Nietzscheans and Normies
The government uses the radicals of the online right to justify cracking down on the free speech of ordinary conservatives.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the specter of Islamic terrorism was used to justify the expansion of the security state, as the United States government embarked on mass surveillance, airport security protocols, and two foreign wars. Now a further expansion of government power is being promoted as a necessary response to white supremacy. In a May speech at Howard University, President Joe Biden called white supremacy “the single most dangerous terrorist threat in our homeland.”
Whether the supposed menace is foreign or domestic, Islamic or Christian, brown or white, the true threat to American liberty comes less from the disorganized fringe than from the powerful center. It’s not a coincidence that de facto government regulation of speech on social media platforms has emerged in parallel with ceaseless warnings about the rise of the illiberal right. The phantom of repression serves to distract us from the reality.
After 9/11, I argued against so-called enhanced interrogation tactics and opposed (in a contentious exchange with Andrew McCarthy and David French at National Review) the anti-sharia bills that had been proposed in many states. Then as now, opposition to government overreach does not imply sympathy with the targeted ideology.
It’s undeniable that what might be called a Nietzschean right has become more prominent in recent years. It glorifies strength and denigrates weakness, understanding those terms along particular lines: It is more interested in IQ scores than in physical strength, and it is more likely to celebrate those who discipline and control others than those who are able to discipline and control themselves.
This outlook has gained prominence due in part to Twitter, which has allowed people who once were confined to the comments sections of fringe publications to interact on the same platform as government-friendly journalists. Its rise has also been fueled by a racialist left, whose denunciations—of whites and men especially—were bound to provoke a bitter response.
Yet there are good reasons not to overestimate any threat from the radical right. Perhaps the most obvious is that far-right groupuscules tend to be made up of people who are socially marginal—and often manifestly incompetent. Leading figures in these organizations frequently turn out to be federal informants, which suggests that many of the most capable people involved in the radical right are working against their organizations’ stated goals. Perhaps the most common accusation in these circles is that someone is a “fed.”
Standing behind this problem of organization is an intellectual contradiction. Because the Nietzschean right venerates power and abhors weakness, it is ineluctably drawn to the forces it purports to oppose. In America, the left is the party of government. Its catechism is recited in all the country’s most important institutions—including businesses, intelligence agencies, and the military. It commands the loyalty of what the Nietzschean right calls the “cognitive elite,” as one can see by surveying the yard signs in any college town. Meanwhile, the right has increasingly become the political home of workers and of those outside the cities where the majority of economic life takes place. Shut out of major institutions, the right tends to be bumptious, shambolic, and frequently embarrassing. For anyone who is attracted above all to power, it has little appeal.
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Several prominent members of the Nietzschean right have perceived this contradiction and responded accordingly, moving away from the fringes where losers hymn the virtues of power and toward the center where power is actually wielded. One prominent example is Richard Spencer, who gained prominence as a white nationalist in 2016. After organizing the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Spencer began to express contempt for the right and identification with the ascendent ideology. He is now a loud supporter of the war in Ukraine, the centrist cause du jour, and a biting critic of the right. “Conservatives have never seen a lost cause they didn’t love,” he wrote in 2020. “They have a libido for anything that is hopeless, flawed beyond repair, and clearly a dead-end.”
Richard Hanania, a former contributor to Richard Spencer’s Radix Journal, has followed the same trajectory. While explaining his political evolution last year, Hanania explained that he has come to believe that “social conservatism is often a sort of opiate for losers.” He is drawn to the neoliberal center not only because he shares its approval of abortion and euthanasia but because it actually wins, exhibiting the power and strength he admires. Standing behind all this is a considerable degree of self-loathing, but also a certain admirable consistency. Contrary to what some have claimed, the Richards (Spencer and Hanania) have not abandoned their principles. They have followed through on them.
This is the fundamental reason why the Nietzschean right poses no threat to the established order: People who venerate power over all are bound to end up supporting the power that structures our society. In this sense, every supposed radical is a nascent fed. This doesn’t mean that their antics are harmless. One of the inevitable effects will be to call down the wrath of the state on more normal people on the right. If Biden’s claims about a terrorist threat are any indication, normie non-woke Americans are likely to pay a price for the online antics of the Nietzschean right.