Web Only / Features » March 20, 2017
From the Alt-Right to the White House, White Nationalism and Misogyny Go Hand in Hand
Sexism and racism are deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing—you can’t understand one without the other.
Protecting what they imagine as the virtue of white women, white men also assert their claim on the sexual lives of “their” women.
Addressing an audience at a rally in Florida on February 18, President Trump yet again used his bully pulpit for harebrained fear mongering:
“You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”
The comment gave the impression that a terrorist attack had occurred the night before in Sweden; none had.
Trump later tweeted an explanation. Apparently, he had been watching Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News, and his comments referred to Carlson’s interview with Ami Horowitz. Horowitz is a right-wing documentarian whose short film “Stockholm Syndrome” covers the purported “migrant crisis” in Sweden.
Horowitz’s journalistic methods have recently come under scrutiny after two Swedish police officers recanted the interviews aired during Carlson’s segment, which alleged a steep rise in the country’s crime rates. The officers told the Swedish publication Dagens Nyheter that they had responded to a question about a rise in crime generally, not one attributed to migrants in particular.
The media has rightfully used the episode to highlight how nimbly Trump and co. use imagined terrorist attacks—à la the Bowling Green Massacre—to win public support for their xenophobic policies.
But largely left out of discussion of Horowitz’s Fox interview, indeed largely missing from the mainstream media narrative itself, was an analysis of the gender politics behind the right-wing manufactured “migrant crisis.” In a move that has become characteristic of the far Right, Horowitz portrayed Middle Eastern and African migrants as intransigent rapists, whose allegiance to sharia law and sex slavery wreaks havoc on innocent (white) European women.
Such rhetoric echoes the assertions made by white nationalists in the U.S., led by Steve Bannon and his Breitbart surrogates, as well as the alt-right “manosphere” of bloggers. Breitbart routinely runs articles with headlines like “Europe’s Rape Epidemic: Western Women Will Be Sacrificed at the Altar of Mass Migration” (retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. during the election) and “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture.”
Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor known in part for his role in Gamergate, an Internet harassment campaign against female video game players, has also fashioned himself a noble protector of women and gay people from Muslim rapists. He has warned that Muslim immigrants will bring “lamb chops, yoghurt and gang-rape” to America. Yiannopoulos, who has urged gay men to return to the closet, has also portrayed himself as a selective defender of gay rights against the perceived onslaught of Islam. On speaking tours and in Breitbart think pieces, Yiannopoulos has consistently portrayed the Orlando shootings, which resulted in the deaths of 49 people last June, as, in the words of one headline, an example of “the Left Cho[osing] Islam Over Gays.”
Feminists and outlets such as The Guardian have pointed out the racist underpinnings of the so-called migrant rape crisis, arguing that the far Right is only interested in using the issue of rape to garner support for their anti-immigration agenda. But there is more to the migrant rape bogeyman than its use as a tool to advance racism and xenophobia.
Sex and White Supremacy
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading hate group watchdog, acknowledges that the alt-right consists of a diverse set of ideologies but sees racism as its single unifying feature. The ragtag alt-right, according to a recent report by the Center, converges around “white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.” Lacking from the report, however, was an analysis of how this white ethno-nationalism interplays with the movement’s equally virulent sexism.
Similarly, the media often ignores the alt-right’s misogyny, or treats it as a footnote to scientific racism and the desire for a white ethno-state. One of the relatively few mainstream news articles to focus on the sexism of the alt-right, Vox’s “How the Alt-Right’s Sexism Lures Men into White Supremacy,” described the alt-right’s hatred of women as a “gateway drug” to racism, rather than discussing it as a problem in its own right.
But misogyny and heteropatriarchy are as foundational to the alt-right as racism. It would be more accurate to say that sexism and white supremacy are deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing—you can’t understand one without the other. When extremists like Bannon and Yiannopoulos position themselves as the sole protectors of white women, they are, in Emily Bazelon words, “reassert[ing] the country’s European and Christian heritage.” But that heritage is indelibly inscribed in patriarchal authority—and the restoration of that authority is a central aspect of the far-Right platform.
The movement’s favorite term “cuckservative” (or just “cuck”) is a pejorative for establishment conservatives who have been so emasculated from a culture dominated by “social justice warriors” and “political correctness” that they have muzzled their own unpopular opinions. At the most basic level, the alt-right defines itself in highly gendered terms. The movement sees itself as a force of detached, masculine “reason” defending the honor of Western culture against the hysterical, feminine excesses of liberalism.
