Understanding contemporary white nationalism: Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate

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It was the summer of 2016. Alexandra Minna Stern (Alex) had recently published the second edition of her prize-winning book Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. There, she had delved into the long and unsettled history of eugenics in the United States, connecting the country’s eugenic past to its genomic present. Now, conducting further online research on the history of eugenics, she stumbled across a centenary edition of Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, a racist classic re-issued by an outfit called “Ostara Publications.” Looking to understand how eugenics was rearing its bigoted head in a celebratory publication touted online, she found herself tumbling down the rabbit-hole of today’s alt-right, leading to the publication, last summer, of Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination. “Like many Americans,” she writes there, “I was disconcerted and spooked by the alt-right’s breakthrough into politics, media, and culture. Now it was surfacing in my research. Struck by both the familiarity and the strangeness of the alt-right, I decided to bear witness to it in real time.”

The book is a tour de force of intellectual history with a present interest: Stern has undertaken a deep dive into the genealogy of the alt-right, unearthing its forerunners and ideological touchstones, and mapping the current contours of the movement by reconstructing its guiding concepts: reactionary notions of temporality, ethnocentric ideas of place and space, implacable biological essentialism, nationalism, and misogyny. Applying the lenses of historical analysis, feminist studies, and critical race studies, Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate deconstructs the core ideas of the alt-right and white nationalism. 

Soon after publication of the book, in the Fall of 2019, Stern organized a symposium and workshop on “Cultural Formations of the Alt-Right”at the University of Michigan together with her colleague Johannes von Moltke. The following conversation evolved from their collaboration and mutual interests in better understanding the roots and ramifications of the so-called “Alt-Right.”

This interview was conducted in January of 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Johannes von Moltke (JvM): When I was rereading Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination, I realized that the terms in the title connect to the substance of the book in interesting and all kinds of ramifying ways. To begin with the first phrase: I remember that the Proud Boys reacted to the title even before the book was published by sending a cease-and-desist letter. Your overriding topic is the alt-right and the ethnostate, but what is it about the Proud Boys that gives them pride of place in your title?

Alex Stern (AS): Titles are always an interesting challenge when writing a book, and as academics who write monographs, we often title our books: title, colon, subtitle. I adopted that model here, too, although Beacon Press would have been perfectly happy if it had just been a title with no subtitle. If I knew what I know now, three or four years since I set out to write this, maybe I would have titled it differently. But then, two years from now, I probably would give it a different title again. Any book we write is a product of its own historical moment. And so the Proud Boys are both literal and figurative. The book is not meant to be an exposé of the Proud Boys. It is meant to use the Proud Boys to announce one of the book’s principal arguments: namely, that looking at misogyny and hyper-masculinity is essential to understanding the resurgence of white nationalism, the alt-right, white supremacy, or whatever other label we want to give it.

The second concept in the title – the White Ethnostate” – flags the white identity politics aspect, and also the absolutely crucial concept of the ethnostate. It was meant to be kind of catchy and to reference the alt-right explicitly, so that was really some of the impetus behind the title. I think that it can be a little bit cryptic because people will think it’s both too literal in that it’s Proud Boys and then cryptic because people don’t necessarily know what the ethnostate is. To me it makes total sense.

JvM: The Proud Boys themselves claim on their website that “they welcome all races, all religions, gay or straight.” But the point of your book obviously is to connect the Proud Boys, the manosphere, the tradwives, and indeed the alt-right in all its various versions on the internet to the ethnostate and to forms of exclusionary and racist projections.  Could you talk a little bit about how you connect the dots from the disclaimers by the Proud Boys on the one hand to the substantive thesis of the book, that one cannot think about the ethnostate without thinking about sexuality and gender, and the reactionary ways these are formed by the Proud Boys?

