One can imagine an alternative reality where Kill All Normies (KAN) had a different reception. Where Trump narrowly lost the 2016 election and the alt-right remained a curiosity – albeit a disturbing one. KAN would be a long pamphlet / short book aimed at the audience of a leftish, academicish publisher (the kind of readership that know who Gramsci is). It would be fiercely debated within those narrow circles for a few weeks and then disappear.
But that is not the world it was published into. Instead Trump is president and it’s OK to be a public racist again. It is unlikely that the alt-right were instrumental in Trump’s victory – but they have profited from it. In attempting to chart the rise of the alt-right, it is therefore an Important Book. Even if it wasn’t meant to be.
Angela Nagle’s book is not quite ethnography, not quite journalism, not quite political argument. The book is short and reads as a series of articles joined together. It feels grossly underedited – many sentences need adverbs removed or clauses broken up. The flow of chapters is unclear (the later, better chapters feel like they belong earlier on) and enough evidence is presented to support the author’s point but little more. I only got a partial sense of what the alt-right is, who makes it up and how they operate.
Instead the book is more concerned making some provocative points within its leftish, academicish milieu. The notion that the alt-right are Gramscians is an intriguing one. The observations that transgression does not always lead to liberation is a valid one but unoriginal. Nagle draws on books like The Sex Revolts to make this argument. The comparison is not always flattering – that book was exhaustively and exhaustingly researched in way that KAN isn’t.
I am not a fan of call out culture but I was unconvinced by the argument that the alt-right is a direct reaction to Left Tumblr. The 4chan nerd ragers seem to be triggered more by what they see in mainstream culture rather than SJW niches (and they tend to exaggerate the power of these niches much as some on the left exaggerate the power of the alt-right). It’s possible to argue that similar social forces drive the emergence of these niches but some teasing out of their similarities and differences would be beneficial. As critics have noted, Nagle has major beefs with identity politics that get prosecuted here. These are not given the space to be thoroughly explored so they sometimes come across as crude putdowns.
The final chapters that discuss the misogyny that underpins much of the alt-right and its raging elitism are genuinely interesting (and I wish they would have gone further and deeper). Likewise the criticism of those who promoted sites like 4chan as a source of anarchic social good is well-aimed.
The book has also weighed on current shitfight about the role of identity politics and the future of the left – which has given it prominence but not ways that lead to its arguments being considered in a measured manner. I suspect there is more Dr Nagle’s work than this one, slim book. I also suspect that I have more in common with her perspectives than indicated here – esp. looking at the abstract for her PhD thesis.
The alt-right developed in its own shadowy world and its exposure to mass publicity has not been to its benefit (as Nagle recently documented). Likewise, wider exposure has not necessarily been to this book’s benefit. There is still a gap in the market for an thorough exploration of this phenomenon.