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How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy

The movement’s many online communities prey on male insecurity to advance a racist political agenda.

Young men are vulnerable to alt-right recruitment through the internet.
Getty Images/EyeEm
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In the wake of the election, perhaps no topic has been more widely discussed and debated than the self-described “alt-right” — the racist, sexist, meme-happy, mostly internet-based movement associated with radical white supremacy that has unexpectedly taken center stage in US politics after the election of Donald Trump. The recent disruptive violence of incels — a shortened form of “involuntary celibates” that refers to an online enclave of extreme misogynists — may seem like a lone outlier with little connection to the racialized politics of white supremacists. But in fact incel culture, the “men’s rights” movement, and their focus on what they perceive as belittled masculinity have more in common with the broader alt-right than you might think.

Though many consider the alt-right to be primarily a fringe movement encompassing multiple ideologies (including white nationalism and white supremacy), its supporters’ unorthodox tactics for promoting those ideologies were fundamental to Trump’s campaign, and thus fundamental to his victory. Said tactics include engaging in extremist discourse, using deceptive irony and racially tinged internet memes to confuse people into dismissing the “alt-right” label as a synonym for internet trolls, and spreading false and misleading information. Thus, it’s no surprise that the movement has become a focal point of the subsequent culture war and narrative surrounding the president-elect’s transition to the White House — particularly outrage that Trump arguably won through racist rhetoric and that his chief strategist is directly associated with the alt-right movement.

But one foundational aspect of the alt-right’s various belief systems has been significantly downplayed following the election — even though it may be the key to understanding the movement’s racist, white nationalist agenda. While it’s true that the movement is most frequently described in terms of the self-stated, explicit white supremacy that defines many of its corners, for many of its members, the gateway drug that led them to join the alt-right in the first place wasn’t racist rhetoric but rather sexism: extreme misogyny evolving from male bonding gone haywire.

The “alt-right” label is tricky to define, but the movement’s top priority is elevating the status of white men

Don’t let the term “alt-right” fool you; despite the fact that it’s the self-chosen descriptor adopted by many white supremacists, the ideology under the hood is still the same. Not only do members of the alt-right support the most extreme version of Trump’s campaign promises to deport millions of immigrants and create a national registry for Muslims, but their ultimate goal is to ethnically cleanse nonwhite individuals from America and establish a completely white ethno-state.

Members of the alt-right tend to be young white men spouting blatantly racist, nationalist, and misogynistic views that align eerily well with historical fascism, and many of these men openly advocate harassment and discrimination (or worse) of women and minority groups. (Indeed, since the election, overt tension surrounding these various spheres has led to hundreds of reported hate crimes.)

Consequently, many people have pondered whether the “alt-right” label puts too fine a polish on what is at best an ugly mix of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. In response, many news organizations have grappled with whether it’s appropriate to use the term at all, and, if so, how to define it for their readers.

But no matter what you call it, the movement is plainly built around a political agenda that seeks to advance the rights of white male citizens at the expense of everybody else.

The alt-right’s indoctrination process starts out looking like a healthy way for men to socialize

In a widely shared Twitter thread the morning after the election, writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa outlined what she views as the insidious process by which young men are radicalized into the alt-right.

Mohutsiwa’s tweetstorm elucidates an important, generally overlooked point: Most white men who become radicalized into the alt-right start out in search of some like-minded friends.

Though various branches of the movement are often at odds with one another, they share a number of core beliefs — and a common meme-flavored vernacular — that serve to unite them in what is sometimes called “the manosphere.” This realm includes the “men’s rights” movement, pickup artist culture (a community of men also labeled “PUAs” that essentially makes a game of the art of bedding women), “incels” (men who are “involuntarily celibate” because they feel women reject them), and geek gatekeepers like supporters of the Gamergate movement.

On the surface, PUA communities and incel communities have a lot of generic appeal: The PUA lifestyle emphasizes self-esteem and confidence building along with physical health, while the incel community allows men to bond over their struggle to achieve all of the above in spite of their sour luck with women. Meanwhile, gamers and geeks habitually tout the importance of gaming in providing social interaction for young men.