AS: I would say that the Proud Boys are utter exemplars of plausible deniability and wanting to have it both ways. On the one hand, there’s the immediate past history of the Proud Boys. They were founded in 2016 in the context of electoral politics and a changing landscape, in which the alt-right was bubbling up. From its inception, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes worked to embrace white identity politics without calling it that. Coming from Vice Media, he wanted to have as wide an audience as possible, and he knew that being explicitly racist and homophobic would cut into his audience. But he wanted to package things in a way that pivoted around masculinity, fraternity, and building this hard-core masculinity for hipster, urban males. Then you look at whom the Proud Boys actually attracted. From Facebook postings, the demographics, and anecdotal evidence, it appears that these were overwhelmingly younger white guys in their twenties or thirties who did not hesitate to express anti-Semitic or racist or xenophobic or pro-Trumpian messages on social media pages. This upset some of the people who had been affiliated with the earlier incarnation of the Proud Boys. Gavin McInnes on the one hand wanted to say, “okay we’re not racist, we’re not alt-right because we don’t really take up the Jewish question, we also don’t take up the gay question, we don’t take up all these things.” On the other hand, a good number of the most prominent people who participated in Charlottesville in 2017 were connected to the Proud Boys.

Continuing to be able to straddle those things has been central to the continued existence of the Proud Boys. Even with Gavin McInnes being de-platformed, it hasn’t gone away, and in fact, it’s grown. We can see this in the chapters in Michigan that will show up at events on campus or the acts of Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon who team up with Patriot Prayer and love to antagonize Antifa. One of the crucial reasons I wanted to foreground the Proud Boys in the title and in the book was because understanding contemporary white nationalism requires centering gender and sexuality at the core and understanding these particular variants of anti-feminism and misogyny. Although the Proud Boys claim to be gay-friendly— which is questionable, because they do not hesitate to use homophobic slurs— they certainly are incredibly transphobic. That specific distinction can get lost in some of the general work that’s been done on white nationalism. The Proud Boys are much more transphobic than they are homophobic, which has to do with their particular type of gender politics and their absolute animosity towards anything that smacks of a spectrum or gender non-binary-ness or trans-politics: they’re exceedingly anxious about anything that might be trans or gender non-binary. This is absolutely at the core of what the Proud Boys are, no matter whether they are gay or straight. For the most part they’re straight: the Proud Boys would be the first to participate in straight pride marches, for example.

JvM: One of the things you just described, which is also an argument in the book, has to do with the distinction between an “alt-lite” and an “alt-right.” In these terms, the Proud Boys might be considered actually an alt-lite gateway into substantively alt-right practices. Which brings me to the term ‘Alt-Right’ in your title but also as a central phenomenon of our time. Looking back, we might see the 2010s as the decade of the alt-right, and you have very strong arguments in the book about why you adopt the term and why it’s important. But I’d love to get you to talk to the other side of the conversations that we’ve been having: what if “alt-right” is no longer the appropriate term, partly because it’s succeeded in its goals? It seems obvious that some of the alt-right rhetoric, including its ethnonationalism, is now indistinguishable, not simply from the Twittersphere or 4-Chan or 8-Chan where it was actually native, but from also Fox News. There, you can get the same kind of language, in a kind of echo-chamber between the internet, social media, and cable news on the right. So my question is: how “alt” is the alt-right anymore? Hasn’t it just redefined the political right on its own terms? At which point does the alt-right simply become part of the right-wing spectrum, indeed a defining part? In other words: to what degree do you still even hear “alternative” in the term alt-right? Conversely: to what degree do you think it’s important to hold onto the term?

AS: It is important to understand how the term actually emerged in a particular kind of paleo-conservative context around 2008/09, when Richard Spencer was gearing up and building his online presence. While he himself has largely crashed and burned in the meantime, this was when Radix journal and Taki’s Magazine were on the rise, along with other outlets where Spencer was working in an editorial capacity. In those days, right after Obama was elected, people who rejected having a black president were flocking around these venues and already sowing the seeds of a more tribalistic white identity politics. They were finding online content that they liked there and were turning to people like Spencer. It is around that time that Spencer takes this term alternative right, which Paul Gottfried had used at a talk in the Mencken Club and hyphenates it. It takes off because it’s catchy, it’s short, it works for a lot of people. I think it is crucial to understand that moment, putting it in political and cultural context, by which I mean particularly the role of new social media platforms that normalized certain far-right content.

