How the Alt-Right Have Reclaimed and Rebranded 'Alternative'
An always-useful thought experiment is to imagine seeing all the media around you for the first time — consciously, like a teenager freshly awakened to the existence of politics or an artificial intelligence that has just blinked across some humanoid threshold. This is especially handy lately, in our strange moment of flux. A wide-yed observer of today’s political media wouldn’t just see different voices and outlets with contrasting tendencies. It would see a disorienting game of rhetorical appropriation, in which it is constantly unclear who stands for which principles and why.
An essential feature of the rise of Trumpism has been the brazen inversion, that trusty maneuver in which you wield your critics’ own values against them — say, borrowing the language of social justice to argue that the “oppressor” is actually oppressed or suddenly embracing progressive social causes in the service of criticizing Islam. It’s a blunt but effective rhetorical confiscation, in which a battle-ready right relishes its ability to seize, inhabit and neutralize the arguments and vocabularies of its opponents, reveling in their continued inability to formulate any sort of answer to the trusty old ‘‘I know you are, but what am I?’’
There’s something similar in the right’s gradual appropriation of the word ‘‘alternative’’ — an appropriation that, for lack of a stronger claim by disappearing alt-weeklies or leftist publishers, seems to be working. ‘‘They just want me to be the devil because I’m the alternative media,’’ said the Trump-approved conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, after his recent interview with NBC News’s Megyn Kelly. That description might seem incongruous, but it’s increasingly standard on the right to characterize sites like Jones’s Infowars, The Gateway Pundit and even Breitbart as ‘‘alternative.’’ Plenty of others have followed suit: Media Matters for America, the left-leaning watchdog group, uses ‘‘alternative’’ to describe the same constellation of right-wing publishers and pundits that has been referred to as the ‘‘pro-Trump media,’’ or in the formulation of the BuzzFeed News reporter Charlie Warzel, the ‘‘upside down’’ — a reference to the nightmarish parallel dimension of Netflix’s camp horror series ‘‘Stranger Things.’’
A battle-ready right relishes its ability to seize, inhabit and neutralize the arguments and vocabularies of its opponents.
Early in the 2016 election cycle, ‘‘alternative’’ was much closer to being a literal description of the pro-Trump media coterie: They stood in opposition not just to ‘‘mainstream’’ media or the presumptive Democratic nominee but to the Republican establishment as well. Now, though, the word is both more broadly applied and less obviously applicable. This so-called alternative media is not just amplifying voices that more established media would rather not deal with; it is echoing and amplifying the voice of a Republican president presiding over a unified government. Critics may guffaw at Kellyanne Conway’s ‘‘alternative facts,’’ express revulsion at the white nationalist Richard Spencer’s ‘‘alt-right’’ or tilt their heads at Sean Hannity’s attempt to brand an ‘‘alt-left.’’ But the cumulative effect is undeniable: The ‘‘alternative’’ appropriation is working, and far more quickly than anyone might have expected.
An ‘‘alternative’’ culture, of course, can’t just consist of a cluster of media outlets. It must evoke a comprehensive way of being, a system of shared habits and sensibilities. There are plenty of right-wing media personalities who see this possibility in their movement and are fond of referring to their various brands of conservatism — whether simply Trump-supporting or far more extreme — as ‘‘the new punk rock’’ or the defining ‘‘counterculture’’ of the moment. These claims are both galling and true enough for their speakers’ purposes. Expressing racist ideas in offensive language, for example, or provoking audiences with winking fascist imagery, is, on some level, transgressive. (Both behaviors do have some precedent in the history of actual punk music.) And portraying yourself as the rebellious ‘‘alternative’’ to the people and systems that have rejected you is at least a precursor to familiar American expressions of cool.
