I bought a fidget spinner.
I read about them. I laughed. I briefly thought about what kind of garbage toys we were giving our children. These things must be bad for them. I didn't take them seriously at all. I immediately dismissed them.
One day I was in a supermarket. There were a bunch of fidget spinners in a box. I glanced at them and laughed. One was emblazoned with an American flag motif.
I had to have it. It was too funny.
Besides, I guess it seemed pretty neat. Even if it ended up I didn't like it, I could joke about it with my friends. "I swear, I only loved this fidget spinner ironically! I would never earnestly enjoy it!"
A funny thing happened. It's oddly satisfying to have it sit on the tip of your finger while it is spinning. It gets rid of energy that you'd normally get rid of tapping or picking at a scab. Imagine a tackier version of a little Zen rock garden kit, with far less orientalist cachet. Perhaps I wanted to like this thing, but I was afraid of what people would think of me. Let's face it, nobody likes fidget spinners.
For some people, my fidget spinner is the Alt-Right. It's something they want to like, but it is not acceptable to most people they know. At the very least, you'll be laughed at. You won't be spoken to in polite company.
The Overton window (basically "the range of ideas the public will accept") has not shifted enough for people to overtly accept Alt-Right beliefs. Instead, they have to like it "ironically" before they can really like it. The "Alt-Lite" (e.g. Gavin McInnes & the Proud Boys, Baked Alaska, Paul Joseph Watson and Kyle Chapman) is a wonderful gateway for this. Framed around issues of free-speech and overly sensitive opponents that can be trolled "ironically" with racist and hateful speech or actions, it's easy to start participating as if it is just a lark. You don't have to admit, just yet, that you honestly like your fidget spinner. You don't really mean it... but maybe it's kind of neat in some ways, ya' know?
I used to think we could all debate. We're rational folks. In the end, good ideas will win out and bad ideas such as genocide, homophobia and racism lose out. All we have to do is have a discussion. The malevolent actors will be shown to have bad and evil ideas.
I was wrong. All this does is widen the Overton window for the far-right.
I assumed people tend to argue in good faith, but they don't. People engage in battles of rhetoric and sophistry. There are no real battles of ideas. There are only battles of identity.
If you grew up in a rural, southern, conservative area and have an identity that requires that you take pride in the Confederate flag and believe in less regulation of firearms, you can't support any opposing ideas. This threatens your idea of who you are. You wouldn't be a true southerner anymore. If you grew up with the identity of a New York City liberal, you are certainly not going to accept any merging of church and state or abridging the free speech of anyone, even Neo-Nazis. If you did, you would feel like you're losing your identity as a liberal.
The far right's best hope for new recruits is to widen the Overton window while you debate them in good faith. They'll engage in sophistry and rhetoric that, they hope, will make you look foolish while inspiring folks who might be interested in a swastika-shaped fidget spinner to pick one up.
They'll tell you it's not actually a Nazi flag design on their fidget spinner — it's actually the flag of Kekistan, an imaginary nation that pokes fun at social justice warriors. Can't we all admit that they have gone a little too far? Of course, we would never advocate genocide, and we aren't white supremacists — we are simply white identitarians. Black people have "Black Pride Month," why can't we have "White Pride Month?"
This is how the Overton window shifts. You can't debate them. You have to deny them a forum. You have to be the group that makes it really, really uncool to own that swastika-shaped fidget spinner. People need to be afraid to be part of the group that likes swastika-shaped fidget spinners.
Sometimes this means you have to punch a Nazi.
Jordan Etzel listened to way too much punk rock when he was young and has no tolerance for Nazis. He lives in the Hudson Valley where he no longer debates people on the internet.