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Tweedy racists and “ironic” anti-Semites: the alt-right fits a historical pattern

The white nationalist, “alt-right” editor and organizer Richard Spencer, posing with the Capitol in the background.
The white nationalist, “alt-right” editor and organizer Richard Spencer.
Washington Post / Getty

Collect all the portraits lining the many profile pieces of white supremacist Richard Spencer, and you might think you were holding the proofs for a slightly down-market GQ. A soft-faced white man in a too-tight peacoat, posing in a DC park. In a tweed sports jacket, standing in a brass-and-glass elevator. In dark-wash jeans, propping his leather ankle boots on a hotel room desk.

A recent Mother Jones profile is an exemplar of this beneath-the-hood reporting on white supremacy. It lingers over the details: the private school pedigree, the “slivers of togarashi-crusted ahi” that Spencer orders at the upscale hotel lounge, his “‘fashy’ (as in fascism) haircut.” The left-wing magazine does not truck in Spencer’s white nationalist politics — quite the opposite. But like many profiles of the alt-right leader, it contains an air of surprise. He’s a racist, but he wears some swank cufflinks.

Such coverage isn’t new to the alt-right. Operating from the flawed assumption that white supremacy is the provenance of poor whites and troglodytes, journalists have long had a tendency to get enamored of repackaged racism. Since the 1970s, the national press has fallen, again and again, into the trap of missing the substance of racism for its style.

The alt-right exploits these weaknesses in journalistic coverage of racism. In their primer on the alt-right, which appeared on Breitbart, two of its leading figures, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos, framed the phenomenon not as one of de-sheeted Klansman but creative free-speech radicals “eager to commit secular heresies.”

“They have no real problem with race-mixing, homosexuality, or even diverse societies,” Bokhari and Yiannopoulos claimed of the alt-right. “It’s just fun to watch the mayhem and outrage that erupts when those secular shibboleths are openly mocked.” Bokhari and Yiannopoulos included the anti-Semitic caricature Shlomo Shekelberg and the slang “remove kebab” (a reference to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims) as examples of the exuberant mockery they endorsed.

Affecting WFB Jr. sartorial style while networking with internet trolls

Spencer, as one of the principal founders of the alt-right, presents himself as a tweedy, scholarly racist. But he has worked hard to promote the meme crowd as well. Radix Journal, which Spencer founded in 2012, features illustrations of Trump as an emperor, sells “Haramche” t-shirts — blending the Harambe gorilla meme with Che Guevara, in a mocking way — and engages with the debates taking place among the Twitter trolls of the alt-right.

As a traditional white nationalist organizer, Spencer’s success is due in part to his ability to play up the unexpected: education, style, inventiveness. Yet he also plays the irony card. When audience members at a gathering of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank, responded to the conclusion of his speech (“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail Victory!”) with Nazi salutes, a widely reported incident, he told a PBS producer that the gestures were “clearly done in a spirit of irony and exuberance.”

The blend of racism, misogyny, irony, and hipness has its own history, one that most coverage of the alt-right neglects. As historian Kelly Baker has outlined in the New York Times, white nationalists groups have long been refashioning themselves as cutting-edge modernists. And when they do, when they present themselves as intellectuals, artists, techies, and free-speechers, many journalists cover their modern style with a sense of surprise — even though this sort of hipster racism has been around for decades.

In the 1970s, a quest for new taboos to smash

If in the 1960s, white activists struck back against the establishment by fighting racism, war, and patriarchy, by the late 1970s, the targets had changed. What was taboo was not sitting with a black activist at a white-only lunch counter or staging a sit-in against the bureaucratic machinery of war. For some, it was taboo to assault the new political norms of inclusion, to throw back in the faces of the generation that came before fights against totalitarianism, racism, and misogyny. This was a very specific type of rebellion, limited to white Americans who could view the new taboos against racist epithets not as a crucial step toward basic human rights but as oppressive new norms.

It was not in rural enclaves but at the edges of the urban and suburban punk scene of the 1970s and 1980s that this racist rebellion — and the confusion over how to cover it — first became visible. A handful of punk bands adopted the swastika as well as anti-Semitic and anti-black slurs. Shrapnel had a song called “Hey Little Gook.” Jamie Chance of the Contortions gave an interview dismissing black music as “just a bunch of nigger bullshit.” When confronted with this new phenomenon, the Los Angeles Times asked: “Fascism or Shock Value?”

“These attitudes appear to be primarily one more form of shock value — a commodity important to punks — rather than a deeply-rooted prejudice,” Terry Atkinson wrote for the LA Times in his survey of the punk scene. Atkinson quoted Fear guitarist Philo Cramer on the topic of the band’s use of anti-Semitic slurs: “We don’t mean anything with our jokes — except to offend everybody.” A swastika-sporting punk dismissed her sartorial choice as “just something to shock the normal.”

