After Charlottesville, the mask of irony that wrong-footed so many commentators was ripped from the U.S. alt-right. And more recently, an email leak reported by Buzzfeed has stripped the irony defense from Breitbart’s former star provocateur Milo Yiannopolous, who, leaked internal records show, was the celebrity nexus connecting Nazi-saluting race warriors, powerful Republican funders, and members of the liberal media and entertainment class who fed him tips and dirt. The transformation of internet platforms into havens for the far right is crucial to understanding our current political crisis and what may lie ahead.
It’s easy to forget—especially when the most famous Twitter troll in the world is the president of the United States—but only a few years ago, social media and unregulated online spaces were heralded by many political progressives as Utopian forces ushering humanity to a new age of equality and democratization. By 2011, Silicon Valley boosters were agreed that the digital revolution had finally arrived. That was the early, hopeful moment when Twitter was supposedly driving the Arab Spring, and the hackers of Anonymous—the main political product of 4chan before the alt-right—became symbols of the Occupy movement.
At the same time, however, uglier emanations from digital society were being hidden by euphemisms like “trolling.” Trolls were often seen as sinister, yes, but also as an exciting new counterculture from the internet’s underground. Just as Silicon Valley rhetoric about an optimized, low-cost future concealed the consolidation of unprecedented levels of money and influence by the tech oligopoly, so, on a cultural level, the idea of “trolling” gave a romantic cover to antisocial exercises of power and resentment. As bombastic parody became the lingua franca of the internet and the line between irony and sincerity blurred, people lost their footing, which made them easier to manipulate. Debate on the internet vacillated between the claim that everything is ironic or that nothing is, and the political corollary: that everyone is Hitler or no one is, possibly not even Hitler.
Practically, this meant that people warning about a growing far-right coalescing around the ritualized cruelty on troll forums like 4chan were dismissed as priggish normies, clueless about the creative complexities of online subcultures. At the same time, with so many ideas around race, gender, and democracy, being declared off limits to debate, and with so many people calling their political enemies Nazis, those of us writing about actual Nazis (and their sympathizers) were often lost in the noise.
To understand how we got here and why so many people were bamboozled by the alt-right’s playful insincerity we have to revisit an earlier period when the groundwork was laid in conceptual failures around 4chan, trolling and ‘lulz’. A decade ago, The New York Times ran a prescient story by Mattathias Schwartz called “The Trolls Among Us.” The article follows a group of hackers and internet mischief makers who fill their days defacing memorials for suicide victims, posting flashing images to epilepsy websites and theorizing about their role as an elite, transgressive vanguard. Trolling, Schwartz wrote in 2008, “has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.” The story depicts one Andrew Aurenheimer, better known by his hacker sobriquet Weev, who, even then, “displayed a misanthropy far harsher” than the article’s other subjects:
Trolling is basically internet eugenics,” he said, his voice pitching up like a jet engine on the runway. “I want everyone off the internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. … We need to put these people in the oven! I listened for a few more minutes as Weev held forth on the Federal Reserve and about Jews.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Weev popped back into the public eye when an image circulated of his post on Daily Stormer, named after the Nazi publication Der Stürmer. Accompanying a picture of Heather Heyer, the protester tragically killed at the Charlottesville counter-demonstration, Weev had added the caption: “What’s the location of this fat skank’s funeral? …i want to get people on the ground there.”
Weev’s journey, from anti-Semitic troll to alt-right neo-Nazi, did not require much of a leap. Yet along the way, because of his activities as a hacker and prosecution by the government, he had a number of high profile left-wing defenders like Natasha Lennard, an unofficial spokesperson for the putative anti-fascist activists known as Antifa and the author of widely read articles celebrating Nazi punching. When former progressive supporters were confronted about their public support they claimed, entirely plausibly, that they simply didn’t believe Weev really meant what he was saying. Buzzfeed’s exposé shows Yiannopolous, an openly gay man, soliciting editorial advice from the virulently anti-gay Weev and angling to bring him onto his podcast as a guest with a note to his editor calling him a “great provocative guest … one of the funniest, smartest and most interesting people I know. … Very on brand for me.”
