Hipster Extremists The Alt-Right Movement Behind Trump's Presidency
They helped him get elected, and now the alt-right movement is flourishing under Donald Trump's presidency. Their recipe: racism, Islamophobia, sexism and chauvinism packaged in a hypocritical veneer of hipster cool.
Of course he's staying in a Trump hotel - if only for the message it sends. In his room on the 35th floor of the Trump Soho in New York City, Milo Yiannopoulos is sitting in front of his laptop, making a few final changes to his speech.
It's a Friday morning in late May, a few days after an Islamist terrorist killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. In two hours, Yiannopoulos will give one of his now-infamous, mockery-filled speeches outside the City University of New York on 42nd Street.
This time, a Muslim woman named Linda Sarsour will be the target of his attack. Yiannopoulos didn't know who the woman was until recently when he learned that Sarsour was scheduled to be the commencement speaker at the University's graduation ceremony the following week. A crude coalition of orthodox Zionists, anti-Islam activists and Trump fans announced a rally to protest Sarsour's speaking engagement -- and Yiannopoulos, who was forced to resign from the radical right-wing website Breitbart in February after allegedly making statements supporting pedophilia, is anxious to finally return to the spotlight.
And he'll do so with this hate-filled tirade against a woman who meant nothing to him until recently.
But it's raining heavily outside. It's even hard to see Manhattan's skyline through the rain from his 35th-floor window. The new, brown suede Gucci boots will be ruined.
Yiannopoulos has brought along Sebastian, his stylist, who has dragged two suitcases filled with outfits and several Gucci shopping bags into the hotel room. Clothes are strewn around the room and on the bed, and you have to be careful not to step on one of his pairs of Louis Vuitton glasses.
"No problem," says Yiannopoulos, "they're from last season, anyway."
Joining him in his hotel room this morning are his speechwriters and advisers, Chadwick Moore and Matthew Perdie, who are pacing back and forth behind Yiannopoulos, proposing ideas for the speech. To their great amusement, they have just discovered that Sarsour, the last name of the Muslim commencement speaker, apparently translates as "cockroach" in Arabic. Huge laughs. We can definitely work with that, says Yiannopoulos.
A young man is lying on the bed, covered in a blanket, reading a book called "The Plant Paradox," which claims that healthy food is fake news and is actually harmful.
A man named Xavier, who served with the U.S. Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan for 14 years, is leaning against the wall near the door, his tattooed forearms crossed in front of his chest. He is wearing the tag of a fellow soldier killed in Iraq on a wristband. Yiannopoulos is wearing pearl bracelets.
Xavier is part of his security team, says Yiannopoulos. Or at least until the Trump administration deports him - an allusion to the bodyguard's Mexican first name. Everyone laughs - except Xavier.
A Cool Right-Wing Movement?
Yiannopoulos makes a lot of jokes like this. It's the same tone he uses in his speech for the protest rally. He continues to type away at his laptop, clearly in good spirits. "We all agree that Linda is a Sharia-loving, terrorist-embracing, Jew-hating, ticking time bomb of progressive horror. I'll call her Linda," Yiannopoulos says, pausing for a moment to give his speechwriters a knowing glance, "because her surname Sarsour is Arabic for cockroach and you know how I just hate to be disrespectful."
Cheers in the hotel room. Yiannopoulos crows: "These things always come to my mind just two hours before a speech!"
At this moment on the 35th floor of the Trump Hotel, it seems hard to imagine that this jovial, strikingly attractive, expensively dressed 33-year-old man, with a German mother and a Greek father, who grew up in the English county of Kent, is considered one of the country's most dangerous radical right-wing agitators.
On the other hand, this is often the case with agitators. It's especially applicable to the new alt-right movement in the United States, which has been growing steadily since the election of Donald Trump. The term "alt" is short for "alternative." Some also call it the "new right" or the "cool right." A cool right-wing movement? Right-wing movements have been a lot of things since the end of World War II, but never cool. There have been old Nazis and neo-Nazis, boorish members of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany and unrepentant skinheads but a broader radical right-wing counterculture has never existed. Cool protest movements were always on the left.
Alt-right is more of a convenient term than a precise political designation. It is a catch-all phrase for opponents of the left-wing culture of political correctness, Trump fanatics, chauvinists, social media trolls, anti-Islamists, immigration opponents, racists and neo-Nazis. What they have in common is that they feel more comfortable in virtual forums than in political parties. Strangely enough, the current president of the United States can be counted as part of the movement.
The alt-right tries to distinguish itself from the traditionally conservative, reactionary or fascist right-wing movements. It is often young, modern and even hip, anchored in pop and consumer culture and has a strong presence on Twitter and Instagram. It would be incorrect to define the alt-right as simply socially disadvantaged and frustrated members of the white working class, as Trump voters often are.
