By Chris Roberts
There is a scene in The Blues Brothers that, in the context of the Trump era, has taken on an eerie and uncomfortable sheen. The titular characters are classic “chaotic good”—ex-cons with hearts of gold, outlaws “on a mission from God” to save from the taxman the orphanage in which they were raised (along with the authoritarian Catholic nuns who run it) with proceeds from a concert. On their quest, they find their chosen path blocked by a Nazi rally taking place on a bridge.
The men in brown shirts are allowed to demonstrate thanks to the First Amendment (and the American judicial system), guarded from an angry crowd of counter-protesters only by a thin line of police. “Illinois Nazis,” one brother says to the other. “I hate Illinois Nazis,” he replies.
They know exactly what is to be done. Without another word, they put their vehicle—a repurposed police car—into gear, steer towards the bridge, and hit the gas. The angry crowd parts like the Red Sea. The Nazis stand tall for a second before leaping off the bridge and into a stream, ridiculed and defeated. As for the brothers, they head off to Chicago’s South Side, to a soul-food restaurant run by Aretha Franklin, to recruit more musicians to join their multiracial and multicultural band.
This scene has resonance today—and relevance for this discussion—for two reasons. Using a car to scatter people who disagree with you is exactly what happened last summer in Charlottesville—except in reverse, and with fatal effects, after a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist plowed into a crowd of anti-racist protesters gathered to demonstrate against the Unite the Right rally, killing 32-year-old Heather Mayer. (That time, the police largely stood by unmoved.)
And in the analysis of the alt-right’s critical thinkers—for this is what they are—who organized the rally and provide the global alt-right movement’s intellectual foundation, everything in the film—ridiculing Nazis as violent, narrow-minded buffoons, thwarted by losers assembling a diverse band, and putting it all in a film—is a deliberate political act.
In this way, The Blues Brothers is an example of “metapolitics,” the concept hatched in a prison cell by Italian communist hero Antoni Gramsci, honed by the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School, and later articulated by critical thinkers like Alain Badiou—all in order “to undermine confidence in traditional values and hierarchies,” as Daniel Friberg, the Swedish alt-right leader writes in “The Real Right Returns,” one of the three tomes read for Praxis 4/13 [p. 2].
Despite its origin among critical theorists on the left, metapolitics is at the core of the alt-right. As articulated by Andrew Breitbart and, more recently, by Trump Administration officials inspired by Breitbart and his acolyte Steve Bannon, metapolitics is the notion that “politics exists downstream from culture,” and that to foment a viable political revolution, you must first trigger a cultural revolution.
In their analysis, metapolitics are how a diabolical and conspiratorial left has hoodwinked impressionable “bugmen” and “cucks,” white males given pause by concepts like “white supremacy” or “the patriarchy,” into accepting farcical notions such as “women deserve equal pay for equal work and equal status in the home” or “there is nothing inherently inferior or superior about people with different-colored skin.” And now metapolitics will be the praxis by which the alt-right seeks to subvert what it believes is a sick “liberal” culture that has supplanted traditional culture, with its “myths”, “values,” and “mores,” and replace it with something else.
Though the alt-right often hem, haw, and shrink away from labels like “fascist” or “white supremacist,” even as they literally sieg heil Donald Trump, advocate for eugenics, or otherwise behave exactly like a fascist white supremacist does, metapolitics appears to be the praxis by which those who advocate for a whites-only, white-run society free of Muslims, feminists, Communists, Jews, blacks, and other undesirables will achieve their mission.
Exactly what that “something” is depends on exactly who you ask. Guillaume Faye, the Sciences-Po-educated theorist of the French New Right—who was writing before Friberg and his American counterparts like Richard Spencer were born, and, befitting his liberal education, whose “Why We Fight: Manifesto of the European Resistance” is easily the most intellectually rigorous alt-right text considered for this lecture—imagines a “block formed against the common enemy” of “Islamic colonization and American domination” (with some “Soviet-Talmudic” influences tossed in for flavor) comprised of all European “brother peoples,” “from Brest to Vladivostok.” (What is to be done about the multitude of peoples in between, who, as history shows, cannot be relied upon to stop killing one another for more than a few decades, he does not say.)
