Al Stankard is a racist. He believes that the biggest problem facing humanity is the insistence that everyone is equal, that a "globalist elite" is imposing multiculturalism on Europeans, and that black people in the US who demand reparations are engaging in "seriously violent, vitriolic rhetoric." He effectively disguises these abhorrent views by dressing like, in his own words, a "shit-lib." When I met him on the campus of Rutgers University in the fall of 2017, he was sporting a giant hiking backpack, an oversize flannel shirt, and weather-worn boots. His black hair was unkempt, bordering on a mullet. The 30-year-old philosophy student spends his days lazing around the New Brunswick, New Jersey, campus, drinking green tea out of a silver cup he keeps at his hip, gushing about the hyper-literary indie bands he enjoys like the Mountain Goats. This persona works to his advantage when he attempts to spread his views.
Actually, it’s surprising that Stankard hasn’t gotten punched in the face for his beliefs like Richard Spencer. He proudly identifies as the guy who chased down Spencer's assailant, and as a member of the so-called alt-right. He’s also the champion of those he described to me as “quiet white males who are normal outwardly but are secretly wanting to go back in time and help Hitler win World War II or something.” And as we walked and chatted last November, he stopped, unannounced, to tape up a flyer that declared, “The Only Way to Win the War on Racism Will Be to End It.” He’s done this before, and to his disappointment, it didn’t even make the school paper. That’s probably because you’d have to do a double-take to catch what he meant. What Stankard is calling for is not an end to racism itself, but rather the right for self-described racists to peddle their toxic worldview without facing consequences.
“This is one of the problems with being by design so inoffensive is that it’s not interesting to people,” he told me. “I’m not being incendiary about it, though that’s sort of the point.”
The millennial’s beliefs that whites are actually the underdogs in America didn’t come from a Confederate-loving father. Instead, it was something he said he felt deeply as a child and refined both by neoreactionary online journals and racist web series like Murdoch, Murdoch, which looks like a crude copycat of South Park. After being sufficiently “red-pilled”—or called to consciousness in the parlance of the right—he dedicated himself fully to what he calls his “mature viewpoint” and now runs a website called Acid Right that he hopes will make those beliefs hip to a certain literary set.
As bizarre as that sounds, his M.O. of appropriating left-of-center literature or politically neutral art and infecting it with racism is not novel. It’s actually part of a time-honored culture war waged by right-wing extremists through the ages that helps them normalize their hateful ideas by couching them in familiar or appealing trappings. The "alt-right" is itself a euphemism invented by racists who wanted to lose the stigma of their hateful beliefs, and its foot-soliders know—perhaps better than even their forebears—that the best way to spread their ideas through fashion, music, and comedy is via a Trojan Horse.
Before arriving in New Jersey, the New Hampshire–born son of a Frank Sinatra impersonator had musical aspirations. About five years ago, that meant trying to become "the Bob Dylan of the racist movement." Unfortunately for him, his fascist folk fantasy was dashed when he realized he didn't have any rhythm. These days, Stankard fights "the war on racism" through books, poems, and screenplays that he writes under the “groovy, off-kilter” pen name HAarlem VEnison.
At right-wing protests and conferences, he gives away his racist ephemera to attendees with the hope of uniting the online contingent of the alt-right movement with the more seasoned white supremacists who've just been folded into it. Most importantly, though, he believes this subversive culture he is cultivating will also help evangelize the alt-right cause.
"I think it’s all cumulative," he said. "If you slip in those red pills enough, people will start having them in their diet. That’s what I do. I'm basically invisible. But if I build a corpus, or even a literary movement, it becomes something that people recognize."
The problem there, for Stankard, is that his “corpus” is not very good. “The Bicycle Diaries,” for instance, is an amateurish short play that consists of characters sitting on bar stools making cryptic statements and regurgitating scientifically dubious theories of racial inequality—which have been euphemized under the umbrella of “human biodiversity,” or HBD, as part of the alt-right’s larger rebranding. He also has a book called Lo! a racist exhile, which one reviewer (himself the author of a poetry book called Beatnik Fascism) calls “psychedelic” and reminiscent of the Velvet Underground. Certainly, Stankard is no Samuel Beckett or Lou Reed, but his aping of them offers a window into the twisted way in which the far-right has tried time and time again to graft itself onto broader culture.
Vegas Tenold spent six years embedded with some of the most extreme hate groups in the United States for his book Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America. He said it's not hard to understand why music has always been the most effective propaganda tool in a racist's toolkit. It's a visceral medium, and choruses are meant to be drilled into one's head. "I think that's what the far-right understands," he told me. "When you’re hearing this thing over and over and over and over again, you just kind of take it in."
