Last week, BuzzFeed published a story about Katie McHugh, a former Breitbart staffer and white nationalist provocateur who now renounces the alt-right. McHugh is a minor but instructive figure. She disproves the distinctions between conservatism and Trumpism and embodies the naive desire among liberals to see President Donald Trump’s moment graciously undo itself. She even dares the reader to doubt a reformed troll’s sincerity. During the past three years, the alt-right and its noisiest proponents, including McHugh, have been routinely disgraced, deplatformed, and demoralized—but never quite defeated. Trump’s presidency endures as the peak achievement while many of the alt-right showboats who accompanied the president’s rise have fallen into obscurity, absurdity, or else a kind of repentance.
McHugh’s story reveals an emptiness at every phase of the conservative movement in this decade. The movement offers McHugh nothing more than social promotions in the culture war and then leaves her struggling to pay for diabetes medication. BuzzFeed reporter Rosie Gray finds McHugh in the wake of some personal disasters—chiefly, a tumultuous romance that ends with police reports—which derailed McHugh’s otherwise successful career as a journalist working for The Daily Caller, Breitbart, GotNews, and WorldNetDaily. Through McHugh’s professional trajectory, Gray maps a pipeline that originates in mainstream conservative politics and delivers her subject to white nationalism and other right-wing quackery. Gray describes McHugh as “unemployable in the career field she chose—even on its fringes.” Having exited professional politics altogether, McHugh concluded her right-wing infamy with a whimper.
McHugh’s story is most interesting for all that goes unsaid about the conservative pundit’s life after the alt-right. Strangely, Gray denies the reader any firm grasp of her current political thinking. She never describes her revised political outlook, which may well resemble the conservatism that delivered McHugh to white nationalism in the first place. She says she does much less trolling these days, and so this shift appears to be the main transformation in her convictions. The antidote to her alt-right mode isn’t progressivism or even moderation, but rather sincerity. McHugh leans on St. Augustine, whose writings rescued her from white nationalism as well as paganism. In search of redemption, McHugh’s story calls to mind former BuzzFeed staffer Tim Gionet, a.k.a. Baked Alaska, who aligned with Trump and Milo Yiannopolous during the 2016 presidential election only to repent his alt-right prominence. “It’s been terrible for my employment opportunities, my reputation,” Gionet said in March, articulating the most cynical rationale for abandoning the alt-right punditry. McHugh’s warning to alt-right climbers, “Get out while you can,” is as banal as stock market advice.
Glenn Beck—the right’s most unbearably sincere pundit—has spent the Trump years in vacillation, a right-wing troll and a born-again moderate, most recently shifting back in favor of Trump. The major alt-right figureheads have entered post-prominence. White nationalist activist Richard Spencer now trolls in obscurity. So, too, does former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. On Thursday, Facebook banned several prominent reactionaries, including Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones. The two right-wing figureheads have struggled in the past year to survive the left-wing campaigns to get them banned from the major social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Belatedly, they follow the example set by Chuck Johnson, the original right-wing social martyr whom Twitter banned four years ago. Johnson ran his own right-wing news website, GotNews, after his Twitter ban, but he never quite rivaled Breitbart and The Daily Caller in success. Two weeks ago, GotNews filed for bankruptcy protection. YouTube banned Infowars nine months ago, and Infowars has yet to adapt or recover. They are stalled, and yet they are unapologetic. Johnson, Jones, and Yiannopoulos haven’t reconfigured themselves in order to reenter the mainstream. They are disavowed, and, more notably, deplatformed. But they nonetheless represent the right’s dominant grievances in the culture wars.
The mainstream political factions—conservatives, centrists, and liberals—have all spent the Trump years agonizing about the fate of white voters. No one can agree. Certain members of these factions describe left-wing identity politics as unreasonably hostile to white people and counterproductive in general. The campus activism is illiberal, they say, and the privilege discourse is illegible. The right appeals to white people if only because the left despises them so explicitly. The right doesn’t just blame the left for the general state of politics. The right blames the left for the sad state of the right. There’s little honest accounting for the intellectual integrity of conservatism, a 250-year-old tradition that has disintegrated into a series of nativist rallies, conspiracy theories, and trolling.
McHugh found sincerity. But she does not seem to have found a stable political home. Without stable employment, McHugh now struggles to afford her diabetes medication. The left does, in fact, host a great variety of conversations about health care, universal basic income, and employee protections—measures that might benefit even the most problematic white woman, such as McHugh, regardless of whether the left trusts her redemption arc. The right offered her the opportunity to troll until it could offer her nothing else. McHugh is the story of conservatism at the height of its power in this century. Not the alt-right, conservatism. The message stands: Get out while you can.