Sexists. Racists. Bigots. Xenophobes. Islamophobes. Deplorables.
The “alt-right” movement has been called out and tossed about by media outlets and presidential candidates. They are the dangerous fringe that has wormed their way into the campaign of the most hate-filled and unhinged presidential candidacy in American history. They are the lightning rods of all ills in American politics, tied to white nationalists, men’s rights activists, and anti-government sympathizers of all stripes.
So why are we only hearing of them now?
In short: The “alt-right,” as they’re described in the press, as they’re debated and examined by traditional political and media observers who try desperately to make sense of their supposed core principles, aren’t the movement we’re being told they are. That many of them are tied to shockingly dark and dangerous political movements is true. That what little collective glue that binds them is borne of the most disgusting parts of the internet is indisputable. That they’ve been a massive boon to the candidacy of Donald Trump is evident.
But the “alt-right” is not an organized collective in reality. They are not neo-Nazis. They are not MRAs. They are not the Klan.
The consistent, prevalent, defining visual of the Alt-Right (the real Alt-Right) is fictional:
They are The Joker.
It’s easy to recognize the elements of the Alt-Right in my generation and the generation that followed. I was just out of high school when 2008’s The Dark Knight hit theaters. I remember the thrill seeing it the first time, midnight at its opening, every time Heath Ledger’s legendary performance of The Joker arrived on screen. He was magnetic. Compelling. And seeing the film again and again, he was the focus of audiences’ obsession.
Beyond Ledger’s singular personification of this complex and unpredictable character, The Joker, in Christopher Nolan’s vision, is an inevitable force of nature. He’s not just an antagonist to Batman, he’s Batman’s dark mirror image, a man who stands for nothing, who wants to tear down every institution for the simple pleasure of doing so. Along the way, he lies about his motivations, his origins, and his goals. He obfuscates his true purpose at every turn, but also downplays his danger.
“I just do things,” the character explains at one point, summarizing his entire ethos while dramatically understating the true volatility and horror lurking in his actions. He does things, yes, but the things he does are not simple mischief, they’re grotesque acts of destruction.
In the weeks, months, and years after The Dark Knight‘s release, it was clear that the true symbol of the film in pop culture was not the protagonist, but the villain. Pictures of The Joker were common avatars on every corner of social media, the refrain “Why so serious?” cropped up in every forum and blog as a shorthand for low-level online mayhem. Trolling, which had been around since the early days of the internet, became an art symbolized by this sort of mantra. He was the hero of the trolls.
As social media became more corporatized and harassment became more and more of a problem for the bottom line of massive internet enterprises, sites began to treat trolling like a form of online terrorism, a disease to be fought until it was expunged from the most sensitive parts of the internet. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, even Reddit changed their policies to make it easier for trolls to be banned, blocked, or suspended from their activities.
At the same time, the global spread of social media became a powerful tool for social activism. Users who might otherwise have never encountered real-life feminists, members of the LGBTQ community, people of other races or cultures, or people of different social strata were given direct access to an entire world of new perspectives. The hyperbolic echo-chamber nature of internet conversation amplified strong, impassioned voices, leading to a growing intensity on behalf of social justice and political progressivism.
The results of this were many-fold, but one unfortunate byproduct of an increased social awareness on the internet was an inevitable backlash. You’ve seen it: People decrying “SJWs” (Social Justice Warriors), complaining about “PC police” (Political Correctness), mounting verbal and visual assaults on anything remotely feminist or multicultural. This sentiment has existed forever, in America and beyond. It’s not new to complain about progress in cultural movements. But the rapid and passionate sea changes that have occurred online in these areas have left many people feeling confused or attacked. The permanent nature of data means that an offhand joke you made on Twitter five years ago could make you a pariah today, as language and ideology evolve and sensitivity to certain groups of people becomes more nuanced.
In other words, the internet has become home to a war of words. On one side: Progressives and activists. On the other: Trolls.
This is where the Alt-Right comes in.
Like many of the most despicable aspects of modern American politics, it was borne out of hate. But while the media seems to be focused on the hatred of people and identities (i.e. minorities, women, immigrants, etc.), the true hatred that birthed the Alt-Right was for language. Specifically, the language of liberal activism.
Tracing the actual origin of the Alt-Right is impossible, because there is no single origin. They are a product of paleoconservatives who rejected political correctness in the 90s, and of the hackers and trolls who derided Anonymous for their activism, and of the men triggered by “Gamergate” and the rapid rise of feminism in video games, and of media personalities like Alex Jones and the editors of Breitbart who bait liberals with catchy headlines in order to spark rage and ridicule, and of the apologists who praised “The Fappening” and used the occasion to objectify women across popular culture for their bodies, and of paranoid reactionaries to used the rise of the Tea Party to foment racism and anti-government hysteria. They come from everywhere, and they come from nowhere.
Remind you of anyone?