In the 70s, it was swampbilly bad boy Johnny Rebel who made albums like For Segregationists Only and the punk rock concert series Rock Against Communism. In the 80s, it was outlaw country acts like David Allen Coe and Oi! bands like Skrewdriver. By the late 90s, the mantel was taken up by NSBM (National Socialist black metal) acts like Burzum and Absurd. Basically, hate has always seemed to find a home in society’s subcultures.
According to a paper called “Nazi Punks Folk Off,” written by a professor of leisure, music, and culture at Leeds Beckett University named Karl Spracklen, some genres are more likely to become associated with white supremacy than others. English folk, for instance, might be appropriated more readily than hip-hop, because on the surface, it represents a sort of mythicized white past. Extreme forms of metal music might be appropriated before pop music because taboo-breaking, elitism, and nihilism are inherent to various metal subgenres.
But black metal isn't exactly the catchiest music, and therefore has limited ability to proselytize to the mainstream. Though Stankard didn’t cut it as a Nazi Mr. Tambourine Man, a group called Right Wing Death Squad Entertainment created an entire trove of parody tracks by artists with grotesque names like Reich Khalifa ("We Dem Goys") and the Red Pillers ("Mr. Right Side"). Though they have been taken down by YouTube, their catalog, which has been praised by white nationalists at Counter Currents Publishing for being "post ironic," is apparently available elsewhere. Besides infiltrating niche subcultures, racists have long taken songs, such as the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and subverted its meaning by substituting the existing lyrics to advocate for genocide.
Since 2015, artists like Cyber Nazi have taken the 80s synth sounds of New Order and Depeche Mode that are openly admired by racists like Andrew Anglin and Richard Spencer and mutated them into muzak they describe as “fashwave.” Most of Cyber Nazi's songs don’t contain any lyrics at all. Instead, they’re subtle electro tunes designed to fly under the radar despite their hateful underpinnings. As sites like Twitter continue to de-platform racists, this music goes somewhat undetected, thereby reaching more people. When reached for comment, YouTube noted it had started to use machine-learning technology in June of last year to flag certain videos for human employees to review. But it's not exactly an easy task for either an algorithm or a person to figure out what to do with vaporwave music spliced with historical audio of Hitler. The alt-right knows this—they are an adaptive enemy that is constantly changing tactics to subvert the platform's guidelines. (Although YouTube removed Cyber Nazi's first video, "Galactic Lebensraum," on March 13, plenty more of his music is still available on the site.)
The same strategy is taking place with regards to clothing. “I think it’s a way of blending in, of evading notice, of not being as obvious,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist at American University who studies the hidden symbols of far-right fashion. “And that allows you to not have stigma at a workplace or wherever in a public setting. I’m sure that is a big part of the appeal.”
In fact, the far right has always appropriated working-class culture, dating back to when members of the fascist political group National Front co-opted the style of non-racist skinheads in 1980s England by donning Doc Martens and Fred Perry polo shirts. Miller-Idriss noted to me that because those brands are now so connected to the far-right as to be name-dropped by the Southern Poverty Law Center, racists have moved on to co-opting other athleisure brands like Lonsdale in the new millennium. She said that a popular tactic among extremist youths is to wear a shirt emblazoned with that company's logo under a zip-up hoodie. That way, when someone is in sympathetic company they can let the letters NSDA (National Socialist German Workers' Party) show, but they can cover up completely when an antiracist, teacher, or cop walks by.
Additionally, much has been made of Richard Spencer’s attempts to make Nazis look “dapper,” and in the days leading up to the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, racist blogger Andrew Anglin recognized that his cohorts had an optics problem that went beyond their neo-Nazi beliefs. The notorious recluse was concerned that the troll-army who read his ultra-racist site, the Daily Stormer, wouldn't know how to dress “sexy” for a big day out in front of news cameras. In a last-ditch effort to ensure a strong showing, he published a PSA: "Look good," he wrote on August 9. "It is very important to look good. We must have Chad Nationalism. That is what will make guys want to join us, that is what will make girls want to be our groupies. That will make us look like bad boys and heroes. That is what we are going for here." In one of his early speeches collected in a 1923 book, Mussolini said democracy took "style" away from the life of the Italian people, and promised that fascism would bring it back. Anglin couldn’t really promise that, but he figured he could at least try to teach his troll army how to properly wear a shirt.
Anglin was heard loud and clear: There were no white hoods at Unite the Right. And while there weren’t any really “sexy” styles on display either, the effect of an army of dudes in white polos and khaki pants storming the University of Virginia was disconcerting to many. As Cam Wolf put it for GQ, it was also indicative of a new world in which it was necessary to ask: “Is your neighbor wearing a polo and khakis because he’s a style-agnostic dad? Or is he just actively supporting the creation of a white ethno-state?”
