Karl Ekeman

Karl Ekeman, doctoral student in Rhetoric
Karl Ekeman, doctoral student in Rhetoric

ABSTRACT The thesis examines the politico-rhetorical dynamics around the 2016 US presidential election through the lens of the Alt-Right, not as a movement but as a signifier in broader political struggles to shape the political space of representation. It employs Ernesto Laclau’s post-foundationalist theory of populism to challenge the conventional perspectives that the Alt-Right was an extension of a radical right-wing movement or ideology. Instead, it demonstrates how the signifier rose to prominence due to its political and rhetorical utility for both its supporters and opponents, and how it eventually led to a political formation expanding beyond the far-right milieu in which the term ‘Alt-Right’ originally was coined.

The study revolves around two questions: How was the Alt-Right symbolically formed in 2016, and how can it inform our understanding of the present conditions of populism? It analyzes the elements that eventually were articulated as Alt-Right, including a far-right milieu of writers with a long-term ”metapolitical” propaganda strategy, online subcultures known for irony, trolling, and provocative humor, and the ”Gamergate” controversy, eventually articulated as a right-wing backlash against progressivism. Quantitative data analysis of the term’s usage on Twitter/X provides an outline of the signifier’s career on Twitter. The outline informs the study of the articulation process whereby different elements came to be associated with an emerging Alt-Right political identity. The study analyzes the pivotal moments in the process and emphasizes the significance of Hillary Clinton’s Alt-Right speech in August, 2016. 

The thesis argues that the formation of the Alt-Right as a political identity challenges the conventional view of populism as proposed by Laclau. In 2016, ‘Alt-Right’ became a counter-hegemonic empty signifier not primarily through counter-hegemonic processes but rather due to the discursive efforts of the hegemonic political axis. The conclusion discusses how this inversion aligns with post-politics, premised as a prevailing logic of articulation and political legitimization, and how this form of legitimization in and around 2016 inadvertently sustained the very far-right movements depicted as its ultimate threat. The concluding discussion offers a theoretical discussion of how and in what way it may continue to do so. In so doing, the thesis indicates present socio-historic conditions for the emergence of populism, understood in the sense explained in the dissertation: as a political situation characterized by a chasm between political alternatives generative of a counter-hegemonic identity.

Karl defended his thesis on December 15, 2023.

Contact information: karl.ekeman@littvet.uu.se