by Kyle W. Kusz
Although organized around the pretense of a free speech protest to protect a Robert E. Lee statue from removal, the real aim of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally that took place on August 11th and 12th, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, was to unite and energize various aggrieved white men to reassert the primacy of what historian Stephen Kantrowitz once called “white male prerogative” in American public culture.
Led by local conservative activist, Jason Kessler, in consultation with leaders from a variety of Alt Right and Alt Lite groups (like Richard Spencer, Augustus Invcitus, Gavin McInness, Matthew Heimbach, and others), the rally brought together a newly activated younger set of angry white men with an older generation of established white supremacist groups.
Together this inter-generational coalition of white men gathered together in the light of day to pridefully announce their intent to protect the entitled place of white manhood at the center of American culture and in its institutions by any means necessary.
That violence took place on August 12th and took the life of Heather Heyer and injured thirty-three others should not be a surprise to anyone who knows the history of right-wing extremists. Their rallies and gatherings have long sought to intimidate into silence those seeking social justice for historically marginalized groups. Vice’s behind-the-scenes documentary on Charlottesville revealed how violence was an openly and unapologetically accepted possibility for more than a few of the white men who participated in the rally.
And make no mistake, the organizers made the cowardly choice to stage this rally during the summer on the campus of one of our nation’s premier public universities in an otherwise sleepy college town. As a number of commentators have pointed out, colleges and universities have been a key site over the past decade where young white male anger over multiculturalism and feminism has been brewing.
In a 2007 essay for Colorlines, C. Richard King and David J. Leonard note how conservative student groups like the College Republicans, Young Conservatives of Texas, and Young Conservatives for Freedom led a backlash against diversity initiatives by “disclaim[ing] racism under the cover of humor and satire.” They sought to gain a following for their ideologies by staging political theater like diversity baked goods sales, white-male only scholarships, and ‘catch an illegal immigrant’ game to be played across campus. Not to be outdone, white-dominant fraternities and student groups registered similar dismay about the multiculturalization of American universities by hosting ‘ghetto-fabulous’ and ‘taco and tequila’ parties where some white students donned blackface and brownface and others caricatured African-Americans and Latinx folks in the most stereotypical of ways.
In this essay, I want to offer—in admittedly broad brushstrokes—a cultural explanation for the politicization of young white men and their attraction to the racial and gender ideologies espoused by this new wave of white supremacism.
To do so, I will explain how college campuses are a key node in today’s culture wars and a key recruiting ground for Alt Right groups today. Then, I detail the decades-long cultural emergence and growing prominence of a broad range of media texts that celebrate the re-masculinizing, fraternal pleasures of white male immaturity. While these texts offer intergenerational manly pleasures to Gen Xers and Millennials, their flippant, absurdist comedic discourse has quietly become the language and ideas that too many young white men in college consume and use on a daily basis to develop their sense of self as white men and their understanding of the current state of American society. Particularly alarming are the shared ideas, values, themes and logics that exist between the man-boy arts that are prominent in the American mainstream, the ideas used by Alt Right and Alt Lite groups to recruit new members, and Trump’s nationalistic project to reassert white male prerogative in American culture and society, first as candidate and now as president.
College campuses as Alt Right target
In the midst of the Trump campaign juggernaut in 2016, college campuses across the United States witnessed an unprecedented increase in the dissemination of white supremacist propaganda and recruiting efforts on college campuses.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has identified 188 incidents of white supremacist flyers that have been posted on over 129 college campuses since September 2016. Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center—one of the watchdogs that tracks right-wing activism historically—notes there is a “very concerted effort on the part of the radical right to view college campuses as a recruiting ground.” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and Oren Segal, the director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, also say that they’ve never seen white supremacists so focused on recruiting college students. Spurred on by what they read as Trump’s tacit support for their ideas, Segal said, “these white supremacist groups feel that now is the time to strike…They feel like their messages have been mainstreamed…[and] there’s an opening for them now in a way that they never really felt before.”
American Renaissance (AR) and Identity Evropa (IE) are two such groups leading the charge to spread their white supremacist ideas to college campuses through separate poster campaigns taking place right now.
IE’s campaign features slick, professionally produced, full-color posters like the one below that emphasize the urgency for young white men to secure the future of their race now. AR has produced a more sophisticated and expansive form of propaganda that uses an ironic sensibility to co-opt historic socially progressive political images, like the iconic feminist Rosie the Riveter image, and re-articulate them with a proto-fascist, ethno-nationalistic, ‘white-consciousness campaign.’
How did so many young, college-educated, clean-cut, white men become so angry and so ready to take to the streets to fight to take back what they feel is rightfully theirs?
This recent history of the campus culture wars was largely absent from mainstream news coverage of Charlottesville. It was only rarely referenced when commentators tried to make sense of the images of hundreds of angry white men without masks, boldly and unapologetically marching and chanting the anti-Semitic: ‘You will not replace us/Jews will not replace us,” the Nazi- and nativist inspired: “Blood and soil,” and the white male entitled: “Whose streets? Our streets!” chants that came out of Charlottesville.
