A few months ago, I encountered a Facebook troll with a remarkable cover photo. It was a still from the movie The Matrix, the iconic moment when Neo stops a wall of bullets—but Keanu Reeves’ head had been photoshopped out and replaced with the head of Adolf Hitler.
The visual rhetoric of this image combined the ideology of two groups currently plaguing the internet: neo-Nazis (some of whom identify as “alt-right”) and men who have “swallowed the Red Pill” (another Matrix callback, referencing the moment Neo swallows a pill given to him by Morpheus and chooses enlightenment over blissful ignorance). Red Pillers claim that they alone see through an “establishment narrative” that oppresses heterosexual white men. At this moment in history, the so-called alt-right and the Red Pill groups substantially overlap. But that has not always been the case, and I doubt it will be for long.
In the weeks since President-elect Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon as his Chief Strategist, the alt-right has received a flood of attention. Recently that attention has turned to the problem of terminology: is the “alternative right” just a hip millennial re-branding of white supremacy? In response, someone created a Chrome extension that replaces “alt-right” with “white supremacy”; then, when that was deemed not quite right, “neo-Nazi.” Lindy West, a former Jezebel writer, prefers the term “Nazi.” But as Brendan O’Connor has pointed out here, that isn’t quite accurate. (Meanwhile, the Associated Press isn’t yet sure what to call them, but does want to “be precise” when using the term.)
I’m not sure what the best name for the group is either. Unfortunately for writers, the alt-right resists easy terminology, because it is changing so quickly and because it isn’t even one single coherent movement. While that has been true of many historical movements, including early Nazism, the confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the alt-right exists almost exclusively online and is made up mostly of pseudonymous individuals who lack a clear unified agenda. Some people who identify as alt-right are neo-Nazis, while others are merely against social justice movements and “political correctness.” And one part of the problem is the larger Red Pill community’s desire to assimilate themselves into the alt-right to capitalize on the media attention the newer movement is getting. So far, it’s working: an article in The Guardian identified “the manosphere” as “part of the phenomenon known as the ‘alt-right.’” But that is a mischaracterization. Equating the alt-right with Nazis, or with the manosphere, makes them seem easily categorizable. We need to be clearer about what the relationships between these online bigotry communities have been, currently are, and likely will be in the future.
Other writers have laid out the history of the alt-right movement in great depth, so I won’t go into it much here. The short version goes something like this: the term was coined by Richard Spencer, president of the white supremacist think tank National Policy Institute (NPI), and then picked up by various “shitposters” on 4chan’s /pol/ who then started a meme war using Pepe the Frog.
The focus on white nationalists like Spencer and a cartoon frog often drawn in an SS uniform perpetuates the idea that the alt-right are just a new face for Nazism. Just a few weeks ago, Richard Spencer was quoting Nazi propaganda in German to a crowd of people shouting “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” in Washington, D.C. The Nazi link is strengthened by Andrew Anglin’s site The Daily Stormer, which seems to present itself as the spiritual successor to the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer.
Anglin has claimed that a major characteristic of the Alt-Right is “non-ironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism.” Some Nazi references are sincerely meant, and others are deployed for shock value. Still others, like Spencer’s use of the word “Lügenpresse”—“lying press,” a term often used in Nazi Germany to discredit the media—create the illusion of historical continuity for the Alt-Right to draw on, implying that similar movements have been successful before and can be again.
But the Nazis are only one of several white histories that the men of the alt-right have grafted themselves onto. They are also happy to self-mythologize as the inheritors of other bigoted pasts, including the Ku Klux Klan and, from my research, classical antiquity. (That Facebook troll I mentioned earlier left a hateful comment claiming that the people who live in Greece are not really Greek, and “if your heart is on Homer, Hesiod, Plato et al. then *YOU* are the Greek, not the knowing peasants you are romanticizing.”) The Nazis also saw themselves as the inheritors of classical antiquity, but the alt-right has adopted a new stance toward the Classics: they are the protectors of the rich legacy of the classical tradition, defending it against attacks by liberal universities who want to strip all “dead white men” from the canon.
