Does it come as a surprise that the alt-right would identify themselves with beasts?
By now Pepe the frog, grotesque comic muse and focal point of widespread "meme magic," has become something of a household name. But a closer look at the alt-right reveals conservative animals of all stripes, a veritable zoo of foxes and wolves, mythical creatures and pastel-colored ponies led by a furry Trump, cast as an extremely smug-looking anthropomorphized lion.
I'm talking, of course, about alt-furries and alt-bronies, the mere mention of which is enough to provoke eye rolling and wholehearted despair in members of both the political left and right.
Personally I was baffled by the contradictions within a movement which preaches tolerance for fursuits and "yiffing" (furry sex), but which rails against Islam and Black Lives Matter. I also worried that I'd be offering the furry alt-right a free pass, by inviting them to explain themselves. Still, this unlikely faction goes some way to explaining absurdities of the broader movement, which—for all its gross-out humor and ragged edges—appears to be gaining mainstream credibility.
Within furry fandom it's difficult to separate hyperbole from reality, even more so when applied to those furries with alt-right politics.
Often placed at the lowest tier of the "geek hierarchy," furry fandom—people who identify with anthropomorphized animal characters they play-act as online and in "fursuit" costumes—has long attracted ridicule. The subculture, based largely online but branching into annual conventions, took root in 1970s comics like Fritz the Cat and fanzines like FurNography and Yarf!. Later, bulletin board systems such as FurNet and Usenet's alt.fan.furry hosted the furries, along with IRC networks including FurNet and Anthrochat.
Mainstream media has rarely shown furries in a good light, dating back to Vanity Fair's 2001 exposé of the Midwest FurFest, the wonderfully titled Pleasures of the Fur, which dwelled on the sexual side of furry fandom, its rampant plushophilia and deviancy. Within furry fandom it's difficult to separate hyperbole from reality, even more so when applied to those furries with alt-right politics.
I spoke to several members of alt-furry and the brony right in Twitter DMs to get a clearer picture of the movement. In offline life, BroniesForTrump/@GWSSDelta is an accountant living in the state of Delaware. Online, he's a right wing brony and a member of a chat group called the Horse Reich. Inspired by Trump, he joined Twitter in February 2016 and quickly found his niche: "I loved the idea of embracing my identity, and not being afraid to express myself in fear of SJWs," he said.
@GWSSDelta sees the alt-right as accepting of groups neglected by traditional conservatism, including LGBT people, women and, of course, bronies. When questioned about the contradictions in some of his ideas—it seems quite a leap to find inspiration for a "furred reich" in My Little Pony, a children's cartoon which preaches that "friendship is magic,"—@GWSSDelta wrote that the more sinister jokes made by alt-bronies about gas chambers are "all in good jest," in the vein of outrage-heavy 4chan humor.
While claiming that Nazi furry culture isn't serious, however, @GWSSDelta proudly noted that even alt-right leader Richard Spencer "disavowed" the alt-furries in a Reddit AMA, apparently due to them being too extreme. He also wrote that, while Spencer is "a bit further to the right than me," he's not actually advocating for white supremacy: "To be honest, I really feel like people overreact to him, and try to paint their opponents as boogiemen. You need to step back and view the Trump phenomenon as our culture under attack. Like howHillary criticized WWE when she went to Saudi Arabia." (Clinton did in fact criticize pro wrestling as "counter purposes to what we truly are as Americans," though it was in conversation with an Afghan general, rather than on a trip to the Middle East.)
This exchange left me with more questions than answers. @GWSSDelta was framing the election as a culture war; did Hillary's attack on WWE wrestling cost her the election? Could My Little Pony, in turn, have helped Trump win? And returning to my subject, it's true that it's hard out there for a brony, but how can that justify calling for a "National Socialist Party" under Trump? And how much of this is meaningless trolling? I found myself hoping that @GWSSDelta was not serious, when he wrote, on voting for Trump, "I just wanted to make sure bronies have a place in Richard Spencer's ethnostate."
Delve into the history of furry fandom and you'll find it's never far from the sinister side of right wing politics.
ThatSleepyPooka/@TheQuQu is an acting spokesman for the alt-furry movement (a pooka, in case you don't know, is a type of shape-shifting hobgoblin or sprite). As with all of the alt-furries/alt-bronies I spoke to, he is male, American ("but of European descent"), and disarmingly well spoken. "Alt-furry is not anything new at all—it's a phenomenon which predates the name," he told me, listing other wings of the alt-right the furries get along with including "the PaulTown wing of the alt-right, the alt-bronies, right-libertarians, nationalists, and even ancaps (anarcho-capitalists) and Randian objectivists."
However alt-furries have clashed with parts of the alt-right, including religious members who "view the rejection of the form of man as idolatry or subversion of god's will," and label furry fandom as a form of degeneracy.
@TheQuQu maintains that fandoms in general tend to lean left: "I often say that the reaction to alt-furry justifies the need for alt-furry… Even the very idea of alt-furry existing is enough to send entire cliques into a virtue-signalling purity spiral." Does this mean alt-furry exists purely to shock? @TheQuQu sees a cycle in action, one in which right wing groups marginalized within fandoms they helped to build break away, form their own groups, and begin the cycle anew. "The only way to break the cycle is to create a subculture that is explicitly right wing. And that's what Alt-Furry did."
