April 19, 2023

The online dissident Right has long presented itself as a dangerous, outside force that threatens the foundations of liberal society. Yet ever since Donald Trump supposedly ascended to the presidency in 2016 through “meme magic” — rather than simply winning over voters in vulnerable Democratic voting districts — there has existed a sort of symbiotic relationship between many liberal commentators and various online radical subcultures.

The former are happy to have a set of cartoon cut-out villains to rail against: incels and misogynists who openly talk about their hatred of women; racists who unabashedly use racial slurs and claim that black people are genetically inferior; anonymous trolls who openly invoke Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust as examples to be emulated. These online villains, for their part, are more than happy to be given attention, and want nothing more than to be known as consummate outsiders; scary barbarians just waiting for a chance to pillage all the norms that liberal society holds dear.

As it happens, though, this sort of thing is mostly theatre. Far from being outsiders and outcasts, these dissidents are not so much enemies of liberal society as its products. Like the “Dirtbag Left” that once gathered around Bernie Sanders and had notions of upending capitalism only to meekly be reabsorbed into the machine they purported to fight, the average edgy Hitler worshipper on Twitter is far less scary than he tries to appear. If John Steinbeck said that the US would never be fertile grounds for socialism because every American worker considered himself merely a temporarily embarrassed millionaire, then one can add today that our online world mostly consists of temporarily embarrassed middle-class liberals.

A recent storm of drama and division within the online “vitalist” movement illustrates this well, and in a humorous fashion to boot. Vitalism, for the uninitiated, refers to an extremely heterogeneous collection of tendencies and idiosyncratic personalities, loosely affiliated with the Right and Donald Trump. This affiliation with the 46th president, however, is strictly one-way: while many vitalists would like to attach themselves to the “Trump movement” in some fashion, it seems very doubtful that Trump actually wants them or even knows that they exist.

The intellectual tendencies that make up the vitalist movement are broad —in some cases openly nonsensical — and it is probably fair to say that they have very little broad electoral appeal. What they do say runs the gamut from various oddball interpretations of Nietzschean philosophy and a veneration of scantily clad male underwear models to talking about black criminality and how we live in a “longhouse gynocracy”. In general, this is mostly a subculture concerned with edginess and self-referential jargon. Some people are only there to shitpost; others hope to market their own personal “brand” to make money from the sale of protein powders or podcast subscriptions. And finally, a few truly foolish souls clearly hope to use their online notoriety as a springboard into legitimate politics.

One of the leading voices within this subculture — a person going by the non-de plume of Bronze Age Pervert — recently had details about his real identity posted online by a rival within these online spaces. BAP, it turned out, was actually a Yale academic from a fairly well-to-do background, with many connections inside what Donald Trump would probably deride as “the swamp”. Unfortunately for his online stans, however, he was also Jewish.

Normally, a person being Jewish is hardly cause for scandal or even concern, and certainly not an online civil war. In an online environment where people openly praise Hitler, however, that sort of factual reveal is pretty awkward. Indeed, BAP himself clearly had a habit of playing with fire here, posting tweets such as “I’m an Aryan supremacist and believe in the extermination of hundreds of millions”, all to loud cheering from his many fans.

To the shock of absolutely nobody, however, it turns out that the Nazi Germany fandom still has something of an antisemitism problem, even in 2023. The result is that many of his former fans feeling legitimately betrayed, while other, more loyal fans have been fighting a bitter battle to try to explain why the online racist movement can’t afford to judge people merely based on their ethnic background, because groups of people are really just made up of individuals that can be good or bad. Imagine that.

Now, this all might reasonably lead someone to how this could all happen. What sort of appeal would an online space obsessed with “naming the Jew” — a forum that is often genuinely distrustful of and disgusted by Jewish people — even have for a Yale-educated Jewish man from a well-to-do and academically successful family? The answer to this question is quite simple: there is very little new in the contradictions surfacing on the online Right, because all of them have happened before — on the Left.

For the Left, the 2010s saw a massive cohort of “overproduced elites” turn towards the ideologies of socialism, communism, and social democracy in huge numbers. People graduated from first and second-tier universities only to find no jobs waiting for them in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In response, they turned toward Left-wing organisations and forcibly colonised them. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was an incredibly sleepy fossil of an organisation until Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign and the victory of Donald Trump, when it was inundated by tens of thousands of young, almost entirely college-educated radicals. In the UK, Labour was flooded by the same sort of people through Momentum, and they catapulted Jeremy Corbyn from the sidelines to party leadership, much to his own surprise.

Of course, this would end in disaster. Bernie Sanders was reabsorbed into the Democratic party machine, and the DSA mostly devolved into infighting, as the ambitious simply saw it as a convenient ladder by which they could secure a sinecure inside the Democratic party. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, presided over a massive loss of working-class support, leaving the “real actual communists” furious with the racist “gammon” workers they had spent the last few years pretending to care about. This was a movement driven by the insecurities, needs and demands of people with academic backgrounds whose promised place inside the economy had suddenly disappeared, and they latched onto communism and socialism as their lifeline back into the middle class.

The ongoing drama surrounding Bronze Age Pervert and his cohort is, in this sense, just a slightly absurd rethread of this story. Bernie Sanders lost in 2016 and Donald Trump won, but the middle-class jobs for the scions of academia did not return. And so, many of them flocked to “racism” as the new frontier as “socialism” collapsed in on itself; in certain cases, such as that of occasional art critic Anna Khachiyan and part-time actress Dasha Nekrasova from the popular podcast Red Scare, the transition from vaguely scary Left-wing aesthetics to vaguely “based” Right-wing aesthetics has essentially been seamless — a slick brand update that kept the Patreon payments flowing.

To put this controversy in exceedingly simple terms: where once the workers of Britain and America felt that their cause and movement was being shamelessly usurped by people who weren’t workers and didn’t care about them, today racists and antisemites in both Britain and America are mad that their own racist and antisemitic spaces are being usurped by self-interested outsiders, some of whom are quite literally Jews. And they’re not actually wrong. Like a horde of hermit crabs in search of new shells, Western society’s inability to absorb the huge amount of surplus “leaders” and middle-class “elites” it has produced has led to them looking wherever they can for flags, causes and movements to usurp, all in the hope of the pay cheque (and social status) they felt that they were owed.

Should we sympathise with legitimate fans of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler who feel as if they’ve been robbed of their own movement, their own “safe space” away from the ever-present threat of Jewish domination? Maybe not. But to borrow from that famous line in The Big Lebowski, one can say what one will about the tenets of National Socialism — to them it’s an ethos. To the overproduced scions of a disappearing Western middle class, by contrast, racism is mostly just a branding device, an angle for a podcast, a lunch ticket, a mask. The cause itself, the ideology, worker’s rights, naming the Jews — none of it really matters in the end.

These people have worn many masks before, and they will wear more masks in the future, until liberal society recognises them for who they are and finally gives them the only thing they really care about: a white-collar email job, ideally one that carries a little prestige and can be performed remotely.