Radical right movements are typically defined by—and understood through—their ideological platforms and rhetoric. Sometimes overlooked, aesthetics are surprisingly central to modern radical right movements, whose leaders often extol the virtues of physical fitness and a polished public image. Radical right parties don’t merely envision a set of political positions and policies, in other words—but also a national citizenry who literally embodies and displays the national self as the radical right imagines it.
The historical evidence on this is abundantly clear: from the National Socialists’ mass murder of asylum patients and their obsession with white skin, purity, and racist eugenics to the Ku Klux Klan’s early adoption of stilts under robes to make them appear taller, extreme attention to the body has long been part and parcel of the historical legacy of white supremacist and radical right movements. Yet this fixation on the body is more than just a historical feature of the radical right: it has also emerged as a foundational principle of today’s radical right extremist self-conception and subcultures.
Physical bodies are key to radical right movements for three reasons. First, bodies are obvious sites for regulation and discipline. Second, they are places to visually express rebellion and resistance against the mainstream. And third, focusing upon physical bodies helps cement radical right activists’ us-versus-them thinking, contrasting who belongs to the polity with who purportedly does not.
The Body as a Site of Regulation and Resistance
In the days leading up to the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally in August 2017, the neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin issued an announcement on his website, The Daily Stormer, urging his followers to dress in appealing, sexy and hip ways. As VICE journalist Allie Conti reported, Anglin argued that physical appearance is more important than ideology, noting that self-presentation “matters more than our ideas”, while urging radical right activists to “go to the gym” and stay physically fit. “Fat people,” he argues, “should be allowed to join groups and be involved in rallies,” but only if they commit to burn fat and losing some weight: “continued obesity should not be tolerated.”
Physical fitness was thus depicted by a leader of the ‘alt-right’ as reflective of a commitment to the movement, and to representing it in self-consciously aesthetic ways. This is why a new American clothing brand produced, by and for the radical right, offers to sponsor athletes; as a way, they explain, of ensuring the movement has youth who are equipped not only with the mental but also the physical capacity for future leadership. Youth deemed especially promising can even have their local gym membership paid—preferably at gyms focused on martial arts and fighting: jiu-jitsu, boxing, wrestling, and body building.
The radical right’s focus on toned physique and muscular power has also been clearly linked to idealized notions of masculinity and how muscular manhood is seen as reflecting moral virtues like willpower, decisiveness, and courage. Perfectly-sculpted (typically male) figures, in other words, represent more than bodies to the radical right—they symbolize national strength, virility, and manliness.
These physical and moral ideals are contrasted with the perceived softness, femininity or degeneracy of the liberal left. “Be a man, not a [snowflake symbol],” commands one U.S. t-shirt produced for radical right consumers (‘snowflake’ is a pejorative term lobbied against liberals by conservative and radical right). This kind of coaching, direct instruction and peer pressure is reflected in radical right movements’ obsession with appearance and discipline.
Bodies are not only sites of regulation in radical right movements; however, they are also places to resist and rebel, particularly for young people. Indeed, as the scholars Niall Richardson and Adam Locks have argued, the earliest acts of teenage rebellion often manifest through the body, through hair dye, piercings, or tattoos. Such acts of transgression, they argue, help young people to challenge the establishment’s social rules or “boundaries of propriety.”
Perhaps the radical right’s increasing use of coded symbols, clever iconography and secret and overt messaging on clothing is an even easier way of expressing resistance than more permanent forms of body modification. T-shirts, in this sense, can act like a walking billboard, sending direct messages though everyday encounters. One US clothing distributor selling t-shirts with radical right messaging instructs potential consumers on their website to let t-shirts and hoodies express ideology in a “non-verbal” way. The quasi-uniform of clean-cut khaki pants and white polo shirts seen among the white supremacist marchers in the Charlottesville rally, in a similar way, signaled an effort to normalize and mainstream the movement’s messaging through a clean-cut, business-casual aesthetic.
What’s wrong with paying attention to the body, or physical fitness? On its own, not much. But when linked to political platforms, campaign rhetoric and marketing text that juxtapose the ‘healthy’ radical right with a ‘degenerate’ left, which dehumanize immigrants, depict Mexicans as rapists or Muslims and Jews as sub-human (e.g., through cartoons of rats and other animals), the radical right body becomes linked to notions of purity, goodness, and the protection of (white) women’s bodies.
The flip side of that is exterminating perceived ‘degeneracy’.
Non-white bodies, moreover, become the site for physical violence and attacks. The recent “punish a Muslim” day in Britain, which proposed a point system for attacks against Muslims, focused heavily upon attacks against the body: throwing acid, pulling off a hijab, and “butchering a Muslim using a gun, knife, vehicle… or otherwise.”
For those of us working to find better pathways to reach at-risk youth, understanding the ways that radical right groups recruit and socialize youth – in ways that go well beyond rhetoric and ideas – is crucial. Strict guidelines for physical appearance, for example, might offer a sense of predictability and structure, clarity, concrete steps for betterment, and a pathway to belonging and identity based upon physical features. Such strategies may have particular appeal for individuals who feel unmoored, disenfranchised, or lack a sense of clear purpose. Further research into whether and how a fixation on physical fitness and the body might intersect with other issues that can make youth vulnerable to radical right rhetoric would be very useful.
Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Professor of Education and Sociology at the American University in Washington, D.C. See her profile at:
© Cynthia Miller-Idriss. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).