Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination
By Alexandra Minna Stern
Beacon Press, 2019
Readers coming to Alexandra Minna Stern’s slim, powerful book Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate without knowing much about her subject will have an extensive, and extensively depressing, new vocabulary to acquire. Terms like “cuck” and “manosphere,” concepts like “metapolitics” and “red-pilling,” names like Gavin McInnes, Stefan Molyneux, and Richard Spenser begin to pepper these pages until they’re falling thick as hail, and the main benefit of Stern’s fact-driven analytical approach is also its greatest strain: there’s no respite. This is a deep dive into dark places most ordinary people don’t know anything about and don’t want to know anything about.
The core target of the book is also another one of those dangerous new vocabulary terms: the alt-right, although it at least has had a national-stage introduction, made by none other than 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton warning potential voters that there exists a subterranean, widespread, and largely online negative-culture of circulated memes, disaffected social misfits, and fugitive discussion boards on sites like 4chan and 8chan. In concise but unfailingly incisive chapters, Stern dissects the origins, key players, and main preoccupations of the alt-right and its parlor-friendly sock-puppet, the so-called “alt-light” composed of allegedly contrarian YouTube click-baiters and provocateurs like crackpot Infowars showman Alex Jones, “Pizzagate” hoaxer Mike Cernovich, fraudulent “empiricist” Molyneux, “free speech” useful idiot Dave Rubin, and of course McInnes himself, banned YouTuber and founder of the fascist street gang that calls itself “The Proud Boys.”
Throughout her book, Stern makes the wise decision to employ a frank but academic tone. This fills the book with a clarity often sorely missing from discussions of these subjects, and it will free Stern from accusations of close-minded partisan rhetoric in the minds of all but the most ardent members of the very alt-right groups she’s discussing. The only instances where this analytical tone seems excessively polite are, oddly, the book’s discussions of McInnes himself, whose descriptions of the violent gang he founded as a “fraternity” or “Elks club” are allowed to stand without significant challenge. “McInnes might be naive, calculating, or duplicitous,” Stern writes. “He certainly resorts to the ruse of asserting plausible deniability and offering up excuses of irony or ignorance.”
Which is true, except when it isn’t. There is no plausible deniability that can be attached to McInnes in any meaningful way. When Stern describes the notorious incident in the autumn of 2018 when “brawled on the Upper East Side of Manhattan after leaving a speech given by McInnes at the Metropolitan Republican Club,” for instance, she relates the NYPD’s arrests of Proud Boy members but leaves unmentioned McInnes’ own behavior on the night in question: at his Metropolitan Club speech, he gleefully re-enacted the on-air assassination of Japanese socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma, and when he left the Club, he brandished the replica samurai sword he’d used on stage. His gang members followed suit. Nothing ironic or ignorant about it.
But even so, Stern is very good on where groups like the Proud Boys fit in the twisted ecosystem of the phenomenon she’s studying: “An Escherian stairwell built on the ideological affinities of anti-feminism, xenophobia, and racial othering connects the Proud Boys to the alt-right.”
And although it seems clear that the first of these, call it either anti-feminism or simple misogyny, is the heart of the alt-right in all its many manifestations, the concentration in these pages falls on the dream that likewise animates all those manifestations: a white ethnostate:
No star burns brighter for white nationalists than the ethnostate; it is the alt-right’s most outlandish and most chilling idea. The white ethnostate is the hallowed destination that beckons on the horizon. Mostly it is a mirage, but it is also a bellwether of the alt-right’s treacherous effacement of the line between civic nationalism and racial nationalism. The ethnostate is a wedge idea that alt-righters hope to make thinkable and plausible.
In case it isn’t obvious, there are three general requirements for inclusion in this ethnostate: 1) having at least three white grandparents and no black grandparents, 2) not having a black spouse, and, because those two things eliminate “impure” blood but don’t necessarily assure lock-step aggressive groupthink, 3) being of “good character.” In other words, even if you’re white as the driven snow, you can still be excluded from the dream-state if, for instance, you’ve ever been courteous to a black person.
Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate is as thin and sharp as an ice-pick, a point-by-point anatomy of a threat that’s only just begun to do its worst societal damage. Particularly in the long run-up to the 2020 US Presidential election, it should be required reading for an electorate that does most of its thinking on social media.
Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.