Ashli Babbit, the woman shot and killed January 6 by Capitol police officers, “did not look particularly radical,” according to Tucker Carlson, who covered the event on his Fox News show the following day. “She bore no resemblance to the angry children we have seen wrecking our cities. Pasty, entitled, nihilists dressed in black, setting fires, spray painting slogans on statues.”
Carlson’s words resonated with thousands on social media who shared the video clip, liked it, and left their words of support. He reassures his viewers that extremists can be easily spotted. They are leftists who support abolishing the police, for example. In this worldview, right-wing extremists—neo-Nazis, white supremacists—are so few and far between that they do not warrant a mention, even in a monologue about a breach of the Capitol by Confederate flag-waving rioters.“YouTube, in particular, has been identified in multiple reports as an important vector of radicalization.”
These past five years have made clear that the iconography and lexicon of white supremacy in the United States have evolved and need to be updated in our popular consciousness. In my research, I study how right-wing social media personalities bring pro-white identity politics into the mainstream while strategically evading accusations of racism. YouTube, in particular, has been identified in multiple reports as an important vector of radicalization. Despite the persistent trope that radicalization takes place in “dark corners of the Internet,” first-hand testimonies and cross-platform studies1Jacob Davey, Mackenzie Hart, and Céline Guerin, An Online Environmental Scan of Right-Wing Extremism in Canada (Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2020). have shown that mainstream social media platforms—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter—have been some of the most effective at disseminating racist, Islamophobic, misogynistic, and transphobic ideas.
As part of my research, I have watched over 100 hours of YouTube content, with a focus on channels that eschew the label “alt-right” or “white nationalist,” while adopting the language of “civic nationalism” and “cultural superiority.” These figures, who have been deemed “alt-lite” by their more militant counterparts, carefully position themselves as mainstream conservative comedians, pundits, and entertainers. The actual videos, however, make it clear that “alt-lite” is a misnomer that downplays the brazenly racist arguments embraced by these personalities, as they cater to their reactionary fan bases while attempting to avoid deplatforming. This network of right-wing personalities is sprawling and by no means fringe, with some of the most visible channels consistently receiving over 500,000 views per video. While the formats and topics of their videos vary, these culture warriors and microcelebrities rely on a set of common rhetorical strategies in navigating this tricky, but profitable, terrain. The analysis below will focus on three of the most prevalent and insidious strategies.
Pro-white figureheads of all stripes emphasize the victimization of white people in a supposedly social-justice-oriented, politically correct world that is constantly assigning them blame and guilt. This tactic has a long history within the United States, as sociologist Mitch Berbrier2Mitch Berbrier, “The Victim Ideology of White Supremacists and White Separatists in the United States,” Sociological Focus 33, no. 2 (2000): 175–191. has shown in his work tracing the “victim ideology” of white supremacist groups throughout the twentieth century. His research highlights how organizations like the KKK and the NAAWP3The National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP) is a white supremacist organization founded by David Duke in 1979. have continuously framed advancements won by people of color as discriminatory attacks on the rights of white Americans. Far-right social media and YouTube personalities have taken up and adapted this myth for the current political climate.“Claims of white victimhood, or male victimhood, are typically advanced in the context of various internet controversies: the latest “cancellation” of a public figure or the uploading of a new viral video by a liberal media outlet.”
Claims of white victimhood, or male victimhood, are typically advanced in the context of various internet controversies: the latest “cancellation” of a public figure or the uploading of a new viral video by a liberal media outlet. For instance, the popular genre of the “takedown” or “debunking” video usually features a right-wing YouTuber talking over clips lifted from a liberal “target piece” about white privilege, microaggressions, unconscious bias, or other topics (titles like “We All Have Racial Bias” or “Resolutions for White Guys” come to mind). In their takedown videos, right-wing YouTubers accuse liberal media outlets of condescension, reverse racism, and general SJW4SJW stands for “social justice warrior,” which is a term conservatives frequently use to disparage progressives. cringe-worthiness.
These takedown videos frame structural critiques about the dominance of white men in US society as personal attacks against white men. In “defense” of whiteness and maleness, conservative YouTubers unleash a host of white supremacist and misogynistic arguments: that white men created modern civilization, that white men are saviors and civilizers, that white men freed the slaves, etc. Figures ranging from Steven Crowder (5.39 million subscribers) to Paul Joseph Watson (1.87 million) continue to make—and profit off of—these claims on YouTube, amassing millions of views on their videos while managing to avoid deplatforming.
Despite adopting the language of victimhood, right-wing takedown videos regularly galvanize large swarms of fans to down-vote target videos, post racist vitriol in the comments, and attack their creators.5Rebecca Lewis, Alice E. Marwick, William Clyde Partin, “‘We Dissect Stupidity and Respond to It’: Response Videos and Networked Harassment on YouTube,” American Behavioral Scientist, February 3, 2021. These practices of networked harassment, frequently motivated by right-wing internet celebrities, have made online spaces like YouTube extremely hostile for progressive women, people of color, trans people, and others who challenge their reactionary worldview.