At the same time, I would agree that we have witnessed something like a secularization of the alt-right. The alt-right has been normalized. We can see this not only at Fox News content but also in the broader media landscape, which has seeped up and accepted these terms to the point where they are now used without much conscious awareness. They are circulating in the discourse and they have changed the coordinates of how we think about culture, how we think about politics, how we think of identity. Trump has been a part of that with his tweeting, as have many others. The whole social media ecosystem has allowed for this normalization.

That said, I also wonder about the relative importance of these conceptual definitions. Terminology is important; it’s good to have a handle on it and as academics we like to talk about some of those distinctions and get into the weeds on them, and that is interesting. On the other hand, if we view this more politically, there are other priorities. When I talk to reporters, for example, I won’t necessarily get into these terminological distinctions, because it’s better just to call it white supremacy and go from there: that’s going to be recognizable. The bottom line is that this is a threat to democracy. It is a threat to the values of equality and diversity that many of us believe in strongly. So, whatever we call it, it’s part of a broader wave – not just in this country, but internationally – of rising national populism with a strong right-wing character. Two key components of that authoritarianism have been toxic gender politics and intense xenophobia against different types of groups.

JvM: And as you point out in the book, the term “alt-right” actually helps also to connect to those transnational or global movements that also use related terminology.

AS: Exactly, because those are political parties. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, “Alternative for Germany”) or the Alternativ för Sverige (Alternative for Sweden). There’s a reverberation effect; the far right is both virtually networked together, and it has real-life networks, where key players are able to travel often.

But, to go back to your point before: yes, organizations such as the Proud Boys, as well as social media celebrities and provocateurs such as Stefan Molyneux or even Jordan Peterson use ideological constructs that are at the bedrock of this far-right thinking, although they themselves, especially Peterson, might not want to see themselves characterized in that way at all. But they are providing a script that is compelling to people who want to find order over chaos, which is something Peterson often likes to talk about. And they want to make sense of what is a scary, tumultuous world, in which there is violence and climate change and more; they want some sense of security, and so these “influencers” traffic in ideas of gender essentialism and racial essentialism that can be very comforting to some who want secure ideologies of gender, race, nation, and so on. Scholarship in digital studies has shown that people like Stefan Molyneux, like Gavin McInnes, like Jordan Peterson are often the first stop on the way to online radicalization. People generally will not go from zero to sixty, or from zero right to Stormfront. Instead, they find stepping-stones along the way. When I talk in the book about “warping the American imagination,” I’m really interested in what I would call that intermediary zone or this erosion zone, where those stepping-stones can exist and where the work of normalization happens.

JvM: That’s a really interesting point, which makes me want to ask how we think about language. Not just whether we use the term alt-right or not, or how much one wants to get into the weeds conceptually, as you put it earlier; but also, the language that we echo when we study these phenomena – even if only in order to describe them. Take your term, “normalization:” this is part of the alt-right’s own program. “Normalization” – or, in their terminology, “moving the Overton window,” is a process by which they aim to make things sayable that couldn’t be said or were proscribed before. And now here we are as scholars, saying them and oxygenating the discourse. I’m reminded of a speech by the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno on “elements of the new right-wing radicalism.” It was given to students in Vienna in the 1960s, and Adorno was responding to the then recent resurgence of the fascist right in Germany. The speech was published only quite recently, last summer, because people discovered how up to date it seemed (again). Adorno combines an analysis of the reasons for the right wing resurgence and of the new right’s repertoire of rhetorical “tricks” with some recommendations on how to counter these – among them the notion that we must “give them very drastic names” (1). Whether naively or not, he believes in the power of language, the very acts of description and naming, to actually do some of the important political work against these movements. So my question is: how much can we do through language against these movements, and how much are we doing to help them gain traction by repeating phrases that they use? What languages do we use to speak and write about these phenomena?

AS: There are different registers in which I know both you and I are working. I think it is incumbent upon us to follow those genealogies, and even if the Right feel as if they have been described well by them, I don’t know if that necessarily is a bad thing. In a way, it depends on whom we take to be our multiple audiences. If the proponents of the alt-right feel like they’ve been understood, then that also means that we have a good understanding of them. The question is, how is that used? Here, academic writing is one outlet; the other media sources, blog spaces or similar registers that reach more readers, where you have people who are not going to engage in an academic discussion or be in an academic conference. And that’s where it makes sense to use some of the words that are more drastic, as we were talking about before – such as white supremacy, hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, because all of that is very much true, it describes and names things, like you said.

