Gaining mainstream media attention

I mentioned earlier that anonymous trolls were a crucial group when it came to getting the alt-right on the media’s radar. Locked out of most mainstream publications — even nativist, racebaiting websites like Breitbart would not openly embrace the alt-right’s radicalism — the alt-right needed to manipulate other venues into helping them spread their message. They did so by relentlessly harassing mainstream journalists with large audiences. In some ways, the incessant harassment of media figures was done for its own sake. There was also a larger strategy at work, however. The alt-right wanted to be noticed, and at the time, the best way to do so was to get mainstream journalists and celebrities to speak and write about them. During my interviews with alt-right content creators, one stated this explicitly:

[Journalists’] lives are lived online on places like Twitter, and so what they see and report on tends to come to life through their articles — at times, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Normal people don’t live their existence online on places like Twitter, so most people had no idea we existed. We essentially created a false reality for them where they were drowned in responses by our Great Troll Army, to the point where journalists began to become afraid to write anti-white content out of fear of the online backlash. . . . The Alt-Right literally did not have a physical presence until recently; we practically memed ourselves into existence by hijacking the OODA [observe, orient, decide, and act] loop of journalists, getting them to write about this scary, secretive, mean online group, and drawing more and more eyes & converts when people began to tune in and see what our platforms were.

(quoted in Hawley 2017, 89)

This strategy worked quite well for gaining the nations attention in 2015 and 2016. Although it included a relatively small number of people, the alt-right was able to garner attention from major media by creating an exaggerated picture of its size and reach — creating a sort of digital Potemkin village on journalists’ computer screens. The effort eventually led to massive, worldwide recognition, reaching a peak when Hillary Clinton dedicated an entire speech to denouncing the alt-right in August of 2016.

In the long run, however, this strategy proved to also have negative consequences for the movement. When they convinced much of America that they were a large and growing threat to the basic norms of democracy, they started being treated as such. When greater steps were taken to take down the alt-right, the movement proved more brittle than many of its supporters realised.

The alt-right and popular culture

As was the case with twentieth-century white nationalism, the alt-right took a great interest in popular culture. This is because white nationalists have always insisted that forms of entertainment are essential to shaping peoples’ worldview (Leonard and King 2014). In fact, many on the far right have long argued that, in the long run, cultural products are more important than partisan political fights. Inspired by the twentieth-century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, many voices on the far right argue that ideological hegemony in the culture must precede permanent political victories. In their view, the left has achieved such astonishing success in recent decades, despite conservative victories at the ballot box, precisely because it controls the culture via popular entertainment — though left-wing dominance in education and the news media is also important.

The alt-right’s engagement with popular media predominantly takes the form of critique. A massive number of alt-right podcasts and articles were dedicated to analyses of the messages (explicit and implicit) in major Hollywood films and television shows. A major white nationalist criticism of popular culture is that so many of the leading figures in the movie and music industry are Jewish liberals, and thus, according to the Alt-Right’s narrative, they push an anti-white, pro-multiculturalism agenda.

Sometimes, the alt-right deliberately created controversies about popular culture, just to draw attention to itself. For example, some voices in the alt-right declared that they were organising a major boycott of a Star Wars film on the basis of a supposed anti-white narrative in the film. The boycott went nowhere, and the movie was a huge success, but they managed to get several mainstream news outlets to report on the story, again giving them free publicity.

For the most part, the alt-right has not sought to create alternative forms of entertainment to compete with the mainstream music and film industry. In some ways, the alt-right has done less in this regard than some of its ideological predecessors. In the 1990s, for example, white power album sales were an important source of revenue for groups like the National Alliance. Given the ease of accessing music for free on the internet, this would likely not be possible today. There are some alt-right content creators who engage in their own artistic endeavors — writing novels, creating parody songs, and posting comedic cartoons online — but this represents a small percentage of the alt-right’s overall activity.

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