So was Milo a secret Nazi all along? Had weev, singlehandedly tricked everyone from his champions in Occupy Wall Street to media contacts like Yiannopoulos? Or, was something else going on, was there something further down poisoning the water?
New York magazine’s culture-war observer Jesse Singal subscribed to trolling culture’s own best trick in an essay last year where he argued that Trump supporting alt-right “trolls” online could not be understood with conventional moral and political categories:
A political journalist covering this “movement,” then, is going to make certain assumptions about it that would be reasonable in any other context, but which get quickly melted down by the sheer weird lulzy heat of chan culture—namely, that the actions of the participants in these online spectacles are motivated by normal, normie incentives and goals and politics. Nope—they’re just in it for the lulz.
The other argument now being made that the heyday of ironic trolling in the internet’s creative counterculture is distinct from the current politics of the Trump-supporting alt-right suggests a fundamental break between the old freewheeling 4chan of /b/, it’s random board, and the new far-right 4chan of /pol/, its politics board. And by extension a clear line of distinction between the old promise of the internet and its contemporary reality. But the truth is both more interesting and more unsettling. The rise of digital fascism in online subcultures once celebrated for their subversive power is not a break with their origins but in fact continuous with them. The alt-right was never in doubt about the purposes and uses of 4Chan’s trolling culture, as an essay on CounterCurrents, an influential alt-right publication, made clear: “The one thing /pol/ respects is power, and those without it are fair game for ridicule by virtue of it being not only hilarious, but morally justified in the spitting-upon of one’s enemies.” The far right knew what progressives are only beginning to realize: “Lulz” wasn’t just an amoral defiance of moral categories, it was an ethical claim. Through years of pre-political collective bullying, it trained those who would go on to become alt-right to deprogram the moral codes that might cause feelings of guilt and empathy by aestheticizing the collective dehumanization of enemies.
The failure to see trolling for what it was, in its germinative form on 4Chan and other message boards, and in Yiannopoulos’ opportunistic appropriation, was a collapse of moral and political imagination across the spectrum. Progressives in thrall to transgressive signaling and rule-breaking praised the nascent alt-right for “fighting the power. Liberals who couldn’t imagine that trolls might be otherwise regular people who used lulz to indulge an appetite for cruelty and the irrational and vent sincere but unspeakable desires.
Conservatives desperate to take back culture from the liberals, and libertarians who’d accept any allies in the battle against PC, invited Yiannopolous and others like him into their midst, who then in turn left the side door open for neo-Nazis and white nationalists. They all had a part to play in bringing us here.
In recent years two powerful currents in trolling came together to produce the digital vanguard of the alt-right. One was opposition to political correctness and the increasingly censorious culture of mainstream liberalism. The other was a creeping despair. Where the anti-PC sentiment had a fairly broad appeal, this was a more pointed sentiment. It was associated in its political dimensions with increasingly maligned and alienated young white men who saw their career and social prospects narrowing at the same time as interpersonal relations seemed to fracture and grow more mercenary. Feminism, immigration and demographic shifts changed both the labor and cultural environments. Naturally, white men who had the most status to lose, reacted with the greatest vehemence. Some became embittered and joined together in subcultural communities of resentment. They saw themselves not just as victims of circumstance but came to believe they had been cheated out of their rightful power and influence by a conspiracy of interlopers: women, minorities, Jews.
The hacker scholar Gabriella Coleman has compared 4chan’s trolls to the dadaists and in a particular unintended way there was truth in this comparison. Egging each other on under the cloak of anonymity, free to voice their fears and desires, the young men of 4Chan unleashed tremendous creative energies that still influence and redound in mainstream popular culture. If the 4Chan hive could sometimes behave like an art collective, it is also the case that Dadaists, in common with other modernist movements, were drawn to totalitarian temptations. Dadaism was dedicated to aesthetics above all and politically incoherent, but it evinced a belief “that the style and the beautiful gesture was all that mattered” as the historian Walter Laqueur wrote in his cultural history of the Weimar Republic, “and for that reason sympathized with the bomb throwers rather than their victims.”
