Like every young star before him, it was inevitable that PewDiePie would seek to separate himself from the clean-cut image through which he found fame.
For Justin Bieber, it was tattoos and car crashes, and for the 27-year-old YouTube star most famous for his video game reviews, it was a series of anti-Semitic jokes – because you know, laughing about the Holocaust is edgy.
In his videos, followed by 53 million subscribers, he has shown swastika fan art, played the Nazi anthem, and given a brief Hitler salute. What a joker. In the most recent video, PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg (because I can’t bear to type out such a stupid YouTube name ever again) reportedly paid two Indians through a crowdfunding website to hold up a sign which read “Death to all Jews”. A white guy with a net worth of $124m (£100m) making poor brown people hold up a sign calling for genocide is pure banter, isn’t it?
In response to criticism he said he was “trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services online” and denied endorsing anti-Semitism. This excuse wasn’t enough for Disney, who ended their joint venture with the vlogger following the investigation into the content of his videos by the Wall Street Journal.
There’s nothing particularly fresh about Kjellberg’s antics – using Nazi slogans and imagery to be provocative is something young people have been doing since the Nineties. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, becoming a neo-Nazi in East Germany was a form of youthful rebellion against the state; the same went for UK punks in the 1970s. What better way to antagonise communist and liberal elites and your parents than parading around as their old fascist enemy? Rather than sticking it to your mum and dad alone, rebellion and controversy in this digital age converts into straight-up clicks. This is the bread and butter for people like Kjellberg.
In the past this puerile online version of drawing swastikas in school toilets wouldn’t have been an issue if it wasn’t for the fact that at the very same time, actual neo-Nazis, fascists, alt-right, far-right, whatever-name-you-want-to-use-as-short-hand-for-being-racists weren’t putting on fresh new suits and making their repulsive politics more palatable.
There are apparently three “looks” for the discerning far-right gentleman (I couldn’t find any tips for women – sorry, ladies). There’s the “retro” Eighties skinhead look of acid wash jeans, bomber jacket and white-laced Docs; “heritage” chic involving tweed worthy of Farage; then there’s the “fascie” trend comprising dark suits, loafers and an undercut – think Peaky Blinders meets Milo Yiannopoulos. The Southern Poverty Law Centre in America summed it up, describing Richard Spencer as “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old. A kind of professionalised racist in khakis.”
The millennial élan of Spencer and Yiannopoulos and the “harmless” edgy jokes of PewDiePie work towards the same end: they normalise racism. The alt-right doesn’t dress too dissimilarly from hipsters working in PR, and baby-faced Kjellberg quips about Jews in the style of your little brother making fart jokes.It makes discrimination against religious minorities appear socially acceptable, culturally passable, normal.
Michael Rosen once wrote: “I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters”. No, in 2017 fascism arrives wearing a suit, a tie and a “Subscribe now” button.