The University of Wisconsin-Madison
Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Zero Books, London, 2017; pp: 120; RRP $12.50 Paperback.
While many books have been published on the rise of Donald Trump, Angela Nagle’s latest contribution is the only book that deals with the ‘online culture wars’, which preceded and influenced the 2016 election. On the one hand, Nagle traces the emergence of ‘identitarian liberalism’ on popular websites like Tumblr and LiveJournal. On the other hand, she chronicles the advent of the ‘alt-light’ and the ‘alt-right’ as a backlash against identitarian liberalism. Part historical narrative and part explanation of these three
movements, Nagle’s text is at once a niche cultural history as well as a detailed introduction to the topography of contemporary internet cultural politics.
According to Nagle, identitarian liberalism is a strand of cultural leftism that emphasizes increasingly trivial issues pertaining to diversity and political correctness, at the expense of attention to more substantive issues such as economic inequality and ‘actual’ racism, sexism, and other social oppressions (p. 77). As she examines the output of influential identitarian trend setters, Nagle argues that the identitarian left is a social media fueled movement characterized by self-orientated virtue signaling, language policing, call-out culture, purging (“I am privileged because …”), anti-intellectualism, and an authoritarian ethos that believes shutting people down is the best form of politics. From public confessions of ‘white male guilt’ to an ever-growing list of microaggressions and trigger warnings, this ‘slacktivism’ and ‘clicktivism’—rooted in a “cult of suffering, weakness and vulnerability”—has trickled into the real world (p. 73). Whether it be the campus censorship of intellectuals like Camille Paglia and Laura Kipnis, or the persecution of ‘misogynistic’ Bernie Sanders and his ‘unwoke’ Bernie Bro supporters, Nagle argues that the identitarian left is not so much a progressive political current, as it is a moral hysteria unhinged from political struggles that matter.
On the other side of this hysteria is the alt-light. According to Nagle, this subculture developed on popular forums like 4Chan as a response to the sentimental identity politics and political correctness of the identitarian left. Unlike the Republican Party, this movement has no “coherent commitment to conservative thought or politics” (p. 19). Instead, its members are united by dark humor, transgression for the sake of transgression, a masculinity rooted in misogyny, and a shared rebelliousness against political correctness, censorship, and feminism. From videogame players to popular figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Vice’s Gavin McInnes, the alt-light are the ironic, trolling agitators who get their kicks from stepping on the toes of ‘liberal snowflakes’ and a sense of purpose from challenging the ‘pussification’ of America.
Like the alt-light, the alt-right, which includes the likes of Richard Spencer and Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, shares a grievance against identity politics—especially feminism—and political correctness. However, this rightwing subculture, which also grew out of social media, is also concerned with biologically-rooted hierarchies of sex and race, immigration, Islam, and the ongoing ‘decline of western civilization’. While both the alt-light and alt-right have their divergences, they found a shared ally in Donald Trump. He is the politically-incorrect provocateur who is not afraid to grab women by their pussies or to push an ‘America first’ agenda that employs walls, quotas, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to target Mexicans, Muslims, and other people from ‘shithole countries’.
One strength of Kill All Normies is that it meticulously maps out the emergence of the identitarian left, the alt-light, and the alt-right years before these forces garnered popular appeal outside of the internet. Moreover, Nagel situates her analysis within a much broader history of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, postmodern thought, and the various culture wars that have occurred in America. Although many readers will find Nagel’s analysis of the identitarian left controversial, her conclusion that identity politics drove many people toward the alt-light, alt-right, and eventually Donald Trump, is a thesis that deserves serious consideration. Indeed, as the 2020 election approaches, it will become increasingly important to critically examine the cultural landscape where ideological battles are being waged with real political consequences.
The main criticism I have of Nagle’s text is that it would have been a much stronger treatment of the subject had she done ethnographic work with members of the cultures that she writes about. Indeed, an engagement with many of these left and rightwing bloggers, tweeters, and speakers would have created a more comprehensive portrait of her subject. This kind of history from below would have been especially useful since Nagle has been accused of not fully understanding the layers of irony, sarcasm, faux-irony, and inside jokes that characterize websites like 4Chan—a limitation that Nagle herself acknowledges in chapter one (p. 9). A second criticism of Kill All Normies is that it is woefully inattentive to what Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott describes as the ‘alt-left’. This potpourri of new magazines like Jacobin and the politically-incorrect, snowflake-crushing podcast Chapo Trap House have also emerged as responses to identitarian liberalism. However, unlike the alt-light and alt-right, they take socialism as their point of departure. These two critiques aside, Nagle’s book is a valuable contribution to cultural history and I recommend it to anyone who wants to critically engage the purported shortcomings of identity politics and the ongoing growth of the alt-light and alt-right.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison