Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
What does alt-right mean? Literally, it means an alternative version of right-wing politics; can’t get blander than that. The movement doesn’t deserve such a neutral description.
So should we call it a Nazi, fascist or extreme faction of the GOP? That may feel right and there’s nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade. Still I don’t think that nails it, and it’s not a strategically smart choice. Breitbart fans like it when we call it that. Name calling is useful but only when it lands and sticks, a bullseye at the target.
Breitbart, however fascist or Nazi, is not really about politics, morals, principles or beliefs. It’s about the fun of being naughty, the kind of puerile fun little bullies have. Our indignation at their naughtiness fills them with “we glee,” the glee of being part of their naughty little gang.
My guess is we should call them the brat-right and bratbart news.
Linguist and political analyst Geoffrey Nunberg nails a point that’s often overlooked by those I call the left’s “backfirebrands”—the leftist firebrands whose understandably passionate indignation backfires. This is from Nunberg’s Fresh Air commentary in 2006 about Ann Coulter’s comment that 9/11 widows were enjoying their husband’s deaths.
Coulter’s celebrity is a good measure of what has become of political discussion. You’d scarcely describe her as a political thinker, no more than you’d describe Simon Cowell as a critic of the arts. But like Cowell, she has an unerring gift for media theatrics. It isn’t just her penchant for making snarky or outrageous remarks. Plenty of people do that without being invited onto the Today Show, and in fact Coulter doesn’t get a lot of national attention for her run-of-the-mill ruminations about giving rat poison to Justice Stevens or fragging John Murtha. But the remark about the 9/11 widows was irresistible for its brazen tastelessness and the obvious pleasure Coulter took in the consternation she created.
Is Coulter sincere about the things she says? That’s a silly question, like asking whether schoolchildren are sincere in the taunts they throw at each other across the school yard. But that doesn’t make her a satirist, as her defenders like to claim, usually with the implication that her literal-minded liberal critics don’t get the joke.
It’s a formula: Say outrageously heartless things with the gleeful attitude that you’re “telling it like it is.” Don’t worry if you don’t mean what you say or haven’t even thought about whether you do. The point is to entertain enough to gain audience.
Audience will come for the entertainment but stay for the smugness. They won’t know that’s why they stayed. They’ll say “I thought it was entertaining but the more I listened to it, the more I realized that it what they were speaking truth.” They think they were drawn in by the content, but they may not have thought about the content any more than Coulter thinks about it. The audience really stays because they learned a new formula for feeling invincible. That’s what Coulter, Limbaugh, Trump and Bratbart really sell.
It’s a simple formula. Any idiot can use it:
- Dismiss and ignore any truth, facts, evidence and reality that challenge your confidence.
- Turn any challenge back on the challenger using a handful of rhetorical tricks for saying “I know you are but what am I?”
- Treat your confidence as evidence that you have graduated from debater to supreme judge presiding over all debates you enter.
The know-it-all formula is a drug. You come for the high; you stay for the addiction. The drug is deliverable wrapped in beliefs of any stripe. You can buy the drug from self-help, spiritual or religious gurus, from pundits on the right and on the left. The beliefs on the right happen to be a perfect wrapper for the drug since the right prides itself on faith in moral absolutism. But there are plenty of people on the right who aren’t addicted to the drug.
Many of us were addicted to the know-it-all formula in our teens or earlier as elementary school bullies back when we had little impulse control and little conscience, guilt or critical thinking skills that would make us nauseous when we used the drug. When conscience, guilt and critical thinking eventually kicked in, many of us kicked the habit. We sobered up out of childish self-certainty.
Some never kicked it. Some kicked it but returned to it as adults when life got too uncertain. Trump may have won because white middle-class Midwesterners feel trapped, frustrated and alienated. That’s true, but an incomplete account without noticing their solution. They bought the drug. For them, expedient self-certainty trumped thought.
Trump is the most successful drug-pusher of our age. Bannon is his enabler. He’s been made head of strategy as his reward for goading Trump to push the drug harder instead of softening toward electable sobriety. Bannon said in effect, When you’re in a hole, keep digging, and helped with the shoveling.
Our best strategy is to focus on their addiction to the bratty know-it-all formula. Bratbart supporters think they’re rebels with a cause but their cause isn’t the cause of their rebellion. The cause is the self-satisfaction of giving offense and dismissing the offense taken by others as a result, feeling like they’re standing up for what’s true, even though they’ve given what’s true as little thought as possible.
The know-it-all formula is the shortest, cheapest path to feeling like the expert, much shorter than actually gaining any expertise. It winds people up like a watch’s self-winding movement. No matter how the addict is shaken, their confidence gets wound up tighter and tighter. If people agree with them, it confirms them. If people disagree with them, it confirms them. They’re like drug addicts who take interventions as evidence that they should double down on their addiction. That’s why it’s useless or counterproductive to call them fascists. It’s not just that they have no shame, they take pride in having no shame. It’s all part of the know-it-all game.
Recognizing and understanding the know-it-all formula puts the right’s attacks on “political correctness” in context. What is it really? I’d define “political correctness as taking offense not because you’re really offended but because it’s fun to act offended. And “political incorrectness” is the reverse—giving offense not because the situation demands it, but because it’s naughty fun, an indulgence.
Among the rhetorical tricks for saying “I know you are but what am I,” one of the easiest is ambiguous name-calling you apply to others and not yourself. Political correctness is just that, an accusation that the right levels exclusively at the left. How is #boycottHamilton not an example of political correctness, taking easy, proud, indulgent offense? The left has had its share of indulgent punks over the decades, folks who gave offense for the glee of it like little brats. These days, the right is out-punking the leftist punks. Bratbart is just that. Punks without a cause pretending they have the cause that trumps reason once and for all.
Yes, what they’re doing is dangerous. Brats can gain enough power that you can no longer afford to call them brats. But we’re not there yet and to keep from getting there we’re best calling them names that are more likely to land and stick, getting them where they live, in their little fantasy of superiority, infallibility and invincibility.
Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making. Read his work at Psychology Today.