James Damore is proving the alt-right playbook can work in Silicon Valley

The new face of the alt-right
The new face of the alt-right
Image: James Damore / Twitter
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If the alt-right had drafted a figurehead to represent them in Silicon Valley, they could not have done much better than James Damore. The former Google engineer is calm, reasoned, and credentialed. He has a pedigree of dropping out of Harvard (despite falsely claiming a PhD). He quotes left-wing icon Noam Chomsky. He cites real scientific journals and is unabashedly socially awkward, even placing himself somewhere on the autism spectrum. Damore knows Silicon Valley’s language.

The engineer, who was fired on Aug. 7 by the search giant, denies any connection to the so-called alt-right movement, but Damore has quickly become its mascot in deeply liberal Silicon Valley. Whether he realizes it, his actions are following a path that has catapulted far-right views to mainstream prominence, and left liberal defenders bewildered and appearing hapless.

Damore’s rise came after internally publishing a 10-page manifesto, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” The leaked presentation went viral, and ignited a national firestorm. In it, Damore cites studies to make the claim that the gender gap in tech is partially caused by innate biological differences between men and women, and accuses Google of favoring women and minorities through hiring practices.

His solution? Damore called on the company to stop what he called “illegal discrimination” to increase the ranks of women in technology that puts progressive ideals above others. “Stop alienating conservatives,” he writes (pdf), and promote “viewpoint diversity” at Google, “arguably the most important type of diversity.” On Aug. 7, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and his executive team opted to fire Damore for advancing “harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace” while acknowledging “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it.”

Damore comes off as a thoughtful, unconventional provocateur. His language is carefully crafted to establish a rational basis for his reviews. As a clean-cut, approachable, and seemingly reasonable figure (“we all have biases which are invisible to us” and “I value diversity and inclusion”), he appeals to those who might dismiss other far-right figures.

That, of course, is the point. Intentionally or not, Damore is following a strategy set by figures on the alt-right by presenting versions of its underlying beliefs in more acceptable packaging. By reintroducing core beliefs underlying the alt-right, they’re finding receptive ears in Silicon Valley. Mother Jones magazine reports the movement has a growing number adherents in the Valley (no one knows how many), and online forums like 4chan and Reddit’s r/The_Donald have catapulted hate speech from obscure Neo-nazi sites to the wider internet. Alt-right leaders are even claiming Silicon Valley’s demographic as their own. ”The average alt-right-ist is probably a 28-year-old tech-savvy guy working in IT,” white nationalist Richard Spencer who coined the term alt-right told Mother Jones shortly before the election. “I have seen so many people like that.”

If the alt-right expands its presence in Silicon Valley, Damore is likely to offer the formula to do so by claiming the mantle of free speech and reason, two cherished values in Silicon Valley. Despite the controversy, Damore’s essay was a well-structured essay, sourced and interspersed with charts, the work of the graduate student Damore had once been. “My 10-page document set out what I considered a reasoned, well-researched, good-faith argument, but as I wrote, the viewpoint I was putting forward is generally suppressed at Google because of the company’s “ideological echo chamber,” he later wrote in an op-ed for the WSJ (paywall). “My firing neatly confirms that point.”

Silicon Valley’s tech leadership is catastrophically ill prepared to enter this debate. Google’s unfamiliarity with how the “alt-right” operates means it blundered into a PR nightmare with little understanding about the implications of firing Damore, despite what lawyers say is its legal right to do. Conventions are already starting to break down. An all-hands meeting Google scheduled for the search giant’s 60,000 employees was canceled on Aug. 10 after questions were leaked and Googlers were “doxxed,” or personally identified on social media. As a political firestorm gathers in the US, Silicon Valley is confronting a world in which the “alt-right” sits atop the Republican Party, US President Donald Trump’s White House and, increasingly, a segment of the tech community eager to spread its views far behind its current base.

The playbook

Scholars of right-wing movements say Damore, whether intended or not, has positioned himself as the new, milder messenger for an older set of beliefs animating right-wing extremists. By using his newfound publicity to reinforce notions that innate biological traits help explain social inequality, and downplaying the role of discrimination, he’s promoting a version of alt-right lite. It’s particularly complicated because Damore cites legitimate science as evidence for questionable conclusions. 1

That’s a well-worn playbook, says Nicole Hemmer, a professor at the University of Virginia focused on the history of conservatism. “It’s part of the process of bringing fringe ideas into the mainstream and finding a language that people find suitable,” she said in an interview describing right-wing groups’s strategy of adopting mainstream spokespeople and ideas to advance incremental forms of their arguments. ”It’s not unique. He’s just mainstreaming it with less virulent language.”

