Alexandra Minna Stern, “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right Is Warping the American Imagination” (2019) and Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joseph Lowndes, “Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity” (2019) – Another two promising but at bottom disappointing attempts to explain the contemporary far right. I’d argue that Stern’s work is both the more promising of the two and ultimately the most disappointing. She starts to grapple with interesting topics like how the alt-right looks at time and the centrality of gender panics on the far right but ultimately does not interrogate either nearly enough. The Proud Boys barely enter into it at all, despite the title and the efforts of the group to intimidate the author.
Instead, we get definitions of things like “ethnostates” and “trad” as a descriptor, which Stern accuses the alt-right and its enablers like Tucker Carlson with smuggling in to the American imagination. This begs the question- where do the ideas in question come from, and why does anyone listen, if anyone does (and who is that anyone)? The alt-right emerges as an actor a lot like the liberals’ idea of Russia, an existential force for chaos and evil, poisoning an otherwise noble body politic. I think this is backwards- the alt-right is a morbid symptom, not the disease itself. Stern’s overview of alt-right facts is probably useful for some (in many ways, this is a brief primer, like Angela Nagle’s work without the twitter-beef baggage and shoddy editing) but it’s a missed opportunity for a real scholar (Stern is a professor of obstetrics and a historian, an interesting combo) to sink their teeth in to what we’re seeing. **’
HoSang and Lowndes fare little better. “Producers, Parasites, Patriots” was exciting to me because I thought it would get to grips with how concepts have changed on the right due to the historical conditions of the last twenty years or so. It does so, a little, especially in an early chapter on the racial politics of producerism. But ultimately, it is a book of inside baseball amongst the critical race theorists. HoSang and Lowndes have a point — that racial signifiers are increasingly migrating from strictly being applied to PoC to being applied to categories of white people and vice versa as neoliberal precarity screws with everything — and they hammer it home, to the exclusion of other worthwhile avenues (where does climate change enter into the precarity-driven differentiation scheme?). Moreover, to avoid accusations that they’re downplaying the significance of the white-on-black racism we’re used to seeing, every chapter and many sub-chapters have ponderous warning labels about how racism is still racism even if racists like Allen West, etc. **’
Coda: what, then, do I want out of books on the contemporary far right? Easier to say what I don’t want. I don’t want inter-left axe-grinding and the interference with thought that produces, like you see in Nagle. I don’t want Cletus Safari where we gawk at the yokels like in Vegas Tenold. I don’t want the tepid social science toe-dipping, like these two books and one or two others like it. I don’t want sneering dismissal or febrile fear-mongering.
Alexander Reid Ross comes closer to the ideal with “Against the Fascist Creep,” but he gets into axe-grinding territory against anyone who’s gotten a little tired of hearing of him and others calling red-brown alliance wolf. Elizabeth Sandifer makes a noble effort in “Neoreaction a Basilisk” but at the end of the day it’s too narrowly focused on a relatively minor current, the titular neoreactionaries, to bear that much weight.
All this begs for the approach of critical intellectual history. Is it possible to attain at the moment? I’ll fudge and say “partially.” We lack the sort of distance in time that the best historical writing needs. Any conclusions are necessarily tentative. But you can start with a granular understanding of the forces at work in recent history, an ability to depict the dynamics of a moving target rather than static pictures, and a desire to encapsulate something large and diverse as both a coherent whole and a changing, fluid thing. Someone who can bring these to bear could really make the topic their own.