Author Archives: Kevin Musgrave

On Conspiracies and Cucks: The Rhetoric of the “Alt-Right”

This post was co-authored by Kevin Musgrave (UW-Madison, Communication Arts) and Jeff Tischauser (UW-Madison, Journalism and Mass Communication).

The brash new wing of the conservative movement, the so-called “Alt-Right,” has drawn public attention and ire, with Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton condemning them in a recent campaign speech in Reno, Nevada.  Despite this recent publicity, questions abound.  Who exactly are the “Alt-Right?”  How do they differ from other conservative groups and what are the defining characteristics of their rhetoric?

Clinton condemns the "Alt-Right" in Reno

Clinton condemns the “Alt-Right” in Reno

Though many prominent media outlets including the New York Times, Salon, the Daily Beast, as well as media watchdog groups FAIR and Media Matters have published pieces on the group, a solid conceptualization of the “Alt-Right” remains elusive.  Emerging from these pieces, however, is a list of common characteristics that may allow us to articulate the defining communicative and rhetorical norms and strategies of the “Alt-Right.”

The “Alt-Right” is often defined with and against the development of the New Right, a nebulous conservative movement represented by the rise of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Blending fiscal and social conservatism with a strong military presence and foreign policy, the New Right offered a means of fusing what rhetorical scholar Michael Lee calls the conflicting dialects of traditionalism and libertarianism that constitute the political language of conservatism in the United States.

Yet, if Reagan has become synonymous with the fusionist message of the New Right, the “Alt-Right” has emerged within a conservative vacuum that has seen the Republican Party, post-George W. Bush, struggle to create a message capable of unifying traditionalists and libertarians alike. Indeed, what the “Alt-Right” appears to be doing in its rhetoric is actively delinking these two dialects, re-articulating an extremist traditionalist message, and separating the language of conservatism from the Republican Party.

Manifesting primarily in online forums such as 4Chan, Reddit, and RadixJournal, the “Alt-Right” consists mainly of 18-35 year-old white males who are, as their leader Milos Yiannopoulos claims, “young, creative and eager to commit secular heresies,” through the creation and circulation of openly racist, sexist, and nationalistic memes.

The usage of these memes is a way of signaling belonging to the group by demonstrating a fluency in the “Alt-Right” vernacular.  The memes are marked by the conspiratorial style of a white genocide narrative, an ironic deployment of racial tropes, protectionist rhetorics of white tribalism, and a European Anglo identity politics premised on racist pseudo-science.

In advancing a return to tribal politics, the “Alt-Right,” as Jack Hunter of the Daily Beast argues, defines itself against the radical individualism of the libertarian dialect as articulated by conservative firebrands such as Goldwater.  Denouncing individualism in favor of a radical traditionalism that calls for a return to communal, authoritarian, and hierarchical politics premised on racial difference, the “Alt-Right” abandons the religious metaphysics of Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and other traditionalists in favor of a racial science that justifies a disdain for egalitarianism and democracy.

One prime example of how those in the “Alt-Right” use memes to circulate these messages is the common term used by its members: “cuck.”  This term rhetorically defines the “Alt-Right” as opposed to establishment Republicans–cuckservatives–maligned by the “Alt-Right” as neocons and liberal Republicans pushing an internationalist agenda that threatens the white race.

In the satirical depiction of the American Conservative magazine below, internet users have fashioned the publication as a cuckservative mouthpiece, promulgating the death of the white race in efforts to achieve social justice.  Advancing a conspiratorial narrative that views immigration, inclusion, assimilation, and diversity as an affront to white masculinity and racial purity, the cuckservative is one who has emasculated himself, become a traitor to his race, and permitted the affordance of a white minority population and colored body politic through liberal policies that advocate for pluralism and equality.


