From 4chan to the White House
By Mike Wendling
294 pp. Pluto Press. Paper, $18.
As Donald Trump went from reality television star to United States president, an obscure, fervently Trump-backing right-wing movement calling itself the “alt-right” gained wide attention. That raised a question: How should journalists, politicians or even ordinary citizens think about this group?
In his book “Alt Right: From 4chan to the White House,” the BBC journalist Mike Wendling demonstrates that good old reporting is the answer. By paying close, critical attention to the alt-right — most important, doing so long enough to see through its fog of lies, misdirection and trolling — he has developed a well-rounded understanding of the movement, and created an important guide to one of the most disturbing political developments of our time.
Each chapter in his short book takes on one aspect of the alt-right. Wendling writes about the “Intellectuals” (like the democracy-hating Curtis Yarvin), the “Racialists” (peddlers of racist pseudoscience), the “Channers” (4chan forum posters) and the “Meninists” (male anti-feminist activists). He discusses the movement’s abuses of language and its obsession with the media. Finally, he describes the neo-Nazis and other violent white supremacists who have come more to the front since the election of Trump. What united all these groups was a (sometimes irony-cloaked) attachment to hard-right politics, especially on race and gender, together with a seething hatred of liberals, leftists and above all “social justice warriors,” those campus leftists supposedly obsessed with political correctness, safe spaces and trigger warnings. The fact that the basic agenda of the alt-right is making America a safe space for white men and that its major political activity is whining on the internet when someone disrespects its cultural totems are only two signs of many of how this crowd projects its own insecurities onto others.
Although Trump’s victory was a tremendous boost for the alt-right, Wendling argues convincingly that it is already cracking up under the weight of its own contradictions. Winning the presidency sapped much of the strength of a movement that defines itself almost exclusively through what it hates. Wendling shrewdly notes that despite its edgy, countercultural pretensions, the alt-right is almost entirely “culturally sterile.” Endless piles of ephemeral internet memes aside, it has produced little or no music, literature, film or poetry.
During the campaign, more “moderate” members like Milo Yiannopoulos presented themselves as merely trolling when making bigoted or hateful comments. But after the election the extreme elements of the movement stepped up their abuse and terrorism, as seen in Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere. Later Buzzfeed uncovered documents showing Yiannopoulos himself had been working hand in glove with outright white supremacists to promote their views under his moderate facade.
But the dishonest void at the heart of the alt-right meant it could not unite around any realistic policies, which has severely hampered it politically. The most significant representative of the movement within the Trump administration, the former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon, was easily outmaneuvered by traditional Republicans and pushed out of the administration. Now Trump’s cabinet is heavily skewed toward wealthy financiers, and the only major legislation the Republican government has managed to pass is a huge tax cut tilted toward the rich. “The entire right has been duped,” Wendling finds one 4chan poster concluding.
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