These spaces foster the kind of male friendship whose importance doesn’t get a lot of attention in the real world. But the benefits of their existence are often accompanied (and sometimes negated) by their tendency to instill in their members a newfound articulation of fundamental anxiety over their position as men in a society where women are actively seeking empowerment.

And in building its membership from so many different communities of white men who ultimately feel threatened and rejected by women, the movement promotes a sense of male entitlement that is easily radicalized into white nationalism and white supremacy.

How sexism serves as the alt-right’s gateway drug

In many alt-right communities, men are encouraged to view women as sexual and/or political targets that men must dominate. The men in these communities don’t see themselves as sexist; they see themselves as fighting against their own emasculation and sexual repression at the hands of strident feminists. (For instance, one alt-right blog described the activist group Code Pink as “a sort of liberal, feminist version of the Westboro Baptist Church.”)

All of these individual communities advocate a distrust of feminism and an insistence that female empowerment necessarily disempowers men. One of the most famous, Reddit’s r/TheRedPill, even paints this ideology as a religious conversion: an “awakening,” or “taking the red pill” (a reference borrowed from The Matrix) to understand what they regard as the life-altering “truth” that feminism has ruined modern society for everyone (but especially for men). Many people who’ve tried engaging with r/TheRedPill only to walk away have described it as a place where relationships are viewed primarily in terms of power struggles rather than mutual respect and equality. “In practice,” one Reddit user wrote, “their ideas become pretty toxic really fast.”

Redditor RZRtv experienced this first-hand; he found his way to r/TheRedPill after witnessing his father’s painful experience in court during a messy divorce. He told Vox that despite being socially progressive for most of his life, he had been drawn to the movement’s anti-feminist message, feeling resentment for the way feminism seemed to be blaming white men for everything.

“I was grateful for the community to be raising points that affected my father and my life,” he told Vox, noting that Reddit’s various men’s rights forums were full of “great points” about how society expects men to be emotionally reserved. They also provided a basic form of support in acknowledging that men are allowed to be emotional, flawed humans, which he found to be “a big selling point.”

Of course, many feminists frequently point out that gender stereotypes about men are unfair, harmful, and need dismantling, but feminists and men’s rights activists (commonly referred to as MRAs) rarely listen to each other. “Neither side seems to accurately assess its tribalism,” he said.

RZRtv spent nearly two years in the community, but gradually soured on its message due to the overwhelming hatred, which “got to the point where everything seemed to be about taking down women or minorities, rather than helping men in the areas they faced discrimination,” he said.

“The tipping point, where I was finally fed up, is memorable. There was an article posted to /r/MensRights with the title ‘Hillary Clinton will be worse for men than Donald Trump will be for women,’ which I knew was complete bullshit ... [T]he blatant bullshit allowed to propagate in the community had finally reached a boiling point, and I stopped putting effort into the same causes.”

It’s important to note that while sexism and bigotry ultimately drove RZRtv away from Reddit’s men’s rights communities, he says he never sought out a great deal of emotional support from them to begin with, “as I'm a pretty private person and don't seek that type of thing out.” But other men who do lean on these communities for emotional support may be prone to falling further into the hate-filled environment.

Mohutsiwa argued in her tweetstorm that we have been paying the wrong kind of attention to the alt-right’s internet havens. “When we talk about online radicalization we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalization of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote. “That's why I never got one strategy of Clinton's campaign: highlighting Trump's sexism. Trump supporters love him BECAUSE of his sexism.”

The alt-right’s vernacular is full of sexist language. “Weak” moderates or liberals who buy into the feminist agenda are deemed “cucks,” a term derived from “cuckold,” the arcane Old English word for a man whose wife cheats on him. Many of the movement’s various subcommunities have insisted that the word is (warning: the following two links contain hate speech) strictly racist and that its origins center on white men being disempowered by miscegenation and other forms of interaction with members of other races. But in its practical use by the alt-right at large — most frequently to harass women online — the common implication is that progressive men are sexually disempowered by manipulative women.

