On May 4, far right personalities Milo Yiannopoulos and Michelle Malkin published what they call their “America First” reading list as a Google Doc that they then promoted through their social media accounts. Yiannopoulos has recently gained attention for promoting conspiracy theories about both COVID-19 and the recent anti-police brutality protests across the United States. Malkin, who might be best known for writing a book arguing that Japanese internment during World War II was justified, has similarly promoted dangerous disinformation about COVID-19 and reduced Movement for Black Lives protesters to “invaders [and] ransackers.” None of this is out of character for a pair whose recommended reading list is rife with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, paranoid invasion fantasies, and at least one prominent fascist philosopher who explicitly denied the notion that he should rely on empirical evidence.
It might be tempting to dismiss the list as another stunt by attention-hungry provocateurs or an attempt to give a racist and misogynist worldview an intellectual veneer. However, it is worth paying attention to what their literary choices reveal about their ideology, the narratives that underpin it, and the connection between those narratives and real-world violence.
Defining American Literature
The first thing their list attempts to do is establish just what constitutes “American literature.” This holds true despite the fact that many of the titles were not written by Americans at all: the list’s creators are invested in defining the United States strictly as an outgrowth of pre-modern Europe, so it should come as no surprise that it includes older canonical texts by figures like Homer, Ovid, St. Augustine and Shakespeare in addition to Americana like Huckleberry Finn and Paul Revere’s Ride. The publication dates for most of its more modern literature by U.S. authors peter out by the early 1960s (Ray Bradbury’s 1963 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, for instance) with only a small handful of more recent novels, such as the self-published, remarkably poorly written 2019 accelerationist novel Harassment Architecture by Mike Ma.
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In a tab on the Google Doc marked “HOW TO READ,” Yiannopoulos and Malkin address their readers directly, writing, “The purpose of this list is to help you build a library that will give you a firm basis in history, politics, religion and theology.” That “firm basis” manages to exclude the entire wealth of Black and Indigenous perspectives. Their understanding of modern American literature leaves no room for a Toni Morrison or a Leslie Marmon Silko, and their classics certainly have no place for a Frederick Douglass or a W.E.B. DuBois. Instead, they opt for a virtual how-to manual for white resentment and violence.
Having established that what they understand as American literary culture is innately and almost exclusively derived from Europe, the next thing their list does is reassert the narratives of invasion, resistance and expansion that have fueled the far right imagination for decades. Possibly the list’s clearest example of an invasion narrative is recently deceased French author Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, a book Yiannopoulos and Malkin indicate is a “must read” and that has been championed by far right figures from Steve Bannon to leaders of Europe’s “identitarian” movement. The Camp tells of a ramshackle “armada” of boats carrying an undifferentiated mass of impoverished Indian migrants who literally eat feces and invade Europe like zombies, displacing its white inhabitants in the process. It begins with an anecdote about a pedigreed university professor who murders a young hippie for supporting the migrants (in 1973, it was still possible for the far right to characterize academics as upholders of Western superiority, rather than its destroyers). In fact, throughout the novel, the real villains are less the migrants than the media, political and religious elites, as well as the hedonistic activists who advocate for the nameless, faceless, brown-skinned horde. In all, the novel’s plot amounts to an updated stab-in-the-back myth.
Many on the far right have described the book as prophetic since a new wave of migrants began arriving on Europe’s Mediterranean shores in 2015 and renewed attention has been focused on undocumented immigration at the southern border of the United States since Donald Trump’s election campaign began that same year. Pat Buchanan, who recently used The Camp of the Saints as a metaphor for an article about Syrian migrants on the white nationalist website VDARE, has two titles on the reading list, one of which is another “must read”; VDARE founder and white nationalist Peter Brimelow has one title on the list as well.
In case all of that is still too subtle, invasion narratives also dovetail neatly with the “great replacement” theory that motivated, among other things, the mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019. Shooter Brenton Tarrant titled his manifesto The Great Replacement and wrote, “We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil.”