On a practical level, in the “new intellectual arsenal of the Right and its explosive ideas” [Friburg, p. 12] metapolitics is the not-so-secret weapon. We see it employed on the battlefield most often in the form of internet memes shared on Facebook, sometimes retweeted by the President of the United States. Memes themselves serve as miniature critiques that will lead their viewers to stop, question, and—so the formula goes—find themselves “red-pilled,” at last made aware that liberalism, along with multiculturalism, feminism, and anything remotely close to centrism are all mental disorders and must be done away with in order to “save civilization.”
Though they clean up their act somewhat in Faye and Friburg and in “A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right In Their Own Words,” the collection of essays by Spencer and others edited by George T. Shaw, the alt-right’s metapolitics are mostly crude and wholly predictable. There are all the dusty anti-Semitic tropes (Noses! Money!), stale gas-chamber “jokes” that, the alt-right insists to “triggered” “shitlibs,” is just a provocation, and recycled ideology. (More on that later, but in terms of ideas, they have very little to offer beyond 21st-century editions of Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Turner Diaries, if dialed back and covered by a thin veneer of sneering, obviously false irony. By now, after Charlottesville, after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, and after the bloody and genocidal twentieth century, it is clear people often mean what they say.)
But here is where the alt-right reveals their most interesting provocation. They have sprouted from the very same tree as the leftists they so loathe. They are critical theorists; critique is at the very heart of the alt-right–as is answering the question of “What is to be done,” as Lenin and Chernyshevsky before him attempted to do.
Richard Spencer holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, where he wrote a thesis—supposedly; the university has the actual document under legal lock and key, as Forward reported—on Theodore Adorno’s latent fascination with the music of Wagner, itself the Spotify playlist of the Third Reich. Friburg was a disaffected graduate student in ultra-liberal Sweden before “uncontrolled immigration” and other perils to a sanctified Europe radicalized him. And Faye reacted to the events of 1968 and used his PhD from Science-Po to join forces with Alain de Benoist in the Nouvelle Droite.
As much as the academy might wish to disown them as problem children or freakish accidents—and as much as they in turn would disdain the academy as an institution hopelessly corrupted by the left (or the Jews, or immigrants, or feminists, depending on the day or which bete noire last crossed their mind), these men—and these ideas—are products of the academy. (They also engage in other, less interesting intellectual games, such as trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, or that their practice of racism really isn’t racism, or that “white supremacy” doesn’t really exist, or is justified, or that “white genocide” is underway, despite white people in most positions of power.)
This revelation alone discomfits. But there is more. The alt-right and the antifa counter-protesters with which they do battle in the public square share common ground.
In his essay imploring real manly alt-righters to eschew professional football—an institution condemned by the left for its ostracization of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the unruly employee who used his platform to protest against police violence, as well as its patently obvious exploitation of black labor to enrich white owners—Spencer critiques the NFL as an exploitative and consumerist, an opiate of the masses marketed to guileless suckers. Well—yes! The NFL is all that and more—a recruitment tool for the military and its foreign excursions in search of resources.
Many of the alt-right’s diagnoses of modern culture are familiar to radical leftists. Faye especially speaks the language of the left when he declares the system rotten and Europe in crisis caused by a vapid consumerist and capitalist culture. To a very significant point, the Faye would find accord with the anarcho-communists of the Invisible Committee or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. The patient is sick, the doctors agree, but consensus ends there.
As for what is to be done? They have answers, though they stop just shy of advocating for race war or violence. (They must have a decent lawyer). Put every leftist in an internment camp, argues “Augustus Sol Invictus,” the onetime Libertarian Party political candidate and Florida lawyer. Make memes. Poison the well of popular culture with constant messaging that Jews, blacks, feminists, Communists, and their white collaborators are threats. And then… ?
We know the answer, though it is not in their books. Charlottesville, the Tree of Life. Then? A beer hall in Munich, a mass rally at Nuremberg. “Helicopter rides.” We know this story; we have heard it before.
For our purposes, the pertinent questions are: Whither the schism? How, when confronting the same question, did two such divergent answers emerge, from within the same intellectual tradition? More to the point: Why does the alt-right appear to be gaining traction—and what are the rest of us to do about that?
