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The Death of Fascist Irony

What the Christchurch mass shooter's manifesto reveals about the way jokes and memes are used on the racist right

Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images

In the rush of initial reportage that followed the horrific slaughter last week of 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, a document surfaced that purported to be the manifesto of the alleged murderer. Thousands of journalists across the globe tore into its contents, seeking the causes behind the slaughter. The manifesto was littered with memes gleaned from the white-supremacist internet, and some journalists urged colleagues not steeped in the argot of that subculture to tread cautiously. Kevin Roose, a veteran of the deeps of the internet, called the manifesto “a booby trap, a joke designed to ensnare unsuspecting people and members of the media into taking it too literally.”  The murders, he said, were “produced entirely within the irony-soaked discourse of modern extremism.”

This analysis was echoed by the venerable internet forensics analysts at Bellingcat: “This manifesto is a trap itself, laid for journalists searching for meaning behind this horrific crime,” wrote Robert Evans. “The entire manifesto is dotted, liberally, with references to memes and internet in-jokes that only the extremely online would get.”

It’s true that the manifesto contained references to memes that would have been familiar to the murderer’s online compatriots. The alleged killer, 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, claimed that “Spyro the dragon 3 taught me ethno-nationalism”—an ironic reference to a wholesome game about a purple dragon. In claiming that Candace Owens, a conservative commentator for far-right student group Turning Point USA, helped to teach him “violence over meekness,” he was probably not being serious; rather, he was seeking to capitalize on tensions between that group and both the far-right and left.

It’s tempting to treat Tarrant’s story as a cautionary tale of irony gone too far—until even life and death are a joke, to be viewed at a numb remove. It’s tempting to tell a story of a warped humor that grows edgier and edgier, more and more offensive, until its practitioners fall off the edge, into real racism and real violence. It’s tempting, in other words, to emphasize the online elements of the attack—to posit that a sick internet culture has combined with fascist thought to produce a hybrid more monstrous than anything we’ve seen before.

But besides the document’s winks at the slang-riddled discussions of far-right message boards, the manifesto is far from ironic. In fact, for much of its eighty-odd pages, it is a deadly serious screed, promulgating some of white power’s grounding myths and showcasing its most violent consequences. What it reveals is a familiar enemy that, for entirely pragmatic and propagandistic reasons, has dressed itself up in memetic ephemera.

Much of the manifesto—which begins with the line, “It’s the birthrates,” repeated three times—is fixated on reproduction, a classic preoccupation of white supremacist ideology. The author writes about his fear and rage at the thought of “invaders”—anyone nonwhite, but particularly Muslims—outbreeding “Europeans.” He claims, baselessly, that Muslims have preternaturally high birth-rates, and that the disparity between white and nonwhite births will lead to the crisis named in the manifesto’s title: the “Great Replacement,” an ethnic, cultural, and racial erasure. The theory was promulgated by the French racist ideologue Renaud Camus in a 2012 book of the same name; since then, it has spread through an international network of white supremacists.

From its very first page, the manifesto proclaims its ideology in screaming capital letters: “THIS IS WHITE GENOCIDE.” The text crawls with references to historical events and personages glorified by white supremacists, from the Crusades to the Roman emperor Elagabalus. The killer claimed to have been radicalized by the 2017 death of the young Swedish girl Ebba Åkerlund, whose murder by an Uzbek migrant was covered extensively in the far-right press. And the text is sandwiched between images of the Sonnenrad, or Black Sun, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as “one of a number of ancient European symbols appropriated by the Nazis in their attempt to invent an idealized ‘Aryan/Norse’ heritage.”

Throughout the text, it’s clear that the cultural touchstones Tarrant finds most evocative aren’t the fleeting, satire-laced symbols that typify the alt-right, such as Pepe, a cartoon frog adopted by neo-fascists as a satirical mascot. Instead, Tarrant exalts the pure-white past white supremacists have conjured up for Europe, and evokes the maudlin myths of nationalist agitprop. Europe, in his estimation, was once filled with noble white men fighting swarthy interlopers, from Medieval battles against Saracens to the 1683 Turkish siege of Vienna.* The manifesto incorporates poems by Rudyard Kipling and Dylan Thomas. At points, its syntax soars into a kind of faux-Romantic prose: “Accept death,” he advises his audience, “it is as certain as the setting of the sun at evenfall.”

Tarrant was also deeply immersed in the coarser rhetoric of the anonymous message boards 4chan and 8chan, and other online havens of white-supremacist sentiment. In the 8chan post that contained links to both the manifesto and a Facebook livestream of the killings, he wrote: “Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and make a real-life effort post.” (“Shitposting,” in internet-culture slang, is essentially making a ruckus online for the sake of making a ruckus, flooding message boards or social media with low-quality content.) The image he used to accompany his post was a long-circulating 4chan meme depicting an overly online Australian. And his war cry, before opening fire on worshipers, was a reference to a mega-popular YouTuber who goes by PewDiePie.

In Tarrant’s world, two codes—of racist memes and romantic racist ideology, of viral YouTube videos and high-minded nativist myth—intermingle until they are indistinguishable. These two syntaxes coexist in Tarrant’s manifesto, his actions, and even his gun, on which he painted both a reference to the Battle of Tours in 732, in which a Frankish king conquered Spanish Muslim invaders, and “Remove Kebab,” a viral anti-Muslim music video of Serbian origin. There is no ready way to unbraid the former from the latter, because the distance from Pepe the Frog to the ancient Celtic Sonnenrad has been closed.

Tarrant explains their connection himself. “Whilst we may use edgy humour and memes in the vanguard stage, and to attract a young audience, eventually we will need to show the reality of our thoughts and our more serious intents and wishes for the future,” he writes. This is not the first time the playbook of the online far-right has been laid bare, in particular its use of edgy, provocative humor to draw in young audiences who might be alienated by dense ideological screeds. In 2017, HuffPost journalist Ashley Feinberg published the style handbook of the Daily Stormer, an infamous and prominent neo-Nazi website. The style guide mandated a “humorous, snarky style” and noted that “genuine raging vitriol” was a “turnoff.” “The tone of the site should be light,” wrote its founder, Andrew Anglin. “This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.”

Two years later, and the “neither here nor there” of white supremacy is everywhere, in mosques, in synagogues, in black churches, in cities overrun by fascist marches. To hammer home the point, a handcuffed Tarrant, in the most widespread picture of him to date, flashed the “OK” sign toward the cameras—a hand signal that has been adopted by white supremacists, but remains common enough outside that subculture that those who use it can retain a winking plausible deniability. It’s perhaps the purest expression of the white-supremacist in-group mentality: For those who understand it, it is an evident sign of affiliation; to all others who protest it, it is a joke. But the joke, in the end, is that there is no joke. The sensibility of the edgelord—who pushes the boundaries of offensive humor—is really one long tumble into the abyss.

*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Turkish siege of Vienna occurred in 1863. We regret the error.