How a Movie Revitalised Fascism in America and Got Trump Elected
The first rule of the alt-right is you do not talk about the alt-right.
What would you tell me if I asked you what movie has had the most influence on the 21st century so far? And I’m talking real, tangible influence. One we experience every day. The film I’m talking about came out in 1999. It tells the story of a man fatigued by the meaninglessness of the world, who finds solace in camaraderie and do-it-yourself cosmetics. I’m talking about Fight Club, of course.
As of this article’s writing, Fight Club ranks 11th on IMDB all-time favourite movies. When it was released, critics were highly divided, and the film failed to meet its public. Since then, it has gained cult status, mostly with young white males searching for a purpose.
To me, the movie always felt like fascist pseudo-intellectualism wrapped in useless violence. Roger Ebert best captured its vanity when he wrote that Fight Club is “a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy” and one of “the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie[s].” The film’s advocates claim it is a critique of fascism, consumerism, and toxic masculinity. They say that the narrator killing Tyler is proof of its ironic intent. It’s their way of saying “it was just a prank.” I whole-heartedly disagree.
Fight Club isn’t a critique. It is an unrelenting apology. The narrator killing Tyler does not absolve him from what he has done. It’s also not proof that he has learnt anything or become a better person. Where some see redemption in the murder-suicide, I see acceptance. The narrator doesn’t need an alter ego anymore. He has internalised what he first projected on Tyler. The final scene, in which he stares emotionlessly as his terrorist plot unfolds, is further proof that he has become Tyler.
This debate would be of little consequence if it were limited to discussing a movie's artistic and philosophical merits. However, the issue is that Fight Club and the “philosophy” it supports have reached far beyond the film critics’ salons. The film played on a generational malaise and revitalised many toxic and dangerous movements that ultimately gave rise to the alt-right and got Donald Trump elected.
For those old enough to remember, the 90s were a lost decade defined by a weird feeling that we had reached “the end of history,” what sociologists call historical underdosing. The 20th century had ended in December 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR. The 21st century only started on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. That left ten years hanging between two centuries, lost between two millennia, adrift in time.
French philosopher André Compte Sponville, in a 2004 essay, argued that the fall of the communist Eastern block left the capitalist West without a clear sense of self. Since WWII, we in the “first world” had defined ourselves in opposition to the second and third worlds. Our national epistemologies and metaphysics were built on contrast and comparison. When the great other disappeared, we couldn’t explain ourselves anymore.
Movies from the 90s encapsulate this feeling of despair, of abandonment, of purposelessness. 1999 alone gave us The Matrix, Office Space, Fight Club, American Beauty, and Eyes Wide Shut. All these films’ protagonists are white men who feel like their lives (personal, professional, sexual) are at a dead-end and try to create meaning from the world's absurd through rebellion, violence, and sex.
When the 21st century eventually started, it did so in violence and chaos. We were promised flying cars and a better, peaceful world. All we got were crashing planes, fear, and the rise of authoritarianism. As a society, we need a great other to make us feel like we are the good guys, and we found it pretty easily. Islamists became the new communists. The great divide moved from socio-economic policies to a more fundamental good vs bad dichotomy, us vs “the axis of evil.” Dick Cheney defined the war on terrorism as an “existential conflict.”
The malaise of the 90s became the existential dread of the 00s. With masculinity and traditional Western values under attack, the worst intellectual movements re-emerged in such fertile soil, boosted by new global communication tools: the internet and, soon enough, social networks. It is no surprise that all these movements would find Fight Club the perfect expression of their core tenets. It is no surprise that the people who adhere to these movements would adore this movie and praise it like gospel.
Fight Club glorifies masculinity, nihilism, atheism, and fascism. It exalts the white young male who finds meaning in enforcing their virility, treating women like preys to be hunted, rejecting social norms, refusing traditional values, and bending to the “alpha.”
It’s fascinating to see how Fight Club has become a philosophical reference and, to some extent, an idealised version of life, to men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, incels, new atheists, militia groups like the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights or the Proud Boys, Steve Bannon and Breitbart, and misogynists like Jordan Peterson.
All these groups and people live in a world where white men are oppressed
- by women who deny them the sex they are owed, forcing them into an involuntary celibate;
- by other man known as “chads” who steal said women from the “good guys” that they supposedly are;
- by the LGBTQ+ community, social justice warriors, and what they call the “woke ideology,” who all conspire to reduce men’s rights to increase their own;
- by foreigners, of course, in what they call the great replacement.
And, of course, all these groups have coalesced into what is now known as the alt-right. Pick-up artists, new atheists, sceptics, men’s rights activists now form the core of this new far-right, fascist ideology whose leader is Donald Trump and whose Bible is Fight Club.
In many ways, Trump personifies all of what these men revere in Tyler Durden. Trump is unabashedly misogynistic; he proudly embraces white supremacist views; he is utterly racist; he shows no respect for traditional values or protocol; he is a homophobe who praises toxic masculinity. He is openly what they secretly hope to be.
Fight Club helped give birth to a new breed of fascism in America; it crystallised the dread of young white men and gave them a roadmap to finding meaning in self-loathing and in the hatred of others. It gave us the alt-right and Donald Trump.
Fight Club probably is the most destructive film ever made.