Many years ago, when I was a mere slip of a features journalist, I spent a weekend learning how to be a pick-up artist. Amazing. You assume it won’t work, that sort of thing, but it totally did. Towards the end of the second night, having not said an unscripted word in about half an hour, I found myself in the VIP room of a London nightclub, being gazed at in rapt adoration by a wildly attractive twentysomething blonde. Seriously, people don’t normally look at me like that. It was special. And then I ran away, terrified, because I had a girlfriend.
My guide through all this was a man called Neil Strauss, author of a book called The Game. It attracted a lot of hate, The Game, and deservedly because in many respects it was effectively a manual for tricking unsuspecting drunk women into wrongly believing they wanted to have sex with you. More covertly, though, it was also a quite brilliant piece of gonzo journalism. Strauss, a music journalist, submersed himself into a community of people devoted to reverse-engineering the basics of human interaction. He befriended them, lived with them and, in the end, began to think like them.
Their approach was scientific, to the point of being robotic. They’d approach girls, crash and burn, discuss where they went wrong on internet forums, modify and try again. Where they observed successes, either among their own or among more traditional lotharios they dubbed ‘naturals’, they’d crunch that, too. Many of them, before long, seemed to care more about their status among other men than they did about girls at all. A major preoccupation was ‘AMOGging’ — establishing yourself as the ‘alpha male of the group’. When they observed girls flocking around, say, cool and muscular black guys, they’d theorise extensively about just what it was about these guys the girls so liked. In modern terms, certainly, a lot of this was quite offensive. Back then, though, the process of giving offence involved somebody present actually being offended, and nobody ever was.
I met quite a few of these guys, both that weekend and afterwards. They were charming, because they’d learned how to be, although it was a carapace. Quite frequently, you’d knock them off script and glimpse a personality underneath completely at odds with the one they were presenting, and not always that nice. Whereupon, I suppose, they’d sneak off and focus-group that, too, and next time do better.
What happened next was that I stopped concentrating for more than a decade, and in the process missed a hidden, sweaty-palmed political revolution. Splits within this community occurred and bits developed in various odd directions. On forums and blogs, these people’s heirs — if not, I think, the same people — began to muse not only about how to game girls but also how one might game the world. As young white men, they knew how they felt they ought to be living, and sought to identify and circumvent the various factors which they felt prevented them from doing so, which generally involved people who weren’t young white men at all. They did this in a spirit of sheer historical illiteracy. And, in major if not exclusive part, this is where the phenomenon we now call the ‘alt-right’ arose. It is ‘alt’, I suppose, because it has reached the traditional conclusions of the far right by an alternative route. Although the conclusions, I’m afraid, are much the same.
This week, the newspapers are full of alt-right types, gleeful at the rise of Donald Trump, sieg-heiling their way around Washington restaurants. Doubtless plenty of them would be furious at the suggestion that they evolved from pick-up artists, and pick-up artists would likewise be furious that these are their offspring. They’ll just have to be furious, though, because the link is clearly there. And while I doubt Trump himself has ever read a book on pick-up artistry, because I doubt he has ever read a book on anything, his own hinterland is very similar. He is the king of fake-it-till-you-make-it. The perfect businessman, if your whole notion of the perfect businessman has been gleaned from self-help books about how to become the perfect businessman. This is his politics, too. For actual depth, actual truth, he has only contempt. A pick-up artist who copied him would be him. There is nothing else there.
The thing is, this isn’t how any of this stuff began. Originally, the grand theories of the pick-up artists, or indeed the self-help business books, were thought experiments. They didn’t really believe that all women were up for sex all the time, or that you could make a million through positive thinking. They just said, well, pretend. Pretend it’s true, give it a go, you can go a long way, you’ll be amazed. It was a trick. It wasn’t ever supposed to be real.
There are glimpses of a similar double-think in much of the alt-right; from the Breit-bart headlines that might be satire and might not, to the posturing of Milo Yiannopoulos, who sometimes seems to be flirting with the far right as outrageous performance art, sometimes seems to mean it, and sometimes seems like he simply hasn’t decided. As though the point isn’t quite what anybody actually says, but the effect their saying it has on everybody else.
Plenty of people seem to believe that Trump does this, too. That whenever he says his latest arresting, infuriating, insane thing, he’s also playing a trick, trying to wind people up. Personally, I don’t buy it. More to the point, though, I’m not sure it makes any difference. Likewise those sieg heils in those Washington restaurants. For show? For real? In the end, the question is meaningless. This is what they give us, so this is who they are. The trick is all there is. The carapace is sealed. Everything beneath has rotted away.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
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