Donald Trump's election has prompted the media to reevaluate elements of the American political landscape that were once more readily dismissed. One such element is the alt-right, once thought of by members of the media as an assortment of right-wing extremists, racists, and online trolls who have little bearing on political conservatives at large. But now that Steve Bannon -- who, as the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, referred to the site as a "platform for the alt-right," -- has a White House position, alt-right viewpoints could command a greater share of president-elect Trump's attention than previously considered. Bob talks to Andrew Marantz of the New Yorker about the alt-right's structure and strategy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Steve Bannon has come under fire because of his ties to the alt-right, the cohort that lurks on Breitbart News and trades in racist memes and segregationist aspirations. And given that the alt-right was part of the movement that vaulted Donald Trump into office and has now found purchase inside the White House itself, Hillary Clinton's memorable campaign tutorial has taken on a new edge.
HILLARY CLINTON: Now, alt-right is short for alternative right. The Wall Street Journal describes it as a loose but organized movement, mostly online, that rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity. So the de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump campaign represents a landmark achievement for this group, a fringe element that has effectively taken over the Republican Party.
BOB GARFIELD: But reactionaryism comes in a variety of flavors. New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz says that white nationalism is just one of four strains of the alt-right.
ANDREW MARANTZ: So the people who were most vocal about calling themselves alt-right in the beginning were, in fact, white nationalists - Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor, I mean, the, the list goes on. A lot of those people are very open about their ideology, which is about protecting white power. That is a small but vocal core of people who affiliate with the alt-right, which then over the last five or so years spread out to include what I would call three other categories, in addition to the, you know, white supremacist category, which would be just nihilistic chaos agent Internet trolls.
BOB GARFIELD: Anonymous vandal bullies, for the most part, just trying to get a rise out of folks?
ANDREW MARANTZ: Right, so that would be the second category, which is what you could call pure trolls. The pure trolls don't really seem to have an agenda. The third would be more sort of antifeminist people who coalesced around Gamergate and similar things who just really want women to stop telling them what to say.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s not just feeling that feminism has emasculated American men.
ANDREW MARANTZ: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: It’s really kind of ultra sexism. They seem to be angry that they cannot treat women as mere prey.
ANDREW MARANTZ: Yeah. You see a lot of just real vitriol at any woman who doesn't look the way that these men think a woman should look. You saw that with the actress Leslie Jones. You know, you saw a good amount of it with Hillary Clinton.
BOB GARFIELD: But there’s another jar, huh?
ANDREW MARANTZ: The fourth one would be the conspiracist jar.
BOB GARFIELD: The Alex Jones paranoic wingnuttery crowd.
ANDREW MARANTZ: Right. And once you have fully built your own reality field which, again, is something that Trump has successfully done again and again, you can say whatever you want.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, are these odd jar fellows or are they linked arm in arm and marching heroically into the future?
ANDREW MARANTZ: Well, they are certainly on the same march when it comes to Trump support, so for the past few months you’ve seen them really sort of united in the common cause. But they are, in some sense, strange bedfellows. There are some people who really primarily care about borders and keeping America a European heritage zone, and those people may or may not buy into, you know, a conspiracy about fluoride in the tap water.
BOB GARFIELD: If I understand this right, the alt-right means of stirring things up has something to do with media outlets like Breitbart, but it has more to do with how it operates in social media. There’s a formula. And you did a profile on one of the mad scientists who has perfected the formula, a guy named Mike Cernovich.
ANDREW MARANTZ: He had built up a following independent of anything political as a kind of a self-help fitness writer.
BOB GARFIELD: And pickup artist.
ANDREW MARANTZ: Yes and pickup artist and part of the manosphere. This guy, Mike Cernovich, is a mid-level amplifier. He only has 150,000 or so Twitter followers but he really is able to mobilize them and harness their passion to drive essentially any story he wants.
BOB GARFIELD: For example, the notion that Hillary Clinton, during the course of the campaign, had some sort of undisclosed major health disorder, completely invented from whole cloth.
ANDREW MARANTZ: Right. Well, at first invented from whole cloth. He sort of looked at the tea leaves and said, I do not want this woman to be president, what can I, as a completely independent figure in my living room in Orange County, California, what can I do to affect the outcome of this election? And he mobilized that audience to say, look, we’re not gonna have an argument about Clinton's policies. We’re gonna go after her appearance and her health. That was his preferred persuasion tactic. It was a months-long campaign to create the perception that she was frail or ill. And when she did turn out to have pneumonia, when there was actual video footage of her actually fainting at a 9/11 memorial, he was like, did I create that?
BOB GARFIELD: And he repeats these memes until they enter the conversation among the diehards on social media and then, not coincidentally, into the cogs of the great right-wing media conspiracy - Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart and so on. How does he do that? What’s the mechanism?
ANDREW MARANTZ: I went out and spent a few days with him in California and watched him over his shoulder as he does his daily routine on his laptop. And he told me, you know, when I decided I wanted to break into the news I had to study how news cycles work. And what I do have is Twitter and I know that if I can get a hashtag to start trending, then it ipso facto become something that people feel that they have to pay attention to.
He got his core base of people, and it really doesn't have to be more than a couple of thousand people. He’ll rally them on Periscope, which is a, a video streaming app. He’ll tell them, you know, in a sort of conversational way with them sort of responding by typed comments in real time, here’s what’s going on today. There was this bombing. How are we going to spin this bombing in New York? It turns it into a really pithy kind of catchy hashtag.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s a troll war room.
ANDREW MARANTZ: Right, and it's very open, what he’s doing. He’s trying to meme these stories into the conversation, and he has very specific targets, Brian Stelter on CNN and Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post. And to take Chris Cillizza as an example, he had written in the Washington Post, why are we even talking about Hillary's health? This is not an issue. And then two days later he said, Hillary's health just became an issue in this campaign. And that was exactly the result they were seeking.
BOB GARFIELD: As you’ve looked at other people's coverage of the alt-right to date, do we misunderstand what is afoot here?
ANDREW MARANTZ: Yeah, I've seen some coverage that I thought missed the boat a little bit. I mean, there's some false equivalence stuff. There's also some basic assumption that alt-right just means to the right of whatever the mainstream Republicans say, when, in fact, a lot of these positions don't line up neatly on a political spectrum.
And then I think it also sometimes misses the degree to which the purveyors of these memes are constantly shifting how serious they are. You know, often when they're called to account for something they’ve said or passed on or retweeted, they say, oh, that was just a joke, why can’t you get a thicker skin? One of my favorite exchanges was Trump goes out at a rally and says Obama is the founder of ISIS. Then CNN reports that he said that Obama was the founder of ISIS. Then he tweets, does CNN not get sarcasm? And then he goes on Hugh Hewitt's radio show the next day and Hugh Hewitt says, so you were being sarcastic, and he says, no, Obama was the founder of ISIS.
So this slipperiness of tone, I think, is something that a lot of people have missed. You know they’ll point to one thing that someone has written or said or posted and say, this is your ideology, this is what you believe. You believe that Pepe the Nazi frog should be in charge of the White House, or whatever. A lot of these things are not deeply-held beliefs, especially with the more sort of pure troll end of the spectrum. They are throwing spanners in the works and just kind of seeing what happens.
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BOB GARFIELD: Andrew, thank you very much.
ANDREW MARANTZ: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Marantz is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.