Damore has not expressed any formal connection or sympathy with the movement, yet his actions after his firing betray more than a passing familiarity with the alt-right’s lexicon and figures, says Hemmer. After his dismissal, Damore began arguing his case in public almost immediately. He set up a new Twitter profile with an alt-right friendly handle “Fired4Truth” and posted a fundraiser on WeSearchr, a site by prominent alt-rightist and Trump booster Chuck Johnson (he’s raised about $49,000 so far for “financial and potentially legal assistance”). He also granted a series of interviews to figures such as Stefan Molyneux, a fringe figure on Youtube who promotes “men’s rights,” part of the constellation of far-right ideologies, before hitting mainstream outlets such as Bloomberg. Since then, he has continued  promoting his arguments, most recently on Reddit.

Damore has also given shifting reasons for his apparent affinity for the alt-right. Initially, he pleaded ”ignorance about many of people’s past and political positions…that’s a weakness of mine as I’ve been thrust into this,” despite having listed several media figures well-known among alt-right followers, as well as a desire to interview with Dave Rubin, a YouTube host known for featuring alt-right celebrities. Damore defended this choice saying he “wasn’t mentally prepared to argue my points to hostile media (I don’t have experience talking to the press).” But Damore also made a puzzling claim about his decision to align himself with one of the most controversial alt-right figures: Mike Cernovich, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and blogger famous for promoting the Pizzagate scandal. Damore told his followers on Reddit that “we decided to have Mike Cernovich tweet my image because he has 300K followers,” without mentioning Cernovich’s alt-right allegiances or the identity of the “we” to in his statement. Damore has not responded to multiple emails and other requests for a response.

The alt-right arrives

Google’s decision to fire Damore has given his backers a weapon to accuse the search giant of suppressing speech, and position their own ideas as an antidote to the Valley’s idealogical echo chamber. “The propaganda value of it is so overwhelming for the alt-right,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, director of right wing Studies at UC Berkeley. He called the move by Google “tactically a really big mistake” that fit into a clear pattern by far-right groups to claims free speech after provoking responses that inject their views into mainstream conversation. “The pattern has been what’s been going on in universities,” he said, as college Republican groups admitted to inviting alt-right figures explicitly to provoke violent protests and claim free speech arguments, the National Review reports. “It so easily gives itself to [the idea] that they are opposing free speech.”

And that seems to be the genius here. Google made the best decision for its corporate culture, but made a terrible decision for the US more broadly by providing a rallying point for the alt-right.

But even if Damore has no connection with the alt-right, or its most prominent figures, it may matter little in the end: Virtually overnight, Damore has become a credible voice and an appealing martyr for alt-right beliefs, lending credibility to their arguments even if he views are the far-less extreme.

In this, Damore is tracing the footsteps of Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, if not quite walking in them. Both have managed to divorce their extremist views from their roots in groups like the KKK or neo-Nazi ideology. Yiannopoulos, a former writer for Breitbart, presents himself as a gay, articulate, well-manicured truth-teller for the alt-right who dismisses his critics on free speech grounds with campus appearances eliciting massive, sometimes violent protests. Yiannopoulos has said “behind every racist joke is a scientific fact” and his seminal alt-right manifesto amounts to an “outright apologia for racist white separatism,” reports the conservative National Review.

Spencer, too, has cleaned up his act (despite his stated goal of establishing “a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans; ….[with] peaceful ethnic cleansing”), wearing dapper suits, disavowing violence, and casting himself as a dissident intellectual” with credentials in philosophy and the humanities from the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago.

But the overarching mission of the alt-right inevitably returns to its roots: making the case for the superiority of the white race. Damore, based on all his public statements, is not a white supremacist. He says he believes in the benefits of diversity and targets what he calls the unfair treatment of white men in “politically correct” culture. Yet he is firmly placing himself within a constellation of ”alt-right” groups in which he is merely among the most moderate, reasonable, and palatable.

