Report — From the September 2017 issue

The Rise of the Valkyries

In the alt-right, women are the future, and the problem

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A thunderstorm hovered over Charleston, South Carolina, turning the sky the colors of a fresh bruise, on the April evening when I met Lokteff. She and Palmgren divide their time between America and Sweden — he was born and raised there — and they were spending the spring in the Lowcountry. Lokteff had suggested that we convene at a posh rooftop bar, where we sat on faux-wicker benches as European pop music pounded from nearby speakers and wind pummeled the white tarp over our heads.

In an email exchange, Lokteff had extolled the alt-right as “incredibly diverse, just not racially,” with “pagans, Christians, atheists, agnostics and even a few Satanists.” At the bar, she spoke of ideological diversity: free-market capitalists and national socialists — Hitler references notwithstanding, she prefers not to use the term “Nazis” — who find common ground on matters of race. Alt-right men, she added, tend toward a certain comportment. “They’re more alpha-male types,” Lokteff told me. “Girls are kind of sick of the neutered-down, feminist, limp-wristed guy,” she added, flopping one of her hands to demonstrate.

According to Keegan Hankes, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center (S.P.L.C.), the alt-right is only superficially heterogeneous. “They have all these conflicting and complementary ideas entangled,” he told me, “so that they can pivot” in arguments and interviews. However, Hankes noted, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

The alt-right derives from the same impulses that have launched other white extremist groups, including a belief that “white civilization, the white race in particular, is imperiled,” said George Michael, a professor of criminal justice at Westfield State University, who studies right-wing extremism. This fear often emerges on the coattails of momentous change: the post?Civil War era of black emancipation, the transatlantic immigration waves of the early twentieth century, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement. Alt-right supporters point out that America was 80 percent white in 1980, but is barely 60 percent white today. They denounce rising rates of interracial marriage, liberal immigration policies, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the targeting of “white privilege” by academics and the media. The European contingent, meanwhile, bemoans the flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

At the same time, social-science research sheds some light on the movement’s appeal to individuals who profess to be seeking truth or purpose. The work of the political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent suggests that people who experience anxiety and loss of control over their personal circumstances are more likely to adopt fringe beliefs. This March, psychologists at Princeton published a study showing that ostracism also enhances belief in conspiracy theories.

The alt-right, Michael explained, benefits from the bullhorn the internet provides and from savvy branding engineered by its leaders. “They tend to frame their arguments less in the verbiage of supremacy and more in the verbiage of self-defense,” he said. “It’s more palatable.” Nonetheless, the S.P.L.C. designates various entities in the alt-right as hate groups, including the Daily Stormer and Richard Spencer’s “think tank,” the National Policy Institute (N.P.I.).

The din the alt-right has managed to create belies its undoubtedly marginal position relative to other political movements: Less than half of Americans polled in December 2016 had even heard of it, and the size of its ranks is unknown. “What sets it apart,” according to George Hawley, the author of the forthcoming Making Sense of the Alt-Right, “is the ability to troll itself into the conversation.” Supporters draw attention to themselves online, he told me, “by acting as parasites, starting fights with people who have hundreds of thousands of followers.” In amateur videos, anonymous comments, and pithy tweets, they mercilessly mock people they disagree with, hoping to fluster or offend. Many supporters harbor anti-Semitic views yet like to cite Rules for Radicals, a 1971 manual for social change by the Jewish community organizer Saul Alinsky, as required reading.2 “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon,” Alinsky wrote. “It infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.”

2 This winter, an ideological rift created a new label, “alt-lite,” which applies to a cohort that takes a softer line on the issue, largely avoiding criticism of Jewish influence on government and culture.

On the internet, alt-right pundits can control their narratives and, if they want, hide behind handles and avatars. Acolytes say anonymity is necessary because they’re part of a misunderstood counterculture; exposure could cost them jobs and friends, even invite violence. The digital netherworld, however, is also a haven for hate speech. Users kicked off Twitter for abusive language can easily start new accounts. Or they can move over to Gab, an alt-right-friendly messaging platform whose guidelines proclaim, “The only valid form of censorship is an individual’s own choice to opt-out.”

In Charleston, Lokteff explained how Red Ice entered this arena. Palmgren launched the company in 2002 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Its name refers to a Norse myth in which the world was created in a cosmic void between two realms — one frozen, one red-hot. Red Ice disseminated conspiracy theories about U.F.O.’s, Freemasons, the Illuminati, and 9/11. Then, around 2012, the outlet shifted its attention to conspiracies about race — the idea that liberals were perpetrating a white genocide, for instance. It also began to question the Holocaust. The company’s tagline was “Dispelling the Mythmakers.” 3

3 They changed it to “The Future Is the Past” earlier this year.

Red Ice found a new audience in the nascent alt-right and now serves as a digital hub for the movement. It produces newscasts of events like the Stockholm conference and Spencer’s protest in May against the removal of a Confederate monument in Virginia. Its bread and butter, though, is weekly talk-radio-style programs. The segments are available in audio and video formats, much like Rush Limbaugh’s in-studio streams, and reach more than 120,000 subscribers on YouTube. Red Ice also has paying members, who can access additional content. Lokteff declined to reveal the number of members, but each one shells out seven dollars a month — “the cost of a hipster coffee,” as she put it.

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