Performatively aligning with people of color
One of the most common rhetorical tactics used by far-right YouTubers is the strategic elevation of minoritized communities or individuals when it serves their purposes: usually to denigrate another group or to demonstrate their own tolerant attitudes. For instance, these personalities often decry the treatment of LGBT communities in majority-Muslim countries as a way to paint Islam as backwards, intolerant, and uncivilized. This concern for queer people and women, however, arises only in situations where it can be weaponized against Muslims. For instance, when he was still active on YouTube, far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos spoke incessantly about the persecution of gay people in Muslim countries, and yet dismissed homophobia within the United States as a “hoax.”“The struggles of minoritized communities are worth mentioning only insofar as they can be used disingenuously to advance their own talking points.”
These sorts of contradictions abound. The struggle of Asian Americans becomes relevant only in the context of affirmative action debates—where Asians are used as a foil to denigrate Black and Latinx communities. These YouTubers’ supposed concern for Asian people, however, does not prevent them from calling Covid-19 the “China virus” and perpetuating all manner of harmful anti-Asian stereotypes in other contexts. In all of these cases, the lived experiences and voices of minoritized people are utterly dismissed even as far-right YouTubers periodically perform concern to demonstrate their tolerance for non-white Others. The struggles of minoritized communities are worth mentioning only insofar as they can be used disingenuously to advance their own talking points.
This same instrumental approach is evident when conservative YouTubers highlight their personal relationships with individual people of color in order to deflect accusations of racism. This strategy relies on the common assumption that only deeply immoral people can be racists and that these people make up a small, defective minority. Under this narrow definition of racism, close relationships with non-white people serve as proof that one does not deserve to be labeled a racist. Among “alt-lite” YouTubers, this strategy is ubiquitous: Gavin McInnes often refers to his friendships with Black people and his marriage to an Indigenous woman and Steven Crowder facetiously nicknames members of his production team according to their race, including “Half-Asian lawyer” and “Quarter Black Garrett.” This emphasis on non-white friends and family members empowers these YouTubers to defend their moral characters while engaging in openly racist rhetoric.
Humor, irony, and ambiguity
More than their Fox News or talk radio counterparts, many far-right YouTube celebrities perform outrageous, sometimes goofy comedic bits that establish them as “edgy” while allowing them to maintain ironic distance from the views they are espousing. These amateurish bits are well-suited to the visual and DIY nature of the platform. Unlike mainstream conservative news outlets, which need to maintain a veneer of professionalism for their legitimacy, YouTubers gain credibility with audience members through the performance of authenticity and intimacy.6Rebecca Lewis, “‘‘This Is What the News Won’t Show You’: YouTube Creators and the Reactionary Politics of Micro-Celebrity,” Television & New Media 21, no. 2 (2020): 201–217.
For example, a YouTuber might don a hijab and perform a poor caricature of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Even as he advances vile, dehumanizing ideas about Muslim women in the sketch, he breaks character and laughs at himself throughout the video, which distances him from the caricature he is depicting. Such performances—usually involving bad accents, haphazard costumes, offensive makeup—allow far-right celebrities to demonstrate their fearlessness (they can say and do what they like!) without earnestly engaging with the ideas they are advancing. When these representations are criticized for perpetuating harmful stereotypes, right-wing YouTubers frequently invoke humor, irony, and satire to shield themselves from criticism and to frame progressives as overly sensitive whiners who “can’t take a joke.” The use of dehumanizing caricatures—often to ridicule high-profile women—puts the target individual “in her place” by making her the object of scorn, derision, and mockery. These performances help YouTubers to strategically position themselves as court jesters, who are provocative enough to keep viewers coming back but never sincerely hateful enough to warrant deplatforming.
Naming white supremacy
While none of these rhetorical strategies are unique to YouTube personalities, social media serves as a space for experimentation, where emerging dog-whistles and racist vocabularies are cocreated by internet celebrities and their audiences. YouTube has proven to be particularly fertile ground for right-wing microcelebrities, whose talking points on cancel culture, SJWs, and social media censorship have meaningfully shaped mainstream understandings of these topics. These discursive threads can be traced from right-wing online news outfits, to pro-white YouTube personalities, to pundits on Fox News and back again.“Carlson’s refusal to name or acknowledge right-wing extremism, even in the immediate aftermath of an insurrection, coheres nicely with Crowder’s own interests.”
On January 7, 2021, Steven Crowder—one of YouTube’s most popular reactionary commentators—shared Tucker Carlson’s monologue to his Facebook page and website with the caption “Tucker Carlson Delivers Powerful Monologue on Wednesday’s Capitol Events.” Carlson’s refusal to name or acknowledge right-wing extremism, even in the immediate aftermath of an insurrection, coheres nicely with Crowder’s own interests. As long as the public, and tech platforms, hold outmoded ideas about what white supremacy looks like, then these personalities are unlikely to be held accountable for their dehumanizing portrayals of minoritized groups and their elevation of white victimhood narratives. This kind of harmful rhetoric is not only allowed to proliferate on YouTube but is actively supported by the company through its recommendation algorithms and ad revenue-sharing model. It is past time that the platform’s policies catch up to the reality of contemporary white supremacist discourse, which in its widest-reaching form, pairs the constant invocation of racist tropes with the constant denial of personal animus and personal responsibility. So, if Tucker Carlson is wondering what extremism looks like today, he need only glance in the mirror.