Vox, the alt right and the American Empire: a case report on evolutionary memetics

On November 2019, the Spanish rightist party Vox achieved its best electoral results so far, becoming the 3rd largest political force in the country. Not bad for a political entity almost non-existent 11 months prior in terms of numbers. Founded in 2013 as an offshoot of the most extreme faction of the People’s Party (PP), Vox has experienced a strong surge in recent years, thanks both to a smart communication strategy and to the voters’ disappointment with establishment parties. Taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis, which is wreaking havoc in Spanish political and social life, Vox has become the current socialist-populist coalition government’s number one enemy in both social networks and mass media. By now, it should be fair to ask ourselves who exactly are these people and where do they come from ideologically.

The key feature of Vox’s discourse is the explicit defense of a sovereign Spanish Nation-State. Among its favorite bêtes noires are regional separatist movements, gender ideology, and unregulated inmigration. These elements make it in some ways similar to other European parties of the populist sphere. As could be expected, anti-Vox propaganda claims the party intends to set back the country half a century and revive the Francoist dictatorship. The common accusations are those of fascism, racism, sexism, classism, militarism, and religious fanaticism. In spite of its roughly 3.7 million voters, the party still has an aura of contrarianism, political incorrectness, which it actively cultivates.

Some of the Vox’s success in overcoming this public anathema and plugging into the contemporary zeitgeist has been partly attributed to inspiration from former ex-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Certainly, there are have been personal and institutional contacts, which can be discussed on another occasion. This post, however, explores the influence of alt-right culture on the Vox phenomenon from a purely memetic point of view. Cultural and political trends happening in the US tend to manifest themselves in Spain with a lag of about 2-4 years, giving enough time for political tropes to evolve and appear in forms adapted to different political environments. Comparing American political memes with their Spanish descendants may spark some thought-provoking insight on cultural and geopolitical relations between the two countries. The following paragraphs dissect a sample of memes propagated by Vox and to some extent traceable to the American far-right scene of roughly 2016-2018.

Los chiringuitos de la izquierda (something like “the Left’s kiosks”) refers to all media and political organizations and positions with governmental backing, created by leftists to keep cash flowing towards their allies and to enable successful lobbying campaigns. They are one of the primary targets of Vox. Commonly used when describing LGBT or feminist observatories, the phrase can be applied in general to any institution funded or supported by the State and considered to be an unjustified expense, a mechanism for paying back favors, or a platform for woke ideology. Its function is to portray the progressive system as inherently vain, fatuous, immoral and corrupt, and also to create a relation between social justice causes and establishment politics. When Donald Trump referred to Washington DC as “the swamp”, he suggested something in a similar vein: the draining of swamps helps to cull mosquito populations responsible for malaria. Interestingly, this is a very old meme, its first iterations being used by American socialists like Victor L. Berger (1860-1929) to conjure images of blood-sucking capitalists. The metaphor, however, left the door open for other interpretations. If the desert is a place of spirituality, temptation and introspection, the swamp is the home of decaying matter, of will-o’-wisps, and of witchcraft. The elemental qualities of swamps –humidity, darkness, tepidity, festering organicity– contrast with the desert’s dry wind, extreme hot and cold, and clear, open horizons. The Pizzagate story was the quintessential portrayal of Washington DC as an archetypal Swamp of conspiracies, intrigue and satanism.

La derechita cobarde (lit. “the cowardly little right-wing”) is the other target of
Vox’s political action. The moniker is a
pplied to the two other, more firmly-established right wing parties: Ciudadanos (Citizens – C’s), and the PP. It frames establishment conservatives as a bunch of suck-ups desperate for Leftist approval, and thus it’s related to the admittedly coarser American term “cuckservative”. Losing the sexual connotation is an interesting adaptation, which allows it to be used in a parliamentary, formal setting. It also strikes a different emotional key: while references to cuckoldry fetishism are intended to provoke feelings of disgust and of visceral rejection, the accusation of cowardice is meant to elicit contempt, which is a more elevated, virtuous response. It makes the Right complicit in the Left’s immorality, accusing them of timidity, of lack of spine, and of being willing to trade their souls for positions of power and personal wealth.

If the last two memes defined the villains, La España que madruga (lit. “the Spain that wakes-up early”) provides the audience with the heroes. The meme is made as a reference to people who wake up early to go to work, which of course comprises the majority of the working population. It implies the existence of a parasitical, disconnected ruling class which supposedly does not have to wake up early. While fitting nicely into a narrative of proles vs. elites, the meme is vague enough to include almost any kind of professional, making it extremely relatable. Trump’s backers never had such a positive tag to define themselves, except for the dull and overused “hardworking Americans”. In fact, they were not a truly memetically-defined block until Hilary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” remarks. Trump answered by calling his followers “hardworking American patriots who love [their] country”. However, the real response of the campaign was turning the insult into a badge of honor and immediately starting the production of merchandising with the word “deplorable”. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Vox did the same thing with the “extreme right” descriptor, denying the fact and using it to re-brand itself as a party of “extreme necessity” instead. Trump’s campaign was successful, but it relied very heavily on the specific demographic of working and middle class whites. Vox, on the other hand, may be attractive to low-education, low-rent, backgrounds, but can also appeal to wealthier groups.

This leads us to a very interesting mutation of La España que madruga, that being La España vaciada (lit. “the emptied Spain”). The phrase predates Vox, and alludes to the vast, rural, depopulated areas in most of central Spain, thus excluding economic hubs such as Madrid and the coastal regions. An aging population, lack of investment and declining political influence contribute to a feeling of being left behind, and reinforces the idea of a globalist political establishment hostile to “the real Spain” and its way of life. Significantly, this economical periphery roughly corresponds to most of what used to be the Kingdom of Castile, home of the dominant language in the country and starting point of all the expeditions to conquer the New World. It is the soul and epicenter of Imperial Spain, in the same way that Kiev is Russia’s. When Vox makes rhetorical defenses of hunting, bullfights and religious traditions, he feeds from this abandonment and nostalgia for a bygone era, the same way Trump’s campaign fed on the discontent of flyover “heritage Americans” or “Amerikaners”, which would be close relatives of this meme.

Morality, Work, Tradition; there is a remarkably telluric theme to all these memes, in the duginist senseThe 2020 American election is closing in and the specter of an enormous political crisis looms large in Spain. Support for both Vox and Trump still survives, significantly stronger in interior, land-locked areas: a Sign of the Times, perhaps. Seeing how American memes adapt to Spain hints at a change of the elements present in the cultural substrate. A new voice incorporated by the American Empire, inspired by a different ghost, and felt on both sides of the ocean. The soul of America may have been slowly moving away from the Atlantic for a while now. As it returns to the continent, Western European countries will start looking inward as well.

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