To understand the contemporary alt-right and its institutional expression (President Donald Trump) it’s worth revisting American Psycho (1991), a text, riddled with Trump references, trangressions of the highest order and a contradictory and confusing sense of self. Released to an explosion of controversy due to its violent and misogynistic themes, critics nonetheless praised its attempt to illuminate and challenge prevailing societal norms. We might read the text as a portrayal of the ultimate, fucked-up extremities of the political Subject of late capitalist, post-modernity. Patrick Bateman, Wall Street banker-cum-serial-killer, humorously and revoltingly lurches from one existential crisis to the next. Narcissistic, avaristic, obsessed with a love of Donald Trump, Bateman leads a blood-lusting and drug-induced existence with a distinct absence of friendship, love, fraternity and community. The reader is left not knowing what really happened and what didn’t, and whether it really mattered anyway.
In modernity, the self is imbued with a distinct sense of absence, attributed, as most clearly in Eagleton (2014), to the death of God. The self in Sartre and Camus is empty but is left with an amazing and terrifying form of freedom. Whether in Hemingway or Hughes, Plath or Picasso, in modernity, there is always a god-filled hole in the self. In postmodernity, the husk of the self disappears entirely and selfhood is multiple, contradictory and incomplete selves. In such a philosophical conception, nihilism finds its home. Patrick Bateman, the protagonist and unreliable narrator in Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho (1991), embodies this form of nihilism. Health and fitness-obsessed yet addicted to prescription (and hard) drugs, deeply racist yet liberal and politically correct, completely narcistic yet self-loathing, Bateman’s character epitomises the self (or lack thereof) in the postmodern, late capitalist epoch. Examples of this are not hard to find in the text:
- ‘Just cool it with the anti-semitic remarks’ Bateman tells his colleague on page 36, a phrase immortalized by the 2000 film. Yet by page 146 he’s hurling anti-semitic abuse at the Jewish owners of a deli.
- ‘There wasn’t a clear identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibily, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure.’ (Easton Ellis 1991: 271).
- Bateman also confesses his psychotic mindset before realising even his confession itself was inauthentic, incomplete and pointless: ‘… there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me… But even after admitting this, … I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling’ (Easton Ellis 1991: 362).
Hence, what Bateman represented, and Easton Ellis sought to convey, was how ‘hyperreal’ (Baudrillard 1994: 1) the postmodern age is. For Bauman (1992: 151), the hyperreal is perceived as too real to be real: reality itself becomes perceived as a simulation and we have no way of knowing whether any of the events of American Psycho actually took place. The epistemic haze and confusion characterised by hyperreality allows a form of transgressive nihilism to set in.
Enter Donald Trump. Here we have a president emblematic of the amoral, transgressive, postmodern simulacrum that American Psycho displays. That is, we all can’t believe it’s real and when reminded of it, it seems all too real. We come crashing down to a strange earth-like place with a bang. Trump’s interventions in public life seem hyperreal, mediated as they are through media spectacles and 140 characters. We think, ‘I can’t believe he’s said that’, or more specifically, ‘I cant believe the President of the United States said that’. We hear transgressions of liberals norms of racial, sexual equality and freedom of religion but also general decorum. There’s transgression every time Trump makes a comment about ‘pussy-grabbing’ or berates the ‘son of bitches’ NFL players protesting racial injustice, or expresses his desire to date his daughter, or types a tweet that Bill Clinton’s promiscuity was Hillary’s fault or calls for Hillary to be jailed.
Returning to American Psycho and reading the text more closely, we find that there is more than hyperreal transgression that connects Patrick Bateman to Donald Trump. In fact, Bateman is positively in love with him.
- He lists as one of his ‘priorities before christmas… get[ting] myself invited to the Trump Christmas Party aboard their yacht’ (Easton Ellis 1991: 170)
- He reads Trump’s the Art of the Deal when being investigated by a private detective.
- He lies that he’s going to ‘a party that Donald Trump’s having’ (Easton Ellis 1991: 219).