In this fight, the alt-right has found a useful ally in the Red Pill community, which is also invested in portraying itself as the inheritors of the Western tradition. The alt-right is, in fact, quite small: r/altright has fewer than 9,000 registered users, and Slatestarcodex estimates its total size at less than 50,000 members. But the Red Pill community is much larger—r/theredpill boasts over 175,000 members. This marriage has given the alt-right the impression of bulk, of being a large and therefore somewhat significant internet force, when in reality it is a small but very loud one. But while the two communities have some shared goals, they are not the same.
I’ve been lurking on various Red Pill sites for over a year now to do research for a book about how these men talk about ancient Greece and Rome. (Which they do, much more than one might expect. They are especially obsessed with the concept of Stoicism.) In that time, I’ve been an almost-daily visitor to the r/theredpill and r/mensrights subreddits, along with A Voice For Men, Return of Kings, and the personal blogs of some of the men one might call “thought leaders” in the community. When I started my research, none of these sites explicitly identified as alt-right—but gradually, over the course of the constantly worsening nightmare that has been 2016, most of them have aligned themselves with the movement to varying degrees.
Nobody in their right mind would call Return of Kings a bastion of human decency. But when I became a regular (if resistant) reader of the site, most of its vitriol was reserved for predictable targets—especially Muslims and SJWs (“social justice warriors”). While its writers have dabbled in barely-coded anti-Semitism in the past, others have argued against it—though their gradual shift became clear in July with the article “Is Antisemitism Genuine Bigotry Or A Practical Counterdefense Against A Powerful Tribe?” Roosh V, a “neomasculine” man with a poor imitation of a Duck Dynasty beard, has gone from arguing in February that “The Alt Right Is Worse Than Feminism In Attempting To Control Male Sexual Behavior” to saying in August, “While we are not officially an alt right site, we share much overlap with them in the general alternative sphere.” (He also refuses to denounce Richard Spencer for his recent forays into blatant Nazi rhetoric.)
This shift over time is echoed across the “manosphere.” Milo “feminism is worse than cancer” Yiannopoulos has gone from being a conservative provocateur at Breitbart News to becoming a figurehead for first GamerGate and then the alt-right. Mike Cernovich also became part of the Red Pill community with GamerGate before shifting to the alt-right, as did Theodore “Vox Day” Beale, a marital rape truther and science fiction writer whose most notable accomplishment may be getting surrealist gay erotica writer Chuck Tingle nominated for a Hugo Award (although, for complicated racist reasons, Beale claims he’s part of a subset of the alt-right he invented called “the alt-west”). The writer of the site Chateau Heartiste (commonly thought to be James “Roissy” Weidmann) always combined pickup artist advice with flagrant, deeply disturbing racism—he once wrote about “the intuitive understanding existing in all people (even nonWhites) that White woman pussy is the Moloko Bush of earthly pussy”—but only began identifying as part of the Alt-Right a few months ago.
So why have so many white, male leaders of communities and websites that used to focus on sex and gender shifted in recent months to anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and complaining about “(((the media)))”? In part, of course, because these men were always grossly bigoted and racist. The outspokenness of the alt-right empowered other men to share anti-Semitic views that they might otherwise have been quiet about. But in addition, the alt-right was getting a lot of attention. And attention, more than anything else, is what these men crave. That’s why they all celebrated when Hillary Clinton mentioned the alt-right at a speech in Reno in August. The insertion of men into the alt-right who are at least as interested in sex and sexism as they are in anti-Semitism has created fault lines within the movement.