One of the challenges of using those words is that they can sensationalize. Some journalistic reporting on the rise of white nationalism reflects a tendency to quickly condemn everything as neo-Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, all lumped together. Now, if you look at those ideologies, they are connected to or adjacent to the range of ideologies I look at in the book. But sensationalization can set these up as an aberration, and there are of course a lot of theorists who amplify the problem of aberration by talking and theorizing about crises or states of exception. But the alt-right is not an aberration, and in fact, as we’ve been saying, these ideas have insinuated themselves into contemporary societies: they have become mainstreamed and normalized. So, by sensationalizing, you call it out, and that can be really important, but on the other hand, you can lose that nuance and the ability to track the more stealth nature of some of these ideas. And there is a lot of stealth work going on among ethno-nationalists, among alt-righters, because they use numbers, they use memes, they use symbols, that are basically a way of winking and nodding at each other all of the time. A lot of people don’t understand what’s going on, and wouldn’t know how to read that, but it is a way for them to create community and reinforce one another. Occasionally those will spill out into more mainstream society, even if there’s often no rhyme or reason to the exact nature of these memes: people just glom onto them, then they go viral.

In the book, I discuss memes or screenshots from Gab or Twitter accounts to show these ideologies in visualized or memetic form. That said, what I really wanted to do in the project was to look at the intellectual cannon, such as it is, of white nationalism today and contemporary neo-fascism. These have a historical trajectory in the United States, but a lot of the U.S. alt-righters who are more intellectually engaged in blog and writing and so on, have also drawn heavily on the European fascists, an almost esoteric cult of Neo-Nazis: they draw on Julius Evola, René Guénon, Alain de Benoist, who are part of the new far right that has morphed into the Identitarian movement. So, if we want to understand what the landscape of the far right looks like today, we absolutely have to understand Identitarianism, which then connects to thinking about white identity politics in the United States. As I continue to work on this, these are kinds of texts I’m committed to reading and unpacking with a view toward mapping out this intellectual genealogy.

JvM: Can we talk a little bit about the response to the book? Clearly, you’ve put yourself out there with it, and the Proud Boys have shown up for at least one of your book talks. The book itself was reviewed positively on the Countercurrents website, which is actually a site for a lot of the material that you were just talking about, informing the intellectual genealogy of the alt-right both past and present. In response to one of the many comments that he received, the reviewer on Countercurrents writes, “Stern is a good writer, never was her book boring. I’ve also never encountered left-leaning literature that was so naive and unintentionally ironic. That makes it one of a kind, I’m sure.” And then in the review itself he explicitly thanks you, calling you “Miss Stern,” for “all of the inadvertent good your book does for the right.” The reviewer, Spencer Quinn, is someone you actually discuss in the context of the book, and he returns the compliment writing that you have “a gift for summarizing ideas and events as well as collating it all into an entertaining read. In many ways,” he writes, “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate amounts to a 186-page advertisement for the dissident right.” I’m assuming you didn’t respond to this review, but would you like to do so here?

AS: Well, I would note that toward the end of the review they call my book a “tendentious work of enemy literature.” I mean, these guys are incredibly narcissistic and even if someone is saying something negative about them, they still like the attention. And they appreciate the fact that I understood their core ideas and basically explained them. They would have loved nothing more if I had responded to them, if I had legitimized both their praise and criticism, allowing them to feel that they were actually engaging in some kind of intellectual dialogue. And I think Spencer Quinn (which I’m pretty sure is a pseudonym) probably loved the fact that I quote from three of his articles in Countercurrents because no one else had ever paid attention to them. A few of those folks connected to Countercurrents emailed me, and I didn’t write back to them. They positively reviewed a book titled White Identity Politics by Ashley Jardina, a political scientist. So, they also want to give the appearance that they are really engaged with scholarship and literature. I guess I view it as a performance. On the other hand, my book was hailed by activist scholars as one of 2019’s most important books on fascism. Clearly, it means different things to different people.