Yiannopoulos, for example, is a gay Briton who lives in Miami with his black boyfriend, whom he says he has just given a Tesla sports car, the status symbol of the liberal elite. He recently established Milo Inc. in Miami, which he hopes to turn into a right-wing media empire with its own book publishing company, YouTube channels, news websites and events. Yiannopoulos says that he raised $12 million (€10.5 million) in venture capital from conservative investors within a month.
Enabling Trump's Presidency
It is an unbelievable sum and some in the alt-right community question have questioned the amount. On the other hand, Yiannopoulos has supposedly long been a favorite of Robert Mercer, a computer scientist, hedge fund manager and billionaire believed to be the secret mastermind behind the Trump presidency. Mercer, who keeps a low public profile, has not only invested $10 million in Breitbart, but also funded Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm that scanned voter profiles for Trump. Apparently he knew early on that Hillary Clinton could not win the election. And it was reportedly Mercer who bankrolled Yiannopoulos's scandalous tour of several universities last summer. Yiannopoulos himself does not comment on his investors, but it appears likely that Mercer provided a large share of the capital for Milo Inc.
There is, after all, a great desire for a strong, new platform for the alt-right, particularly now that the most effective voices of the right, Breitbart and Fox News, have recently shown signs of vulnerability.
Yiannopoulos himself worked at Breitbart until February. The right-wing website, once run by Stephen Bannon, who is now a senior advisor to Trump, played a large part in enabling Trump's presidency and, until recently, it was the center of the alt-right movement. But Breitbart lost some of its influence when Bannon joined the Trump team and Fox News underwent an identity crisis when founder Roger Ailes and chief commentator Bill O'Reilly were forced to resign, both due to allegations of sexual harassment. There is plenty of room now for a new, multimedia alt-right network.
What Yiannopoulos has in common with both Trump and others in the alt-right movement is the conviction that the country's leading media organizations -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and NBC, to name a few -- have a liberal bias and have joined forces with academic institutions to transform American society into a dictatorship of good taste, identity politics and minority rights.
The entanglement in this seemingly asymmetrical struggle, in which those on the right are at a disadvantage from the start, is used as justification for their brazen appearances. This too is a fundamentally right wing, but also fundamentally American, theme: the underdog fighting the system and taking the country back.
Donald Trump is an imperfect vehicle for this purpose, but the only one that was available, says Yiannopoulos. As such, Trump is essentially the president of the alt-right movement or at least this is how Bannon explained it to him. Yiannopoulos says that Bannon is perhaps the most intelligent person he has ever met.
A Solo Effort to Spread Rumors
The alt-right has everything a movement needs: its own echo chamber, primarily on the internet, its own symbols, myths, martyrs and stories and even its own vocabulary. It is the first protest movement that is taking full advantage of digital technology and one that would be inconceivable without the internet. One of its primary tactics, internet trolling, is the practice of insulting and provoking political enemies online until they lose their composure.
This is one reason that some of the alt-right protagonists have become huge stars in the shadow world of the internet while remaining relatively unknown to the general public. Or has anyone ever heard of Mike Cernovich?
No? Cernovich's tweets are read more than 100 million times a month. During the election campaign, he mounted what was essentially a solo effort to spread rumors about Clinton's supposedly concealed neurological condition from his suburban home south of Los Angeles.
Or Dave Rubin, whose internet talk show provides a platform for alt-right voices in a pseudo-credible setting. Another is Gavin McInnes, who founded the leftist Vice Magazine 20 years ago and was dubbed the godfather of the hipster movement. Today, he and his "Proud Boys" stand up for "Western chauvinist civilization," defending it against Muslims, feminists and transsexuals. And then there is writer Bret Easton Ellis, author of classics like "Less Than Zero" and "American Psycho," who uses his podcasts to furiously defend freedom of the arts and free speech against a victim culture of liberal disciples of political correctness, the so-called "social justice warriors."
Three of these five men are gay. They lead modern lives that echo the free spirit of the late 1960s, lives that are only possible in a liberal, permissive society. So why do they want to destroy it?
Mike Cernovich says that we are at the beginning of the next stage of an information war. Conventional political conflicts - in legislatures and in the mainstream media - have lost their meaning. The only thing that counts today is the information war. Victory, by his definition, means taking advantage of the internet to shove the alt-right's issues into the center of the echo chamber of political discourse.
For Cernovich, "waging war" means tweeting. It means disseminating videos on Periscope and YouTube, and having them appear in as many different contexts as possible. Very few people have figured this out so far, says Cernovich. Milo is one of them, he says, and he is another. And yet they are dismissed as trolls.
- Part 1: The Alt-Right Movement Behind Trump's Presidency
- Part 2: The Unifying Element of Conspiratorial Hypocrisy