I was nearly expelled from high school my senior year, just before graduation. Only my grades, acceptance to a relatively prestigious college, and privileged position as the son of one of the pillars of the local economy prevented it. I was a weird kid: artsy, fay, obsessed with conspiracies, science fiction, Ayn Rand, and the occult. Out of a weird mash of the X-Files, the Turner Diaries and anti-government paranoia, Frank Herbert novels, Ubermensch libertarianism, Aleister Crowley, Indiana Jones, and over-the-counter dissociatives, my best friends and I had brewed a goofy aesthetic, a political moonshine not all that different from today’s so-called alt-right.
We were seniors in 1999, the year of the Columbine massacre. For most of the couple of years preceding, we’d been cobbling together a masterpiece of experimental filmmaking—actually, a semi-related skein of filthy, profane sketch gags centered on the peripatetic wanderings of a character (I use the term loosely) named “Headless,” defined chiefly by the fact that he wore, or was, a full-head rubber Tor Johnson mask. We filmed in our backyards and the woods behind them, in parking lots and alleys, in our bedrooms, and, most ill-advisedly, in the hotel where we stayed on our AP Government trip to Washington, D.C. Then one of us left the VHS master copy sitting on a table in the Laurel Highlands Senior High School cafeteria.
The movie inevitably made its way to our principal. There were plenty of bits to get a decent and unimaginative man riled up—rituals cribbed from Anton LeVay, drug use both simulated and actual, violence, and plenty of fake blood. But I have to believe that the worst moment for that poor administrator and for our poor parents was when they watched another friend of ours, a nice girl from a devoutly Christian family—Lord knows how we cajoled her into participating—crawl between my legs to perform simulated fellatio on a TV remote control. I suspect we meant all this as some kind of commentary on the media. The camera panned up to my contorted face. “Oh yeah, baby,” I growled, “Suck it. Heil Hitler, my dick is your Fuhrer.”
I was already out, the only openly gay kid at my school. I was—I am—a Jew.
A minor gang of similarly offensive dinguses is now in the news, having maneuvered Mom’s Honda into the wake of the Trump tractor-trailer with the vague hope of being sucked along in its yuge, yuge slipstream. Lefty and liberal Twitter, not to mention all of your Jewish friends and mine on Facebook, have gone nuts, perhaps understandably: it’s the incipient Fourth Reich, and erstwhile Breitbart publisher and current Trump Svengali Steve Bannon is its Goebbels, or at least its Leni Riefenstahl. The legacy press has meanwhile reacted with its usual muddled incoherence, dismayed but fascinated, insisting that the imaginary code of incomprehensible and contradictory journalistic ethics requires balance, spokesmen for both sides, and a fair hearing for these vulgar, racist little dweebs.
The Los Angeles Times even ran a flattering lifestyle piece on Richard Spencer, one of the alt-right’s dim luminaries, flattering them and him as dapper outliers to the stereotype of neo-Nazis as extras from Justified, skinhead hillbillies who’d trade a stake in the master race for a hit of meth. Only a lifestyle journalist could imagine this freak as dapper; he dresses like an over-gelled assistant branch manager who lurks around the bars telling hot girls he “works in banking.” The movement’s sad gathering in a hotel ballroom—how many allowances were advanced to pay for the Megabus tickets?—replete with adenoidal Heil Hitlers and turgid speeches was a loser teenager’s poor fantasy of what a radical revolution looks like. I should know. I was such a teenager.
After college, where I got a couple of boyfriends and relegated my fondness for Hollywood Nazis to the kingdom of nostalgia, I started a blog where I aired my anarchic moral grievances at Bush, the U.S. empire, the complicit Democrats, mainstream gays, the credulous media. I’ve since flushed it down the memory hole: I became a novelist, and while I stand by all the nasty things I said about W., Obama, and The New York Times, a writer mocks Terry Gross at his own eternal peril.
