Fintan O’Toole: the alt-right is old fascism in new clothes
Like most viruses, fascism adapts to changing environments and it’s just as deadly
A protest in Los Angeles against the appointment, by Donald Trump, of white nationalist alt-right media mogul Steve Bannon as chief strategist of the White House. Photograph: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images
To call the self-styled “alt-right” neo-fascist is a bit of an exaggeration. But the overstatement doesn’t lie in the fascist part. It’s the neo that is a bit of a stretch. Like most viruses, fascism adapts itself to changing environments. We should not expect it to look the same in a 21st century globalised liberal democracy as it looked in traumatised European societies struggling with the aftermath of the first World War and the onset of the Great Depression.
To that extent, the forms it is now taking are largely novel – it has adapted to different political and historical circumstances and to radically new technologies (most obviously the power of social media). But the novelty lies in the forms, not in the content; in the medium rather than in the message.
So of course the signifiers of fascism in its earlier manifestations are largely (though not entirely) absent: the uniformed vanguards, the street battles, the highly developed sense of public theatre. The gang mentality is, for the moment at least, generated more easily online than in physical reality. But these surface changes are surely less important than the underlying continuities.
There are six important ways in which the current version of fascism is fully loyal to the tradition from which it comes.
The enemy within
The first and second are closely intertwined: the belief that everything is defined by membership of a “racial” group and the belief that the relationship between these “racial” groups is inevitably a struggle to the death for supremacy. Because “race” is such a slippery and ultimately nonsensical concept, it can be refigured as a religious or ethnic identity. Thus, both the United States and Europe are white and Christian and these white Christians are in an existential conflict with the Others: Muslims, blacks, Latinos.
History is a zero sum game – either we subjugate them or they will subjugate us. The alt-right takes this social Darwinist mindset directly from classic fascism. Its logic, now as in the 1930s, is eliminationist: they must go and if they won’t go we have to get rid of them.
The third continuity is the enemy within. Fascism is deeply embroiled with the psychology of treason, the stab in the back, the cancer in our own ranks. The big, existential enemies – the Muslims, the black and brown people – are only doing what their evolutionary racial instincts require them to do. It is their nature to want to subjugate us. But it is white liberals, through their weakness and misplaced tolerance, that have allowed them to swamp us. Hence liberals and their false gods of tolerance, inclusivity and equality, are especially despicable. To win the existential war against the race enemy, we must first purge those apostates on our own side who are sapping our will to fight. These attitudes are as essential to alt-right discourse as they were to fascism in the 1930s.
From sexual neurotic to man-god
Fourth, there is the sexual pathology. Fascism reeks of male self-pity. It has always been deeply attractive to men who are insecure about their own sexuality and in particular their relationships to women. It is a magic formula for transforming the sexual neurotic into a man-god. The alt-right world is a masturbatory fantasy in which men who are afraid of women get to assert absolute power over them. It is no accident that the pathetic sexual insecurity of Donald Trump’s crude boasting about assaults on women did him no harm with his followers – on the contrary, they could see themselves in him.
Fifth, there is the devotion to lies. Fascists have always understood that lying is not just (as it is for many conventional politicians) a tactic. It is a strategy. It is not merely about evading an inconvenient reality. It is about constructing a whole new “reality”. Alt-right should properly be alt-reality. Its primary business is the construction of a parallel world that looks like its own dark fantasies. Again, this justifies a special hatred for anyone who can challenge this construct: decadent eggheads, experts, the lamestream media. The playbook for this strategic lying has been updated for the social media age but the 1930s first editions are still the templates.
Sixth, rather weirdly, there is anti-Semitism. The persistence of anti-semitism in the alt-right is very telling precisely because it makes no political sense. In the US, there is a well established alliance between the hard right and the extremes of Israeli politics so there is nothing to be gained by supping this fetid stew. Yet the alt-right just can’t help itself: the final TV ad in Trump’s triumphant campaign featured three Jews (George Soros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein) as the dark manipulators of the global financial system. Anti-semitism is in the DNA of the fascist virus.
The biggest difference between classic fascism and the alt-right is simply the stage of development. We understand the consequences of the old fascist movements because they came to power. The alt-right has more than a foothold in power, but it is not yet in a position to fully construct a reality adequate to its own toxic idiocy. Its strength means that it is not too early to be alarmed; its weakness means that it is not too late to fight.