The social media thrust of the “alt-right” is characterised by two approaches. One is the mobilisation of humour – sometimes laconic, sometimes sociopathic. The other is the resurrection and re-engineering of original imagery from the Third Reich.
As a result, the alt-right is a moving target, able to tease, and able to deny the authenticity of their content because of its comedic packaging; in the words of Jason Wilson, “the alt-right have stormed mainstream consciousness by weaponising irony, and by using humour and ambiguity as tactics to wrongfoot their opponents” . It is rare that they advance a straight argument, or in fact any argument at all.
But they are indeed a cult. Their power comes from a series of social media sites such as Elders of the Black Sun; Stop Degeneracy; Nazi Tinder; Art of the True Right; Strictly Ubermensch; Men Among the Ruins; Trumpenreich. The subcultural and cultist elements effectively disarm potential critics via their very oddity.
There is a rhetoric and a ritual script. They have created an esoteric private language with terms like cuck, red pill, deus vault; and famously their brand logo of Pepe the Frog; not to mention their local hero, the assailant of Anti-fa protesters, “Based Stickman”, as well as their bizarre country, Kekistan.
Left-wing and Anti-fa demonstrators are their special objects of loathing, and pictures of Nazis are always the balm after some image of liberal transgression. Vistas of a granite-faced Hitler abound. He is the constant point of reference and, over 70 years after his death, of hope (“How about a Fuhrer appreciation post?”).
They feature Hitler in a baseball cap saying Make America Great Again, while the famous Hoffmann images of Hitler practicing oratorical gestures are turned into a brilliant laser-lit disco performance. Their memes are typically juvenile: “What women think men want – bikinis. What men really want – fascist salutes.”
The sites of those who define themselves as “alt-right” are rabidly anti-Semitic and for them the Holocaust is a fiction. The first citizen of anti-Semite agitation is the “news” magazine Stormer, for whom Jews are “a true threat to all living things”. Grotesque caricatures of Jews are in effect its brand logo, and there is no question as to the source of its inspiration. Thus its headline of 20 April 2017 “Why free speech and free internet advocates must love Hitler”, accompanied by an image of Hitler with “banned” written over him (paralleling an NSDAP poster of the Weimar era).
Islam is another enemy, of course, and a frequent image is of a frowning, bearded mullah scolding: “That’s haram!” The alt-right places supreme value on the European race or what Adolf Hitler himself called the Prometheus of mankind. The notion is of cultural displacement, that there is an existential threat to "white culture”. This occurs precisely at the point in American history where the nation is poised to lose its white majority, a critical juncture.
African Americans are a particular target. One crime of a black person is the crime of all black people everywhere, a familiar Goebbels-style rhetorical trick. The alleged mannerisms and culture of African Americans are caricatured in parodies which are beyond crude. They also mock the aspirations of African Americans to their own heritage: “we wuz kangz (kings) and sh*t”.
There is no kind of rhetorical uplift or vision for the alt-right cause, just sick jokes and depravity. Artfully contrived images of overweight, weepy leftist demonstrators – “fat f**k who cried”, “autistic screech” – contrast with grim- visaged Third Reich warriors.
They are sadistic: the suicide of a transgender teen is greeted with “Good riddance”. We are told (on Elders of the Black Sun) that “Elder Zyklon” calculates 2,281 Jews a minute were exterminated (set against a picture of Auschwitz). Stop Degeneracy offers a picture of a “girls’ night out”, then followed by a “guys’ night out”, depicting Kristallnacht in 1938.
Yet the alt-right is not an organisation but a disorganisation. The process is essentially crowd-sourced, originally via the message board 4Chan. Exactly like Isis propaganda, the hive mind produces it with weak or zero corporate control: readers are both producers and consumers, and it is open source.
Here then is the gathered harvest of personal bitterness. Lonely individuals map onto these causes their own frustrations. Underlying it all is an appeal to solidarity, the community of shared views and values.
In our online world there are feeble social ties, maybe replicating the actual and external world its activists inhabit, so there is great value in creating a shared enemy to enhance evanescent relationships. They find pleasure from numbers, the discovery of like-minded confederate. One effect is to make such views socially acceptable again, not least because memes leak into the world beyond and they legitimise bigotry.
The common denominator is a hatred of American and European liberalism: the alt-right movement gathered momentum during the period of the Trump campaign and his presidency, which has emboldened such views. The movement has discovered a persuasive formula of great power, one that eschews direct confrontation. It seeks neither to harangue with argument nor beguile with rhetoric, but to ridicule, and to elude the scrutiny of conscience by virtue of its levity and lack of seriousness.
Hitler’s derived lesson from World War One was that German failure was in essence a failure of propaganda. His supercharged propaganda script has had a fatal influence well beyond his era. The unthinkable has happened: fascism has found a modern voice, regenerated via the clever device of “weaponised irony” and original Nazi imagery.
Ostensibly crusaders against political correctness, alt-right inspiration really derives from a regime that dissolved in the smoldering ruins of Berlin more than 70 years ago. It is a very old and dangerous message, restored for young voices.
Nicholas O’Shaughnessy is Professor of Communication at Queen Mary University of London, UK; Visiting Professor (2016-2018) in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, UK and a Quondam Fellow of Hughes Hall Cambridge, UK. Nicholas is the author or co-author or editor of numerous books on commercial and political persuasion, including Politics and Propaganda, Weapons of Mass Seduction and most recently Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand.
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