The Browning of the Right
Becoming Fascist Subjects
Last Sunday, Talking Points Memo reported that an aide of Arizona Republican representative Paul Gosar was a follower of White Nationalist diva Nick Fuentes. This is substantial news, but not exactly shocking: Gosar is one of the most far right members of congress and has flirted with the racist extreme before. It is also part of a long pattern of members of the fascist right showing up in conservative media and political offices. Tucker Carlson’s show employed an internet Nazi. Before that, his news website Daily Caller had a habit of hiring and publishing alt-right figures. Recently, it turned out that the Pentagon leaker was “preparing for a race war.” Last year, right-wing wunderkind Nate Hochman, now working for Florida governor Ron Desantis, made a revealing comment to the New York Times that “every junior staffer in the Trump administration read ‘Bronze Age Mindset,’’ by the figure who calls himself “Bronze Age Pervert.” In a recent essay, BAP wrote, “I believe in Fascism or ’something worse’ and I can say so unambiguously because, unlike others, I have given up long ago all hope of being part of the respectable world or winning a respectable audience.”
I have called this process of radicalization among the junior staff of the conservative movement “groyperfication.” I believe from both personal experience and the evidence of these news stories that the suffusion of neo-Nazi and fascist memes and propaganda throughout the lower ranks of the right is quite widespread. I would hazard to say much of this content is reproduced and distributed by people who do not self-consciously consider themselves fascists or Nazis, but who are doing out of a spirit of ironic transgression or in-group belonging.
But it is not just the enlisted men and NCOs of the Right who are showing signs of browning. It’s the leadership cadre as well. Elon Musk this past week made a number of comments on George Soros that were coyly antisemitic and his attempts to run interference and spread disinformation after the revelation of the Allen mall shooter’s Nazi politics. Receiving an award from the New Criterion, Peter Thiel talked about Bronze Age Pervert in his acceptance speech. And of course, there was Trump’s infamous dinner meeting with Nick Fuentes. Then there’s Tucker Carlson’s texts that allegedly got him fired from Fox:
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching video of people fighting on the street in Washington. A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living shit out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it. Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be. The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?
I referred to this missive as “college essay fascism.” But this brings me to my point. During the interminable debates about fascism, there was a lot of discussion about what we could call the objective parts of the fascism question. That is to say, the political forms, organizations, the style of leadership and rhetoric, the necessary social and economic conditions, etc. But what was perhaps less commented on was the subjective aspects of fascism: the dispositions, attitudes, and emotional states that contribute to the formation of a fascist subjectivity. Of course, on some level you can’t really separate these things, because the performance of fascist subjectivity is intrinsically propagandistic. Let me try to describe what I mean.
The Nazis who watched Tucker Carlson and claimed to "learn from him," in terms of his rhetorical skills, but they were also fascinated by the spectacle of fascist subject formation being performed live. This is part of the intrinsic thrill and attraction of fascist politics: identification with a leader who is “coming to power” and “revealing the truth,” the accelerating revelation of the unstoppable strength of the leader, his defiance and contempt for the enemy, and their impotence in stopping him. We saw this process also with Trump’s run for the White House. I believe it was as much Trump’s embodiment of this subjective dimension of fascist politics as much as his actual stated views that drew the entire extreme right to rally around him. In their poetry and art, the Futurists were obsessed with the notions of “velocity” and “acceleration.” In like manner, Fascist politics give the feeling of “momentum,” “going there” and “moving towards,” an exciting sense of fatal direction. Every time a Carlson or a Musk moves towards closer to the adoption of explicitly fascist ideals, the audience for it reacts with excitement and encourages more: “Keep going, you’re so close.” (Obviously, it is difficult to separate this from a certain psychosexual dimension.)
The performance of hesitation, doubt or second-thoughts has an important propagandistic role as well. It permits the bystander, the normal person who is not fully a fascist subject, to identify with the process and also it deepens the sense of “coming to the truth,” to make the arrival at fascism seem like an awakening, or great revelation of a hard reality. This speaks to the simultaneously populist and elitist sides of fascist politics: “you are becoming part of a great mass movement of the people’ and also “you are joining a very special elite that knows the truth.” The classic example of “coming to the truth” rhetoric is in Mein Kampf, where Hitler describes his process of becoming a violent antisemite, which he says he initially resisted out of humanitarian feelings, but then had to admit to himself as true. Elon Musk does something like this every day on Twitter when endorsing a new piece of propaganda: he presents this as something done in all innocence and honesty. We can see this at work in the Tucker texts as well: “Oh, I’m having these bloodthirsty thoughts and feelings, but there’s something still decent at my core. I must resist the very strong temptation to indulge what I want.”
But ultimately, the core of fascist subjectivity is the indulgence of sadistic feelings. This is possible even when people do not believe the nonsense of the propaganda. They can still enjoy its ability to shock and menace. This is the sense of power it delivers. We see this in right-wing intellectuals gravitation towards Trump, because he upset the right people. As Albrecht Korschke in his book on the rhetoric of Mein Kampf:
The “kick” that Mein Kampf offers to cooler and calmer readers does not concern a specific conviction wrested from competing opinions but the absolute refusal to engage in dialogue. It is wholly immaterial, then, whether one inwardly believes what Hitler says in his rants. It is even possible—as was the case for some of the more intellectual figures in Nazi elites—to make fun of his pseudoscientific racial doctrine, to cover one’s mouth and smirk at his forced speaking style, but still to experience the reflexive impulse to persecute any disrespectful comment made by third parties. A menacing vacuum emanates from Mein Kampf—a license for adherents to react to opposition with a “Just you wait” that bristles with lustful sadism.
Sartre famously described something similar in Anti-Semite and Jew, when he wrote antisemites, “delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”
While overt membership in extreme right organizations remains fairly small, the process of fascist subject formation can encompass those that would never formally join such an organization or whose sympathies must remain sub rosa for personal or professional reasons. Besides, political subjectivity is formed differently in the modern world than through the workings of a political party: where once people were persuaded and impressed by mass spectacles, soaring oratory of leaders, and a centralized party organ pumping out pamphlets and broadcasts, now there is a more distributed and decentralized dissemination of propaganda. It’s true there may be no single open mass fascist party, but it seems difficult to argue that there are no fascist subjects. We read about them in the news and watch them online every day.