Engaging in racist pseudo-science to support claims of white supremacy, the “Alt-Right” not only biologizes racial difference but also uses hereditary and cognitive science to argue against egalitarianism.  In this way, the values of the Enlightenment philosophy of classical liberalism, heralded by the libertarian right, become anathema to core “Alt-Right” tenets of communal, tribal belonging, racial hierarchy, and authoritarianism.  In redefining conservatism this way, the “Alt-Right” is imagining conservatism as an Anglo European identity politics and mainstreaming core tenets of white, authoritarian nationalism in popular discourse.

Enter Pepe the frog, a character previously associated with #gamergate, anti-semitic attacks on journalists and activists, and the male rights movement. Pepe plays to members of the white in-group who understand the joke for what it really is, a call to action. In this sense, Pepe is the wink after the racist joke. The rhetorical power of Pepe, like the racist joke, is that it lets its purveyors escape with plausible deniability. The ironic detachment that emerges in Pepe’s history helps to conflate intention with effect, allowing users to distance themselves from its often racist connotations. Rendering Pepe in Hammerskin Nation-like attire, covered in blood, carrying guns used by Nazi SS Stormtroopers, is not racist, or disrespectful, rather it’s an irreverent way to shock and disrupt PC culture.  Sharing Pepe memes allows members of the “Alt-Right” to espouse its “fuck your feelings politics,” distancing themselves from liberals and mainstream conservatives through vitriolic rhetoric.


When the Trump campaign tweeted an image of himself as Pepe in October 2015, to @BrietbartNews and others, with the message, “You Can’t Stump the Trump,” he rhetorically positioned himself as the Presidential candidate of the “Alt-Right.”  As a candidate whose views on American exceptionalism, immigration, and anti-PC culture resonate with the message of the “Alt-Right,” Trump stands as a figure capable of making white nationalist ideas a political reality.

Trump thus represents the power to create a sovereign nation state that protects white men from perceived economic and cultural threats. However, Trump stands more as a vehicle for the “Alt-Right” ideology than its driver. Even as Trump’s appeal appears to be diminishing with conservatives, his core “Alt-Right” constituency, aided by an array of “Alt-Right” media outlets and its dedicated meme warriors who troll Reddit and 4Chan, the “Alt-Right” as a political force is not going away any time soon.

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What’s in a Name? The Rhetoric of Bernie Sanders’s “Political Revolution”


Coming off a solid Super Tuesday, the Bernie Sanders campaign is not going down without a fight.  Championing a platform premised on economic justice and corporate power, Sanders’s rhetoric resounds with that of Progressive reformers of a century ago.  Yet, despite these similarities, he carries significant differences as well.  Perhaps most notable is Sanders’s rhetorical positioning of himself as the leader of a “political revolution” rather than a reformer.  However, what about his campaign is revolutionary?  Can politics be revolutionary?

If we can think of revolution as a populist, non-institutionalized movement that seeks to bring fundamental change to the current political system from outside of the established political order, then can electoral politics be revolutionary?  Can something that exists within the system bring about revolution? Or, to cast Audre Lorde’s famous words into a question, can the master’s tools bring down the master’s house? Can something that is inside also be outside?

Let’s begin by looking at Sanders’s positioning of himself as a political outsider.  Many in the Clinton camp have questioned how Sanders can defend such a position.  After all, Sanders has been a congressman for nearly thirty years in the State of Vermont, and before that he was the Mayor of Burlington.  Rather than being opposed to the establishment, Sanders looks much like a part of the system he condemns.

However, refusing to take money from corporations, PACs, Super PACs, or vested political interests, Sanders’s campaign has been fueled by primarily small, individual donations to his campaign.  This is one of the most impressive facts of the campaign and certainly unprecedented in an electoral system that is largely pay to play.  By highlighting this aspect of his campaign, with its clear relation to his policy platform, Sanders justifies this label by portraying himself as outside of the political status quo.

This raises an interesting dynamic.  In this light, both positions seem to be correct to some degree. While Sanders is the consummate career politician, he is also refusing to be bound by the structures of the current campaign finance system. Thus, Sanders is both insider and outsider, being at once within and exterior to the political establishment.

