I. The morning after
It looks like the alt-right is experiencing post-election tectonic stress, which isn’t… unusual.
In politics you have bandwagoning and balancing going on simultaneously. Winning coalitions have proven their strength, and use the victory to strengthen themselves further. That makes the winning coalition very appealing to mercenary factions (and all factions are, to some extent and in some ways, mercenary). Winning coalitions win access to resources that they can use to reward followers for their loyalty and skill, while the losers find themselves stripped of resources that they needed to meet previously-established expectations. In a broader sense, winning is exhilarating and gives you confidence in yourself, in your teammates, in your leader, and in the skills, virtues, and principles that brought the coalition through hard times. So winning improves morale and group function, while losing, which has the opposite effect, demoralizes and deforms.
For these reasons, it is normal for a winning coalition to become bigger, more unified, and more energetic after winning, while the defeated coalition shrinks, splinters, and sulks. And to be honest, those are roughly the forces that I expected to govern the alt-right in the wake of a Trump win. Certainly I expected the alt-right to profit from its position at least until the inauguration, and likely for the bulk of Trump’s term. I did not expect any serious internal turmoil until Trump started to deliver at least some of the policies we all demand. But there are a number of forces that work in the opposite direction, weakening the winning coalition, so it’s hardly surprising.
II. Exhaustion, accountability, infighting
First, exhaustion: the winner of a sprint is not typically in good condition to run a second sprint, and collective conflicts obey the same logic. Both sides make painful sacrifices in an effort “cross the finish line”. When there is a decisive moment looming (a concrete achievement like the moon landing, a fixed date like an election, or something more nebulous like “the climactic battle”) it makes sense to do everything possible before that moment, but by the same token if you can sustain that same level of commitment after the decisive moment, you weren’t trying hard enough. Typically both sides are exhausted by their efforts and ill-prepared for an immediate rematch. Sometimes the loser loses the conflict because his ability to compete has been completely sapped by his previous sacrifices, leading to a sudden collapse. In other cases the winner wins because he has made heroic efforts, and his superiority over the loser during the conflict is mirrored by his greater incapacitation afterwards.
The physiological tone of the “exhaustion” metaphor may obscure that the issue is often not a physical or psychological inability to do more, but each teammate’s unwillingness to continue to ignore the personal costs he has borne in pursuit of the common victory. With the specter of defeat gone, each contributor feels his own losses more sharply. With plundering underway, with distribution of spoils in progress, ambition and envy start to push each away from frenzied devotion and towards a more calculating sort of loyalty. Further contributions now become conditional on individual profit and quid pro quo. The end of any collective conflict is likely to cause this sort enthusiasm-fatigue on both sides, but contests with Winner-Take-All aspects are especially likely to cause them, and especially among the winners. The sacrifices each side makes in a pure WTA conflict are often worth some significant fraction of the stakes; when the conflict ends up being more costly than defeat itself, WTA dynamics are usually to blame! There is usually no reason not to sacrifice whatever it takes to win, so the losers only feel stupid for not having done more. The winners, on the other hand, have made (a) very substantial sacrifices which (b) were probably not strictly necessary to win, if there was any kind of margin of victory, so they very quickly start to re-interpret their own nobility during the conflict as gullibility, and the half-heartedness of their neighbors as shrewdness.
