The Splintering of the Alt-Right and the 21st Century Culture War

Gavin McInnes — Poster Boy for the Alt-Light and totes not a bigot

Hillary Clinton made a colossal mistake with her “basket of deplorables” comment in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Not just for pissing off a lot of people that resent the current zeitgeist of political correctness, but for providing a rally cry for all sorts of unsavoury public figures that are part of the ascendant alt-right movement. The DeploraBall, a 2017 Washington D.C. Trump inaugural event organised by such figures spawned over 50 spin-off events around the US and marked a pivotal moment for the legitimisation of the alt-right. It also, however, provided a glimpse of its looming internal power struggle. Prominent white supremacist and originator of the ‘alt-right’ moniker, Richard Spencer, was uninvited to the event, as were other key alt-right figures with racist and anti-Semitic views including comedian Sam Hyde and Tim Treadstone, one of the original organisers.

So what defines the alt-right, and what is behind its ascendancy in the Trump era? A general disdain for political correctness is perhaps what initially attracts many to the movement, as key alt-right figures are endlessly railing against PC culture and its supposed suppression of freedom of speech. But upon delving into this odious corner of political opinion, one is confronted with a plethora of objectionable views and conduct like misogyny, LGBT vilification, Antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia, and white nationalism fuelled by the unbending assertion of the supremacy of western culture. Those that are simply sick of being told what they can and can’t joke about or who get shunned for asking legitimate questions about sensitive topics usually shut the door at this point and continue searching for less nauseating platforms that address these phenomena.

The alt-right figures that have made a name for themselves on platforms like YouTube and other social media sites, however, have done-so with a knack for incorporating disarming elements into their message, like humour, or trolling. This is a critical strategy in recruiting others to the cause; those pre-equipped with contemptible views immediately feel the warm embrace of bigotry and are immediately sold, but those that are impressionable and without fully formed political ideologies need indoctrinating in the ways of the deplorable, made all the easier with humorous quips, Pepe the Frog memes, and references to Kekistan.

An especially charming example of Alt-Right meme culture

Now depending on your particular brand of deplorable, there is a spectrum of internet personalities with varying degrees of despicability for one’s distinct palate. At the bottom of the barrel, you have Richard Spencer, the unabashed neo-Nazi who rose to infamy by giving Nazi salutes to an alt-right conference while shouting “Hail Trump” after Trump’s 2016 election victory. For those who like a veneer of academic legitimacy with their bigotry, there’s Jared Taylor, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and a master’s degree in economics, a guy that founded the white nationalist magazine American Renaissance and who would like to see white supremacy return to being one of the dominant ideologies in the US. If you’re just a smidge white supremacist, misogynistic, and/or Islamophobic, you might prefer some of the swathe of personalities that assert that they are definitely, definitely, absolutely not any of these things, but love to make bigoted slurs and crack jokes about them all constantly just for the lolz. This typifies charming individuals like Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson and Gavin McInnes who have rode the wave of anti-PC sentiment to internet stardom.

There’s just one small problem with such a wide spectrum of moral contemptibility: the full-blown white supremacists don’t play well with the others. This has been especially problematic seeing as Richard Spencer is the founding father of the alt-right and apparently wasn’t happy to just lay down and die and let these “impostors” steal his movement and all its bigoted glory. A concerted push-back from the alt-right’s most heinous public figures has successfully “purified” the alt-right and left those who prefer to dog-whistle bigoted messages to their followers needing another banner. Enter the alt-light, otherwise known as the New Right.

Since 2016 and Spencer’s ascendancy within the movement, many alt-right personalities like Paul Joseph Watson, Mike Cernovich and Lauren Southern have disavowed the alt-right label and retreated to what they perceive to be the moral high ground brandishing their new moniker. Unfortunately for them, sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken, and everyone not in this bubble continues to see them as alt-right. Whether or not these alt-light flag-bearers are truly bigoted in one way or another (they certainly seem to be) is less important than the fact that their expression of what most people would consider to be bigoted views attracts (surprise, surprise) actual bigots.