Let’s dig a bit further.  On February 28th of this year U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the now former vice chair of the Democratic National Convention, resigned her position in order to endorse Sanders.  When interviewed about her decision Gabbard claimed that she was warned by DNC officials not to break from Clinton in support of Sanders. Resigning her position and feeling pressure to back Clinton raises interesting questions regarding Sanders’s outsider status, and his claims of a political revolution. Not only is Sanders outside of the current campaign finance system, he also appears to exist outside of the DNC official position. While Sanders has long been allowed to exist as an independent voice in the senate, there is now hesitancy on the part of the Party to allow Sanders’s particular brand of democratic socialism (a topic worthy of its own essay) to the be their official platform.  His views clearly seem to differ from a majority of those in the Party. This is Sanders’s establishment.

Coming to the larger question of revolution we now need to understand the attempts to rhetorically align politics proper with revolutionary aspirations. Many in the media have questioned the viability of Sanders’s “revolution,” pointing to its colorblind policies, overwhelmingly white voter base, and sexist supporters (certainly all interrelated problems) as inherent limitations to his vision of socialist politics.

While there have been ardent critics of Sanders on his relative silence on matters of racial inequality, from Black Lives Matter protestors at the Net Roots conference, as well as in Seattle, and also after the alleged “English only” comments at a recent rally, others have found in his platform room for a more inclusive revolution.  With individuals such as rapper Killer Mike, Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates (who has been quite critical of Sanders), and Erica Garner all endorsing Sanders, while continuing to push him on race, his history of activism for civil rights, coupled with Sanders’s condemnation of the Bernie Bros, seem to demonstrate attempts to craft a revolution across multiple axes of identity including race, gender, and class.

Through the debates regarding Sanders’s platform, I think we may begin to draw out an understanding of political revolution as occupying a paradoxical position that seeks to reshape established political institutions from both within and without. I believe that it is this liminal space that is the site of Sanders’s political revolution. By fundamentally altering the current structure of campaign finance and the DNC itself, as well as seeking to craft a coalitional movement across identity and difference, Sanders seeks to change politics from within while playing outside the bounds of the norms of political culture.  Sanders seeks to be within their world but not of it.

However, this raises important questions for leftist politics. Is such a position truly viable? Does the usage of the label “revolution” do damage to more radical positions by appropriating the term? Or, to the contrary, does inoculating the public from some of its more radical connotations allow for a more nuanced discussion of non-traditional policy positions by broader publics?  What are the limitations to Sanders’s positions on race? Additionally, how do we reconcile this label with Sanders’s platform?  Espousing largely a nationalist agenda, how can we reconcile the label of revolutionary with his positions on foreign policy, specifically with regard to Palestine?

Certainly these are only some of the important questions raised by Sanders’s campaign and by the paradoxical idea of a political revolution more broadly.  The answers to these questions are not simple. They may likely exist in the liminal space of a “political revolution” itself.


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Free Markets and Union Thugs: Efficiency v. Equity in South Park’s “Handicar”

In a recent episode of South Park, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker made a biting social commentary on recent transformations in the transportation marketplace.  The episode, entitled “Handicar,” focuses on a fictional ridesharing application created by fourth grader Timmy Burch — a disabled character bound to his wheelchair. The app, to which the episode is named, is a satirical depiction of ridesharing service Uber, in which Timmy escorts customers around town in a red wagon attached to the back end of his motorized wheelchair.  Having created the application as a way of fundraising for a camp for the disabled, the service quickly becomes popular throughout the town of South Park.  However, not everyone in town is quite so fond of Handicar.


Nathan and Mimsy, two other attendees of the camp, want Handicar put out of business so that they don’t have to spend another summer at a camp they detest.  Handicar’s rise to prominence also irritates the cab drivers of South Park who claim that the service is taking business from their industry.  In their conjoined efforts to take down this new service, what follows is an absurd and hysterical storyline that pokes fun at Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and Lincoln Motors’ advertising campaign featuring Matthew McConaughey.  This story culminates in a “Wacky Race” that pits Handicar against these other modes of transportation in a battle for market supremacy.