There is a view in the popular imagination of art as an inherently enlightened, revolutionary force. This default association of artistic genius with the left still blinds people after more than a century to the strain of totalitarian yearning that runs from the Romantics through the modernists and postmodernists and down to their descendents in the present. Which is to say that the aesthetic energy of 4Chan’s early trolling culture hardly precluded its embrace of far-right reactionary politics. Was Salvador Dalí just trolling when, in 1934, he “proclaimed that Hitler’s surrealist personality was as admirable as that of Sade or of Lautreamont,” as Alistair Hamilton recounts in his book, The Appeal of Fascism? The lure of fascism among intellectuals and artists, Hamilton writes, “had its origins in sheer rebelliousness, in an anarchistic revolt directed against the established order.”
Today, the revolt against the established order has taken new forms. The politics of postmodern ressentiment, which the French novelist Michel Houellebecq has been dramatizing for decades as the terminal stage of European civilization, has lately arrived with unexpected force in America. Instead of Houellebecq’s ageing jaded libertines who have experienced the full course of the sexual revolution, America offers the young, often sexually inexperienced, men of 4chan, immersed in the most extreme material the free internet had to offer. Steeped in an online world of gruesome sexual violence and sadistic horrors they became known for targeting helpless individuals, like the families of suicide victims. What started as hedonism—Internet as pornographic paradise—ends with a Weimar-like counter-reaction. Once again, modernity’s perennial war against itself begins in rebellious nihilism that creates an unbearably contingent sense of existence and ends with a camp of rebels fleeing freedom into an embrace of violence, absolutism and the idolatry of race.
The characteristic image of the 4chan user and proto-alt-right member reflects the combination of fear and derision directed towards such people by mainstream culture. It is the image of the basement dweller, alone in his dark dungeon, furtively hunched over the pallid light of the computer screen. It is a version of the same image, a weakened photocopy over the centuries, of the Marquis de Sade, forefather of the modern political marriage of sexual sadism, emancipatory rhetoric, and the totalitarian desire to lord, by the rule of nature, over all of nature starting with the torture of the weak.
The journey within the internet’s once celebrated counterculture from recreational sadism and artistic nihilism to overt fascism is neither a sharp political turn or a put-on; rather, it is the tracing, once again, of a familiar emotional and political arc. It is a hollowed out aesthetic radicalism, emptied of any moral, humane or even political core, reaching its logical conclusion.
In The Rebel, Albert Camus’ investigation into the origins of totalitarian politics, he quotes from the German philosopher Max Stirner: “To break with what is sacred, or rather to destroy the sacred, could become universal. It is not a new revolution that is approaching—but is not a powerful, proud, disrespectful, shameless, conscienceless crime swelling like a thundercloud on the horizon, and can you not see that the sky, heavy with foreboding, is growing dark and silent?” Of Stirner’s portent, Camus writes, “here we can feel the somber joy of those who create an apocalypse in a garret.” And have we not witnessed something similar in recent years, the somber joy of an apocalypse in the basement?
With Trump, the ultimate taboo-breaker, as president, and a far-right cultural vanguard cultivating the aesthetics of transgression, it seems the destruction of the sacred has merged once again with the politics of the far-right, this time through the technologies of democratization built by Silicon Valley’s oligarchs. If a new revolution approaches will the countercultural clothes it wears still blind us to what it heralds?
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Jacob Siegel is a New York based writer who has written for The New York Times, the New York Daily News and Vice and was formerly a staff reporter at The Daily Beast covering war and protest politics. He was an author and editor of the fiction anthologyFire and Forget. Angela Nagle is the author of Kill All Normies: From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right.