Angela Nagle seems fearless. Who else would dive deep into the Alt-Right’s swamp of Pepe the Frog memes, conspiracy theories, and anonymous depravity unified by a hatred of “PC culture,” feminism, and multiculturalism, and a love for Donald Trump? Her new book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, documented this section of the internet at a time when most on the left dared not look—when just mentioning 4chan or Gamergate seemed like an open invitation for a slew of misogynistic and racist hate mail.
Yet after Trump’s election, every mainstream news source suddenly had to get an interview with those involved in the new edgy, nihilistic youth subculture dubbed the “Alt-Right,” a deviation from the right wing’s conventional National Review bow ties and Evangelical Christian moralizers. Whether covering former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ campus speaking tours or framing white nationalist Richard Spencer as a surprisingly “dapper fascist” (as if Nazi leaders weren’t from the suit-wearing elite), the liberal media class came off looking decidedly unprepared to combat the truly horrifying, utterly contradictory ideas this new wave of “Alt-Right/Alt-Light” espoused.
Kill All Normies provides much-needed context for the violent rise of a fringe internet subculture of men’s rights activists and gamers into the public sphere, and it does so without undeservedly praising the liberal left. Instead, the book argues that the materially empty “slacktivism” and “virtue signaling” of liberals helped inflame these reactionary politics. She begins with the election of Barack Obama, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the re-emergence of cyber-utopian visions on the left. An intense fervor of optimism surrounded new technology and social media’s “leaderless revolutions” that would make the world more democratic and better off. But what followed were cycles of momentary outrage, fizzling passions, and mockery as seen in internet campaigns like Kony 2012 and #JusticeForHarambe. The same 4chan poised to lead the anonymous “hacktivist” tide did wind up making cultural waves, but they came from the far right.
Nothing typifies the culture wars more than late Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart’s statement that “[p]olitics is downstream from culture.” Though the phrase was popularized by those on the far right, Nagle comes to attach it to the liberal “Tumblr” view of politics. “In modern politics, liberal leaders are forgiven for drone bombing as long as they’re cool with gay marriage, while on the right, enacting policies that devastate families and stable communities was cheered on at any cost as long as it dealt a satisfying blow to the trade unions, as we saw during the Reagan and Thatcher years,” she writes. Nagle counters the false dichotomy of the culture wars, and Trump has so far disproven Breitbart’s thesis. Material policy comes before culture. The millions of Americans primed to lose their healthcare so some hemophiliac old-money Republican trolls can get a tax cut make Sean Spicer getting called fat by a white nationalist ghoul like Steve Bannon seem pretty trivial.
While Kill All Normies may be a critique of liberal involvement in the culture wars, it is by no means purely cynical. Rather, it’s a call to organize—not just to #resist Trump, but to dismantle the culture and structures that allowed him to rise in the first place. For the left to move forward in a meaningful way, it must shed the faux pragmatism of centrist-liberal narratives like “America Is Already Great.” Nagle posits that the only way out for the left is to refocus energy onto improving the material conditions imposed by capitalism on working people. That might take the form of granting all people access to healthcare and education, ending the mass incarceration of Black and brown people in the United States, or divesting from imperial proxy-wars in the Middle East. Nagle’s call is a weighty one—she asks readers to look beyond the individual actors that the culture wars assign blame to and instead toward the structures built to enable violence. It’s a difficult turn, but it’s one we must take. After all, the “Alt-Right” cannot be the other option.
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right
by Angela Nagle