While it may be easy to laud the “Handicar” episode for its comedic value it is also important that we recognize the episode as a site of public argument.  As scholars of argument and debate it is important that rhetoricians analyze and critique these mediated forms of argument in the public sphere.  In their uptake of the Uber debates, Matt and Trey demonstrate their well-known Libertarian viewpoints, portraying Uber as a free market response to inefficient unionized cab services across the country.  In making this argument South Park highlights what scholar Deborah Stone, in her book Policy Paradox, refers to as the myth of an equality-efficiency trade off in public policy debates.


Equity, Stone contends, is a goal of policy concerned with maintaining a just and fair distribution of “goods and services, wealth and income, health and illness, or opportunity and disadvantage” (p.39).  Concerns about equity have been common topics of debate surrounding Uber across the country.  These concerns are voiced, most commonly, by labor representatives and unionized taxi drivers.  On the other side of the debate are those who argue that a lack of regulation on services like Uber create a more efficient market for consumers. Deborah Stone contends that efficient organizations are commonly thought of as ones that “get things done with a minimum of waste, duplication, and expenditure of resources” (p. 61).


The arguments presented in the “Handicar” episode regarding Timmy’s new ridesharing service employ similar claims to those lauding Uber, employing a free-market rhetoric of efficiency.  Absent in its uptake of the Uber debates is a treatment of issues of equity in compensation and employment practices.  Rather, Matt and Trey choose to frame equity and efficiency as contradictory ideals, portraying union cab drivers as crooks and thugs who are unfairly disrupting free competition and efficient innovations in the market.


Recognizing unionized cab drivers as natural allies in their quest to ruin Timmy’s business, Nathan and Mimsy attend a meeting in which these drivers are plotting to get Handicar out of South Park.  While the unionized drivers offer solutions that involve governmental intervention in the market, such as asking the mayor and police to shut down the business, Mimsy, Nathan’s lackey, in a moment of lucidity, states “Why don’t you guys just make your cars cleaner and nicer, and try to be better to your customers so that you can compete with Handicar’s popularity in the marketplace?”



Choosing to ignore Mimsy’s advice, the cab drivers instead break into Timmy’s house and break his legs as a warning message from the union.  In doing so, Matt and Trey are portraying a common argumentative trope of the union thug in a rather literal way.  Depicting union drivers this way further invites audiences to view unions in a negative light, and as an obstacle to more efficient markets.  Later in the episode Mimsy echoes this sentiment in another lucid moment when he extols “Maybe if they [cab drivers] are that incompetent we shouldn’t try to save their jobs,” viewing this new competition in the market as a “kind of economic survival of the fittest” where good drivers weed out the bad ones.  Framed in this Darwinian light, unionized cab drivers must adapt and evolve or they are destined to become extinct.  Further, this Darwinian frame suggests that markets operate according to natural laws that exist outside of human control—ignoring the fact that markets are human constructs subject to man-made laws.  Matt and Trey’s argument not only operates under this natural understanding of the market, but also suggests that this point is so obvious that even one who is mentally disabled should be able to recognize free competition as the best solution to the ridesharing controversy.


Ultimately, this argument operates under a logic of free-market efficiency that, in portraying unions as obstacles to the natural progress of industry, ignores questions of equity that surround the debates on Uber.  While the episode frames efficiency and equity as incompatible goals, it is important to recall Deborah Stone’s argument that “efficiency is always a contestable concept” (p. 65).  What is efficient for customers may not be considered efficient by laborers.  The myth of the incompatibility of efficiency and equity is a powerful force that helps shape the contours of debate, but this myth is a rhetorical construct that benefits some while disserving others in very real, material ways.  In order to create better, more desirable policy outcomes it is thus imperative to expose this myth and redefine the appropriate parameters of debate regarding policy outcomes in the public sphere.

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