Reflecting critically on this reception, I should say that I worked very diligently in the book not to ventriloquize and to always state, even more than I typically would, whose positions I am quoting or referencing. So, I really provide that signposting.

JvM: What strikes me in what you said is that this response is both narcissistic and performative. And it is a narcissistic performance precisely by virtue of the fact that the alt-right reception amplifies details, disregards their context, and then (re)integrates them into a bolstered self-image.

AS: Now that you’ve reminded me, excerpts of the book were published in places like Salon.com, and a few other places, and those excerpts were picked up by Red Ice, by Stormfront, where they basically slammed me as a “Jewess,” and engaged in a lot of anti-Semitic, sexist rants against me.

JvM: But wouldn’t you think that Countercurrents and “Spencer Quinn” are also trying to differentiate themselves as intellectuals on the right from Red Ice and the more heavy handed anti-Semites?

AS: They want to be a meta-political engine, constantly taking up literature and culture. They love to review movies: they like that new movie about Richard Jewell and its last-white-man-standing plot, but they review a whole range of films. They review poetry, they review fiction, they review books about American politics from right, left, and center. They want to be seen as real players on the intellectual scene, and so they wouldn’t just slam the book and explicitly call me anti-Semitic epithets— those might come out in the comments. It is part of the strategy among that more intellectual strain of white nationalists to basically try and carve out a space where they would love nothing more than to have a debate or to be invited onto NPR to discuss their work. Greg Johnson in fact has been invited to talk about his latest book on white nationalism, and he does not look like an unreasonable guy if you were to see him present. He writes really well, he’s intelligent, he knows how to construct a sentence and make a persuasive argument. But that itself is what is scary, and that’s why I think we have to counter it and help unpack its dissimulation.

JvM: You made the distinction between your interest in the intellectual history on the one hand, and the kind of current version, which is heavily studied, the meme culture on the other. I wonder, though, about the point of intersection: to what degree is the intellectual history shaped by the fact that it exists only in an online space? In other words, it’s no longer books of Evola circulating in groups, let’s say after 1968 in France; today, it’s a transnational global, internet phenomenon, even if it’s driven by traditionally rooted intellectual and historical ideas. What does the internet do to the intellectual history?

AS: Well, it makes it more accessible. And I would say it means there’s more possibility for mashups between all of those things. Let’s say you go to the Arktos website. Arktos is a publisher that defines itself through its books, and they also have their podcasts, and then their podcasts are tweeted by someone who’s using memes that are connected to something on the Daily Stormer, that are connected to something else. That’s just the way that whole ecosystem works. So it’s important to look at the memes, but I wouldn’t want to use the memes as a shortcut to the ideas. I really want to do a deep dive into these ideas. One of the chapters in the book is on theories of time and temporality as they relate to fascist philosophy. There was no short-cut to that, but studying it made me understand the implications when people evoke phrases like ‘riding the tiger’, or other terms that have to do with time: I now understand that because I have read all of that work out of hard-core English, Italian, French, and to some extent German fascism. You’re just not going to understand those theories of time, those narratives, or why fascists reject linear progress unless you read those sources.

JvM: …which in turn helps you to understand Steve Bannon’s film making roots and the ideological underpinnings of films like Generation Zero with its notion of the “fourth turning,” for example.

AS: That’s right, exactly, and I think that is really rewarding, but it is a different type of enterprise. I’m not saying people don’t do in-depth work looking at social media, they absolutely do; it’s just a different type of intellectual questions and projects.

JvM: Since you it’s so important to your book, could you talk a little bit about the role of women on the alt-right?

AS: The alt-right and the rise of ethno-nationalist movements are incredibly misogynistic and patriarchal. If we’re looking at continuities in fascists formations, their patriarchal aspect is at the forefront. That’s connected to their sense of how society should be organized, who should have rights and who shouldn’t, and also very much connected to nostalgic ideas of the past, when things were allegedly not so diverse. In this respect, it is crucial to understand the role of gender, sexuality, and reproduction on the alt-right, where the latter term refers particularly to white pronatalism, the call to start breeding and outpace the breeding patterns that are causing the “browning of America.” These arguments have been made in a lot of different ways. The patriarchal aspect of the rise of the far-right is crucial. as is understanding its own particular iterations of hyper-masculinity.