This sort of exhaustion of the esprit de corps of the winning coalition bleeds into the simple problems of accountability that winners face. The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must; this asymmetry’s silver lining is that the weak don’t need to make any of the decisions about what to suffer. Winners get to call shots, therefore they can be held responsible for the shots they call. (Hillary Rodham Clinton may have been a terribly ineffective presidential candidate, but because she lost, no one will ever be able to call her a bad president.) Individuals and factions decide who to support, and how vigorously, based on their expectations about possible outcomes; a coalition’s overall leaders attract allies by convincing them to expect good things from a victory. (Just in general, collective conflicts are analogous to auctions. The total sum of the rewards promised to all its members for their support is analogous to a coalition’s bid.) After a coalition wins, its members judge the leadership of the coalition against these expectations. Does the leader honor his promises and reward his followers for their loyalty, or does he ignore the bargains he had made? Is he able to deliver the results his followers expected, or is he hapless and mediocre? These questions arise because one of the easiest ways to assemble a large (and ergo powerful and victorious) coalition is by promising more pie than there are slices, or (stretching the metaphor) promising a bigger pie than any pan you have to bake with. If you promise more than you can deliver and then you lose no one gets any pie so its not a problem (everyone has seen The Producers, right?). But if you win, then you need to worry about whether you can deliver on your followers’ expectations, and/or what will happen when they find out you can’t.
It’s not just a coincidence that winners face accountability problems. Big promises buy strong coalitions; the strongest coalition is unlikely to be built on modest promises. (Remember, collective conflicts are like auctions. This is the winner’s curse.) The victorious leader need not renege on explicit promises to disappoint his followers. For one thing, since followers expect accountability problems (winner’s curse), there is strategic ambiguity between “promises” and “glowing rhetoric”. The leader can promise a specific prize, but grossly overestimate its value; he can promise a specific policy, but overestimate its effects. Leaders can grant permission to take some promised reward, without intervening between followers who have incompatible claims to the same reward. A (fortuitously) vague compromise solution to the rival claims of two different factions may turn out to be unacceptable to both sides when the leader gets ready to put the details into effect. Or (what often amounts to the same thing) a leader may only convince his factions to table the rivalry, and promise to let them square off against each other after the victory. — And in all of these examples I have, for the sake of simplicity, used the fiction that a “leader” promises rewards to his “followers”, but collective action problems are vastly more freewheeling than that! If N different factions have each agreed to band together on the basis of the promises/deals each faction has made with K other factions within the coalition, you may have a situation where every faction has sincerely promised to support a consistent, feasible distribution of the spoils, but there is still no plan that is consistent with the promises of all the factions, or even of a majority of the factions.
Once expectations are disappointed, the winning coalition is weakened. In the mildest scenario, the disappointed followers lose confidence in the rewards they’ve been promised in the future, and others learn from their example. In more dramatic cases, the disappointed may revolt and go over to the other side. Simmering resentments and open conflict over incompatible claims undermine the coalition’s ability to function smoothly going forward. Conversely, a leader may find that the only way to stick to the letter of his overly-ambitious promises is to free up resources via wasteful, short-sighted tactics, sacrificing the real potential of the victory in the face of overwhelming pressure for accountability from his followers.
Infighting, the final risk, can take many forms. When a coalition lets some of its members resolve a conflict competitively, that bleeds into private infighting; and when the bone of contention is something the coalition took control of during the larger conflict, that is a case of victory breeding infighting. In other cases, infighting is structural, in the sense that victory gives the victors new roles, new interests, and new grounds for conflict. An example of structural infighting would be when a governor rebels, deposes the king, and appoints his lieutenants as provincial governors, only to find one of these new governors rebelling a few years later. At the intersection of private infighting and structural infighting, you have the most common infighting of all: when fear of a common enemy is the main deterrent to conflict between two allies, so that the defeat or destruction of that enemy increases the salience of a previously latent or dormant rivalry. Call this positional infighting, since the changing position of the allies relative to their erstwhile enemy drives fighting within the alliance, or even the total collapse of the alliance. Winner-take-all dynamics are a particularly strong driver of positional infighting, since coalitions are likely to expand to take in any potential supporters while there is real uncertainty about the outcome, whereas after anything but the narrowest of victories the strength of the coalition will seem superfluous and everyone will have their own ideas about who to expel. Conflicts over a set of alternative outcomes where each faction only cares about some of the outcomes but not others breed positional infighting because many different combinations of coalitions are possible. Conflicts over issues which are a matter of degree breed positional infighting because the overwhelming majority of each coalition is happy to purge its moderates and adopt a more extreme as soon as it feels sufficiently powerful.