But the cuck epithet also contains a racist subtext. “Cuckold” has long been associated with white men who allow their wives to have sex with black men: an entire offshoot of the porn industry is dedicated to it. In cuckold porn, the (typically white) husband is humiliated by his wife sleeping with a black man. The cultural significance of interracial cuckolding is purportedly rooted in the additional shame of being replaced by a racially inferior black man.
The “cuck” term draws from a long American tradition. Sex has been at the forefront of white supremacy since slavery, and anxieties about interracial sex and rape fueled the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Historian Nancy MacLean, who explores the KKK’s gender politics in her book Behind the Mask of Chivalry, notes that by the end of the nineteenth century, “a large number of white Americans … believed that black men had acquired an incorrigible desire to rape white women.” Rape allegations against black men were the most common justification for lynchings, and they still form a basis for racially motivated killings: In the midst of his 2015 shooting rampage in Charleston, Dylann Roof told his victims, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”
Beyond its obvious racism, the notion that white men are charged with the “protection” of white women reveals the patriarchal values upon which white supremacy rests. This is because allegations of rape against black men—and the violence produced by these allegations—also reinforce white women’s dependent and subordinate status. Protecting what they imagine as the virtue of white women, white men also assert their claim on the sexual lives of “their” women.
This brings us back to the symbol of the immigrant rapist, which has seeped from the pages of Breitbart to the electoral sphere. This shadowy figure played a starring role in the election of Donald Trump, who justified building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico as a vital measure to keep Mexican rapists out of the country. In Germany on New Year’s Eve 2015, reports of mass sexual assaults perpetrated by refugees stirred talk of a nascent “migrant rape crisis.” Since then, the specter of foreign Muslim rapists pillaging “civilized” Europe has fueled the rise of a virulently anti-immigrant populist party in Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Scaremongering over sexual assault has helped Steve Bannon, Trump’s head strategist and one of the chief architects of the administration’s Muslim ban, advance the idea that Islam is fundamentally at odds with Western culture. (While Bannon himself does not claim the alt-right label, he has conceded that the website he used to run, Breitbart News, is “the platform” for the movement.)
The portrayal of Muslims as rapists should not be altogether surprising; sex between white women and men of color is the strongest taboo in the white supremacist’s code. Since slavery, rape allegations against black men received exclusive attention, although rape by white men against black women was much more common. As MacLean observes, the discrepancy is largely because rape against black women confirmed white power over all black Americans. And because racial affiliation is traced through the mother, the rape of white women, and the control of their sexual lives, has always been an integral part of the racial purity myth.
Like their forebears, today’s white supremacists justify their actions in the name of protecting white women. In a viral blog post entitled “The Case Against Female Self- Esteem,” alt-right blogger Matt Forney (who has also written charming posts on “How to Beat Your Girlfriend or Wife and Get Away With It” and “Why Fat Girls Don’t Deserve to be Loved”) warns that female empowerment won’t keep women from being raped or murdered. In the case of an apocalyptic civilizational collapse, he says, “all the Strong, Independent Women™ who read Jezebel and xoJane would last about five minutes.”
Protecting women from intra-racial sexual violence seems to be a different issue, however. The movement’s romance with pick-up artist (PUA) culture and men’s rights-style activism lends itself to a host of defenses for sexual assault. Mike Cernovich, an alt-right media personality and “men’s empowerment” blogger, regularly writes about the “myth” of date rape. “Have you guys ever tried ‘raping’ a girl without using force?” he tweeted in 2012. “Try it. It’s basically impossible. Date rape does not exist.” (The New Yorker reports that Cernovich was himself accused of rape in 2003.) Forney has also penned many defenses of domestic violence— including one essay arguing that “women should be terrorized by their men; it’s the only thing that makes them behave better than chimps.”
Comparing women to chimps is not just a rhetorical sleight of hand; a significant number of alt-right supporters believe that women are genetically inferior to men. They converge around a concept called “human biodiversity” (HBD). HBD is basically just repurposed scientific racism: Its adherents worship at the altar of IQ, and believe the measure is closely tied to race. Their view of race and intelligence is also intimately linked to their vision of the ideal form of government. A prominent strain of the alt-right identifies as “neo-reactionaries” (NRX-ers). Steeped in the tech-bro elitism of Silicon Valley—the phrase was initially coined by computer scientist Curtis Yarvin—NRX-ers are skeptical of the common man and believe that democratic systems should be replaced with a genetically superior ruling class.
