Around the Right
I had meant this to be a kind of briefly noted digest of recent news, but it turned into more of an essay. Sorry, or, you’re welcome.—
First, my friends Sam Adler-Bell and Matthew Sitman at the Know Your Enemy podcast did an episode on what they termed “The Hochman Affair” and various other recent “revelations” of the extreme right sympathies and associations of young conservative movement cadre. You might remember: Nate Hochman is the former young DeSantis staffer who was fired for sharing and possibly creating an online video that contained a Nazi symbol. Matt and Sam had a personal connection to Hochman: he was one of the subjects of a piece Sam wrote the The New Republic in 2021 and they hosted him on their podcast. Their interview and relationship with Hochman was amicable, which a lot of people on the left have given them shit for especially after the recent debacle. The recent episode is dedicated in large part to reflecting on the whole situation and whether or not they could’ve covered Hochman more aggressively. I happen to think a lot of the criticism of their show has been unfair or misguided. They are journalists and their show is dedicated to what used to be called “journalism of ideas,” which requires a certain attitude to sources that can’t just be yelling at them. Now Hochman’s interview, where he generally sounds polite and reasonable, albeit evasive on certain points, is part of the record and helps us to understand the entire phenomenon
The only thing that I really disagree with Sam and Matt on in this matter, and that difference has a lot to do just with their generosity, is that I never thought Hochman was some particularly bright light. My own experience debating with him did not make me very impressed with either his powers of argument or discernment. He’s read some books, sure, but he seemed to have absolutely no capacity to judge anything properly. This is not to just gratuitously insult the fellow, but I think it helps to understand what really happened here: he got caught up and swept up in things he didn’t really fully understand or really think about. The hip and edgy thing—the avant-garde pose—on the Right is to fuck around with far right imagery and ideas and he went along. When people pointed out any fascist origin or valence to anything, he just didn’t really take it seriously. There just was no process of reflection. You see this all the time on the Right now: the embrace of the themes of the far right, while at the same time as dismissing concerns around fascism as hysterical lib shit.
For some, there is certainly some sadistic fun in being in bad faith in this manner. For others, it’s just self-deception. Sometimes this self-deception takes the form of “It’s actually more complicated than that.” There’s lots of little scholastic and pedantic distinctions to be debated to veil the underlying reality: “Oh, this isn’t that, it’s actually “Traditionalism,” or its “Nietzschean vitalism.” Or, maybe it’s simply a provocation: “Oh, even though X says they are ‘fascist’” that’s only to troll the libs, etc.” The problem with that is that the adoption of political attitudes solely for the feeling of power they give or their ability to menace one’s enemies runs pretty close to a good definition of fascism itself. In any case, there is always lot of enjoyment in it. In many cases, the line between a frat boy who badly wants to say the n-word because its naughty and makes him feel good and these sorts of people is virtually non-existent.
As Sam and Matt discuss on their podcast, the success of the alt-right in taking over the right was not through organization or persuasion so much as acculturation and absorption. They pumped the entire atmosphere with propaganda until it just became the air the younger members of the movement breathe. They can’t even see it anymore. They just repeat and share the memes. I’ve called this process “groyperfication.” Again, this process is highly germane to fascist politics. Part of the enjoyment or the existential relief in it, is the automatism: traditionally, you snap to attention, you give the salute, you shout, “Heil Hitler!” This repetition of slogans, the mechanical adoption of poses and dispositions, and the spontaneous enactment of them is more essential than internalizing the ideas. You just do it. To borrow the concept of a Nazi philosopher, Heidegger, it’s behaving according to Das Man—The One or The They. It’s just what one does. What does one do if one if one is a young right-winger? Well, one follows and shares a lot of extreme right content. They do the memes. If you object, if you are uncomfortable about it or creeped about it, social conformism does its bullying work: you’re cringe, a squish, a pussy, a cuck.
The creation of a They or social conformism allows people to adopt the politics, to further its ends, without owning it. This lack of thought or depth of any kind is a political asset. As Hannah Arendt wrote: “It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface”. They aren’t fascists or Nazis, no—come now, how absurd!—they are just playing at it, they are just saying it for the hell of it. Again, its a form of play. This recalls Kierkegaard’s characterization of the public in The Present Age:
Lacking … character, it relates to events in equivocating cowardice and vacillation and reinterprets the same thing in all sorts of ways, wants it to be taken as a joke, and when that apparently miscarries, wants it to be taken as an insult, and if that miscarries, claims that nothing was meant at all, that it is supposed to be a witticism, and if that miscarries, explains that it was not meant to be that either, that it was ethical satire, which in fact ought to be of some concern to people, and if that miscarries, says that it is nothing anyone should pay any attention to.
Partly, this is just what happens to human beings on the Internet. The lack of the necessity to become a concrete self, to take ownership and be responsible for one’s actions and thoughts, allows one to put on and take off attitudes without care or consequences. But this “characterless envy” as Kierkegaard calls it, with its spurious “irony,” is an unbearable condition: so the fascist subject strives to become something, literally some thing—part of a mob, a serious participant of a political movement, a devotee of a secret religion, an invincible, perfectly masculine warrior, a perfectly feminine woman, a member of a race or gender or historical civilization with certain immutable, permanent qualities, or the exponent of some kind of eternal, vital force. To quote Sartre, he “wishes to be pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt‐anything except a man.”
In The Nation, Amanda Moore has a piece entitled “Undercover With the New Alt-Right,” where she went, well, undercover with the new alt-right. She confirms what I and many others have been saying:
Some of the neo-Nazis and fascists I met undercover in 2020 are working as congressional campaign staffers and helping to form congressional caucuses. They are meeting with leaders of far-right political parties in Italy and Hungary. They are leaders in their local Young Republican organizations. They have access to elected GOP officials at the national and local level.
But there’s another point I think is worth emphasizing, as well:
People in the political center and on the left tend to have a monolithic view of the far right. In reality, it is an expansive ecosystem that includes neo-Nazis, Christian nationalists, conspiracy theorists, anti-government militias, and white nationalists. These groups have some beliefs that conflict, but they are generally willing to overlook their differences. Still, not every group uses the same tactics to try to gain power.
This brings to mind two things. First, the sociologist Michael Mann’s concept of an “authoritarian rightist family” of which fascism was merely one member along with other political tendencies like the so-called conservative revolutionaries: “Fascists were nurtured among the authoritarian rightists and continued to have close family relations with them. As in all families, their relationships could involve love or hatred.” As I’ve written previously, such an authoritarian right family, albeit still a rather small and subcultural one, exists now in the United States: “Some of them are more national populist, some more Protestant Christian nationalist, some explicitly antisemitic, some Catholic integralist, some technocratic-utopian, some “national socialist” or Sorelian and made up of disaffected former leftists, but together they form a kind of cultural matrix of far right politics.”
The other thing Moore’s piece makes me think of again is the history of fascism in France and the “the porous boundary between conservatism and extremism on the right” that Christopher Millington writes about in his A History of Fascism in France: From the First World War to the National Front. Putatively conservative parliamentary deputies had ties to or even belonged to street-based, anti-parliamentary leagues while leaders of putatively anti-democratic paramilitary groups ran for and won elected office. People belonged to multiple organizations and adopted different strategies and tactics at different times, depending on conditions. The lines were often quite blurry.