Instead, much of the mainstream news coverage during that week’s news-cycle—not to mention President Trump’s deeply troubling response—focused public attention on “the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists” who gathered in Charlottesville. This representation of the rally obscured more than it revealed. In particular, it failed to shed light on the many Alt Right and Alt Lite groups that have emerged over the past decade and energized the rally.
It also left another key question unanswered: How did so many young, college-educated, clean-cut, white men become so angry and so ready to take to the streets to fight to take back what they feel is rightfully theirs?
IE is the brainchild of Iraq War veteran, convicted felon, and current college student, Nathan Damigo, and is considered part of the Alt Right. IE has reportedly initiated a guerilla-style recruiting campaign called, ‘Project Siege,’ meant to target young white male college students. In 2016 alone, IE was responsible for 65 instances of propaganda distribution. And only a few weeks into the Fall 2017 semester, it has already targeted at least 24 universities in 3 states.
AR is the creation of Jared Taylor, a man who has been a leader in an older generation of the White Right since 1990. Like Richard Spencer—the white nationalist who has perhaps enjoyed the most media attention since the political rise of Trump and who is credited with coining the term: ‘Alt Right’ back in 2008—Taylor is categorized by the SPLC as a ‘suit and tie racist,’ a type of professional class white supremacist who attempts to give his racial ideologies a veneer of academic sophistication, legitimacy, and authority.
What is particularly fascinating about these posters and recruiting campaigns, particularly IE’s, is how they both are eerily reminiscent of the organizing carried out by a group of young resentful white men as part of ‘Project Mayhem,’ a domestic terrorism campaign featured in the 1999 film, Fight Club. Additionally, IE and AR are cagily trying to popularize their ideologies by co-opting aesthetics and logics used by more socially progressive activists.
According to Andrea Nagle’s fascinating book Kill All Normies: Online culture wars form 4chan to tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Fight Club is a film frequently cited as inspiration by the young white men who have used the anonymity offered in deep internet sites like reddit, 4chan and later 8chan to share and spread their antifeminist, racist, nativist, and anti-Semitic ideas. It is these young white men who have, at least in part, become a key constituency responsible for the emergent Alt Right and Alt Lite.
Growing up in a culture of man-boys
But the online right is not the only place where young white men have learned to aim their misguided anger at women, feminism, immigrants, African-Americans, and diversity programming. Some were undoubtedly primed for the white nationalist/white supremacist ideas espoused by the White Right and the Trump campaign through their consumption of the man-boy arts that have flourished near the center of American popular culture as they came of age.
As in previous moments of social, technological, and economic change, the past two decades have been yet another time in American history when ‘white men in crisis’ narratives have gained prominence and been considered valid by many Americans. Variations on this narrative have been produced in and through contemporary films, television shows, popular literature, academic research, news media, political think tanks, and even sports.
Around the turn of the 21st century—perhaps due in part to the success of David Fincher’s film, Fight Club, Comedy Central’s The Man Show, or MTV’s Jackass—these narratives began unapologetically celebrating the pleasures of fraternal bonding among youthful white men.
As Sally Robinson has pointed out in her book, Marked Men, from the 1970s to the mid-1990s protagonists in these tales of white men’s woes were often white, middle aged men like Updike’s Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom in his critically acclaimed Rabbit series of books, Michael Douglas’ characters in films like Disclosure and Falling Down, or Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of a downwardly-mobile, resentful white male baseball fan in The Fan.
But, around the turn of the 21st century—perhaps due in part to the success of David Fincher’s film, Fight Club, Comedy Central’s The Man Show, or MTV’s Jackass—these narratives began unapologetically celebrating the pleasures of fraternal bonding among youthful white men who often made women, people of color, elites, and even themselves targets of their un-PC antics. By the mid-2000s, the former melodramas of middle-aged white male victimization were largely replaced by edgy, absurdist, and ironic comedies featuring youthful white men as either immature, arrested in their development, downwardly mobile, cartoonishly manly, or as losers.
Over the past decade, these white man-boys proliferated in the post-network era in popular television shows like South Park, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, The Office, Entourage, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Tosh.O, The League, Silicon Valley, and Workaholics. They also prominently feature in films like: Anchorman, Anchorman 2, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Ted, Ted 2, or Knocked Up (or just about anything with Will Ferrell, Seth MacFarlane, or Seth Rogen, really).
Even a critically-acclaimed television show like House M.D. that ran from 2004-2012 and featured an unapologetically un-PC, immature, fortysomething white male doctor-savant who refused to acknowledge the authority of his female boss, constantly mocked the people of color, Jews, bisexuals, and foreigners who work under his direction, and preferred the company of female escorts and a bromance to the married life, evinces the prominence of the man-boy genre over the past decade.
