The following is a guest post by John Bailey.
Donald Trump will enter office in 2017, in large part, due to the votes of white men. While the dismissal of his candidacy was a constant refrain for most commentators, Trump’s ascendancy was always treated as inevitable in one space in particular: online communities of far-right white guys.
Trump’s startling victory has provoked some soul-searching about what the internet means for white guys, often using the word radicalization. It’s an apt term, given that Trump’s campaign was built through radical posturing on race (explicitly) and gender (in ways only slightly more coded). But this didn’t start with Trump. The diffuse architecture of identities, communities, and digital techniques that bolstered his campaign has been floating around the untrammeled internet long before they became embodied in the president-elect’s chief strategist. What explains the emergence of this specific form of alt-right masculinity, and why has it become so durable?
First: the so-called “manosphere” is structured by conflict, rather than commonality, among men. Masculinities scholars have long observed that some men occupy a hegemonic position of power while others are either subordinated by them or complicit in their dominance. Technology in general, and the internet specifically, carries ambivalent meanings for hegemony. The historic importance of women coders notwithstanding, computer technology is connected to men’s economic power, with computer engineering still one of the most gender-segregated college majors and fields.
At the same time, men who invest themselves in technology, to the perceived exclusion of everything else, become “nerds”: occupying a subordinate space, with its attendance loss of social and (especially) sexual status. They characterize themselves as “heterosexual dropouts,” or “betas,” or “foreveralones.” Heterosexuality probably can’t be emphasized enough; this explains the close links between alt-right politics and the “pickup artist” or “seduction” communities. This unity of material power and socio/sexual abjection creates a curious form of masculinity that finds ready expression online: men whose interests, leisure practices, and (often) embodiments mark them as comparatively weak, despite being members of the most hegemonic demographic group in the U.S.
One might better call it the “not-all-manosphere.” Compared to other men, who seem to have it all – money, power, women – many of these men identify themselves as failures. Yet as Kendall (2002) points out, men’s heterosexual failures are often laid at the feet of women, rather than those other, more successful guys (or, more precisely, the cultural system that links men’s worth to their heterosexuality). Masculinity renders men failures, yet men tell each other that women are the real culprits.
This explains, in part, the misogyny and gendered harassment that have emerged from the internet alt-right. It also helps illustrate the link between men’s smaller-scale alt-right movements and the full-blown form seen this year. For example, the spark that ignited Gamergate, an online men’s movement that could be seen as a minor forerunner of Trump’s grassroots support, was a jilted ex-boyfriend’s public accusation that Zoe Quinn had cheated on him. Posters on /r9k/, a 4chan community devoted mostly to lamentations about failed masculinity, quickly piled on, dragging Quinn through an exhaustive audit of her digital self in the quest to “prove” her crimes.
There are some clear parallels, here: a woman’s life, both private and public, is dissected by a large, motivated, and anonymous online community; any possible discrepancy between any two statements, suggested behaviors, or implied implications is framed as evidence of hypocrisy and corruption; this “evidence” is repeated so often that it becomes a subcultural staple, obvious to the point of being irrefutable. (It’s worth noting that, by the end of the election, anyone who disagreed with Trump supporters on /pol/, 4chan’s politics board and a major alt-right hub with about 6,000 posts per hour as of this writing, was promptly accused of being paid by Correct the Record, a Clinton-aligned PAC.)
It may seem strange to link 4chan boards like /r9k/ and Reddit communities about video games to what is now a national political project. But it’s also strange that a cartoon frog became a hate symbol. The Gamergate example, as well as Pepe, reveals something important about the communities from which the alt-right emerges: they’re built around fun. When Tila Tequila joined neo-Nazis gathering in Washington, D.C. last weekend, she claimed she was there for the “meme warring,” as well as the “creativity, art […] and humor!” Discussion threads on /r/The_Donald, Reddit’s main Trump-supporting community with about 200,000 subscribers as of this writing, are studded with smug frogs and joking banter. One of the earliest-repeated rallying cries on /pol/ was that Trump would “Make Anime Real.” These communities and social movements link men’s leisure cultures with men’s political cultures.
This blending of leisure and politics leads men to cultivate strong attachments to alt-right communities because this is where they can be “themselves.” This attachment becomes particularly strong when these identities are tacitly discouraged offline, which explains why so many communities of men with “nerdy” interests become adjacent to, if not expressly part of, the alt-right. For example, members of /mlp/, a 4chan community organized around love of and (sometimes) erotic attachment to My Little Pony, often share their sense of gendered shame and failure around their affection for a children’s cartoon and discuss the importance of hiding their interest from anyone in real life. Thus, when alt-right politics emerge in these communities, they find an audience already resentful that their identities are unwelcome in mainstream cultural spaces. Tellingly, members of white supremacist forum Stormfront describe the site as feeling like a “second home” in a world that treats them like “dirty nazis.” (de Koster and Houtman 2008).
This makes identifying the “alt-right” difficult. While 4chan’s /pol/ is quite clearly a platform for white supremacist politics, do smaller 4chan communities like /r9k/ or /mlp/ (roughly an order of magnitude smaller than /pol/ in terms of post frequency) count as “alt-right” despite not being expressly political? Is Reddit “in general” an alt-right website if /r/The_Donald is its second most active subreddit? Not all 4chan posters or Redditors are white supremacists or Trump supporters; indeed, Reddit is known more for its cute cat videos and Bernie support, while 4chan posters celebrating Trump outside the designed politics board are told to go “back to /pol/.”
I thus want to emphasize the permeability of “alt-right” politics and communities. What’s been named as an explicit movement is perhaps more accurately a narrow strain of a broader politics of masculinity that encompasses many diverse digital spaces What links these spaces is a collective sense among men that they have been left out – whether by heterosexuality, as I’ve noted, or the economy, the media, or the education system. Social scientists, commentators, and activists alike will need to account for both this intimate sense of failure and these positive community identities if they want to understand the rise of alt-right masculinity online.
John Bailey is a sociology doctoral student at Rutgers University.
Almog, Ran and Kaplan, Danny. 2015. The nerd and his discontent: The seduction community and the logic of the game as a geeky solution to the challenges of young masculinity. Men and Masculinities.
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Chess, Shira, and Adrienne Shaw. 2015. A conspiracy of fishes, or, how we learned to stop worrying about #GamerGate and embrace hegemonic masculinity. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 59(1): 208-220.
de Koster, Willem, and Dick Houtman. 2008. “Stormfront is like a second home to me:” On virtual community formation by right-wing extremists. Information, Communication & Society 11(8): 1155-1176.
Kendall, Lori. 2002. Hanging out in the virtual pub: Masculinities and relationships online. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Kendall, Lori. 2000. “Oh no! I’m a nerd!” Hegemonic masculinity in an online forum. Gender & Society 14(2): 256-274.
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