A protester holds a sign depicting Pepe the Frog, a popular a symbol within the alt-right, at a rally in California

This article is a preview from the Winter 2017 edition of New Humanist.

When Hillary Clinton attacked the alt-right during the 2016 US presidential election campaign, slamming its adherents as a “­basket of deplorables”, she brought it to worldwide attention. Before then the alt – “alternative” – right had been little more than a loose grouping of internet trolls, “men’s rights” activists, neo-Nazis and libertarians who had coalesced around their shared hatred of feminists, on websites like 4chan and Reddit. Their domain was the “imageboard”: a kind of internet forum where ­users mainly post images, often containing the jokes, insults and other memes deployed in online culture wars.

Kill All Normies, a recent book by the journalist and academic Angela Nagle, traces the development of the alt-right from obscure roots to the rise of media personalities like Milo Yiannopoulos and the movement’s role in the rise of Donald Trump. Nagle watched the alt-right form and grow while studying for a PhD looking at online anti-feminist subcultures. The book traces the alt-right back to the 2014 phenomenon known as #GamerGate, where ­misogynists used anonymous social media accounts to harass women in the video games industry who spoke up about sexism. Nagle discusses several other controversies which contributed to the rise of the alt-right, such as #ElevatorGate, a row involving a young woman who complained about being propositioned in an elevator at an atheist conference in Ireland. After she published her (mild) complaints in a blog post, the young woman was denigrated by male internet users aligned with the New Atheist movement, some of whom seemed to draw encouragement from a contribution to the row made by Richard Dawkins.

These disparate campaigns and subcultures eventually coalesced into the alt-right, a political current whose influence has come to bear on politics in the US and beyond – notably through the right-wing news network Breitbart. Nagle adeptly threads together the alt-right’s stages of the development, situating its battles against feminists within the left-right culture wars that have dominated American politics for the past few decades. Covering a remarkable amount of ground in a short book, Nagle also casts her net wider, examining the contribution by online subcultures to contemporary political discourse in a way few other observers have attempted.

In addition to the trolling, memes and harassment ­inspired by imageboards, Nagle analyses the new wave of feminism that emerged on the social network Tumblr. These feminists, derided by their alt-right opponents as “social justice warriors”, or SJWs for short, are often intersectionalist – they hold that different kinds of oppression, based on gender, race or class, for instance, are interlinked and should be treated as such. They are often blamed by mainstream pundits as well as right-wing extremists for a wave of “political correctness” that has allegedly swept ­university campuses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Nagle’s central argument is that the alt-right and these “Tumblr liberals”, as she describes them, exist in a symbiotic relationship. Demands made by SJWs push straight white men towards the alt-right, who then push people towards SJWs when they set out to outrage them, and so the cycle continues. But although this may seem makes a neat symmetry, it ascribes too much influence to the SJWs and risks letting the alt-right off the hook for its objectionable politics.

The danger is illustrated by one example, not discussed by Nagle, of how the culture wars have played out in Britain. In 2015 Bahar Mustafa, a former student union officer at Goldsmiths, University of London, was vilified by the media for having organised campus events that excluded white students, and for using the tongue-in-cheek Twitter hashtag #killallwhitemen. At first glance this seems like a textbook case of an over-eager SJW alienating large swathes of the population from left-wing politics, and even pushing people towards the far-right.

But that’s not exactly what happened – the media ­furore was the result of a campaign led by the alt-right to undermine anti-racist student organising. As her student ­union’s welfare and diversity officer, Mustafa had ­organised a caucus for black and minority ethnic (BME) women in a housing campaign. Caucuses for minorities have been a standard part of anti-racist organising since the 1970s and will be familiar to anyone who has joined a trade ­union – or, indeed, anyone who has heard of groups like the National Black Police Association.