"It's not a joke, it's a real thing," said Robin, or @xReklawx, another alt-furry I spoke to who is based in Nashville, Tennessee. "Most furries identify as left-leaning, and alt-furry is something of an answer to that for right wing furs." I asked Robin if "fursonas" make voicing politics easier online. "Oh definitely, but it's not the same kind of freedom you might have as being totally anonymous. Like the difference between reddit and 4chan, I guess."
Robin told me he has little concern for racial discrimination or the upholding of traditional gender roles, and maintains that "most of alt-right and alt-furry are just in it for memes, equality and freedom." How does he make sense of its far-right factions? "There's a section of the alt-right and alt-furry I think you're referring to, basically neo-Nazis who preach that Hitler did nothing wrong? I have nothing to do with those people. They're part of the alt-right and entitled to their opinions, but I personally don't like them."
I wouldn't assume that a majority of the alt-furries and alt-bronies hold far-right beliefs—they're simply a flamboyantly weird, intensely "internet" subculture, one which would struggle to find a home in traditional conservatism. But Trump's ascent has validated them, and victory has (for now) validated Trump, and now the alt-furry and alt-brony communities are drunk on their newfound power to outrage.
Delve into the history of furry fandom and you'll find it's never far from the sinister side of right wing politics. A LiveJournal account called 'Nazi-furs' exists, dating back to 2005, although from reading through posts it's clear it was a fetish community rather than a political one. In a 2007 edition of 2Life magazine, a Jewish publication for the virtual world of Second Life (which at the time had around two million registered accounts, and was at the peak of its popularity), players told of encounters with the "Furzi," a group of furry griefers dressed in SS uniforms who attacked and menaced Jewish players. Eventually the Furzi were reported to Linden Labs, the developer of Second Life, and their leader was banned from the game. Today Nazi furry culture lives on in memes and Twitter accounts, curiously untroubled by censorship, and fan art hosted on furry site FurAffinity or Deviant Art, where occasionally swastikas are swapped out for a black pawprint on a red and white background.
While not every alt-furry or alt-brony identifies with these views, let alone enacts them offline, common themes on the Twitter feeds I browsed through included the belief that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist cell, the claim that the white race is under threat and that the "cultural Marxism" concealed within Disney's Zootopia must be exposed. One alt-brony linked me to an extremely long interview on the white supremacist blog Counter-Currents.com detailing one fan's journey to "pony nationalism." In it, among other things, he states: "I do not feel comfortable around non-whites, mainly because they mostly harbor a desire to kill me for being whitey, on a macro scale if not a personal one."
The things I saw while writing my article left me wanting to erase my browser history and rinse out my eyeballs. Racism is racism, even when it's coming from a pony called "Buttercup Dew."
We remain uneasy, as a culture, with how "real" the internet actually is. Do promises, claims or threats made on Twitter carry through to real life? Is it overreacting, for me to take the alt-furries seriously?
And yet this ambiguity between online and offline life is ideal terrain for the fledgling fascist, the "edgy" provocateur who conceals their racism behind layers of disingenuousness and protestations to "free speech." Of course free speech, as a cause, would be important to furries and bronies—without it they could not identify as such at all. But the very importance they invest in words and images proves how seriously they take their online lives. Surely they take their online politics seriously too?
The International Anthropomorphic Research Project is a team of interdisciplinary scientists dedicated to studying the furry subculture. Their 2016 publication FurScience!: A Summary of Five Years of Research from the International Anthropomorphic Research Project surveys over 10,000 furries (credits are given in the opening notes to the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as someone who goes by "Malicious Beaver"). The study found that the majority of furries are aged below 25, up to 85 percent identify as male and up to 90 percent are white. 54 percent are atheist or agnostic, and 23 percent are Christian. Within the furry fandom, there's a 21 percent overlap with bronies.
Given these statistics, it's unsurprising that within the fandom many would favour Trump, who was elected by a majority of white, male voters. Perhaps, as with many Trump voters, the fear of a changing world–coupled with the social rejection they have always risked as furries–has led this group to their extremist beliefs.
Researching this piece opened my eyes to the contradictions and discrepancies within the alt-right, a movement borne—to my mind at least—out of a unifying rage rather than any attempt to reinvent Republican politics. This is confirmed by the apparently infinite subdivisions within the movement; outdoing the left's fondness for obscure self-labeling, subdivisions such as the Anime Right, the Trash Right and Beach Boys Twitter coexist on Twitter, spinning out their bizarre conflicts, tweeting about how Hitler was a friend to animals, creating Deviant Art tributes to "Pony Nationalism," and offending the unwitting normies who occasionally stumble into their world.
The internet can do unusual things to the soul. What do the alt-right furries want–mainstream validation? The ethnic cleansing of their online furry worlds? The supremacy of animals over humans? (Do furries dream of their own extinction?)
To me alt-furry betrays a misguided frustration, a longing for an imaginary solution to an imaginary threat. Hiding behind their avatars, these men can cast themselves as underdogs. A "fursona" can become an unlikely—but easy—vessel for intolerance, bizarre as that might sound. We risk allowing hate speech to become palatable, when it is placed in the mouths of ponies.
Editor's note: We've changed the photo on this story to avoid suggesting certain furry costumes are alt-right related.