The rise of a toxic political culture is obviously not just restricted to the United States. Max Chalmers explains.
Early last week Democratic nominee for President Hillary Clinton gave US politics a final kick, dislodging it from the usual campaign ground and sending it tumbling down the ‘alt-right’ rabbit hole.
Up to this point in the Presidential campaign, the broad counter-mainstream conservative movement that goes under the banner of the ‘alternative right’ has been a topic of some media interest. But at a community college in Reno, Nevada, Clinton booted it front and centre.
The alt-right describes a loose coalition which draws inspiration and energy from a handful of far-right websites and forums, resulting in a heady mix of race-based nationalism, conspiracy theories, and memes.
In her address, Clinton argued that by appointing Steve Bannon as his campaign CEO, her opponent Donald Trump had effectively merged his bid for the Presidency with this messy assortment of trolls and white supremacists. The former Secretary of State described the alt-right as an “emerging racist ideology”, and drew it back to the rise of right-wing nationalism around the western world.
While distilling all nativist, anti-immigrant parties around the world together in this way is an oversimplification, it’s certainly true that key characteristics of the alt-right have seen an upswell in Australia of late.
The ideas of the alt-right are not themselves new. What makes the movement distinct – aside from the Trump connection – is its tone and style, and the way serious and seriously debauched political ideals are seamlessly mixed in with positions formulated exclusively to offend. This is a political cohort reared in the age of trolling and shitposting.
As Laurie Penny identified in her melancholic takedown of alt-right hero Milo Yiannopoulos, there’s good reason to think some of those at the head of the movement don’t actually believe in its ideals or ideology. If there is true conviction there, it doesn’t run very deep.
The supposed martyrs have realised the more they fuel offence, the more attention they can gain. Politics becomes a game of celebrity, with those like Yiannopoulos and perhaps even Trump proving masters. In the wake of their performance they leave a trail of denigration on the basis of race, religion, and gender.
When are they expressing a truly held belief and when are they simply trolling? It’s impossible to say.
That same criticism could easily be applied to Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. Earlier this month the libertarian Senator made a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission, claiming Fairfax journalist Mark Kenny had breached the Racial Discrimination Act by calling him an “angry white male”, a comment he said was reasonably likely to cause offence. At the same time Leyonhjelm openly admitted he had not actually taken offence at the comment.
Was he serious? Given the man thinks offence can be taken but not given, there’s little reason to believe the complaint is anything more than a provocation, a stunt designed to whip up attention, entirely predicated on the fact it will offend.
And what about Senator-elect Pauline Hanson’s insistence that the installation of a squat toilet in a government building could lead to the destruction of Australian culture? In the 90s, Hanson got up in parliament and said the country was at risk of being swamped by Asians. In the age of the alt-right, she’s learned that ambiguous and absurd dog whistling can get you even further. Offence is good, but open farce is even better.
That exact point was recently made by Party for Freedom and anti-immigration agitator Nick Folkes, who interrupted churchgoers at Gosford Anglican Church with a cabal of followers dressed in Arabic attire. The anti-multicultural stunt was slammed by pretty much everybody including One Nation. And yet in a heated exchange with Andrew Bolt, Folkes made a fair point.
“I wouldn’t be on your program tonight Andrew if we didn’t carry out that stunt yesterday,” he said.
Hanson, Leyonhjelm, and Folkes may not be tapping away at the darker corners of 4chan, but it’s no coincidence that their brand of politics – so heavily reliant on the appearance of sincerity – in fact works in a very similar way to the opportunists and true believers of the alt-right.
Only someone who knows they will never really be racially vilified would make fun of legal protections against them in the way Leyonhjelm has. Only someone who’s never experienced true cultural genocide could argue that it looks like a squat toilet in a tax office.
It’s not just attention grabbing and trolling that these members of the Australian right have in common with the alt-right. More fundamentally, they share a desire to run as outsiders in a system that still privileges them in so many ways.
Both demand a social order that not only keeps their bodies safe from incarceration, police violence, and poor health, but also acknowledges and accepts even their most brazenly racist speech acts, and places ever more arduous restrictions on those they see as culturally undesirable (that last point, to be fair, does not apply to Leyonhjelm).
The problem is that the open nastiness of the alt-right is unappealing to the broader public. Clinton’s effort to drag the movement into mainstream focus is clearly geared at harming her rival.
Yet in Australia, parts of the right are digging themselves into a political niche with much the same tactics and messages. It may not be a kind of politics that can win a majority – a problem for Trump – but it has proven effective at securing enough of the vote to help carve a considerable space in the Australian Senate.
Clinton has shone a spotlight onto the alt-right, and the mentalities the movement shares with Donald Trump. This is the attention they crave.
Seeing how the American public respond from here will provide clues as to how those on fringes of the Australian right will manoeuvre and fare in the coming months and years.
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