Unsurprisingly, the white nationalists’ plans for governance exclude women entirely. This is based not only on traditional gender roles, but also on essentialist views of women as too easily swayed by emotion to be fit to govern. Richard Spencer, head of the alt-right think tank National Policy Institute, tweeted after the first presidential debate, “Women should never be allowed to make foreign policy. It’s not that they’re ‘weak.’ To the contrary, their vindictiveness knows no bounds.”
Pseudohistory appears to be just as influential as pseudoscience in bolstering this argument. As Mother Jones has reported, the widely discredited author Nicholas Wade has a large alt-right following. Wade argues in his book A Troublesome Inheritance that there is a genetic basis for the so-called “tribal behavior” of Middle Eastern countries and African Americans’ rejection of modern economic institutions.
Pseudoscience also found its way into one of the movement’s only female-run blogs, TheNewFem.com, where an interviewee explained that women tend to be liberals and embrace racial diversity because they have “evolved to have no real loyalty to a tribe. If they are taken over they will continue to breed with their new tribe.” Men, then, are natural protectors of whiteness. Echoing the “tribal” theory of sexual difference, alt-right vlogger Colin Robertson put it simply: “Men form tribes. Women join them.”
Trump’s Alt-Right, Anti-Woman Agenda
A December 14 podcast entitled Between Two Lampshades (a revolting reference both to Zach Galifianakis’ comedy show Between Two Ferns and the allegations that Nazis used Holocaust victims’ skin for lampshades), featuring The Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin, The Right Stuff’s Mike Enoch, and the National Policy Institute’s Richard Spencer, exposed some of the tensions festering within their noxious ideology. (Since the airing of the show, Enoch quit his position at The Right Stuff when doxxers revealed his marriage to a Jewish woman.)
When the conversation turned to abortion, the two dominant strains of the alt-right — sexism and racism — seemed in competition. Spencer, a staunch scientific racist and the self-fashioned “intellectual” of the alt-right, opposed repealing Roe v. Wade on the grounds that abortion is “ultimately eugenic.” He also complained that if the Supreme Court decision were repealed and the legality of abortion left to the states, Southern states with high black populations would most certainly ban the practice. Anglin, on the other hand, favored repeal, on the grounds that it would weaken the feminist movement. “If you get rid of abortion … you would have a situation where feminism just couldn’t exist,” he said.
Anglin’s scenario is more likely under the new administration: Trump has vowed to ban abortion and his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, likely shares his anti-choice views. (Although Gorsuch has never had to rule on abortion, his opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide suggests a pro-life stance.) One Trump administration official whose views are not in question is Vice President Mike Pence, who favors criminalizing women who get an abortion. Under his watch as Indiana governor, low-income women of color Purvi Patel and Bei Bei Shuai were charged with feticide for obtaining an illegal abortion. Even if Trump fails to overturn Roe v. Wade, his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act will have serious consequences for women’s health, including access to birth control and prenatal care.
Trump’s cozy relationship with the religious right also suggests that he will not be an advocate of LGBT rights—although it is politically expedient to say so when drawing a comparison between “radical Islam” and the West. Sarah Posner writes in the New Republic that the “religious right has effectively become a subsidiary of the alt right, yoked to Trump’s white nationalist agenda.” In return, Trump has floated a draft executive order that would drastically expand religious exemptions and repeal the Johnson amendment, the legislation that prohibits tax-exempt groups such as churches or charities from participating in political campaigns. The likely result? A far more politically potent religious right that will try to push its anti-LGBT, anti-woman policies onto a country that overwhelmingly disagrees with them.
The Trump administration’s allegiance to voter suppression, law and order policing, and restrictive immigration policies reveal an executive branch fully committed to advancing the cause of alt-right white supremacy.
There is no doubt that racism drives the far right resurgence in the U.S. and Europe. But to downplay the misogyny of these once fringe, now mainstream, movements represents a missed opportunity for the Left. At a time when conservatives seek to rehabilitate Bannon and distance Trump from any connection to the alt-right, the Left must be relentlessly committed to exposing the extremism of the far right on all fronts. Despite efforts to portray themselves as nobly shielding women and LGBT people from the depredations of “radical Islam,” one thing is certain: The dark vision promoted by Trump and his alt-right influencers will only provide refuge for white men.
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Rachel Johnson is a writer based in Chicago. She holds a master's degree in U.S. history from Northwestern University.