In its online discourse, the Alt-Right often presented its racism in an ironic manner, raising questions about its sincerity. It was not always clear if an Alt-Right supporter spreading a racist or anti-Semitic message was being genuine or just saying outrageous things for shock value. Many of the young men posting images of Swastikas and gas chambers online appeared more interested in breaking society’s ultimate taboos than in making genuine threats.I remember asking one of my 4-chan native sons why I kept seeing memes about reconquering Constantinople; he said, "it's a way to advocate killing Muslims without being taken too seriously."
At times, elements of the Alt-Right presented themselves as edgy right-wing court jesters, rather than serious ideologues. This provided an element of plausible deniability about the movement’s radicalism. Such sensibilities allowed the Alt-Right to make inroads among young people who despised so-called political correctness, but who were otherwise not especially ideological.
So, indeed, this ironic distancing from truly radical positions seems to be a hallmark of the online Alt-Right. As Hawley says, when this kind of politics has emerged into the non-digital world, the humor is lost and it is revealed as just a new sort of white nationalism. But it started with an ambiguous smile.
And none of this is new. Consider the Ku Klux Klan, with its silly name, absurd costumes -- the white hood is just one variant of a range that has included Indian war paint and dressing in drag -- and ridiculous titles for its leaders, like Poobah and Grand Dragon. According to Hawley, this was quite deliberate, and it had the intended effect of persuading many northerners not to take the Klan seriously.
Hawley's recent book is about the right, but of course there have also been political pranksters on the left. The Yippies are the first to come to mind. They were clowns who attracted attention by saying ridiculous things and nominating a pig for president, but it one sense they were completely earnest: they really wanted to radically change western civilization. As it turned out their leaders were not violent, but that wasn't clear to many people at the time; when Jerry Rubin said, "You have to be willing to kill your parents," was that a joke, a metaphor, or a call to action? The ambivalence was part of the appeal.
I've been pondering this, wondering if there is some general point. Do the jokes serve as trial balloons, sussing out who laughs and who doesn't? Are they a deniable way to toss out radical ideas that might get you hissed or jailed? And if others nod along,do they serve as a sort of bridge from personal fantasy to group action?