Over the past year, Yiannopoulos and Malkin have been working closely with the “groyper” movement, which is essentially an “alt-right” (white nationalist) rebrand since the old label became too toxic following the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. In fact, it is groyper-in-chief Nick Fuentes’s podcast that gave the movement — and the reading list — the “America First” slogan. (Fuentes, one of the “very fine people” who attended Unite the Right, borrowed the phrase from Donald Trump’s inauguration speech.) Groypers are a constituency already moved by the overheated rhetoric of invasion and replacement, and so attacking – or, as they would say, “resisting” – the classes of people they regard as responsible for facilitating the “invasion” is a logical next step.
The reading list includes both Italian fascist intellectual Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto Industrial Society and its Future, which Yiannopoulos and Malkin describe as a “rejection of the modern world.” Either one of these texts is toxic enough by itself, but in conjunction with one another, they amount to a further indication that the list provides both a theoretical rationale and a moral justification for violent attacks on such “modern” notions as democracy, egalitarianism, feminism and multiculturalism. Where Evola draws on a mythologized past of undiluted elitism and authoritarian, masculine heroism that, he argues, needs to be reclaimed (while explicitly rejecting any need for empirical evidence), Kaczynski, whose 17-year bombing campaign killed three people and injured 23 others, rails against a “leftist psychology” that he claims is symptomatic of a sick industrial society. Like many contemporary reactionaries, Kaczynski despises “political correctness,” which he says “has its stronghold among university professors.” Not coincidentally, it is university professors who were the most frequent targets of Kaczynski’s mail bombs.
The list also included more overt resistance narratives. It initially featured The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce (it has since been removed with no explanation given). The Turner Diaries is a novel about a clandestine movement of white men who use racialized terrorism and nuclear warfare to “take back” the United States from Jewish “usurpers” and what Pierce portrays as the mindless, sex-crazed Black and Latino men who act as their enforcers. Pierce was the leader of the militant white supremacist organization National Alliance and his novel inspired neo-Nazi terror group The Order, which was responsible for murdering talk radio host Alan Berg in 1984. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh evangelized the book, traveling to gun shows to sell it (and its sequel, Hunter) to like-minded people; his bombing attack on the Murrah Building closely resembled a similar act described in detail in Pierce’s text. Investigators found portions of it in his getaway car. Germany’s National Socialist Underground (NSU), which murdered 10 people and injured others in a years-long terror campaign against a mostly Turkish immigrant population, also took inspiration from The Turner Diaries: NSU member Uwe Mundlos translated several chapters of the book into German and a digital copy was found on a hard drive in an apartment Mundlos and his two primary accomplices had rented while underground.
The list also supports narratives of expansion, a central theme of “classical” fascism. It includes multiple titles that seek to “[set] the record straight about the Crusades,” a historical reference point that is ubiquitous in online far right discourse and invokes images of violent confrontation between Western warriors and Muslim “Saracens.” Moreover, the reading list and the compilers’ commentary constantly refer to a theme of Christian superiority and its inseparability from “Western” identity. They describe one “must read” title as explaining “why the noblest virtues all rest on Christian principles” and another as articulating “how the Christian Revolution forged the Western imagination.” At the same time, Willa Cather, the lone female author on the list who isn’t a post-civil rights-era right-wing polemicist, may well be a fine writer, but Yiannopoulos and Malkin summarize their interest in her books by emphasizing her focus on “the resilient women who settled the Great Plains.” By constantly emphasizing the heroism of the colonizer while completely excluding any voice of the colonized, they make it clear that a certain kind of invasion is, in fact, acceptable to them. In brief, the sum total of the outlook supported by these texts is a justification of all past (and, presumably, present and future) colonial efforts by “virtuous” Western Christians at the expense of whatever Other is at hand.