In keeping with my ostensible anarchism, I left the comments entirely un-moderated, and probably due to the omnidirectional nature of my own contempt, I attracted all kinds of anti-establishment weirdos, not the least of whom were a dedicated contingent of “neoreactionaries,” the wide and shallow intellectual catch-all from which our Nazi friends on the alt-right emerged awkwardly, like half-evolved fish. Neoreaction was the brainchild of a British (of course) crackpot named Nick Land. Some of them liked feudalism, and some of them pimped “human biodiversity,” i.e. scientific racism, and all of them, in my comments anyway, took every opportunity to tell me to “read Mencius Moldbug.”
Moldbug—the nom de plume of a former computer programmer and logorrheic auto-didact named Curtis Yarvin—was the American daddy of the movement, which also called itself the “Dark Enlightenment,” again encroaching on the imaginary album titles of the adolescent mind. Less Nazi than kooky monarchist, Yarvin actually had some interesting critiques of the managerial liberal state, which he unfortunately buried beneath a tireless flow of horseshit. Like most self-educated intellectuals, he believed himself to be the first man to have every read any philosophy. I always felt a sympathetic sorrow for him; he was no dummy, and a few years of nice professors correcting his papers might have formed him into an interesting and iconoclastic mind. Alas, professors are themselves agents of “The Cathedral,” the ubiquitous controlling apparatus of the neoreactionary imagination, along with the mainstream media and the minor bureaucrats of the federal government.
Yarvin was always cagey about racism—just asking the questions, you know. His movement peers made a lot of hay about The Bell Curve. Here again their revolution was just a retread. We’ve all been here before. They imagined that repainting absolutely standard, vintage ninteenth-century race science in the colors of twentieth-century statistical hokum would make it a new house altogether. That their pet theory was largely re-popularized in the pages of this very august publication under the editorial leadership of Andrew Sullivan, gay Tory, is a singular irony: Wasn’t the New Republic, even then, The Cathedral par excellence?
But this returns us to the actual alt-right, in reality a minor branch of a diverse ecosystem in which you’re just as likely to find techno-utopian seasteaders or orthodox Christians defending hereditary monarchy. The alt-right are the least intellectual of this pseudo-intellectual movement, which explains the appeal of Trumpism. Theirs is a sycophantic aesthetic fantasy in which they imagine looking cool in SS uniforms and getting to bang Alison Doody as Dr. Elsa Schneider, Indy’s treacherous Nazi paramour in The Last Crusade. Unfortunately for them, this bogus wet dream ends in stains and tears.
In addition to being a weirdo too fascinated with images of the Third Reich, I was, as admitted, the fortunate child of my town’s professional elite. I knew racists like Trump and Bannon, but they belonged to the country club. These are golf-course back-slappers whose vile misogyny and crude racist jokes are a form of rich-guy virility. They have no interest in internet Nazis except as an instrument of media relations. Watch them toss these suckers overboard to prove to middle-class Jews they don’t mean any of it. Meanwhile, they’re going to go right on bombing the hell out of majority Muslim countries and engage in regular old racism: surveillance of Muslim communities; drug war excesses; voter suppression; deportation and discrimination against the undocumented. These, by the way, are mostly bipartisan evils—if the Republican versions are more egregious, they are rarely unique or new. They are the sort of thing that too many of us tolerate too readily.
Keeping the left in a constant state of dissipation, flipping them out over a gang of a thousand people while the Trump regime solidifies its foreign investments and figures out how to funnel money into its various real estate scams, is the plain play here. “One of my favorite daughters is Jewish,” Trump said. You can find the phrasing insulting while recognizing its essential truth. They’ll give the alt-right a brush-off that’ll make Chris Christie look like Rasputin as soon as it suits their interests and needs. There is a great deal of racism on the right, obviously, yet the tunnel-vision focus on the comparative minutia of the offensive rhetoric of a crowd of nobodies distracts us from the getaway car. We can and should concentrate on more than one wrong at one time; the voices that say we must care about race or class, about women or workers, are dangerous and wrong. But alt-right Nazis deserve scorn, relentless teasing, and laughter. If you bother to be afraid, then you’re stuck fighting the crazy guy preaching on the corner while the guy in the corner office conspires to rob you blind.