This post from last month drew a lot of responses, mostly from people who did not want to go along with the conclusions. Someone made a 20-minute response to it on YouTube, making what they call the defense of the big tent. In light of the recent controversy over Nick Fuentes getting banished from YouTube, it is a good time to revisit the whole issue and the topics that surround it. Fuentes is probably the best known purveyor of the good optics argument, so that is highly relevant to this.
For starters and to clarify a few things, the creator of that YouTube response makes some mistakes that are common in these discussions. The first one is to frame the issue as between a big tent and presumably a smaller tent. That was not the point of the column and that is not the issue at hand. One can have a broad-based movement that also excludes people who think they are Roman emperors. Even the biggest of big tent claims have limits on what is and what is not accepted.
The second claim is to conflate the term dissident right with other sub-cultures that may or may not have claims to being right-wing. It is a form of binary thinking to define right-wing as anything not tolerated by the Left. The goat blood drinking pagans calling themselves Roman emperors may not be liked by the Left, but that does not automatically qualify them as dissidents or even right-wing. The left is not all that fond of scientists these days, but most scientists are not right-wing.
Then there is the use of the term dissident. In a generic sense, sure, lots of people would fall under the definition. Anti-Semites, for example, are in dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy on antisemitism. That’s most certainly true. Would that put them in the same club as someone like John Derbyshire, the guy who coined the term dissident right twenty years ago? How about Steve Sailer? Calling all of these people dissidents is as useful as calling them mammals.
The fact is, what distinguishes the dissident right from the conventional right is not just opinions on the human condition and biological reality. What ultimately divides the two camps is the lack of ideology among the dissident right. It is the old Russell Kirk observation about Right and Left. Conservatism is not a set of ideologies, but the rejection of ideology. Conventional conservatism has embraced the Left’s ideological views on human nature, which is the roots of the dissent among the dissident right.
This divide also exists within dissident circles. Anti-Semites, ethno-statists, fascists, third positionists and so on are ideologues. The root of their dissent is they have a different vision of the model society from prevailing orthodoxy. Similarly, they are never in doubt about the possibility of it. Like the Left, to quote Kirk, “they see politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society.” That is an important difference between them and the dissident right.
Now, in the YouTube clip, the narrator makes some of the common claims about optics and “punching right” that are popular in certain parts of dissident politics. For example, he claims early on that the alt-right was ruined by the media, who highlighted weirdos and lunatics in their coverage. In reality, the alt-right was doomed when the face of it became a narcissistic dilettante, incapable of organizing a one car funeral. A serious movement never would have tolerated Spencer as the leader.
The whole Spencer fiasco puts the lie to the claims by some that optics are unimportant in their politics. The sole reason Spencer rose to become the face of the alt-right is he looked good on camera. He presented an appealing face to the cause, so he quickly became the face of it. The reason why some of his former followers stick with him is they think he makes their cause look good. It is nothing more than a coping strategy to pretend appearances don’t matter. They always matter.
Another point that needs emphasis is that the whole “no punch right” business was the creation of people trying to sneak into more legitimate politics. You never hear this from people who can function among normal people, despite holding heretical views. It was the dubious claim that a right-wing movement cannot have legitimacy unless it is tolerant of people who have not updated their views since the 60’s. It was, in the end, an effort to co-opt dissident politics by the 1.0 crowd.
Then there is the issue of taboos, which is raised at about the ten minute mark of that YouTube clip linked above. Unsaid, but implied, is the claim that excluding certain people from dissident politics reinforces left-wing taboos on certain opinions. The claim is that excluding people, who are bad for the image of the group, automatically gives legitimacy to the left, by reinforcing left-wing taboos. In other words, trying to present a good image is playing by the Left’s rules on politics.
This is the error of all reactionaries. Instead of developing an internal logic that naturally results in a set of rules and standards, the reactionary simply responds to what he perceives to be his opponent. To be a reactionary in a society run by ideologues is to be a rebel without a cause. Whatever the people in charge of for, the rebel is against and whatever is taboo, the rebel embraces. The modern reactionary is someone who puts a leash around his neck and hands the other end to his opponent.
It also relates to the optics debate this way. Imagine a society that has been ideologically tuned to associate the color purple with heresy. There are regular ceremonies where the bad people are dressed in purple and defeated by the good people. To go around wearing purple would certainly challenge the taboo, but it would also convince most people you are nuts. Unless you have the power to dispel the taboo, breaking them just gives the people with power the chance to reinforce that taboo.
The irony of the reactionary is that ultimately, he embraces the core starting point of all ideologues and that is the binary universe. The ideologue sees the world as white hats versus black hats, good guys versus bad guys. You are either inside the walls with the good people or outside the walls with the bad people. Those taboo breaking reactionaries, with their disdain for optics, embrace the same view. You either break the taboos or you must embrace them. There is no middle ground.
This is why reactionaries fail. Most of life is in the vast middle ground of exceptions, conditions and contradictions. Most people get that. They get that politics is always about trade-offs, half-measures and compromise. You don’t win them over by being as fanatical as the people you oppose. You win them over by juxtaposing your apparent reasonableness against the fanaticism of the prevailing order. You do that by making concessions to their morality. You don’t wear purple.¹
There is the final point worth making here. Those who deny the value of presentation always say, “The Left is going to demonize you anyway.” They mistakenly think optics and presentation are about winning over the Left or abiding by their rules. Again, this is the mind of the reactionary. Good presentations and subtle compromises to convention are about winning over the vast middle. The point of politics is about controlling the field between the various sides.
Yes, the Left will call us Nazis and fascists no matter what we do, but that can only be turned to our favor if it looks absurd. Spencer was easily demonized because he embraced the role of prep school Nazi. Nick Fuentes is not so easily demonized, because he reminds most white people of their kids or grand-kids. He may be a smart-alecky twerp at times, but calling him a Nazi violates bourgeois sensibilities. To put it another way, it is very bad optics for the Left.
Politics is always about keeping the ends in mind and making the necessary compromises to further those ends. Politics is a means to an end. Ideologues always fall into the trap of thinking politics is an end in itself, which is why ideological states are always unstable and usually short lived. Successful outsider politics has to be practical in its application in order to win ground in the vast area that is always up for grabs between the orthodoxy and those challenging it.
¹Anticipating the response from certain circles, the Nazis winning the street battles with the Bolsheviks in Weimar Germany is an exception, not the rule. The middle had collapsed in Weimar Germany, along with the old ruling order. The Right and left, as understood at the time, were not fighting to win over their fellow Germans. They were fighting to fill the power vacuum that resulted from the collapse of the middle.
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