You can see these internal tensions in Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari’s March article on Breitbart, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the alt-right,” in which the writers claim, “For the meme brigade, it’s just about having fun. They have no real problem with race-mixing, homosexuality, or even diverse societies: it’s just fun to watch the mayhem and outrage that erupts when those secular shibboleths are openly mocked.” Andrew Anglin then immediately denounced this perspective on The Daily Stormer in an article with the title “Breitbart’s alt-right Analysis is the Product of a Degenerate Homosexual and an Ethnic Mongrel” saying, “Of course we hate these people. Saying that we don’t hate them, and it’s all a big joke because we want to anger our parents, is not just spin, it’s an outright lie.” Along with Yiannopoulos, Valizadeh has also been targeted by the men of the alt-right, many of whom see him as a crypto-Muslim who writes guides for how to travel to Eastern Europe and steal white women from the white men to whom their vaginas rightfully belong.
In a post on Chateau Heartiste with the title “Why The alt-right Is Kicking Ass And Taking Names,” Roissy invokes a favorite Red Pill volume, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, to describe why the alt-right is such a successful movement. He seems particularly enamored of Rule 48, “Assume Formlessness”: “Be mentally agile. Make it hard for you to be pigeon-holed. Move swiftly and surely to new topics and rhetorical lines of attack before foes have the time and floppy-wristed back-up to fully digest the nature of their vivisected egos and to mount a counter-attack.” The confusion over what terminology to use for the alt-right is proof that he wasn’t entirely wrong: the formlessness of the alt-right does make it hard to pin down. But its lack of a coherent and stable ideology is also a tremendous weakness, fomenting internal friction within the community, and may lead to it splintering completely.
So how can we define these groups if they’re indefinable? The alt-right is more ideologically diverse than most people are willing to admit; in fact, that is the only way in which the movement might be said to be diverse. (In a sense, it is a truly intersectional group, with an agenda that is both racial and gendered.) It contains hard-line anti-Semitic white nationalists, but also shitposters and PUAs and GamerGaters playing at politics. Calling all of these men “neo-Nazis” is a tactical error, because it perpetuates the illusion of unity. It also encourages the mistaken belief that these men are almost exclusively white nationalists. Some of them are, but others are as sexist as they are racist. Maybe more.
Indeed, though it has perhaps been glossed over in the discussion lately, gender plays a crucial role in alt-right discourse. Their favorite insult is “cuck,” short for “cuckold,” figuring political impotence as emasculation. The term grew popular with a specific genre of pornography where white men watch their white wives have sex with black men—and that obsession with what color penis is allowed to enter a white woman’s vagina is common throughout the “game” community. (If you have a strong stomach, do an internet search for “mudsharking.”) Many of these men are convinced that rape culture is a fiction in the United States—but is real in Islamic countries, with a sleight-of-hand that covers up sexism with racism.
Only a few weeks ago, Return of Kings published a predictably horrifying article with the title “11 Tips For Raising Your Daughter on the Red Pill” which advises, among other things, that you should hit on waitresses in front of your children so they can see what game looks like. Over the course of the article, the author casually mentions that he’s Jewish, and that he thinks it’s important to raise daughters with faith and tradition. And in the hundreds of comments, there are only a few that are blatantly anti-Semitic (and only one use of the Happy Merchant meme that I saw). Far more commenters were insulting him for being divorced and therefore not having good enough game to control his wife. These men are clearly not the same people shouting “Hail Trump! Hail Victory!” with Richard Spencer.
The Red Pill community has made any number of mind-boggling rhetorical moves, including using a movie made by two trans women as a symbol of flagrant misogyny, racism, and transphobia. Enfolding themselves into the alt-right is the latest move that makes little logical sense. The only way to understand the alt-right is to stopping thinking of it as a single monolithic entity and realize that it is a fragile coalition of hateful ideologies, of deplorable men using the internet to perform white masculinity by playacting as Nazis to feed on our fear.
Donna Zuckerberg (@donnazuck) is editor of Eidolon, an online Classics journal. She received her PhD from Princeton in 2014 for her dissertation on ancient Greek tragedy and comedy. Read more of her work here.