The punditry’s dissection of the origins of the Donald Trump juggernaut has lately been joined by exhaustive analysis of a corollary phenomenon: the rise of the self-described “alt right.” The alt right is a confrontational strain of conservative thought that has recently crept out of the shadowy online precincts where it was born to assert its influence on the 2016 campaign. Right-wing news website Breitbart recently added the latest entry to the burgeoning genre with an essay titled “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.” The article ran more than 5,000 words and was co-authored by the loosely affiliated movement’s most prominent figurehead, a British writer named Milo Yiannopoulos.
For those looking to understand the alt-right phenomenon, an examination of Yiannopoulos and his online persona is a good place to start. He presents a stark alternative to the staid Heritage Foundation set. Openly gay, sporting a shock of blond hair and boasting nearly 200,000 Twitter followers, Yiannopoulos has sworn allegiance to Trump, whom he calls “Daddy.” He has also taken to posing with semi-automatic weapons. Recently, he circulated a photo of himself holding an AK-47 and a Louis Vuitton handbag, while wearing a suit and a camouflage “Make America Great Again” hat.
If the alt right has a coherent credo, it’s to wage war on what it sees as politically correct speech and thought. The movement’s members seem to latch onto certain ideas and images due to the outrage they cause across the political spectrum. This explains how Trump, who embraced the politics of divisiveness long before the Internet even existed, has become an alt-right folk hero. It also accounts for the alt right’s embrace of guns and gun imagery.
Yiannopoulos seems to relish the iconography of firearms for the reasons that drive much of his public life: They are fraught symbols with the power to piss off other people. The alt right’s adherents don’t often invoke the “first freedom” talking point, the heritage of sportsmen, or the need for self-defense — the rhetoric used by groups like the National Rifle Association. For Yiannopoulos and much of the rest of the alt right, guns are a locus of symbolic conflict, yet another means of provocation.
The alt right, which coalesced out of several web outlets that launched in the last five years, began to gain mainstream exposure at the end of 2015, when Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray wrote a feature on the movement — its most expansive treatment in the press thus far — and tied its newfound prominence to Trump’s campaign. The lineage of the alt right itself can be traced back at least a decade further, to the “South Park Conservative” sensibility that emerged during the 2000s: As co-creator Matt Stone said, “I hate conservatives but I really fucking hate liberals.” The show ripped on Bush-era neocons and Bible thumpers just as readily as it ridiculed hypersensitive leftists. But whereas the South Park smartasses were essentially foul-mouthed independents, the alt right marshals a similar rhetorical approach in service of an extreme right wing identity politics.
In 2012, Radix, a slick website that resembles a hip critical journal (albeit one with a white nationalist bent), ran an essay that said the gun control movement is driven by women who want to repress men. “[It] comes down to the psychological roots of feminism and the desperate need of such women to control, manage and limit male agency,” the author wrote. “Essentially gun control is an attempt to perform a symbolic castration of all men in society, in particular those men that would outwardly manifest strength and a will to power by owning a gun.”
Radix is well-mannered compared to some alt-right outlets, as it has pretensions to bookish seriousness (its online store sells volumes on Heidegger). Other personalities on the alt right talk about guns and gun control in the slang-heavy argot of the internet. On the podcast “Fash the Nation” (fash being an abbreviation for “fascist”), cohost Marcus Halberstam (a name apparently lifted from the novel American Psycho) once said, “obviously, leftoids … their target really is huhwhite America, to see us disarmed.” (“Huhwhite” here translates roughly to “rednecks,” a reappropriated slur.)
During Halberstam’s podcast episode, a guest going by the name Reactionary Tree fantasized about an armed uprising of the “cuckservatives,” an epithet for metaphorically cuckolded or politically impotent conservatives who shy away from asserting racial chauvinism. He posited a scenario where a Scalia-less Supreme Court could overturn rulings like District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark decision that found that Second Amendment protections extend to individuals. If it was overturned, might that spark a right wing political awakening? “What would happen if they would come for our guns?” Reactionary Tree asked. “Would the cuckservative, middle-state Americans just give up their guns … or will they fight back?” Even as Reactionary Tree heaped contempt on mainstream conservatives for their perceived decades of acquiescence to contemporary political mores, he seemed to approve of their attachment to guns, since it could catalyze a violent reaction.
While much of the alt right’s hateful rhetoric has remained confined to violent fantasizing, Trump’s march to the Republican nomination appears to have coaxed some leading figures to think more about the real world usefulness of carrying a gun. Matt Forney, author of virulently misogynistic posts on the men’s rights website Return of Kings, has enthusiastically embraced Trump online. He has called for movement diehards to leave the safety of their chatrooms and engage in the real world.
When a Trump rally in Chicago was cancelled in mid-March — after the campaign erroneously said local police warned of violent protesters, despite scant evidence — Forney advised his followers to pack heat when they vote in upcoming primaries. He tweeted, “If it’s legal in your area, CCW permit holders may want to bring their guns when they vote for Trump on Tuesday #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.” Forney also suggested that “with leftists using violence to shut down Trump rallies, the next step is Trump supporters showing up with guns. #TrumpRiots.”
It’s not clear whether that is happening. While Trump supporters have punched, grabbed, and pepper sprayed protesters, no one has yet been shot.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that a Trump supporter had sexually assaulted a protestor. Initial reports of a confrontation at a Trump rally in Wisconsin said a Trump supporter groped a teenage protestor, but police have said there is no evidence to support the allegation.
[Photo: Mike Mahoney]