Renata Salecl | Emotions and the Praxis of Alt-Right

By Renata Salecl

The ideology of neo-liberalism and the new internet technologies have jointly created new types of pressure on people – the demand for self-promotion, standing out of the crowd and especially making oneself visible in the way one would be happy with one’s image. The pressure to create an Internet persona, to market oneself, to go out and promote oneself has never been bigger. While we cannot deny the fact that self-marketing has existed also in the past, with the internet the space where one can make oneself visible and find an audience has hugely increased. But, while, on the one hand, one is striving to get noticed and not being ignored, on the other hand, one is not allowed to be ignored – with the mobile phones, and internet one needs to be on 24/7 and is also always under surveillance. In addition, new social media have opened doors for all kinds of emotions – the feeling of anxiety, inadequacy, hate, as well as feelings of empathy and connection with people we never met in person. Also, people form new types of identification with others they meet online.

Alt-right addresses fears regarding the question whether one is ignored or not by picturing white men as the group, which has been marginalized and in general not noticed. It creates easily identifiable enemies, paranoia about the future dangers and fantasies of a return to an imagined traditional society, which would nonetheless incorporate advances of science and technology.

By reading alt-right manifestos, one does not get the impression that there is a lot of compassion among their writers for the daily suffering of the dispossessed men they are addressing, but rather contempt and criticism. White men are pictured as effeminate, beer loving, fat couch potatoes who mindlessly watch football or in other way commiserate in their misery. To understand the funk in which they are,  alt-right thus has a mission to fire up these passive men, help them wake up and get ready to fight.

Although the alt-right disparagingly speaks about universities resembling day-care centers, sports coaches acting more like babysitters than leaders and men looking like adolescents rather than real men, this strategy of firing men up mirrors techniques parents’ use when they are trying to teach their kids a lesson. Similarly to angry parents, who shout at kids and tell them that they are not good enough and need to shape up, the alt-right writers lecture men on their lost manliness and the ideals of how a man should look like and behave. With this discourse, alt-right repeats and accentuates the type of aggression that for some time dominates reality TV shows and which has been mastered to perfection with Donald Trump. In this discourse, people are called “losers,” and they are constantly “fired.”

When we engage with alt-right texts, their statements on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, we will quickly notice a range of emotions – we can feel anger, sadness, anxiety or general indignation. However, just as countries are nowadays divided politically, they are also split at the level of emotion. While some mourn the victims of recent shootings in the public spaces and fears even more hatred and similar attacks, others express fear of refugees or anger against women and non-white races.

In his latest book, Nervous States, William Davies analyzes how emotions have been replaced by reason in modern society. The idea of ​​enlightenment was based on the power of reason, and the development of science promised that an individual would increasingly seek to learn the truth and facts, but in the present time, there was a turning around when emotions prevailed over reason. Emotions do not just mean something positive, for example, love and empathy, but also fear, pain and anxiety. They are, according to Davies, today a great political power and a leading role in shaping reality.

On the one hand, information can quickly scare people and make them paranoid, but, on the other hand, emotions can also lead people to organize themselves. The feeling that one is part of something bigger or that one is taking take part in a joint action is a great motivator for people to form groups and engage in social movements. When people are full of painful feelings, when they suffer psychically and physically, they often seek an explanation for these feelings, while they are also hoping that someone might recognize what they feel. It is precisely in this recognition of people’s feelings that populism, alt-right, and authoritarian leaders today excel. When visiting deprived areas where people have long felt neglected and discarded, they emanate feelings of empathy, while they also help incite feelings of anger toward various “enemies” who are supposed to be culprits for people’s misery.

Alt-right leaders actively promote using psychological warfare to get their message across. As Daniel Friberg says: “The strategy of the alt-right is clear: to engage in metapolitical warfare through memes, podcasts, blogs, books, alternative media outlets, “trolling,” and real-world activism.” Friberg describes how one can become an influencer and how one can skillfully transmit alt-right ideas through the online media. But even more critical for him is to influence people who are already influencers in their social circles and get them to awaken to alt-right ideas.
The use of provocative language and hate speech is very much encouraged as a tactic of communication. As George T. Shaw writes: “If one takes into account the mainstream right’s unilateral disarmament, and the left’s sociopathic, generation-long attack on White-America, the positions, rhetoric and tactics of the alt-right suddenly make a great deal of sense. Much of the more outrageous and offensive material, such as gas chamber jokes and over-the-top ‘racism,’ can be seen as necessary if painful corrections. These devices serve to break down barriers to honest discourse with humor, and to neutralize the ability of cultural commissars to police right-wingers with demonstrations of outrage. There are only so many times that liberals can gasp in horror, gravely denounce, and be reduced to tears by ‘racism,’ ‘anti-Semitism,’ etc. before their theatrics produce nothing but eye-rolls from the public at large.” Smith thus takes “crass, blunt arguments and mockery as calculated means of demoralizing laughably prudish and fragile leftists.”

Some alt-right writers have rediscovered Gramsci and are pointing out the need to engage in a cultural revolution. Daniel Frieberg thus talks about the importance of creating civic consensus and the power of the social and psychological support generated by the masses for any political power structure. However, the emotions the alt-righ discourse steers in their supporters have in the last years opened the doors to an increase in violence. As New York Times reported on Nov. 3, 2018, the US white-suprematists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of a domestic extremist. The long review of the far right violence by Janet Reitman with the title “U.S Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They do Not Know How to Stop It.” shows the power of willful blindness that permeated police and other institutions in not dealing with this violence.

After Cesar Sayoc was discovered as the sender of the letter bombs, the question emerged whether hateful discourse uttered by Donald Trump might have contributed to Sayoc’s action. Media reported that Sayoc lived a lonely life in a van packed with Trump photos and hostile statements against CNN, messages calling for the cleansing of Washington’s political swamp and critical writings against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Michael Moore. While it might be possible that a person like Soyac so strongly identified with Trump that he interpreted in his discourse a call to engage in action, it is more plausible that he got radicalized on the Internet where he found a community in which he could express his feelings of anger. He could shout there without anyone opposing him; on the contrary, sympathizers fired his rage up. Daniel Lurvey, a lawyer who represented Sayoc in the past, said: “I think this is a post-Trump sort of enticing somebody who maybe had some deep-seated issues, and this recent political climate seems to be bringing it to the surface with some people.” And Sayoc’s cousin commented that the letter bombs were “his way of getting attention. He just wanted to get his opinion out there.”

Robert Bowers, who killed eleven people in the Pittsburgh synagogue, also got radicalized on the Internet. On Gab he found a place where white nationalists openly expressed anti-Semitic views and hatred towards immigrants. There are increasing numbers of people, many of whom suffer from mental health problems, whose anger and anxiety are deeply affected by the engagement with the alt-right community on the internet. Some understand the call to get fired up as a call to takes the weapons into their own hands.

Alt-right is critical of neo-liberal social setting we live in, but paradoxically, it uses it to its advantage. Today’s highly individualized society promotes the ideal of the individual who is noticed and not ignored; idealizes the idea of choice in such a way that even people who have minimal possibilities to make choices believe in it; and in a variety of ways contributes on an increase of psychological suffering among people. All this presents fertile grounds for the alt-right ideals. Any attempt to counter their practice and, hopefully, prevent further recourse to violence requires the understanding of emotions, identifications, and fantasies, which the discourse of alt-right provokes.