In mid-November, the FBI released its annual crime statistics report. For the third straight year, hate crimes increased, as they have every year since Donald Trump’s once-improbable political ascendancy. It is a bull market for anti-Semitism and nativist xenophobia, the alt-right’s bread-and-butter.
By now, it is clear that we—all of us—no longer have a choice whether to engage with the alt-right. They are already here, in some of our most hallowed institutions, engaging with us.
“Donald Trump has driven the most pernicious neoconservative elements from the Republican Party and awakened an implicitly racial nationalist sentiment on the American right,” Friburg writes. He is half-right. Instead, it appears the former neocons have embraced elements of white nationalism.
Breitbart acolyte Steve Bannon no longer works in the White House, but his ideas have permeated the building. U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa recently made a comment that sounded awfully like calling Mexicans dirt. Last month, the far-right Proud Boys were invited to a meeting of the Metropolitan Republican Club here in Manhattan. (Whether the Fred Perry-wearing, street-fighting Proud Boys qualify as “alt-right” is a point of some contention; since they are not quite racist enough and even welcome Latino skinheads to brawl with them, Spencer would call them the “alt-light.”)
In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections—in a twofer of alt-right bugaboos—the president himself amplified an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, linking the “migrant caravan” to George Soros. Days later, a man walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue with an AR-15 and shot eleven worshipers to death.
It turns out that the alleged synagogue killer spent the weeks leading up to the massacre immersed in metapolitics. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he liked or shared the very kind of memes in which the alt-right trucks 68 times. By now, it cannot be convincingly argued that these events, already squeezed together on the timeline chronologically, are unrelated.
But here’s the thing about the alt-right’s ideology, as dangerous as it has demonstrated itself to be: when it is not boring and predictable—really not so different than the tired pap the Blues Brothers’ adversaries chanted on the bridge—it’s erratic and even incoherent. There is significant variance between the American, French, and Swedish thinkers, who themselves rely on willful misinterpretations of history, pseudoscience, and outright fabrications.
Let’s return to the texts. Themes of grievance and revanchism are common to all three of the texts reviewed for this seminar. The big-tent left, George T. Shaw tells us in A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right In Its Own Words, “took over, and then defiled, every institution of traditional white society.” (He does not name them, but we can presume he means a man’s family, his business, and his church.) All three texts also point to some cohesive and uniform European ethno-nationalist identity, with common “values that have defined European peoples since time immemorial.” One could have learned history from nothing but war movies or sports to know that there is no such thing. The residents of the British isles cannot be relied to to field a unified soccer team; the alt-right believes that French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, and (why not) Greek people can unite in the same white supremacist boat without capsizing it?
To describe the takeover of traditional culture by the Frankfurt School-Gramsci cabal, Friburg deploys the oft-used term “cultural Marxism.” Frankfurters know this term to mean a critique of cultural products which are just that—mass-produced commodities created to profit the capitalist class. In the alt-right’s usage, it is some version of what Faye called the “Soviet-Talmudic” takeover, a conspiracy theory that everything you see, read, and hear is part of a Communist-Jewish plot—which is “literal Nazi propaganda updated for the modern era,” as RationalWiki reminds us. The message has not changed, in other words. Only the messengers, and their medium.
This may be the most chilling lesson from this slog through the alt-right’s idea flow. The historic Nazis were effective architects and filmmakers, and arguably masters of the public spectacle—a mass rally, a yellow star, a vandalized storefront’s broken glass—but, as political scientist Hajo Holborn observed in 1963, there are “few canonic National Socialist writings,” and Hitler did not bother to alter the Nazi’s party platform, such as it was, anytime after 1920, years before he was relevant.
They didn’t really have all that much—we were great and now we’re not, Jews are the reason why, let’s go to war and exterminate people—but they also didn’t need that much. Given the space and the opportunity, they did incredible damage to the world.
The crisis of 2016 birthed both the Trump presidency as well as a resurgent American left. Now these two forces are squaring off. This does not promise to be a peaceful confrontation.
The Republican Party, the choice of the alt-right, fared poorly in last week’s midterm elections. It is possible that the violence and hatred of the last year turned off the American electorate. It is also possible it was only an opening act. Having tasted power and still enjoying tacit approval by the president of the United States, is doubtful they will stop at memes, movies, and metapolitics.