From skinheads’ swastikas to the “edgy” racism of a Vice founder

Skinheads, too, sometimes got the style treatment. Though more closely associated with racist violence, American skinheads in the 1980s were at times treated as fashionable curiosities. There were only a few thousand skinheads in the US, spreading from Texas and the Midwest to the coasts. They were closely associated with both violence and music, and they were split between racist and anti-racist factions. Dozens of hate crimes, including vicious attacks on immigrants, were attributed to skinheads.

But in 1989, the New York Times coverage of local skinheads began with the visuals: “hair close-cropped, heavy boots with trousers bloused, black leather jackets and epaulets. They wear ties, and the look is neat, but a little Germanic, circa 1939.” Despite the Nazi shade, the writer concluded: “So far, New York’s skinheads have cultivated the style of violence far more than its substance.”

Not everyone was so seduced. In an essay for the Village Voice, published in April 1979, Lester Bangs took on what he called “White Noise Supremacists.” It was a flawed essay — Bangs later apologized for including some quotes and images after the people involved complained that he portrayed ironic jokes as serious racist comments (though of course that’s the problem with ironic racism) — but its analysis of racism and punk was largely sound. Bangs saw racism as ubiquitous, something that lurked just under the surface in everyone. “Which is why,” he argued, “it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual.”

Bangs was not blind to differences between hate-fueled groups like the KKK and the neo-Nazi stylings of the punk crowd. “Swastikas in punk are basically another way for kids to get a rise out of their parents and maybe the press, both of whom deserve the irritation.” But he also understood the danger lurking in this hip racism, that “after a while this casual, even ironic embrace of the totems of bigotry crosses over into the real poison.”

The punks and skinheads of the 1970s and 1980s soon faded from the scene. But their cultural posture of racism as rebellion — that endured. And journalists continued to be drawn to the style rather than the substance of hipster racism. In 2003, the New York Times profiled Vice magazine as “a lad magazine for the Williamsburg set,” a bold corrective to political correctness.

Deep into the profile, a portrait of Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes appears. “’No means no’ is puritanism,” he says at one point, invoking one of the slogans of the anti-date-rape movement. Then he shifted into some “daring” racial observations: “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.”

The fallacy that racism can be “merely” performance

The Times rightly noted that McInnes’s views were white supremacist. But it balanced that statement with other voices claiming “such remarks are posturing, akin to the ethnic and anti-gay slurs that pepper the pages of Vice, establishing its rebel credentials.” Comedian Sarah Silverman backed up this view of Vice. “It harshly makes fun of men, women, all races, nerds, hipsters, the elderly, the short, the tall, the fashionable, the hopeless. It’s without boundaries, which is what makes the playing field even.”

Only it turned out not to be much of a leap between the hipster racism of the 2000s — McInnes has since left Vice — and the posturing of the alt-right in 2016. McInnes was doing Milo Yiannopoulos’s shtick before Milo was. Since 2003, Yiannopoulos’s career has wended through the haunts of the alt-right, places like Taki’s Magazine, a site that presents itself as a post-ideology subverter of the establishment but was originally edited by Richard Spencer and still posts plenty of racist material, and the virulently anti-immigrant and white nationalist site VDARE. He has attacked feminism for making women less happy, argued that “transphobia is perfectly natural,” and suggested that throughout history Jews “were ostracized for a good reason.” He is, unsurprisingly, a big supporter of Trump, whose Muslim ban he has described as “what we need in this day and age.”

McInnes’s trajectory makes clear the curdled assumptions at the heart of an “offend everyone” rebellion. A hipster racist may offend members of the establishment, but actually endangers people of color, Muslims, Jews, and women. There is no functional difference between white supremacy and misogyny as acts of irony or acts of hatred. From the perspective of the targets, it’s all the same. Regardless of intent, the spread of racist and anti-woman view makes them more acceptable, and thus more likely to be acted on.

But the coverage of Vice and McInnes, like that of punks and skinheads in an earlier era, also points to the problem of journalistic wonder at racism that comes in unexpected packages. To fix their coverage of racism, journalists must first confront the false assumption at the core of current coverage: that attitudes like white supremacy are artifacts of a distant past, that they reflect a lack of education, style, and sophistication. Attitudes like white supremacy are about power, and they dress up in whatever way they need to in order to protect that power. Only when that truth is fully understood can journalists set aside their awe at dapper Klansmen and hip racists — and begin to offer clear-eyed accounts of the dangerous ideology still in our midst.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

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