time when the American WASP felt sexually intimidated by Asians, Jews, and Italians, though it is the mythic sexual rapacity of the African that has most kept them up at night.
Muppet News Flash: A bunch of under-employed animé nerds marching with tiki torches in rage-fueled sausage fests have trouble with women.
After the protest in Charlottesville — in which a woman was murdered by a white nationalist — Anglin advised his fellow knuckleheads to go out to bars that night, because “random girls will want to have sex with you.” One wonders whether Charlottesville is home to very many women who are quite that random. The men’s movement has moved on from Iron John and suburbanite drum circles and virile weeping and all that business, and its new spokesmen are the pick-up artists, whose appeal to men (put an asterisk there) such as Andrew Anglin is pretty obvious. Like Islamic jihadists promised an eternity with a harem of virgins, white-identity jihadists believe that they can elevate themselves through conflict and confrontation and, by proving their value to the tribe, finally get some nookie.
“We want a war,” writes Anglin.
He is barely five feet tall.
But everybody is ten feet tall on the Internet, and that is why the Internet is where the alt-right really lives, one big online group-therapy session masquerading as a political movement. A few sad specimens will occasionally sally forth into the public square in Charlottesville, Boston, or Dallas, and there will always be an opening for a charismatic racist such as Richard Spencer, who holds a position in American life that once belonged to David Duke and to George Lincoln Rockwell before him. Some roles in our common life are passed down from generation to generation. And some kinds of sadness are passed down from generation to generation, too: The substance abuse that Anglin bemoans tends to run in families, as does divorce — and the failure to form marriages and families in the first place. The young men to whom Anglin addresses his lament often are themselves the sons and grandsons of similarly disappointed men, living in communities left behind by globalization and other social changes, with those who have the wherewithal to move on already having done so long ago. Without prestigious jobs, solid incomes, or happy families to provide them with a sense of social status, they understand themselves to be failures not only as people but specifically as men. In reaction to the “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the age, they seek to reverse 21st-century deracination with blood-and-soil racination: Consider that Richard Spencer‘s journal is called “Radix,” i.e. “root.” Their longing for community is authentic — and it is legitimate, in spite of the horrifying direction in which they take it. But like all men who are missing something necessary at the center of them, they are born to be marks, and it is easy to sell them almost anything — how-to-meet-women books and seminars, conspiracy theories, daft white-identity politics — so long as what you are really selling is hope.