The one commonality in every rolling event that led to what we now call the Alt-Right is a reactionary sense that people should be able to do and say whatever they wanted, and any attempt to censor that notion was an act of pious hypocrisy that needed to be exposed. What the media seems to get wrong about them is that they aren’t aimed at any particular group or groups. They simply hate whatever the dominant culture says they should embrace.
Feminism, racial diversity, multiculturalism, religious tolerance, these are ideas that the Alt-Right cannot abide not because of the ideas themselves but because of the way they feel forced to accept them. It could be any ideology at all; if the agents of progress and popular culture declare an idea to be right, they will say it is wrong.
Part of what makes the Alt-Right so troubling is their unpredictability. Like The Joker, they just do things, although it could be said just as easily that they just hate things. They find joy and comedy in waging aggressive warfare on whatever they’re told they should believe. And they delight in sparking fear and confusion.
Their work isn’t hidden. They’re right there on 4Chan, right there on Twitter, right there on YouTube.
But the Alt-Right’s greatest threat is their malleability. When we think of dangerous groups, of terrorists, we think of ideological extremists like ISIS, groups defined and coalesced by a specific core belief system. These groups are a threat to anyone who disagrees with them, and they will fight to the death to prove themselves righteous through blood.
This image of terror is accurate to a point. The groups in question are ideological and definitive. But an individual terrorist doesn’t have to be defined by that group mentality. In fact, they can simply create terror for the sake of terror itself. What many people misunderstand about groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS is that their members are not all ideological from the top down. Many times, leaders seek power through ideology by stoking the desire for chaos. They seek members who are irreverent of the status quo, who would be happy causing destruction, and give them an excuse under the guise of an ideology. They guide chaos to their ends. All it takes is a large group of people who want to blow up the dominant culture and a leader who can get point them to a target.
In short, they invite anarchists to destroy society so they can rise to power in the ashes.
Enter Donald Trump.
Now, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that Donald Trump is a terrorist, or that he’s intentionally guiding anarchists to committing violence. For one thing, I don’t think he’s smart or charismatic enough to pull that off, and for another, I don’t think he’s that interested in violence as a tool.
However, what Donald Trump has done, largely without thinking, is created a unified coalition of bigots, racists, white supremacists, anti-intellectuals, and ideological purists that simultaneously appeals to the Alt-Right’s hatred of political correctness, feminism, immigrants, and anything else that the Left would promote. They hate dominant culture, and it’s hard to argue with the fact that Hillary Clinton, with decades of political and cultural exposure and a massive establishment base, is the purest single representative of the dominant culture in politics today.
Now, this coalition is vocal, and growing, but it’s also tenuous. As the Alt-Right finds more purchase in a political movement grounded in Tea Party ideals, they can easily begin to clash with other conservatives who take themselves too seriously. It’s also important to remember that the Alt-Right has no love for the Republican Party. Those that support Donald Trump do so as a sort of national troll, a running joke not just on liberals but on conservatives and really on politicians in general, a way to show just how silly and meaningless politics really is. It’s easy to envision them clashing with a Trump administration, because once Trump is in power, he becomes the dominant force, and it’s boring to fight for the people in charge, and much more fun to be an outsider.
But if they lose? They’ll be more powerful than ever.
This election has elevated the Alt-Right to the very height of political conversation. They’re more visible than ever, more vocal and accessible than ever, and every time the words “alt-right” wind up on the internet, they grow emboldened. Their power grows the more influence they have, and their influence is based in contrarianism, trolling, and rage. The best case scenario for the Alt-Right is not a Trump presidency. It’s a Clinton presidency.
“I don’t want to kill you,” The Joker told Batman. “What would I do without you?”
The visibility and influence of the Alt-Right in this election would make them larger than ever going into a liberal, female-centered presidential term almost certainly dominated by an agenda of social change. With an audience and an unofficial membership at its largest point, the Alt-Right would find rage in daily supply. It’s easy to imagine that rage growing so vast that a few websites can’t possibly contain it. It’s easy to imagine that rage finding a purpose in the real world. All it would take is a push.
Consider the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting. A young man dyes his hair orange in tribute to his favorite movie character, then fires a flurry of bullets in a crowded movie theater. The motive? Mayhem. Destruction. Sport.
Did that shooter identify with the Alt-Right? Probably not. And most people who identify with the Alt-Right probably want nothing to do with the comparison.
But like much of the Alt-Right, the Aurora shooter was a member of my generation. He’d seen The Dark Knight enough times to be inspired. Not inspired by the film’s hero, the arbiter of justice, the man sacrificing everything to save his city from evil. But by the villain, a mad force of pure chaos, whose motives are entertainment through death and destruction, whose origins are meaningless, and whose every move is one large joke. A man who built an army of madmen, all working for their own motives, all interested only in their own satisfaction and pleasure in their self-righteous hatred of the self-righteous.
It’s fiction, of course, a constructed symbolism for a world of extremes. There is no Joker, and there is no Batman. There is no good vs. evil in the real world. There are people. People who believe and people who don’t. People who care and people who don’t. People who champion and people who defy.
People who just do things.
Featured image: Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart News.