The Proud Boys, a fraternal organisation founded by Gavin McInnes (a guy who thinks Fox News isn’t right-wing..) spruiking ‘Western Chauvinism’, was forced to kick out Jason Kessler, organiser of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville which attracted neo-Nazis and white supremacists, for his racist views. Meanwhile prominent member Augustus Invictus, who has claimed the mantle of ‘top Proud Boy’ since McInnes’ reluctant departure in late 2018, plans to lift the group’s ban on associating with white supremacists like Richard Spencer, adding that “The days of Proud Boy cuckery are over”. McInnes left the group on advice from his lawyers, in an attempt to shield nine of his New York crew from jail time over an assault on Antifa activists in October.

NYC Proud Boys ‘owning the libs’

Predictably, the movement that defines itself predominantly through the lenses of being anti-PC and ‘owning the libs’ with hilarious memes, needed to branch out a little to gain mainstream credibility. And so, the alt-right YouTube foot soldiers dutifully pick their pet topics and hammer away from in front of their camera lenses and on stages around the world. Lauren Southern wants us all to know that multiculturalism is causing the collapse of the Western world and Milo wants us all to know that feminism is cancer and trans people are disordered. Stefan Molyneux insists that men’s rights are under attack and that single mothers are horrible people, while Paul Joseph Watson explains how any prominent figure expressing left-wing views is a “complete idiot” and produces “The Truth About ____” videos in the most excruciatingly condescending manner, complete with infantile high-pitched mocking voices. Joseph Watson has even attempted to make the laughable claim that the left “despises the working class”. This is unsurprising though, as in the age of profound, complex, multi-faceted issues like economic globalisation and automation bearing down on the working class, where the left is way ahead in offering potential solutions, these figures feel the need to try and get out ahead of these issues.

Milo Yiannopoulos gleefully denouncing Feminism

Oh and globalism is bad, because: conspiracy theories. A common thread linking these alt-right figures is a tendency to live in an alternate reality where the UN is secretly a tool for fostering in a New World Order, 9/11 was an inside job, climate change is a hoax perpetuated by money-hungry scientists, Hillary Clinton is suffering from brain damage while simultaneously operating a paedophile ring from the cellar of a Washington DC pizza store, and where the FBI were complicit in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Never mind the research showing that conspiracy thinking is a tool primarily utilised by those that feel powerless to attack the powerful, and that a need to feel special and unique acts as strong motivation for belief in conspiracy theories…

Despite these loopy views, the alt-right movement believe they are “winning the culture war”, by smashing 21st century taboos that a majority in society are supposedly now sick of. They see themselves as cultural liberators freeing people from the shackles of political correctness. To be fair, recent attempts from the left to violently de-platform conservative speakers should be condemned and the notion of micro-aggressions is wholly laughable and deserves to be called out as such. However, while some elements of speech policing seem to be getting a little excessive these days, most people appear to be coping just fine with 21st century norms regarding speech aiming to minimise offence to historically persecuted minorities. Not everyone feels the need to call gay people fags, Asians nips, trans people mentally ill, or black people monkeys. Gavin McInnes, I’m looking at you.

What’s particularly laughable about these alt-light figures, is that they’re constantly punching so hard left, while getting sucker-punched not only by establishment conservatives who want nothing to do with them, but also by the “true” alt-righters for being cucks and sell-outs. They’re trying to carve out a niche for themselves in morally respectable territory while simultaneously dragging across the bigots from the alt-right who just aren’t so comfortable attending neo-Nazi rallies and doing Sieg Heils in public, and who yearn for legitimacy.

There is legitimacy in seeking to discuss sensitive, politically charged topics in a rational and evidence-based manner, but there are also credible, reasonable individuals who are claiming this mantle. People like Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Joe Rogan, Bret and Eric Weinstein and even Jordan Peterson, when he’s not busy denying climate change and railing against “cultural Marxism”. The point is, there are plenty of places that people who question the wisdom of coddling people to the point where freedom of speech is being limited can go to hear a spirited defence of freedom of speech. They don’t need to plumb the depths of moral contemptibility by seeking out alt-right or alt-light individuals who appeal to the worst instincts of human nature. The notion that the 21st century culture war will be won by these dog-whistling or outright bigoted assholes is sheer fantasy.

Economist, Climate and Energy Policy Analyst. Pondering the path to a socio-ecological transformation.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store