This call to khaki was just Anglin taking his sartorial pronouncements one-step further. Immediately after the 2016 election, he declared New Balance sneakers the "official shoes of white people" because the company's vice president of public affairs made pro-Trump comments. And though it seems counterproductive to thank a business executive for his political stances by dragging his company into controversy, it doesn’t seem like the alt-right will stop co-opting brands anytime soon. Racist Matthew Heimbach, co-founder of the recently imploded Traditionalist Worker Party, told the Washington Post that the goal of this strategy was to prove to people that the alt-right was a "reliable economic, social, and political bloc" worth courting. (Considering the speed at which brands scramble to disavow the endorsement of racists, it doesn't seem like Heimbach's strategy is working.)
While Anglin wants American racists to dress like Larry David, Spencer wants them to dress like GQ models, and Stankard wants them to look like Conor Oberst circa 2001, all three men understand the power that fashion and culture can grant a fledgling movement.
But while the extreme right of the 20th century and today share a penchant for clothing, the differences are stark. Stankard, Anglin, Spencer, and all the garden-variety racists who make up the self-described alt-right today obviously don’t have a singular state-sanctioned vision or the authority to mandate one like Mussolini and Hitler. And unlike the skinheads of yesteryear, this group of memelords and shitposters don't even have a set of IRL touchstones to help them forge their identity. At first, that might appear as a weakness. But it’s allowed this movement to act like a poisonous gas, inchoate enough to fill up whatever cultural container you want to put it in.
Take comedy. With the alt-right, humor might be its most diffuse yet noxious offering. In our meme moment, racist comedy has slyly managed to garner significant mainstream appeal.
Sam Hyde is a comedian who first went viral in 2013 for his TED Talk billed as a discussion on challenges facing the world in the 21st century. Instead, Hyde spent 20 minutes mocking the people who usually participate in such events.
Hyde’s biggest project was his sketch comedy group Million Dollar Extreme’s live-action show World Peace, which aired on Adult Swim in the fall of 2016. Like his TED Talk, the show apparently featured subliminal messages to the alt-right like hidden swastikas before the network removed them, though references to David Duke and the racist moonman meme remained. The show performed decently enough within Adult Swim’s lineup that year, reaching almost 900,000 viewers per week on average, which is only slightly less people than The Eric Andre Show.
World Peace was not exactly a smash success compared to other Adult Swim programs like Rick and Morty—though it did manage to rake in upwards of a million viewers during its premiere, which was more than other shows on the programming block with built-in followings. What's more, it is notable in the sense that it’s one of the few alt-right cultural products to ever break through to the mainstream, however briefly. Hyde lost his show just four months after it premiered—a fact that he attributed to his support of Donald Trump. After that he was crowdfunding about $1,700 a month on Patreon and $500 a month on Hatreon. (The latter platform lacks the hate speech restrictions of its mainstream counterpart, though it hasn't been processing payments for almost a month.) He uses that money to produce videos, like one of himself pretending to be the extremist who plowed into a crowd in Charlottesville and killed a woman named Heather Heyer, that has since been removed by YouTube.
Although he’s now more overt about his alt-right affiliations and YouTube seems better able to flag his content, Hyde was able to exist in the mainstream for an extended period of time partly because it was difficult to discern whether or not he was pulling an Andy Kaufman–style con, in which he was just playing a caricature of an alt-right persona in order to enrage liberals but didn’t actually believe the ideas he was pushing. Trying to unpack alt-right figureheads only to fall into a state of self-doubt is a common occurrence among mainstream journalists. During the months that the Atlantic’s Luke O'Brien tried to track down Anglin for a cover story that came out in 2017, he repeatedly wondered if he was chasing a method actor. When I met up with Hyde just after the presidential election at a Chinese restaurant near his home in Fall River, Massachusetts, for an off-the-record interview, I walked away simultaneously convinced I had either just been in the presence of a genuine American Nazi, or was destined to appear on his YouTube channel as the subject of a prank.
"Mainstream news sources still have yet to catch up to the discursive strategy of the right," M. Ambedkar, who wrote an essay about the aesthetics of the alt-right under a pseudonym for fear of getting doxxed, told me. "They still haven't caught up to that element of irony, that evasive element."
That “evasive element” Ambedkar refers to epitomizes why attributing a singular aesthetic to the alt-right is a fool's errand. It's a pair of dad shoes, a lyric-less song, a brand of comedy that's so post-ironic it's impossible to say who's even being mocked. It's a shirt under a jacket that can be zipped and unzipped depending on who's watching—a message that always remains just out of the reach of whoever attempts to decipher it. It seems like nothing to a teen who's online, but at a certain point, it's embedded into their consciousness. And at that point, it's too late.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.