Trolling Has Been Part Of Right-Wing Movements Throughout History
“Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”
In his recently published Alt-Right (London: Pluto Press, 2018) Mike Wendling provides a detailed analysis of the alt-right as it exists almost exclusively in cyberspace. The alt-right achieved prominence during the 2016 presidential election campaign thanks largely to Breitbart and its then editor Steve Bannon. Wendling calls attention to the phenomenon of ‘trolling.’ Anonymous ‘trolls’ launch cyber attacks on liberals and left-wing types who they seek to embarrass and humiliate through the use of jokes and pranks. In other words, in launching these attacks, those doing the trolling are engaged in a form of fun-seeking.
This pursuit of fun is a common theme in the history of right-wing, xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic movements throughout the course of their modern history. The 1819 Hep-Hep rioting against newly emancipated Jews in Bavaria and other German states often involved children who participated in the violence out of a sense of play and mischief – sanctioned by adults. In the United States, the wave of lynching that occurred throughout the South from the end of Reconstruction through the first decades of the 20th century also included the pursuit of fun by those witnessing the public murders. Photos and written accounts of these killings display the pleasure witnesses seemed to exhibit in watching these ghastly displays.
Not uncommonly, friends and relatives of these witnesses received picture postcards of a lynching so that they too could share in the fun.
Recently, an observer emerged from the Liverpool Street tube stop in East London to view a march staged by the anti-Muslim English Defense League (EDL). Several of the EDL marchers enjoyed a prank by waving Israeli flags as a way of taunting Muslim bystanders.
The history of Italian Fascism during Mussolini’s conquest of power (1919-1921) is replete with this fun-seeking behavior. Il Duce regarded the use of violence, particularly during wartime, as a way of demonstrating manhood. Some observers (notably James Gregor and Sergio Pannunzio) viewed Fascist violence as largely instrumental, a way of defending society against those who would destroy it.
In practice, the Fascist Blackshirts employed violence to dismantle Italy’s Red organizations during the movements ascent to power. During these usually nocturnal attacks on their revolutionary enemies, they commonly poured castor oil down the threats of these individuals and tied them to trees. The purpose of these sojourns was to embarrass and humiliate their victims. As one observer at the time put it, Fascism offered ‘violence with a smile.’ The Fascist ‘flying squads’ were not only out to repress the Socialists but sought to have some fun while doing it.
The Nazis also abounded with amusement seekers. Widely shown news photos of the German occupation of Poland in the fall of 1939 show orthodox Jews having to cut off their beards or having them ripped off much to the amusement of the German officers promoting and witnessing the events.
There does not seem to be any pictures of death camp guards treating their operations as a game to be enjoyed. On the other hand, there are recently discovered pictures of off duty guards at Auschwitz enjoying a picnic in the vicinity of Birkenau. One of the guards plays the accordion as one of the women dance to the music. All the guards involved are shown beaming from ear-to-ear.
We should not forget that Hitler himself was described as laughing and smiling as he watched the hanging (by piano wire) of those officers who participated in the failed July 20, 1944 assassination plot.
Together these brief accounts of fun-seeking by far-right political figures, groups, and organizations constitute a pattern of behavior. Taken collectively, they represent a type of sadism that appears to be one of the defining features of the far right, then and now.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.