Thanks to the rise of Donald Trump, the world was introduced to the seamy, repugnant and downright creepy underbelly of the fringe-right, known to many as the alt-right.
What many nervous conservatives knew was boiling under the surface — a putrid bouillabaisse of anti-Semitic, bigoted, misogynist and conspiratorial impulses — got ground-level attention as Trump allowed the alt-right to attach itself to him undisturbed. From coyly pretending not to know about David Duke and his endorsement, to lifting an anti-Semitic meme from an alt-right website, to routinely trafficking in evidence-free conspiracy theories, Trump played to the alt-right base in winks and nods throughout the election.
He went from flirting to full-on fornication when he announced head of the alt-right website Breitbart.com, Steve Bannon, as his chief strategist.
You can blame the alt-right for a lot. But they didn’t single-handedly elect Trump. I’d wager most Trump supporters repudiate alt-right bigotry even if they do feel economically and socially dismissed by political elites from both parties. The Trump voters I’ve met have no familiarity with alt-right symbols, like Pepe the Frog, a once-innocent-turned anti-Semitic white nationalist cartoon, or the subversive uses of the numbers 14 and 88.
But in the dangerous rise of the alt-right, we may be missing another storyline swirling around the zeitgeist, and it’s one that explains our current political climate just as convincingly: the rise of anarchism.
Disruption is, without a doubt, the running theme of this election. Disruption of the political parties, the elite establishment, the media, the Internet, our electoral process — the urgency for Change with a capital C was ubiquitous. And the change “to what” needn’t be answered in many cases. How Trump or Bernie Sanders were going to disrupt the systems mattered less than that they were going to disrupt the systems.
Many of the hallmarks of this election cycle come into clearer view when looking through this lens of anarchist disruption.
For example, the rising scourge of fake news. Propaganda is usually associated with fascist and totalitarian regimes, but the fake news stories we saw weren’t solely intended to discredit Trump’s opponents and get him elected. It’s actually worse than that.
Stories like “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for President” and “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide” — both false — were more importantly aimed at creating the kind of chaos and confusion that sends media outlets into tailspins, that makes voters question the integrity of the press, and ultimately led an armed gunman to fire shots in a pizza place because he read it operated as a pedophile ring.
According to BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman, the top 20 fake news stories outperformed the top 20 real ones of the election year on Facebook.
We also saw unprecedented disruption in the form of hacks and leaks.
The White House formally accused Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee in an effort to influence the election, while the Department of Homeland Security reported that 20 states faced major election hacking attempts this year. Wikileaks’ frequent email dumps and the hacktivist group Anonymous played critical roles in disrupting notions of privacy and how to report on stolen or hacked data. Hacks and leaks weren’t just about shedding sunlight, but also about undermining stability.
Finally, the idea of a rigged election wasn’t the sole domain of Trump supporters. Both his minions and Sanders’ beat this drum not only in the hopes of getting their guy elected, but in convincing enough people that the whole thing was a scam anyway. Undermining the integrity of our election process is undermining the integrity of our very democracy.
Maybe it’s no surprise Trump’s rise created or at least coaligned with an anarchistic environment. Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon hinted at his fondness for institutional disruption before, saying in 2014, “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
But the anarchist impulses surrounding Trump aren’t only coming from the right.
In The Daily Beast, Christopher Ketcham describes the anarchist movement of “Trump arsonist-progressives” as a repudiation from the left of “Clintonism.”
“What’s needed now in American politics is consternation, confusion, dissention, disorder, chaos,” he writes. “I’d rather see the empire burn to the ground under Trump, opening up at least the possibility of radical change, than cruise on autopilot under Clinton.”
From the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” over globalization, to Occupy Wall Street and the anarchist protests at recent Republican National Conventions, anarchy is poised to go mainstream in ways we could never have predicted before social media, the explosion of news-delivery vehicles, cyber terrorism and the stunning rise of Donald Trump gave it a pathway.
“The worst thing in this world, next to anarchy, is government,” said the abolitionist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. If these confusing and chaotic times are any indication, it’s clear plenty of people agree.
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.
This column originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
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