Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right
The 2016 US presidential election was a culmination of longstanding institutional and political failures. Its results are unprecedented, yet not unpredictable.
In a bid to understand why the votes landed where they did and what has made Trumpism a possibility, Angela Nagle’s new book Kill All Normies braves to navigate the hinterlands of the online cultural milieu and trace back trends that aided the ascendancy of Trump and his ilk.
Nagle argues that what we witness today is not the upsurge of the traditionalist American right. The alternative right, more commonly known as the alt-right, is an entirely different animal. It has inherited many values of the traditionalist right but has stripped itself of Christian moral constraints, while integrating Friedrich Nietzsche’s view on «morality as anti-nature.»
The author takes this argument further, saying that the alt-right may have more in common with 1960s left-wing libertarianism than with the traditionalist right. While this claim demands an elaborated discussion, Nagle does make a convincing case, arguing that transgression, which since the 1960s has been considered a leftist aesthetic and «a virtue within Western social liberalism,» is now successfully co-opted by the alt-right.
«The alt-right may have more in common with 1960s left-wing libertarianism than with the traditionalist right.»
The countercultural celebration of transgression is an apolitical tool, which is effectively exploited by today’s alt-right leaders seeking to appeal to the masses. In his «An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right» apologia, notorious alt-right persona Milo Yiannopoulos claimed that «young rebels» of the alt-right are drawn to the movement «for the same reason that young Baby Boomers were drawn to the new left in the 1960s: because it promises fun, transgression.» Saying the unsayable is «funny,» noted Yiannopoulos, before drawing a parallel between the «the kids of the 60s [who] shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll» and the «alt-right’s young meme brigades» who «shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish ‘Shlomo Shekelburg’ to ‘Remove Kebab,’ an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide.»
In The Nation’s 2016 interview with Yiannopoulos, dubbed «The Most Hated Man on the Internet,» editor Don David Guttenplan rightfully notes that it may be too late to refuse Yiannopoulos and the like space in the online discourse, no matter how questionable or spurious their views are. Trying to understand the motivations of the alt-right and what trends have fed into the rise of it would be more productive, given that the denial of such space might prove the very point they claim to make.
While the alt-right is made up of numerous factions and subgroups, what seems to unite them is its clear anti-establishment ethos, typified by its positioning as a new norm-violating counterculture that is rebellious, sanctimonious and completely anti-PC.
Both critics and sympathisers of the ascendant movement remarked on the anti-PC style that seems to have brought together the various subgroups of the alt-right. The alt-right accuses the progressive left of «authoritarianism,» condemning its efforts to enforce multicultural norms and exclude radical opponents from the public sphere, and likening the left’s «language policing» and «censoring» to those of the Christian right of the ‘90s. Conversely, the incumbent US president «represents an existential threat to political correctness,» said Yiannopoulos in The Nation’s interview, adding that he would «put up with almost anything that he does because of that.»
In «Charlottesville Paradox: The ‘Liberalizing’ Alt-Right, ‘Authoritarian’ Left and Politics of Dialogue,» Joe Phillips and Joseph Yi expand on the argument, noting that what unites the alt-right’s various subsets, along with the taboo-breaking anti-PC style, is their resentment of the progressives left’s rhetoric of white privilege. The authors say that the feeling of marginality is shared among many subgroups of the alt-right, and that part of what connects them is a narrative that non-privileged whites are «victims of unfair governmental policies,» including the affirmative action and «sanctuary» laws for undocumented migrants.
Mistakes by the left
While Nagle’s argument about the alt-right’s appropriation of transgression is compelling, what makes Kill All Normies stand out from the body of work on the topic is its attempt to understand the alt-right through a prism of the left’s fiascos. The book laments the ascendant movement, asserting that the new right sensibility may have emerged as the left abandoned social and economic policies and descended into identity politics.
«Kill All Normies attempts to understand the alt-right through a prism of the left’s fiascos.»
Painful reflections on the left’s failures, which may or may not have produced a breeding ground for the alt-right, are imperative, if not overdue. The readiness of the leftist author to point out the numerous failings of her own side and her snarky approach to what she refers to as the performative Tumblr-woke left are commendable. However, Nagle’s coverage of the other side is often marred by false premises and equivalences. There is a degree of paucity in some of her arguments on the Tumblr left, in particular her criticism of trigger warnings and no-platforming, which undermine the gravitas of the otherwise well-researched work.
There are some questions that we are left with after reading this book. Is there a fix to the predicament we find ourselves mired in today? What choice does Europe have as populist parties continue to make electoral gains, pushing the continent further to the right?
The book does not offer answers. Nevertheless, it raises sobering questions and serves as a decent primer on modern political divides and the cultural phenomenon of the alt-right.