Incidentally and interestingly, author of the book Brett Easton Ellis also appears to enjoy how the Trump presidency transgresses, in his words, the ‘Hollywood liberal establishment… HRC… intersectionality, identity politics, PC virtue signaling.’
Moving beyond Trump and towards his online supporters, American Psycho is also cited by Angela Nagle as a key text in the literary canon of the alt-right, though we might fairly assume that most of them only watched the Christian Bale and Reece Witherspoon film. Nagle’s Kill All Normies, though of course not without its many many flaws (read about them here), is instructive on the alt-right’s affinity to transgression, or in online parlance, ‘edgelordism’. Her description of the alt-right seems spot on to those who’ve had the misfortune of encountering their ilk online:
‘… a strange vanguard of teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers and meme-making trolls whose dark humor and love of transgression for its own sake made it hard to know what political views were genuinely held and what were merely, as they used to say, for the lulz.‘
Integral to alt-right Edgelordism is a latent kind of Nietzscheanism: Why speak truth to power when you’re powerful? Why punch up when it’s easier (and cooler) to punch down? Political demands as varied as trans rights and cancelling third world debt become new forms of ressentiment for an online political demographic that is overwhelmingly white, straight, male and middle-class. Any progressive political demands are assumed to be symbolic of a performative, slave morality – or in alt-right parlance ‘PC culture’ or ‘cultural Marxism’ (the latter of course being an anti-semitic conspiracy theory.)
Indeed, so pre-occupied with ‘triggering libs’, their counter-arguments melt into air when properly pushed to their logical conclusion. Leftist guardian journalist Gary Younge explains that black slaves were integral to the founding of white America: black slaves even built the White house. When informed of the invaluable labour of African slaves in building America as we know it, white supremacist and alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer could only respond to Younge, ‘well we [white people] made you do it.’ Such a hollowed-out, bankrupt pseudo-Nietzschean sense of the will to power is representative of a politics with no robust ontology or epistemology, founded on little else but amoral transgression. More specifically, a transgression animated almost entirely by ‘triggering libs’, powerless when challenged with a proper analysis but clearly not without its appeal for the white male identitarians of the cybersphere.
Returning to American Psycho, and coming full circle, we find in the alt-right, rather than the ‘thick’ ideology of 20th century Nazis (blood, soil, sacrifice, cleansing etc.) an Edgelord, ironic vacuity. Not so much critique as distilled negation. If all you’re doing is transgressing and ‘triggering libs’, it can be hard to for opponents of the alt-right to nail them to a post. Even the Nazi label is often embraced by the alt-right with ironic Edgelord detachment that seems as much ‘lulz’ as ‘lebensraum‘. This might explain why, as Nagle recognises, the online alt-right is not nearly a coherent movement. This is not to say there isn’t an overwhelming Neo-nazi problem in the world today. This was exhibited beyond all doubt as chants of ‘blood and soil’ rang out across Charlottesville and a Democratic Socialist Member and trade unionist paid with her life. More recently of course, 60,000 took to the streets of Warsaw to chant fascist slogans and a hatred of Muslims. Clearly, we have a nazi problem.
Nonetheless, the online incarnations of the alt-right often attract disparate, younger sympathisers from weird corners of the internet and political landscape who lack the discipline and coherence of 20th century fascism. This is not to say they do not present any danger, they clearly do. It is to say that we must understand them, much like Patrick Bateman, as of the postmodern capitalist era, as hyperreal figures who can only feed off transgression, Trump and triggering libs. And because there is little substantive to what they have to say, they can be defeated in argument, as Gary Younge showed. Defeating the arguments of these people while not promoting them or succumbing elements of their agenda (which Nagle arguably does), is a major task of this political moment.
– Baudrillard, J (1994) Simulacra and Simulation. Michagan: The University of Michagan
– Bauman, Z (1992) Imitations of Postmodernity. Oxford: Routledge
– Easton Ellis, B (1991) American Psycho.
– Eagleton, T (2014) Culture and the Death of God. London: Yale University Press
– Nagle, A (2017) Kill All Normies. New York: Zero Books