Was Charlottesville a Turning Point for the 'Alt-Right'?

A longtime observer of its online haunts argues that the hodgepodge of people united by antagonism to PC culture were irrevocably divided by the deadly violence at last month’s rally.

A memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia
A memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

The journalist Angela Nagle spent years on some of the most transgressive fringes of the web to write Kill All the Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Her book traces the alt-right from its origins in an irony-laced digital counterculture of “shitposters” and trolls to the role it played in 2016, when antagonism to PC culture helped its members to unite around Donald Trump.

In an interview on Ezra Klein’s consistently worthwhile podcast and a recent article, “Goodbye Pepe,” published at The Baffler, she discussed her book-length analysis of that trajectory. She argued that the alt-right subculture that she has observed for so long and described in such painstakingly reported detail may no longer exist––that it seems to have changed irrevocably after the parade of Nazis and the killing of an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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A passage in Kill All the Normies argues that “the alt-right has more in common with the 1960s left slogan that it is forbidden to forbid than it does with anything most people recognize as part of any traditionalist right.” Take the anonymous message board 4chan.

“The 4chan thing is that they’re not conservatives. They very much reject conservatism,” Nagle told Klein. “They came to far-right ideas not through traditionalist politics, but through the fun of transgressing liberal sensibilities. And you could say it’s kind of a punk sensibility. That was very much where it came from. It was very much about trolling, about being irreverent, about not respecting any boundaries or taboos, breaking every taboo as much and often as you can. That was very much the sensibility, rather than anything that was coming from a traditional right that we recognize.”

In fact, she continued, “they’re simultaneously disgusting and taboo-breaking and all that stuff and kind of puritanical. I sometimes think that they spent so much time in their own forums that it gave them a much more bleak vision of the world than most. For example, they would simultaneously watch really violent porn and post really violent porn, and then also say men are being emasculated by all the porn they watch and they’re not making babies. In a way, they’re rejecting something that they’re engaging in themselves. So part of it is a nihilistic thing––there’s no point in trying to make anything better because the world is destroyed anyway. But then there’s this puritanical kind of repulsion from their own culture. And so Trump was such a perfect figurehead for them. I mean, he wasn’t a typical conservative.”

Over years of writing about this subculture, she would often be told: You don’t understand, they’re being ironic, it’s all irony, it’s all a joke, people are being overly sensitive.

“And in many cases it did start out with irony and then it became more serious,” she told Klein. “Part of it is that irony kind of allowed people to break taboos without having to––while having a ‘get out’ clause, I suppose. For example, it allowed you to just flirt with breaking a taboo, but if you got caught out you could always backtrack.”

The best exchange from the podcast explores how a culture of PC taboos, trolling, taboo-breaking, and racism interacted in a complicated and ultimately dangerous way:

Angela Nagle: On the one hand, online culture is very sensitive, very inclined to shame people who say or think the wrong thing, and we know tons of examples. Jon Ronson’s book is very good. One joke that doesn’t land, or whatever it is, something that you say wrong online could be the end of your career or life. So on one hand, this is a really high-intensity kind of sensitivity where everything is taboo. And at the same time, within this you have an anonymous culture which allows people to break every taboo. And because they’re so restricted the rest of the time on de-anonymized platforms, they then act out in the anonymous culture. That is certainly a counterculture to the mainstream Internet culture, if you like.

Ezra Klein: This implies a mechanism that, I don’t fully have this worked out in my own head, so maybe it won’t come out well and I’ll get called out on the Internet and my career will be over, but you talk a lot about call-out culture in the book. And in terms of transitioning from things that you’re exploring or participating in ironically to participating sincerely ... you can imagine a lot of people going through some version of it.

They begin playing with these ideas—you can play around with PC ideas and get made fun of, or play around with alt-right ideas and get made fun of—you’re trying to be the funniest one in your little world or the most pure ... whatever  you’re doing to try to create status in your little world, to signal that you’re a part of the group, and then you go a little bit too far.

And you get pounded. You get one of these Internet mobs, because it got retweeted by someone, then someone else, and now 65 people or 100 people or 2,000 people are in your Twitter mentions or your comments. I have watched that happen to people over and over again. It’s happened to me many times. And something that I have noticed about it, psychologically, is that it never ends up teaching the person they were wrong. It always ends up making them more extreme. It always ends up making them feel angrier at the folks who just ganged up on them. And it ends up getting them to search for allies who typically tend to be in their original group.

You can imagine some of these alt-right folks, although I think this is true for many edges of the Internet, who start posting memes, and they get hit. And that makes them feel much angrier at these people who they were just making fun of in a light-hearted way. And more committed to the people who had their back. If you play that out 1,000 times, or 10,000 times, you begin to see how people make that transition pretty quickly.