This ideology inevitably has political ramifications. On PUA forums, where men proudly talk about their “lay counts,” the default assumption in the days leading up to the election was that a vote for Hillary Clinton signified weakness that no real man would display. Witness this exchange that took place on one PUA forum the morning after the election:

The basic idea that “women are getting too out of hand” is the patriarchal common denominator. And it aligns perfectly with male rage against “social justice” activism, which in turn paves the way for white nationalism and white supremacy to gain a foothold.

The alt-right’s ongoing fight against “social justice warriors” fuels a larger campaign of white supremacy

Over the past few years, Gamergate and male-centric Reddit communities have popularized the idea of “social justice warriors,” commonly abbreviated as SJWs. This disparaging label is an updated way to accuse progressives of extreme political correctness. The “SJW” label is a huge and successful weapon in the alt-right’s arsenal; it paints feminists as manipulative, oversensitive, shrill women who attack men with claims of sexism at the tiniest of provocations while rejecting their sexual advances.

Men who deploy the “SJW” attack seek to reestablish control and agency over the cultural conversation by ridiculing progressive attempts to seek greater diversity and representation in media, and to dismiss basically anything that could be deemed “multiculturalism” or representation (see: Gamergate and this year’s Ghostbusters backlash).

However, nested within the alt-right’s fight against SJWs is a flagrantly radical, white supremacist element.

Members of the alt-right frequently refer to progressive culture as “cultural Marxism” — a favored catchphrase of Breitbart founder Andrew Breitbart. The academic term “cultural Marxism” is a positive one that denotes the spread of Marxist values throughout culture, but its common use today is much more pejorative. Members of the alt-right view SJWs who are actively trying to make art and culture more inclusive as attempting to incite sociocultural and socioeconomic upheaval under the guise of “diversity.”

In fact, the term “cultural Marxism” is descended from actual Nazi propaganda — a distrust of modernism and the spread of non-Germanic culture that Hitler called “cultural Bolshevism.” In his book A History of Nazi Germany: 1919-1945, historian Joseph W. Bendersky notes that the phrase was code for the cultural purging that preceded the Holocaust. “Hitler referred to ‘cultural Bolshevism’ as a disease that would weaken the Germans and leave them prey to the Jews,” Bendersky writes. “A moral struggle was underway, and the outcome could determine the survival of the race.”

The updated alt-right version of this idea primarily targets feminists and progressives as the instigators of this cultural demise. Their belief in insidious cultural plots against white patriarchy leads them to overlap and interact with another branch of the alt-right — the innumerable online right-wing conspiracy groups that see Jewish, Islamic, and foreign plots in perceived attacks on white patriarchal culture. The all-or-nothing urgency and the blatant nationalism and white supremacy of Hitler’s version of the phrase is still intact.

In essence, many men who were drawn to these communities because they wanted to get laid and gain self-confidence have found themselves embroiled in a culture war, one that started as a way to boost individual male autonomy and evolved into a way to wrest back control of the country — nay, the world — from shrill feminists and their weakling cuck supporters, which include “libtard” shills in the mainstream media.

Ultimately, these groups found their hero in Donald Trump.


Gamergate foreshadowed the alt-right’s rise — and created an unsettling template for the movement to expand

In the wake of Trump’s victory, many have pointed to Gamergate’s sexist assault on feminism as a harbinger of things to come. Far more than the “fringe” components of the alt-right, the Gamergate movement drew mainstream attention from its beginnings in August 2014 and gained extensive coverage from popular geek media outlets as well as international news organizations as it grew. Though it peaked around the spring of 2015, the movement is still active; writing at the Guardian, Matt Lees points out that its supporters’ “techniques” of harassment and rhetorical victim blaming “have become the standard toolset of far-right voices online.”

