In September, the former darling of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopoulos, used the messaging app Telegram to complain to his followers that he was “talking to the same 1,000 people, none of whom buy books, tickets or anything or donate” and that he “can’t put food on the table that way.” A case can be made that Yiannopoulos’ complaints display a bitterness at his shrinking audience and a diminished reach, following a period of relative fame as the alt-right’s “charismatic bad boy.”
The main complaint Yiannopoulos is making, however, is that he is not creating enough revenue to financially keep afloat. Like other alt-right figureheads, he apparently relies on donations. Requests for donations are common across the far-right web. And while far-right personalities are not the only people asking for donations online, the constant, public referral to one’s financial troubles is recurring.
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Within the far-right, requests for money include crowdfunding via donations through sites like Patreon, the constant reiterations by InfoWars host Alex Jones to buy his products and lengthy, emotional YouTube videos made by far-right activists and media personalities.
For a Few Dollars More
Begging for money is a well-known device of far-right agitators, and it by far exceeds the simple request to donate a few dollars every once in a while. Constant begging is not an indicator of mere grifting but has a number of different functions and benefits. For one, if people pay money for something instead of getting it for free, they tend to ascribe a higher value to it. So, besides the obvious benefit of generating revenue, the increased commitment of followers to figureheads alone could justify the permanent request for donations.
It stands to reason, however, that repeated and personal requests for money transcends this aim. To shine a light on today’s far-right media personalities’ strategies, it helps to look at their ideological ancestors.
In the late 1930s, Theodor Adorno wrote in “The Psychological Technique of Thomas’ Radio Addresses” about the Christian fundamentalist Martin Luther Thomas. Adorno described the psychological “tricks” Thomas employed for his political, personal and financial gains. While a few of the devices seem like common rhetoric, such as referencing the “good old times,” some of them are rather unusual. One of these is what Adorno calls “the great little man” device.
The great little man is “both weak and strong: weak insofar as each member of the crowd is convinced as being capable of identifying himself with the leader who, therefore, must not be superior to the follower; strong insofar as he represents the powerful collectivity which is achieved through the unification of those whom he addresses.”
Requesting money, or begging, as Adorno puts it, is an important tool to construct this image: Financial worries are relatable to most people. Raising the issue of financial struggles — in Yiannopoulos’ case that he allegedly cannot put food on the table — is part of this great little man strategy. Adorno writes about Thomas: “the way in which he discusses money with them is rather unusual. No consideration of dignity inhibits him from asking for money again and again … All his speeches are interspersed with whining and pointedly shameless appeals for funds; one may say that he plays the beggar.”
This, of course, contradicts the usual image as a leader that far-right figureheads often seek to convey. Yiannopoulos combines this begging attitude with personal disappointment in his followers who “don’t buy books and tickets” and have thus failed him.
Part of the Performance
Yiannopoulos is by far not the only alt-right personality to use this strategy in his social media appearances. Richard Spencer, the most prominent figure of the alt-right, published a video requesting money for a legal fund for himself. These donations would help fund the lawsuit resulting from the deadly Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in August 2017.
Likewise, Christopher Cantwell, depicted in a Vice documentary about the rally, begged for money in the aftermath of the event. Cantwell, often mockingly referred to as “the crying Nazi,” embodies the great little man in the performance which brought about his nickname. His crying is not a break in the performance, but a crucial part of it.
Adorno describes several other strategies that are tied in with the great little man device. For example, there is the “indefatigability device,” or claiming that the great little man works tirelessly for the cause, and that the opposition “never stops,” or the “prosecuted innocence” device — claiming to have done no harm and yet being prosecuted by foes regardless.
What all of these methods have in common, and which make the great little man device quite effective, is the “mixture of pettiness and grandeur,” a combination commonly found throughout the far-right, where a sense of superiority (or supremacy) goes hand in hand with victim narratives. With these “great little men” making prominent comebacks, being aware of its implications and effectiveness is crucial for understanding far-right online culture.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.