Anti-Semitism, Anti-Feminism, White Nationalism
The list is also heavy on anti-Semitic literature (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique, and yes, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, although the latter has also been removed without explanation); masculinist or anti-feminist texts (Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men or several titles by Camille Paglia); and overt white nationalist screeds by the likes of Jared Taylor, Vox Day and Ann Coulter. Yiannopoulos and Malkin’s commentary is revealing here. They acknowledge that the Protocols are a hoax, but they say nothing about why they felt a fraudulent text produced in Tsarist Russia should be included anyway. They describe Culture of Critique as a “highly controversial historical survey of the roots of anti-semitism [sic].” This is, at best, a grossly misleading summary. MacDonald’s book is not so much an exploration of why other people have turned on Jews in the past, but rather why he believes Jews should be hated. His focus on what he believes is Jewish culpability, rather than other people’s attitudes toward Jews, is evident right in the book’s subtitle: “An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements.” In fact, Culture is the final book of a trilogy and the subtitles of the other two, “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy” and “Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism” only emphasize MacDonald’s presumption that Jews are inherently, indeed genetically, predisposed to maintaining a subversive communal identity separate from whatever other populations they encounter. His analysis seldom rises above the level of condemning the “clannish” nature of international, cosmopolitan Jewry.
Yiannopoulos and Malkin have a history of brushing off claims of racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism by invoking their own genre of identity politics. Yiannopoulos could not possibly be anti-Semitic, because he is part Jewish; Malkin obviously cannot be misogynist because she is a woman. And neither of them could ever be racist because he claims he is married to a Black man (whose name he has never revealed and whose face has never been seen publicly) and she is Filipina and married to a Jewish man. Yiannopoulos, however, was banned from Twitter for leading a viciously racist and misogynist campaign against a Black actor and notoriously filmed singing America the Beautiful while his erstwhile friend Richard Spencer and others gave Nazi salutes. For her part, Malkin has openly supported anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and the white nationalist aspirations of the groyper movement.
One of the major tools of contemporary far right movements like the alt-right, Europe’s “identitarians,” and now the groypers is what they call “metapolitics.” It is a concept borrowed from mid-century Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci that was introduced to far right circles by Armin Mohler, a post-WWII German apologist for fascism, in a 1946 dissertation that codified what he called Germany’s interwar “Conservative Revolution.” The concept gained popularity in the European far right through the work of Mohler’s mentee Alain de Benoist and his notion of “right-wing Gramscianism.” De Benoist, the intellectual leader of France’s Nouvelle Droite (New Right), co-authored a “Manifesto of the New Right for the Year 2000,” which described metapolitics as, “not another way of doing politics. It has nothing to do with a ‘strategy’ that aims to impose an intellectual hegemony any more than it claims to disqualify other possible approaches or attitudes. It rests solely on the observation that ideas play a fundamental role in collective consciousnesses and, more broadly, in the entire history of men.” In practice, far right metapolitics is a process of using cultural means to make far right ideas more palatable, or what many of its practitioners refer to as shifting the “Overton window,” which represents the outer limits of acceptable discourse.
The “America First” reading list clearly falls within the metapolitical sphere. It is nothing if not an overt attempt to instill a very narrowly defined conception of “American” culture in the minds of a young, overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male constituency that is already predisposed to racialized and gendered resentment. As we have seen from Christchurch to El Paso, Oslo to Pittsburgh, their cohort is already prone to explosive and deadly violence.
It is possible to dismiss the “America First” reading list as just another manifestation of the far right echo chamber and the urge for people like Yiannopoulos and Malkin to keep drawing attention to themselves. However, it also provides useful insights into the mindset of their “groyper” constituency and related far right sects, as well as the pathways that lead from their exclusionary ideology to violent action. Three years after Unite the Right and in the midst of both a pandemic and a rapidly evolving push for anti-racist social and political change, understanding the process by which the far right propagates narratives of invasion, resistance and expansion in the interest of establishing its own sense of legitimacy is still a necessary precondition for effective opposition to their objectives.