At the beginning of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015 the media quickly caught on to the incredible clickbait opportunity in front of them. The public fascination with Trump and his co-conspirators was a media money machine, and the Trump team continued to spout the kind of vile nonsense you simply couldn’t resist making fun of. Companies manufactured Trump toys, satirical books were published making fun of his -isms, Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair, and all the while the American populace and the world grew slowly accustomed to playfully hating this clownish candidate spewing hate and encouraging political violence.
The slow, insidious process of satirizing Trump in a commercially viable way – profiting off of his authoritarian views with the sale of thousands of tons of plastic garbage – did something incredibly dangerous: it made him palatable, through sheer force of exposure, to the point of being boring and tiresome, and we just wanted to look away.
In the post-Trump age, there’s no question that we have become avoidant; and like many coping mechanisms, avoidance is a behavioral contagion. We see other people do it and so we do it too, to protect our identity, our mental health, or even our sanity as we continue existing in a fundamentally unequal and largely cruel capitalist society. We have begun to view the far-right, like many of the evils in the world, through the lens of what tech and science writer David Pogue calls “pretraumatic stress” i.e. feeling devastated about something that hasn’t fully happened yet. It’s a depressing feeling – a constant worry that our political, cultural, financial, and climate systems are eroding and no higher authorities are doing anything about it. Gen Z and Gen Alpha, our youngest generations, are particularly affected by it, choosing climate change as the most important issue of their time and proving they understand that they will the ones to bear the brunt of the devastating impact of our environmental damage in particular.
It is nearly impossible for us at this point to continually consume and accept the amount of global, local, and personal tragedy in our lives, and, understandably, many of us have reached our capacity without knowing what to do. In my own experience, this has led to many people in my political bubble expressing their outrage about the state of the world without offering any solutions, simply as a way to confirm that we’re all feeling equally terrible about this situation.
So what do we do about it? How do we solve this problem? What is the solution to this worry? Ask a systems ecologist and they would say the answer to collapse is voluntary simplification, i.e. we need to stop using so many resources and return to a simpler way of living – one that uses far less resources and energy, also referred to as “downshifting.” This lifestyle choice is not meant to be a reduction in quality of life, but rather a way to live more peacefully while staving off the disaster that inevitably befalls societies that become too complex and have insufficient net energy to maintain that complexity (see: Roman Empire). This sort of downshifting also allows us to escape the worry machine (and often, apathy machine) that is the news cycle. It’s a way of re-adjusting our focus to our immediate surroundings and nurturing smaller agricultural communities that can become self-sustaining in the event of major collapse.
The problem with this is that the far-right understands this better than we do, and they know how to capitalize on it.
Our media’s frequent portrayal of far-right figures as – at best – misunderstood social media celebs, or – at worst – moronic, self-serving, meme-able characters (see: Maxime Bernier, Ted Cruz, etc.) often obscures the fact that the far-right is way ahead of us when it comes to using simplification as a political and social organizing tool to gain power. While capitalists continue to push for unsustainable growth in a resource-deficient environment, and the left prioritizes self-defeating political correctness in the face of apolitical issues like climate collapse, trying (admirably) to make our failing system more equitable rather than facing the fact that the system itself needs to be entirely refashioned for a new reality, many factions of the far-right have built their brand around escaping it all; slowing down, becoming homesteaders and (colonizing) stewards of the land in order to re-build the power and influence of the white population. These are necessary actions but done for all the wrong reasons. Many of them are climate collapse-deniers and their brand of simplification is just another way of furthering their racist and anti-Semitic agenda.
Far-right simplification often manifests itself as accelerationism, an “anti-ideology” embraced by the far-right which seeks to undermine the current failing systems and speed up the collapse of society in order to bring about a far-right utopia (usually preceded in their cosmology by a race war.) In July of 2021, I published an article with Political Research Associates speculating that conservative Gen Z women were being pushed towards accelerationism for this very reason – embracing anti-feminist and far-right rhetoric as a way to survive, and even flourish, as housewives in this accelerationist fantasy of a post-collapse, far-right paradise.
Right-wing extremist Telegram channels and Twitter accounts are constantly posting survival tips, farming strategies, and information on building local communities to create support systems for collapse. They post memes about returning to barter systems and escaping capitalism and living a more simplistic lifestyle. They’ve tapped into our zeitgeist worry about collapse and they’re busy providing their brand of solutions rather than catastrophizing.
Memes and images taken from various accelerationist far-right Telegram channels
For vulnerable, grieving kids scared of their own futures, the far-right is offering a helping hand and promising a supportive community that will nurture them and give them the tools to survive. In short, in the face of oncoming collapse, we’re not offering our own youth a viable alternative to being radicalized.
Many of us on the left don’t understand the depth of Gen Z’s fear about collapse, and we fail to treat their concerns as though they’re serious. We continue to support parties that politicize human rights like abortion healthcare to fundraise for personal gain, and we don’t value practical skills as much as we used to. We need to co-opt the far-right prepper strategy and offer people who are scared an off-ramp from complexity back to simplicity. The far-right has a fairly less nuanced understanding of collapse (and certainly a more racist and misogynist one) so let’s sell what they’re selling, but better. Let’s teach kids how to garden, how to support their local communities and be self-sufficient, but do it through a progressive lens. Teach them that it’s okay to grieve and be afraid for the state of the world, and that there are healthier outlets than violence and rage, like collective action and group support. Groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters already provide similar mentoring programs for young people that connect them to their own community and teach them how to be connected to nature. The infrastructure already exists to help our own, we just need to use it.
One of our goals at CIFRS is to create programs for high school-aged kids to learn about the process of radicalization, how it happens and how to avoid it, presenting alternatives and local groups that help with youth empowerment and education. I’m 28 years old and I grew up watching documentaries like an Inconvenient Truth which told me my life would be unavoidably worsened by the disastrous effects of climate change and the resulting collapse, and I was never given the tools to do anything about it.
We don’t have to repeat the failures of our own education, and we don’t have to constantly consume the bad news that we are fed that perpetuate this cycle of hopelessness. We as young people can band together to give ourselves a safe off-ramp to simplifying our lives so that our kids can follow our lead. Whether that’s by diverting federal anti-terrorism funds that back privacy-invading technology corporations and redirect it to youth support groups, or running media campaigns that re-prioritize agricultural education, we can decide for ourselves now. CIFRS will always be here to support those struggling with the symptoms of collapse, and as we move forward, to help as many young people as we can to find a better and simpler path to the future.