Nate Hochman, National Review staff writer-cum-conservative darling, has been fired from the Ron DeSantis campaign for creating and promoting a video that featured a Sonnenrad. The immediate, and frankly reasonable, assumption after a gaffe like that was these people are trying to appeal to Nazis. Fair enough — they did evoke a Nazi symbol, after all — but the truth is probably a little less sinister, a little more idiotic, and much more embarrassing.
To people in the know, the notion of Hochman as a would-be ambassador to fringes of the Right is, at best, a misunderstanding. This is a claim made in a recent piece by Jonathan Chait, who argued that the National Review writer’s hiring was proof that DeSantis was attempting to court the far-Right. One can only speculate what the campaign was thinking by hiring Hochman, but his appeal to the (tiny) white nationalist demographic is a bit of a stretch. He’s not edgy or dangerous: he’s Alex P. Keaton with a goofy smile, popular podcast guest appearances, and a New York Times byline.
So what happened? Hochman, who claims not to have known the Sonnenrad was a Nazi symbol, is suffering from Internet Overexposure Syndrome. For the media, and for many people in politics, Twitter is the centre of gravity, which can have a distorting effect — see all the “trend pieces“ published off the back of viral Twitter stories — and it’s increasingly impacting politicians as well. The DeSantis campaign – which again and again has taken cues from what’s popular online – is by far the most egregious offender.
Twitter is also, importantly, an online space where more fringe elements of the Right — like, for example, anime-loving young men who enjoy posting “Sonnenrad edits” — have some of the most visibility. More than visibility, they have a very specific-to-Twitter social cachet. Here, they’re the countercultural “bad boys”. Both their approval and disapproval can feel incredibly significant even if, in reality, they aren’t.
But by spending too much time on the platform, it’s easy to forget that what’s irreverent online may come across as horrifying in the real world — as the cavalier use of the Sonnenrad shows. Hochman was the victim of a perfect storm of Internet-induced myopia, exacerbated by the DeSantis campaign’s desire to re-engineer the so-called “meme magic” behind Donald Trump’s meteoric 2016 rise.
What the DeSantis campaign is missing, though, is that Trump’s online appeal can’t be recreated. The ex-president’s web popularity did not come from his campaign team: it was an entirely grassroots phenomenon. It was also nurtured by the press, and became a bigger story than it might otherwise have been.
In 2016, what emerged under Trump was a parasitic feedback loop: story-hungry journalists went looking for an antagonist (“the alt-Right”) and a handful of fame-obsessed grifters were happy to play the villains. One could not exist without the other. Behind all of that was a much smaller group of genuinely Very Online supporters who, again, were much less significant than the media made it seem.
Hochman’s Sonnenrad faux-pas was probably not a direct political appeal to self-identified “Nazis”, but rather an ill-advised attempt to emulate the mystique that parts of the Online Right boast in certain digital contexts. Unfortunately, the Twitter bubble meant that he underestimated the symbol’s significance in the offline world. One man’s meme is another person’s ADL hate symbol. It seems that the DeSantis campaign has forgotten that there’s a reason the originators of these memes choose to remain anonymous.