Christopher Cantwell has a knack for getting himself noticed. The 36-year-old white supremacist with an internet radio show and a long history of violent rhetoric was one of the most visible figures at this past weekend’s #UniteTheRight rallies in Charlottesville.
The overgrown skinhead managed to thrust himself again and again into the center of the action, caught in one photo circulated on Twitter striking a dramatic pose as he sprayed anti-fascist counterprotesters with mace. He played a starring role in a Vice News mini-documentary on the event, helpfully providing the Vice crew with a never-ending supply of incendiary quotes. “We’re not nonviolent,” he declared at one point during the protests. “We’ll fucking kill these people if we have to.” In a later sit-down interview with Vice he coldly announced that the ISIS-style car attack that left activist Heather Heyer dead was “more than justified … I think a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here, frankly.”
Cantwell has not always been a figurehead of the alt-right. The Long Island native first gained notoriety as a cop-hating libertarian after moving to Keene, New Hampshire, in 2012 to take part in the the Free State Project, a quixotic political movement with the goal of turning the state into a haven for “free people.” He’s affixed various labels to himself over the years as his politics have transmogrified: anarchist, anarcho-capitalist, atheist, asshole. Perhaps the most revealing of his political past selves? Christopher Cantwell, men’s-rights activist.
During 2014 and 2015, Cantwell posted regular men’s-rights screeds to his blog on subjects ranging from Elliot Rodger’s murder spree to the reasons why men and women “are not, cannot, and should not be equals.” In one particularly overwrought post on “rape accusation culture” that was later republished on the then-popular men’s-rights site A Voice for Men, he warned fellow men of the alleged dangers of false accusations from vengeful women.
“No evidence necessary, just point your finger, ladies, and men will go to prison,” he declared. “Just say the word and their reputations and careers will be ruined. Simply bat your eyes at a policeman and he’ll snatch up any ex-boyfriend you feel jilted by.”
Cantwell is hardly the only alt-rightist with a past as a men’s-rights activist. Media gadfly, “sick Hillary” conspiracy theorist, and self-help guru Mike Cernovich was known for his men’s-rights talk before he turned to Trump and the alt-right — though he now claims to have broken with the movement. Canadian YouTube “philosopher” Stefan Molyneux declared himself an MRA long before he became a darling of the alt-right (and he recently conducted an interview with the author of that notorious Google memo, James Damore). Peter Tefft, a young man with a fashy hairdo who was famously disowned by his family after being outed as one of the torch-carrying marchers in Charlottesville, went through a men’s-rights phase before declaring himself a fascist, according to his nephew in an interview with CNN.
There are good reasons why men’s-rights activism has served for so many as a gateway drug to the alt-right: Both movements appeal to men with fantasies of violent, sometimes apocalyptic redemption — and, like Cantwell, a tendency to express these fantasies in bombastic prose. And both movements are based on a bizarro-world ideology in which those with the most power in contemporary society are the true victims of oppression.
In other words, if you can convince yourself that men are the primary victims of sexism, it’s not hard to convince yourself that whites are the primary victims of racism. And it’s similarly easy for members of both movements to see white men as the most oppressed snowflakes of all.
(This is not to say that men alone benefit from a white-supremacist ideology, or that men alone are responsible for the toxic doctrine. Women have a long history of involvement in the KKK and played a critical role in spreading the movement. )
Neo-Nazis rail endlessly about the danger of Western civilization — always defined as inherently white — being overrun with brown and black “savages,” and speak of the need to “physically remove” — that is, exile or simply murder — the nonwhite interlopers. Despite their violent fantasies — which sometimes lead to violent actions, as they did this past weekend — they see themselves as the victims, engaging in violence only to defend themselves and their race from destruction.
The men’s-rights movement indulges in similar fantasies. Several years back, A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam infamously suggested that “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” should be replaced with “Bash a Violent Bitch Month” in which “men who are being attacked and physically abused by women [can] beat the living shit out of them.”
Men’s-rights activists love to imagine apocalyptic scenarios in which this sort of retributive violence plays out on a global scale. In a comment on his own website, Elam warned feminists and other uppity women that “treating half the population, the stronger half at that, with too much continuing disregard is [not] a very good idea. Thinking they will never come out swinging is a stupid, stupid way to go.”
Both MRAs and alt-rightists are so adept at playing the victim that both groups have convinced themselves that they are oppressed by the mere presence of women in “male spaces” (in the case of MRAs) and nonwhite people in “white countries” (in the case of alt-rightists).
MRAs throw a fit whenever they discover women trying to set aside a place of their own — raging against such alleged oppression as women-only gyms — but they insist that their own “male spaces” should remain forever free of lady taint. Alt-rightists similarly rail against what they call “white genocide” — which doesn’t refer to the forcible ethnic cleansing of white people but rather to demographic changes rendering mostly white countries somewhat less white. They’re so acutely sensitive to the slightest hint of “white genocide” that they can be sent into paroxysms of indignation upon catching sight of diaper boxes festooned with pictures of nonwhite babies and ads for sweatpants featuring interracial couples.
The danger of both of these ideologies isn’t just that they’re both based on bizarro-world fantasies that bear little resemblance to reality. It’s also that, with Trump in the White House, they may have a chance to impose some of their bizarro-world logic on the rest of us. Let’s hope that reality prevails.