III. You skipped ahead, didn’t you?
The alt-right is organizationally powerful and intellectually vibrant because we disagree on an extraordinary number of things. I’ll say more on this some other time, but the only fundamental common thread is that we are realists, and we are willing to lose face by saying things that are obviously true but stigmatized as low-status. Infighting is inevitable unless we lose, but by the same token it’s completely pointless while we still have anything left to lose.
What makes sudden disunity confusing is that we having nothing worth infighting over yet. We all knew that even if Trump won, his administration would be far more shitlib and progressive than anything any of us could stomach. The same strategic imperative that demanded unity under the Obama regime demands unity under the Trump regime… with does not begin for another two months, anyway.
What we’re seeing isn’t true infighting. First, most rank-and-file alt-righters and sympathizers are exhausted. (And the celebration was as draining as the election itself.) The reach of the alt-right has been due to the particular focus, energy, and selflessness of its adherents, and as I discuss above, it’s natural for energetic contributors to a cause to collapse over the finish line and then rethink. Many are experiencing a sort of disorientation, heightened by the surgical strikes on our lines of communication in social media (which impedes communication and coordination, in addition to inflicting the normal demoralizing effects of a defeat) and by the hysterical noise coming from the rumor-mongers in the traditional media.
Then, mix into this exhaustion the distribution of the virtual spoils of war between the various carnival barkers whose personal brands organization different realms of alt-right activity. Let us be clear: as of this morning, Trump’s victory has produced only a few slender dividends that might benefit anyone in the real world. (Corporations readjusting their long-term plans in anticipation of Trump’s platform, mostly.) However, his victory and the shock that accompanied it has generated a great deal of attention and interest, and these eyeballs are valuable to people whose status and clout rests entirely on their personal brand. Ricky Vaughn (pbuh) was important because a lot of people followed him and a lot of people followed him because he was important. Brands and e-celebrities are the organizational equivalent, in an amorphous network, of a bar or a café. But each brand’s struggle for attention is entirely different from the struggle of the movement that the brands integrate. E-celebrities should strain to compete with one another, not because they represent fundamental conflicts between opposing factions of followers, but because the only way to ensure the continuing influence of our e-celebrities is make them whore for attention. The struggle for survival in a sickening puddle of attention-whoring culls all but the most memetically fit brands. Their victories over one another will rarely imply any superiority in substance or style; rather, they represent the routing of the neural architecture of the alt-right from less efficient foci to more efficient. As the number of highly influential, highly selected brands stabilizes, the conflicts between them will become more dazzling. It is more exciting to see a lion fight another lion than a rabbit. Accustomed to victory, the grizzled e-celebrities will bristle and roar and escalate the conflict, but in the end neither will prevail over the other; and this stability is, after all, precisely the value in subjecting your e-celebs to Darwinian competition.
As I said, these attention whores thrive on eyeballs (that is their special function!), so the attention the traditional media turned to Trump’s supporters on November 9 was the virtual equivalent of the sack of Rome. But was there any agreement drawn up beforehand about the division of these virtual spoils? Lol no. No one can agree on who founded the alt-right… or what “alt-right” means… or who’s in it… or who gets to say who’s in it. There was no way these e-celebs could have come even to a hazy, tacit agreement about how to take turns hogging the glory. There was a classic problem of accountability after the victory! Every attention whore had expectations about what share of the media attention he would deserve; now they learn what everyone else expected and they get to yelp and bicker.
And their audience, their poor audience, is in just a frazzled state of mind that many of them are mistaking cage-matches between e-celebrities over those sweet, sweet monthly impressions for reality. Be a spectator! Watch, savor! Let yourself be drawn into the orbit of the brands whose self-presentation is the most manipulative and effective. But don’t imagine for an instant that you are required to take sides between two attention whores. It would be like siding with one bar’s happy hour against against the dueling happy hour at the bar across the street.