If the tragic events of the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville in August 2017, the rise of characters like Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, or the spike in shootings at mosques and synagogues in the U.S. have left you asking yourself, “Why are there Nazis again?” — you aren’t alone. What’s particularly concerning is the rise of hyper-racialized right-wing nationalist politics among a subset of young people. Especially given that conventional wisdom would suggest this cohort should be wholly more tolerant and more left-leaning than people over the age of 50.
In a stroke of fantastic irony, I believe there exists a parallel between the rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ and another counterculture youth movement that strived to rebel against societal expectations: the hippie movement of the 1960s and 70s. To understand this, we must examine the three societal complaints both the hippies posed in the 60s and modern white nationalists pose today: an unhindered bias within the media, the corporate control of society, and the social alienation of their communities.
Complaints regarding media bias have been around since the first printing press. In a sense, both the hippie and white nationalist countercultures can trace their political extremism to conceptions of the news media as completely beholden to establishment political power, and thus out of touch with the realities of common people.
In the 60s and early 70s, the hippies looked at the crimes of the Vietnam war, the shootings at Kent State, and the media’s interpretation of these events and saw a broken system designed to legitimize authoritarian state violence. The Walter Cronkites and the William F. Buckleys of the American news system did not provide a satisfactory representation of what the young people were actually seeing on the ground. In response, the hippies turned to spiritual leaders like Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, and political dissidents like Noam Chomsky. These leaders and their ideals and convictions eventually became the popularized answer to the alienation felt amongst the youth of the movement.
In the modern context, white nationalists have their own distinct angle of attack on the media. They argue that the media is dominated by ‘far left’ liberal journalists who insist on enforcing an overly-inclusive social contract onto the rest of (white) America. Of course, this criticism leaves much to be desired in the way of specificity. ‘Liberal’ is among the more difficult words to define in American politics. Unfortunately, in American political discourse, social and economic policy positions are considered to be married together, thus anyone who professes one is automatically assumed to be in favor of the other.
Certainly, journalists who write for the papers of record and appear on cable news channels other than Fox News tend to have an open mind when it comes to social issues — be it race, gender, sexuality, LGBT rights, and so on. However, the massive corporate conglomerates which own all of these media outlets do not support ‘far left’ economic policies such as higher corporate taxes or a large social safety net. This nuance is tossed aside in the media criticism offered by the alt-right in an effort to portray the media writ large as socialist/communist- adjacent, and thus somehow disloyal — ‘the enemy of the people’, even. In this way, they disguise their outrage about racial and sexual acceptance as a disagreement about economics.
When young people who feel alienated by the broad narrative of inclusion they interpret as being ‘pushed’ through the legacy media corporations, they fall prey to the fake news phenomenon. It becomes easier to believe that the entire American media system is somehow controlled by people like George Soros — which I might add is a profoundly anti-semitic notion. Once they believe there is a cabal of rich elites constantly pushing liberal propaganda, it becomes obvious that they can’t trust anything that they print or broadcast.
Enter the fringe internet personalities. Your Alex Jones, your Milo Yiannopoulos, even outright neo-nazis like Richard Spencer become quasi-legitimized because they confirm these narratives. They’ll tell you the Jews do in fact own American media and are deeply biased against the right wing. Just like that, you have a young person who has managed to find an outlet for their feelings of alienation in an arena of hatred, conspiracy, and racial supremacy.
When it comes to the role that consumerism, advertising, and corporate control have in society, we can again see that there are criticisms of big business in America both from the hippies and the alt-right. One rejecting the conformity of consumerism, and the other rejecting the politicization of commerce with progressive ideas.
Part of the hippie movement’s mandate as a counterculture was that depictions in mass media and advertising about what was important, what life should look like, and what values were foundational were antithetical to the way those youth wanted to live. Free love, psychedelic drugs, and loud non-conformist music were their rejection of American suburbia’s normy values. While advertisers were selling the idea of the perfect, quiet life behind the white picket fence, with a spouse (of the opposite sex, of course), a dog, and two-and-a-half kids, the young hippies were resentful of the idea of living like their parents. Further, it was the very act of trying to sell them that quaint 50s lifestyle that made them want to strike out on their own in blatant violation of those capitalist, consumerist norms. Instead, they favored the rebellion of communes and drug use as catalysts for their own conception of what ‘freedom’ meant to them.
We see the inverse of this notion in contemporary times. Huge companies attempt to ride the bandwagon of progressive change into the cultural spotlight. How many stories have we seen about the right wing becoming outraged over some commercial or ad campaign that’s attempting to co-opt socially progressive messaging to sell Gillette razors, Chips Ahoy!, or Pepsi? Again, we see young people feeling attacked because they are being sold a product, a future, and more broadly an idea that they don’t want because it doesn’t represent “their” nationalist agenda. In this way, the young people attached to the mantra of white nationalism are rejecting a societal narrative, as the hippies were, that they feel is exclusionary to their conceptions around community, and values. And thus, the fire of rebellion is stoked.
Finally, there is the broadest and most core parallel between the hippies and the modern white nationalist movements: the perceived threat on their communities. In his book entitled “Imagined Communities”, Benedict Anderson discusses the ways in which we imagine ourselves as part of our communities — be they national, local, or socio-cultural. He writes that this has less to do with ideology and more to do with a deeply human yearning to belong. He provides The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as an example. If we knew the identity of the soldier, its symbolism would be undermined. The point of the monument is that we identify so strongly with this person because they are an anonymous member of the greater American community. We don’t know what they believed in or how they lived. All we know is they were part of our tribe, and thus we feel deeply connected to them. This concept of an imagined community is critical to understanding both the hippie movement and today’s white nationalists.
The hippies felt that the scorn and disdain they received from the rest of society was an attack on their imagined community. Thus, rather than an amorphous trend, the hippie phenomenon became an identifiable movement. They developed a culture, and reinforced the idea that they were a separate microcosmic community separated from broader society.
This is clearly taking place in the alt-right’s case. They possess an imagined community of white identity, and they perceive the inclusive rhetoric and marketing previously discussed as an attack on that community. What’s even more troubling is any attempt to reason with or otherwise counteract the growth of their perceived white community is inevitably seen as part of the very attack that inspired it to form in the first place.
It is my belief that destructive and violent ideologies like those being bred among the alt-right only become stronger when society attempts to simplify and dismiss them as ‘some fringe racists’. These communities of young people, however small, are impacting our political discourse and much like the case of the hippie movement, much of the establishment is asleep at the wheel. By examining the similarities between these nationalist groups and previous countercultural movements, perhaps we can begin to understand why and how controversial ideas become popularized. Maybe then we might reach people who are standing dangerously close to the edge of a life bound in hate and consumed by fear and violence.