Adherents have scarcely tried to conceal this as a strategy. Alt-right activists in online communities openly discuss ways to recruit “intelligent and well spoken speakers that can tailor their speech to the average person” writes one anonymous poster. “We need to be smart and make the movement appealing to the AVERAGE white person,” in pursuit of a white ethno-state. “People like Peter Thiel should be the voice of the alt-right, not…. [avowed white supremacists] Richard Spencer.” Online activists, in their own words, want to “move the Overton window”—the range of ideas the public will accept—ultimately overturning multi-ethnic democracies, racial and gender equality, and international cooperation.

In many ways, that strategy is starting to bear fruit. “The radical right was more successful in entering the political mainstream last year than in half a century,” reported the Southern Poverty Law Center this February. The alt-right has managed to “redefine overt racism and white supremacy as if they were new,” states the Columbia Journalism Review noting the term “alt-right” itself came from Spencer in 2008 as a way to distance the white supremacist movement he leads from disgraced bigots of the past. The Associated Press warns the term is “a euphemism to disguise racist aims” and may serve “primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.”

Perception is catching back up to reality. As America’s 900 or so far-right wing groups meet at real rallies, “alt-right” leaders keep finding themselves alongside neo-Nazis and Klansmen, most recently in Charlottesville where Spencer headlined. The Charlottesville protest called itself “Unite the Right” for a simple reason: the groups share enough beliefs to find common cause with white nationalists and neo-Nazis—even if some are explicitly backing away from Nazi flag-waving extremists: ”That’s all the alt-right stands for, is white nationalism,” said conspiracy theorist Cernovich in The Atlantic. “They are now indistinguishable.”

For angry white men–disaffected gamers, men’s rights activists, white supremacists, anti-globalists–the alt-right is now the rallying cry for communal hatred, writes Tim Squirrell, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam who analyzed 3 billion comments in online alt-right spaces. Despite originating in far corners of the internet, right-wing extremists are coalescing to form a group identity, a common language and shared rage at liberalism. “We’re witnessing the radicalization of young white men,” writes Squirrel.

Google needs an answer

If irony was the old shield of the alt-right, then “reason” and free speech is the next defense as it enters Silicon Valley. It’s easy to dismiss Holocaust jokes by basement-dwelling gamers who call Auschwitz a “5 star resort.” It’s harder to refute scientific evidence rearranged to reflect right-wing prejudices. Of course, liberals don’t help themselves by rejecting and suppressing data that challenges their own worldview rather than the arguments themselves. That gives ambassadors far more serious hearings to advance their aims.

Damore’s essay is a case in point. Dissected by countless journalists and scientists over the past week, it is not a screed, as some outlets reported, nor does it come off as unhinged. Readers of the piece could be forgiven for believing Damore merely made an unpopular critique of how diversity is promoted in Silicon Valley, and political correctness more generally. The New York Times columnist David Brooks called on Google CEO Sundar Pichai to resign over his decision to fire Damore.

That’s precisely the response that may have been intended. Google has created a martyr. In the process of trying to avoid a “hostile workplace,” and damage its reputation among woman who want to work at Google (only about 20% of Google’s engineers are female, although it is 31% female overall ), UC Berkeley’s Rosenthal believes it may have created a bigger problem. “[Google’s CEO] was probably unfamiliar with the pattern of claiming first-amendment offenses and that this would fall right in the middle of it,” he said. “My guess was that he had no idea this was going to happen. …. I suspect that the CEO of Google was naive and unprepared for this.”

As alt-right groups plan more national demonstrations, including a March on Google (potentially called off amid more threats of violence), Silicon Valley is already facing its next test in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Tech companies are cutting off funding, hosting, and online services to neo-Nazi and far-right organizations.

They, in turn, are striking out on their own emboldened by the ability to rally extremists from across the internet to fund and promote their cause. The alternative social network Gab.ai, which champions white supremacists, said its “free speech” crowdfunding campaign raised more than $1 million.

Get ready for more. Right-wing techies in the Valley increasingly portray themselves as scared victims of persecution or brave defenders of free speech. Breitbart’s “Rebels of Google” series interviews former and current employees about at the company. A former engineer, asked about next steps for “ideological dissenters” at Google, suggested things are about to change: “[We] keep our heads down, keep ourselves from getting fired, keep our asses at work, deliver great results, until there’s critical mass. That day is coming.”