If you look at who is part of these organizations – and not just the Proud Boys (which is 100% cis-gendered men, because that’s how it identifies itself) but also the American Identity Movement, American Renaissance, or some of these more far-right squads that exist – they’re overwhelmingly made up of men because the men view themselves as the only bonafide leaders. Women make up a small segment at least of the visible faces of these movements. When people are willing to show their faces, they play a really important role. As has been shown in histories of other far-right movements, women are often behind the scenes. Much has been written about women sewing the hoods for the KKK. They are part of the organizational backbone as seamstresses and domestic workers of the far-right.

In this sense, women have always played a role, if often behind the scenes; but with the opportunities offered by social media, you see the rise of a small number far-right women as real influencers who are at the same time able to appear very domestic because they’re often producing content from within the home sphere. From their living rooms, they wax about the wonders of this home sphere, of home schooling and organic food. They’re often anti-vaxxers, and they talk about all those things and then upload it to Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook where they can gain audiences. The work that they’re doing there is their type of virtual performance. By performing their own femininity and helping to build networks—including through the comments, where you find collectives engaging and talking with one another – the far-right white women are playing a role in building really palpable connections in these communities.

One of the ironies of white nationalists is that they’re hyper-masculine to their own detriment. If they weren’t so sexist, they would realize that white women like Lana Lokteff (of Red Ice) and others are one of their greatest assets and have a lot of potential for recruitment. As surveys have shown, white women in America are more likely to endorse ideas that we would associate with white nationalism, such as a belief in white heritage, the need to protect community, or the notion that diversity is destroying American society. But because these groups are so sexist, they can’t completely let women in the door. These women open their own doors and are using social media platforms, but they have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, they can gain notoriety and put themselves out there, but they can’t steal the thunder of their men, whom they have to and want to praise as their protectors, their own white gods.

JvM: One last question: on the basis of what you have found out and how you’ve been thinking about it since the book got published, where do you see the most urgent questions around these issues going forward?

AS: There’s so much. But there are three areas I am actively developing. The first is anti-Semitism. Particularly the formations of anti-Semitism circa 2020 – how that’s been building, and how we’ve seen it erupting in violent and racist out-bursts, including recently. A lot of work on anti-Semitism has not really connected with other forms of xenophobia and forms of looking at exclusionary politics, so I want to do some of that.

The second is looking at the role of census and demography. We know that white nationalists are obsessed with demographic numbers. For them, the clock is ticking every day as America moves towards whites not being in majority status. And they also look back at 1924, when racial quotas were implemented as part of national immigration law – for them, this was the heyday of greatness in America. Furthermore, we know that demography in particular has connections to eugenics. So, I’m interested in looking at that more closely and tracking it to the contemporary moment where America is undergoing a demographic transition.

And then finally, I’ve written more popular media pieces about eco-fascism and the ways that the far-right has harnessed environmental thinking and the environmental movement. As climate change becomes more and more of an issue— and one that is impacting people’s daily lives, and upending communities, creating what some have called “climate refugees”— that creates a space for connecting to ideas of extinction. Additionally, ideas of demographic change and uprootedness can trigger more tribalistic thinking, and in turn can connect quite easily with ethno-nationalist politics. I suspect we’ll see a rise of what some have called eco-fascist thinking and movements in the years to come. There is interesting work being done on those fronts in Europe, and I’d like to connect with some of those scholars.

That will certainly keep me busy, but I would say that one of the integral parts of working on this project has been working in community with others. Even though we write books on our own, sitting down to put the prose on the paper and publishing them under our own names, this has been very much of a collective exercise in terms of conversations with you and conversations with others that have been international and interdisciplinary. Therefore, doing this work requires the community both to be in conversation and to be supportive as we work on these pressing themes.

JvM: Thank you for this interview and your ongoing work on these issues.

 

Notes

  1. Theodor W. Adorno, Aspekte des neuen Rechtsradikalismus (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2019), 54.