Nagle: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Those are the dynamics, both hating the people who have attacked you and ganged up on you and the solidarity with the people who defended you … We’re dealing with an age cohort that grew up online and developed completely online, in their teens, typically. And so this is the world that they’re in every day. Anyone under the age of 25, say—it gets more extreme the younger you go down—is full of stories of this kind, stories of how they bonded with a particular subculture. It came out of a time when they got mobbed over something or other.

Klein: I know a lot of journalists, and I don’t know any who do not find themselves deeply emotionally affected when they’re on the receiving end of one of these mobs … We have emotional hardware from being in a 200-person community. The idea that you turn on a computer and 1,000 people are attacking you, we’re not built for that.

Nagle: One of the things some people were getting angry at me about over the book, they said, ‘You’re blaming these kids who are sort of not harming anyone, who just have this kind of cultural politics, for the rise of the alt-right.’ And it’s really not that. What I’m saying is that both of these cultures, the one I associate with Tumblr and the culture I associate with 4chan, one of the left and one of the right, roughly speaking, both of these cultures were very, very highly conscious of the other.

If you grew up on the irreverent, 4chan, right-wing Internet, you were very conscious of what was happening on the other side. The other side represented everything you don’t like about the cultural left: the breakdown of gender definitions, gender fluidity in the culture, the ultra-sensitivity, the whole cultural politics package of Tumblr. And equally, if you were on the Tumblr side, your view of the world, that everything is a kind of white supremacy, that everything is an expression of patriarchy, that Western societies are these incredibly oppressive, bigoted, horrible places––because they were looking at each other, they were reinforcing one another’s view of the world. And you could see it throughout, they were always using examples from the other culture as proof of the very dismal view they had of the world and Western society and where it’s all going.

Klein: That is an insight. Nobody could do more to fortify the PC view of the world than the alt-right, or the alt-right view than the excesses of the PC world.

That was the story until Charlottesville: The alt-right community had ideological racists in the same Internet subculture as young people alienated by the worst excesses of speech policing on Tumblr, or drawn to the aesthetics of 4chan, or taking a juvenile delight in breaking any taboos around them, much as young people in the 1960s did. Ensconced in that toxic milieu, they moved closer to its ideological racists, acting for reasons even they themselves didn’t fully understand or face.

What changed after Charlottesville? Here’s how Nagle put it in The Baffler:

The standard online shtick for politically serious members of the alt-right has been to flirt with Nazism but then to laugh at anyone who took these gestures at face value. But in the wake of James Alex Fields’s alleged terrorist assault in Charlottesville, which claimed the life of antifa protester Heather Heyer, ironic dodges are foreclosed to the alt-right.

In addition to Fields’s usage of a car as a deadly weapon—a tactic borrowed, ironically enough, from ISIS sympathizers in Europe—the show of fascist strength in Charlottesville made it abundantly clear that the most vocal and committed leaders of the movement are not basement-dwelling geeks but heavily armed militiamen. This was no shambolic gathering of weedy LARPers or neckbeards with silly grins and Pepe signs but a uniformed procession of politically serious white nationalists prepared for violence and employing deadly serious chants of “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us.”

In other words, Charlottesville was clarifying for the less extreme element on the alt-right. “The vast majority of the people who seem to be making up the bulk of this online are not willing to go that far,” Nagle wrote, “not even close. And so it’s made it all very real. All the different groups around the hard core of the alt-right kind of peeled off. They’ve all denounced the alt right, they don’t want to be associated with them.”

What’s more, she wrote, the tone used online by the alt-right changed after Charlottesville:

In all of my time observing the alt-right, I have never seen its adherents so uncertain, floundering, excuse-making and on the back foot. On 4chan’s /pol/ list, for instance, posters debated whether open talk of a white ethno-state is any longer a good tactic—and if the movement’s most confident and unapologetic spokespeople should be ditched for figures espousing a less extreme line. Significantly, the alt-lite and the entire broader milieu around the white-nationalist alt-right proper have now distanced themselves permanently from the most volatile leaders of the Unite the Right in Charlottesville, and it seems likely that this crucial nexus of political affiliation is permanently sundered for the disaffected online legions of the alt-right. What will happen to these militant young white men? Will they reinvent themselves or fade away in the absence of a guiding vision of the future?

At the risk of putting my own work out of date, I believe that chapter of the alt-right story that my book was about—the anonymous online trolling culture, the constant evasions and ironic styles, the hodge-podge of disparate groups united by the “anti-PC” crusade—is over and a new one has begun. The alt-right in the strict sense will now become more isolated, more focused, and unambiguous—and perhaps more militant. But the part of the movement that is willing to go all the way is still very small.

Whether this analysis proves correct remains to be seen, but it is as informed, reflective, and thoughtfully rendered as any analysis we have, and thus worth taking seriously, especially insofar as it implies that two things may be happening right now: a danger of more violence as the tiny fringe that remains on the alt-right is less constrained by moderates and grows more radical; and an opportunity to reach out to folks disillusioned by Charlottesville to help them break decisively with the alt-right, insofar as there are now people on the margins who could go either way.