Around the same time, the plight of American (white) boys became the object of a number of anti-feminist books like Christina Hoff Sommers’ (2001) ‘The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming our Young Men,’ Kathleen Parker’s Save the Males (2008), and Kay Hymowitz’s (2011) Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, all of which argued that the normalization of feminism in American culture and society was creating a ‘crisis’ for American men by focusing on the plight of boys.
Alongside this supposed ‘boys crisis,’ a new pop-lit genre alternately called ‘frat-lit’ or ‘frat-ire’—a supposed rejoinder to the ‘chick lit’ book trend that preceded it—was created based on the enormous popularity of George Ouzounian’s (2006) The Alphabet of Manliness and Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, both of which earned New York Times’ Best-Seller status in the mid-2000s after first developing as websites that enjoyed a bottom-up following among young men drawn to the masculinist themes offered in their stories. Even Harvey Mansfield used his Ivy League credentials to provide an air of academic legitimacy and authority to the idea that the essential manliness of biological men needed to once again be culturally respected and revered in his book, Manliness.
Together, the narratives produced in the man-boys arts were often predicated on this idea that American white men are in crisis. They also frequently offered an imagined solution to this perceived crisis: relief could be found in safe spaces in the company of (white) men (and away from the judgments of women) where the stereotypical pleasures of being a manly man can be unapologetically enjoyed again, and where white racial guilt dissipates.
By 2017, the recurrent ideas popularized through this man-boy discursive formation—white male fraternity, antifeminism, freedom from white guilt, and tongue-in-cheek performances of manliness—are the governing logics of an assemblage of sports/lifestyle websites that target young white men who attend college like Total Frat Move, Bro Bible, and Old Row. Another site geared toward sports, manly, fraternal pleasures, and irony-laden anti-PC humor, Barstoolsports—a popular site amongst a number of my white male students at the University of Rhode Island—offers a steady stream of tales of ‘the pussification of American society,’ white everyman rebellion, and #SAFTB (Saturdays Are For The Boys) fraternal bonding that mirror the key ideas and logics found in the above man-boy cultural texts. Finally, cultural conservative sites like Campus Reform and The Daily Caller that seek to intimidate liberal and progressive professors into silence are also organized through similar anti-PC, anti-feminist, and anti-diversity frames and logics that ultimately provide protections for white male entitlement.
Given these observations, it hardly seems controversial to argue that a whole, cross-pollinating assemblage of new and old media organized by the reactionary ideas and logics frequently found in the man-boy arts have affectively and effectively primed young white men to be attracted to the unapologetic, shameless alpha male masculine posturing and antifeminist language too often espoused by Alt Righters like Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Andrew Anglin, and Alt Lite groups like the Proud Boys created by Gavin McInness. Each of these White Right leaders has used the ironic humor, parody, and ‘frat-ire’ first popularized, at least in part, through the man-boy discursive formation to promote their hate, deflect criticism, and attempt to recruit younger white men, many of whom attend college.
So, while it can be easy for many to direct their criticism and contempt at Trump alone for this latest wave of white supremacy and misogyny, we must keep in mind that his unexpected rise and appeal was enabled by a constellation of cultural forces and economic conditions that preceded him. The racial resentments and gender animosities he energized were already present and being renewed once again in American popular culture—not only on Fox News, but in post-network television, on the New York Times Best Seller’s list, on the Internet, and at the Multiplex as discussed above. Any potential impeachment of Trump will certainly not eradicate the appetite to revitalize white male prerogative he has ignited in his supporters. Indeed, quite the opposite, it is likely to strengthen their resolve. So, resisting Trump alone is not enough.
Any meaningful resistance must challenge the everyday, mundane, and highly pleasurable ways in which popular cultures like the man-boy arts play a noteworthy role in popularizing the racial exclusivity, manly rituals, and casual misogyny of white fraternity for a new generation of American white men. Any resistance must also account for the way man-boy media help constitute many young white men as a ready-made, yet largely invisible, audience not only for the new kids on the white supremacist block, but for the vulgar, misogynistic, race-baiting, cartoonish masculine bluster, and white nationalist agenda of our Twitter/Troll-in-Chief, first on the campaign trail and now in the White House.
Because even in the face of life-threatening natural disasters and military action potentially on the horizon, ‘45’ makes clear through his weekly escapes to his members-only, signature golf clubs that revitalizing the bonds of white fraternity (or ‘#SAFTB’ as the boys might say) is an essential part of his project of ‘Making America Great Again.’
Kyle Kusz is an Associate Professor of Cultural Studies of Sport in the Department of Kinesiology and Affiliated Faculty of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island. His work critically examines the cultural politics of white masculinities in American popular culture with a specific focus on sport media culture. His book, Revolt of the White Athlete (Peter Lang 2007) examines the role of sporting narratives in the culture wars during the conjuncture of the mid 1990s to the early 2000s. His latest work focuses on diagnosing how cultural representations of New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, figure in the latest wave of white supremacy and gender backlash ushered in by Trumpism.
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