A Q&A with Alexandra Minna Stern
How deep does the rabbit hole of the alt-right go? And how long has it been here? In 2016, back when the term was couched in scare quotes, we witnessed the alt-right’s breakthrough in the mainstream as it heralded the era of a bigoted presidential candidate. Years later, we’re wondering how this ideology insinuated itself in our public consciousness. Historian Alexandra Minna Stern ventured down the rabbit hole to mine its memes, screeds, and history and reveals them in Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right Is Warping the American Imagination. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with her to ask her about the book and about the machinations of this movement.
Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration for writing the book?
Alexandra Minna Stern: I wrote this book to bear historical witness to disturbing and reactionary political and cultural changes that were afoot in the United States in the mid-2010s. Specifically, I became interested in how and why eugenic ideas from the early 1900s, including race suicide—repackaged today as white genocide—were making a comeback and being disseminated by what came to be called the alt-right. Once I started writing the book, I became more and more interested in understanding the transnational dimensions of the rise of populist nationalism, and how this connects to the resurgence of white nationalism in the United States.
CC: Tell us a little about your background. You’re a scholar well-versed in the history of eugenics and white nationalism in the United States. What drew you to these fields of study?
AMS: My academic training is in social and medical history, and I have written extensively on the history of eugenics, examining how it shaped twentieth-century ideas and policies in both the United States and Latin America. In recent years, I have expanded this work into a collaborative project on eugenic sterilization in several US states, looking at demographic patterns of state-mandated reproductive control. In addition, I have studied the emergence of the field of genetic counseling, demonstrating how it bifurcated from eugenics starting in the 1960s but has continued to be fraught with complex bioethical quandaries. Although these projects took me in different directions, they are driven by a deep interest in studying how genetic essentialism can inform categories and identities. I have tracked how such concepts have been used in divergent ways: to justify the most egregious forms of social engineering and population control, to guide meaningful medical decisions, and to provide individuals with seemingly irrefutable truths about their heritage and ancestry.
CC: What was it like for you to spend hours online mining alt-right literature to do research for the book? What was running through your mind as you took it all in and studied it?
AMS: It was intense and upsetting, but a necessary task to map the discursive field of the alt-right. Sometimes I needed to take a break to detoxify and decompress. Given that I have written about eugenics and white supremacy, I was familiar with salient alt-right tropes. However, there are multitudinous rabbit holes online, and it's not hard to encounter viciously misogynistic, xenophobic, and racist memes. Once you see these images, you cannot “unsee” them. Overtime, I became adept at deciphering more obscure and euphemistic alt-right memes, which are crucial boundary objects given that they can slip with greater ease into the mainstream.
CC: Alt-right memes and tropes have appropriated what would be considered left-leaning or innocuous tropes of popular culture. We’ve seen what happened to Pepe the Frog. You write about ‘red-pilling,’ a concept taken from the film The Matrix. And alt-righters have seized on Wakanda from Black Panther as a possible paradigm. Why do they use appropriation to promote their ideology?
For a brief moment, the alt-right successfully seized upon and commandeered tropes circulating in popular culture and discourse. They continue to try to do so. Lately, they seem taken with clown memes to convey the idea that the Western world has become a “clown world” in which the perverse and corrupted values of liberalism, feminism, and multiculturalism reign supreme and have upended normalcy. Yet such techniques of pastiche and reassemblage are not particular to the alt-right. That simply is what millions of people do on social media and can help explain why the traffic between “left” and “right” memes can be relatively fluid. In 2015 and 2016, the alt-right's meme factory was operating at full tilt and they pushed tropes into full view. Since then, waves of deplatforming, despite their inconsistency and randomness, have shrunk but certainly not closed the virtual space for effective alt-right meme-making.
CC: You have a chapter on white nationalists’ take on history. What is archeofuturism and how does it figure into their notion of a white ethnostate?
AMS: Archeofuturism is an idea proposed by the late French ethnonationalist Guillame Faye in his book with the same title. He rhapsodized about a marriage of the traditional past with a technologized future in which peoples of white and European descent would be able to reclaim their lands, control their boundaries, and have boundless babies, using scientific tools to their advantage. The archeofuture is aspirational and saturated in nostalgia for an idealized past.
CC: Media coverage familiarized us with the alt-right, but we aren’t as familiar with the alt-light. How do you define it and who are some if its key spokespersons?
AMS: As I have worked on this project, the line between the alt-right and alt-light has become blurrier. I increasingly view them as having more in common than not. The conventional distinction is that the alt-right is synonymous with white nationalism, while the alt-light refrains from embracing an explicitly white nationalist agenda. What they share, however, is a palpable disdain for liberalism and diversity, as well as unbridled misogyny and transphobia. One of the best examples of a prominent alt-light social media celebrity is the self-proclaimed Canadian philosopher Stefan Molyneux, who on Twitter and YouTube espouses exceedingly rigid ideas about gender roles and eugenically-minded theories about race and intelligence. I have noticed that over time his posts and vlogs increasingly have become focused on the dangers of multiculturalism and endorse, often in coded language, the viewpoint that whites are facing demographic extinction. The back-and-forth dynamic between the supposed alt-right and alt-light will continue to evolve; even if the alt-right likes to scorn the alt-light, the latter has proven to be more effective at reaching and red-pilling “normies.”
CC: And lastly, why are misogyny and transphobia prevalent features in their rhetoric and what does that say about their worldview?
AMS: One of the main takeaways from Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate is that misogyny and transphobia (and in more fraught ways homophobia) are not secondary aspects of the alt-right but sit at its core. If the alt-right is anything, it is deeply patriarchal and beholden to traditional gender and sexual norms. In this sense, the alt-right expresses a neo-fascist fixation with order and hierarchy, systems for which the binaries of gender and sexuality almost always are foundational beliefs.
About Alexandra Minna Stern
Alexandra Minna Stern is the author of the award-winning Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (2d. ed., 2015) and Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America (2012). In addition to dozens of scholarly essays, she regularly contributes to the popular media through opinion pieces, blog posts, and interviews. She leads the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab at the University of Michigan whose work on eugenic sterilization in California has been featured in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and NPR, and many other media venues. Stern is a Professor of American Culture, History, and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, where she leads the acclaimed Sterilization and Social Justice Lab.