To that end, there are now explicitly ideological online platforms vying to create a whole alternative — and ‘‘alternative’’ — infrastructure for practicing politics and culture online. Fringe-right media is extremely active on Twitter, but when its most offensive pundits and participants are banned there, they can simply regroup on Gab, the platform Breitbart recently described as a ‘‘free speech Twitter alternative.’’ Reddit, a semireluctant but significant host to right-wing activists, has a harder-right alternative in Voat, where users are free to post things that might get them banned elsewhere. Or there’s the politics community on 4chan, which has long been the de facto ‘‘alternative’’ to other online communities, serving as a lawless exile, a base for war with the rest of the web and, in recent years, a shockingly influential source of political memes — the closest thing the new right has to a native culture.
Self-styled platform refugees have also taken a more activist approach to building their own systems. Charles C. Johnson, the writer who was banned from Twitter after a post seeking donations toward ‘‘taking out’’ the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson — he has said he meant by means of journalistic investigation — runs WeSearchr, a crowdfunding site for causes that might be disallowed on mainstream platforms like GoFundMe. Recently the site gathered pledges of over $150,000 to defend Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, against a lawsuit. Pax Dickinson, the former chief technology officer of Business Insider who abruptly left the company after journalists uncovered a wider-ranging history of offensive Twitter posts, collaborated with Johnson on the service, but after a falling-out he created his own: Counter.fund is described on its website as a ‘‘crowdfunding platform built by and for the wider Alt-Right counterculture.’’
This self-described underdog sees nothing problematic in its affinity for power.
There is no burgeoning right-wing ‘‘alternative’’ Facebook or YouTube yet, but that development feels inevitable. The structures and communal ideals of the internet’s biggest platforms — the closest thing that exists to a dominant culture online — are just waiting to be inverted, seized and used for new ends, like the liberal discourse before them.
In 1993, somewhere near the peak of America’s infatuation with ‘‘alternative’’ music and culture, a feeling of crisis set in. Groups of young people had spent years building and participating in what felt to them like an independent subculture. But with breathtaking speed and audacity, its products and signifiers and favorite bands were being embraced and sent to market by the very corporations they were meant to be an alternative to. That year, in a seminal issue of The Baffler, the editor Thomas Frank’s essay ‘‘Alternative to What?’’ issued something of a state of the alt-union, pledging a long fight: ‘‘ ‘Popular culture’ is the enemy,’’ he wrote. It was, in his opinion, the character and the duty of the ‘‘alternative’’ to resist co-optation by corporate America. ‘‘For years they were too busy working their way up the corporate ladder to be bothered, but now what we have been building has begun to look usable, even marketable,’’ Frank wrote. His pessimism was palpable, but he held out hope: ‘‘We will not be devoured easily.’’
In retrospect, the essay is both overheated and prophetic, clearly ideological and narrow in its context. But its sensibility is clear. It demands safety from, not access to, the vast corporate system against which it defines itself. And more than anything, it presents the alternative as skeptical of, and in some ways incompatible with, power.
The new reactionary ‘‘alternative’’ movement is also keenly aware of power, but it craves it, worships it, is constantly devising plans to acquire it. It has traded a siege mentality for a war bearing; its platforms are less gathering places for expressions of dissent than staging grounds against the venues to which they’re opposed and against which they expect to win. Their rhetoric and style want to evoke, in some ghoulish upside-down way, heroic rebellion, regardless of how well their aims align with the powers that be. And so we get, for instance, the consummate ’90s outsider Alex Jones — against the world but also taking over the world, under attack from elites but also on the phone with the president.
At first glance, this seems incoherent. It’s a libertarian resistance with an authoritarian program; a counterculture that yearns for tradition. But again, fresh eyes might help us avoid underestimating what is happening here. This ‘‘alternative’’ is not limited by consistent adherence to its own principles. This self-described underdog sees nothing problematic in its affinity for power. In fact, it believes, rightly, that to the right audience, contradiction is exciting. Nothing could be better for an insurgent political force than to be seen as a scrappy outsider. And nothing could be better for the aspiring mainstream — this time not corporate, or cultural, but political — than to adopt the permanent pose of the alternative.
(This article originally appeared on nytimes.com and was written by John Herrman)