Writers who’ve reported on and/or been targeted by Gamergate have also noted the convergence of the group’s membership with that of the alt-right. David Futrelle is a journalist who has spent the past five years maintaining a men’s rights watch blog, We Hunted the Mammoth. In an email to Vox, he said that it’s “close to impossible to overstate the role of Gamergate in the process of [alt-right] radicalization.”

From the start, Gamergate was based on the same sense of aggrieved entitlement that drives the alt-right — and many Trump voters. While Trump warned of the putative dangers of Muslims and Mexicans 'invading' America, Gamergaters talked about the dangers of so-called social justice warriors "invading" the world of gaming; many defined gaming as a "male space" or even a "male safe space," and so it was no coincidence that they focused so much of their anger at supposed female interlopers — [including gaming cultural critics like] Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and others.

By presenting themselves as beleaguered defenders of gaming's "safe space," gamergaters managed to convince themselves that their harassment of people like Sarkeesian and Quinn was in fact a defense of an imperiled culture. They were saving the world!

One of the feminist targets of Gamergate was gaming journalist Leigh Alexander, who recently wrote about the movement’s expansion and convergence with the alt-right movement.

“When I was harassed in an attempt to get me to abandon [progressive critical stances on the relationship between pop culture and politics] during the embarrassment that was ‘GamerGate,’ everyone told me it was just a radar blip,” she wrote.

They said that the hit pieces on Breitbart about me, other women, and progressive voices in technology were just fringe issues. We should not give them any more attention, everyone said. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now the CEO of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, is an advisor to incoming President Trump. And in the last few weeks all those same old people, the dross of imageboard culture with their same assembly-line right-wing memes, are back in my Twitter timeline letting me know they “won.” ... These people’s fears, their power fantasies, are now steering the world.

Futrelle pointed out to Vox that Gamergate’s explicit sexism led many of its members to 4chan and to 4chan’s even more extreme sibling 8chan (which became a haven for Gamergate after the movement was officially booted off 4chan for misogyny). In those enclaves, Futrelle says, “there were hordes of neo-quasi-Nazis (some ‘ironic’ Nazis but many others utterly sincere) ready to tell them that it wasn't just gaming that needed saving, but Western Civilization itself.”

He continued: “They weren't fighting for the right to look at boobs in videogames any more, but fighting against ‘white genocide.’ Suddenly the weirdly inflated, often melodramatic rhetoric of Gamergate made more sense.”

Gamergate-inspired violence also presaged the wave of hate crimes that have been reported since the election. Examples from the past two years include the threat of a mass shooting at a major public university because the university hosted Gamergate enemy Anita Sarkeesian; the many pro-rape statements made on PUA hubs and social media accounts by prominent pickup artists like the notorious internet troll Roosh V, who bragged about committing rape; and finally, the 2014 mass stabbing and shooting of six UC Santa Barbara students by Elliot Rodger, a man who fortified his misogyny and sense of alienation via the incel communities he frequented online.

In light of the misogyny that seems permanently embedded within alt-right culture, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movement’s favored presidential candidate also once bragged about sexually assaulting women. Trump may not fit the pattern of online activity that leads so many men to the alt-right fold, but he has planted himself within an online alt-right echo chamber. His ideas are informed by and emboldening to a growing collective of men who view the subordination of women as both part of a functional society and a stepping stone to a larger movement: one steeped in fascist ideology and willing to openly champion hate as a political cause.

The ease with which the alt-right channels male insecurity around women’s rights into an ideology of white supremacy ultimately illustrates that the paths by which men wander into the alt-right movement are deceptive. While many of the movement’s male-centered online communities may seem to offer something of value to the men who join them, the alt-right movement has never been about helping men cope with low self-esteem, relationship problems, or their personal pain and insecurity. In fact, it’s never particularly concerned itself with building up men as individuals at all. Instead, it’s about maintaining a sense of power at all costs over an ever-expanding list of designated targets.

And with Trump’s victory, the movement now has more power than ever.

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