Yet Mustafa found herself under attack from the right. First, a journalist and former UKIP member published an article criticising Mustafa on a student website. This was picked up by the London office of Breitbart, which went on to produce a string of articles. Mustafa received a wave of abusive social media messages from the #GamerGate crowd – and the day after Breitbart published their story, it was picked up by the national media. The row went on for months, and resulted in Mustafa’s tweets being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, who brought criminal charges against her before dropping the case.

The story of what happened to Mustafa shows how parts of the alt-right work together to achieve their goals. While journalists at websites like Breitbart – whose executive chairman Stephen Bannon has served as President Trump’s chief strategist – ran stories on Mustafa, it was the users of imageboards such as 4chan who started to harass her directly.
The goal these people share is to push back against progressive social gains, to weaken anti-racist organising at universities and other institutions and to make it difficult for individuals on the left to express their views. The example to other student union organisers is that if you try to organise a BME or women’s caucus as part of a broader student campaign, you could be dragged through the press and harassed online by people you’ve never met. This isn’t the alt-right existing in a symbiotic relationship with feminists, it’s the alt-right engaging in a political struggle against feminists and the left, going on the attack and getting results.

In August 2017, various alt-right figures took part in the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was billed as a protest against the removal of monuments to the Confederate side in the American civil war – nominally a free speech issue. But as with most alt-right battles this was just a pretext to push reactionary politics forward. Participants marched with torches, chanting neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic slogans. One anti-fascist protester was killed when an alt-right activist drove a car into a crowd; scores of others were injured. Neo-Nazis showed up with weapons ranging from machine guns to pepper spray. The alt-right isn’t just one side of a culture war; it’s part of a broad political movement that ranges from violent extremist groups to the right-wing populists who have made recent electoral breakthroughs in the US and Europe. A recent Buzzfeed investigation of emails sent by Milo Yiannopoulos when he worked at Breitbart showed just how much overlap there was between different parts of this movement.

There are some surprising gaps in Nagle’s account. For a book that focuses so heavily on the alt-right it is surprising that the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website goes unmentioned, while the blog network The Right Stuff, which hosts podcasts including one called The Daily Shoah, only merits a passing mention. Yet these are two of the most influential alt-right platforms. Another notable absence is Paul Joseph Watson, the British conspiracy theorist who seems to have taken over from Yiannopoulos as the most prominent alt-right Twitter user.

More seriously, Nagle’s disdain for Tumblr liberals – or the “identitarian privilege-checking left” as she calls them elsewhere – means she overlooks some important distinctions. For every instance of “otherkin” (a subculture whose adherents believe they are partially or entirely non-human) there is a feminist activist trying to keep sexual abusers away from her group’s meetings, or a person transitioning genders who wants to be accepted.

At the root of Kill All Normies is an argument about free speech, and where its limits should lie. The right of communities – particularly student groups – to exclude particular views or speakers they consider harmful is hotly debated in both the US and Europe. The British press thrives on stories about the alleged censoriousness and over-sensitivity of young people today. Although Nagle is critical of “liberals”, she appears to make the familiar liberal argument that everybody has a right to publicly express their ideas, that the left is wrong to try to deny the alt-right a platform, and that it should instead engage its proponents in debate. This debate, so the thinking goes, will expose their poor reasoning and good ideas will overcome bad.

But how true is this? The alt-right and other reactionary online subcultures have profited from the dedication to free speech in hacker culture, and the protections offered by the US constitution. Neo-Nazis from across the globe have long used servers hosted in the US because it allowed them to circumnavigate laws against hate speech in their home countries. This context, combined with the emergence of web 2.0 services and platforms (social ­media, YouTube, streaming), gave the various currents that fed into the alt-right a new space in which to organise. And it was #GamerGate – a deliberate campaign of harassment intended to silence feminists, not an understandable ­reaction to the excesses of student activists – that brought the new movement together. Since Charlottesville, US tech companies have started to crack down on far-right use of their services, but the culture wars show little sign of abating. To fully understand where the alt-right is coming from we need to look at what helped them come into existence, and what they are actually trying to do.

“Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right” is published by Zero Books