As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan this month, a Gen Z alt-right group ran a Twitter account devoted to celebrating their progress. Tweets in Pashto juxtaposed two laughing Taliban fighters with pictures meant to represent American effeminacy. Another said, the words auto-translated into English, “Liberalism did not fail in Afghanistan because it was Afghanistan, it failed because it was not true. It failed America, Europe and the world see it.”
The account, now suspended, was just one example of the open admiration for the Taliban that’s developed within parts of the American right. The influential young white supremacist Nick Fuentes — an ally of Arizona Republican congressman Paul Gosar’s and anti-immigrant pundit Michelle Malkin’s — wrote on the encrypted app Telegram: “The Taliban is a conservative, religious force, the U.S. is godless and liberal. The defeat of the U.S. government in Afghanistan is unequivocally a positive development.” An account linked to the Proud Boys expressed respect for the way the Taliban “took back their national religion as law, and executed dissenters.”
“The far right, the alt-right, are all sort of galvanized by the Taliban essentially running roughshod through Afghanistan, and us leaving underneath a Democratic president,” said Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank devoted to countering violent extremism. They’re looking at Afghanistan, he said, “from a standpoint of us getting ‘owned,’ in the parlance of the internet.”
This is not the first time that right-wing American extremists have been inspired by Muslim militants; several white supremacists lauded al-Qaida’s attacks on Sept. 11. The difference now is that the far right has grown, and the distance between the sort of right-wingers who cheer for the Taliban and conservative power centers has shrunk.
Florida Republican Matt Gaetz may be a clown, but he is also a congressman who was close to the previous president. On Twitter this month, Gaetz described the Taliban, like Trump, as “more legitimate than the last government in Afghanistan or the current government here.”
Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the United States embarked on a war that would, in time, sell itself as a battle for democracy. Back then, liberal democracy was almost universally venerated in America, which is one reason we had the hubris to think we could export it by force. Many, especially on the right, worried about the threat that jihadism posed to a modern, open society. The tragic journey of the past two decades began with the loudest voices on the right braying for war with Islamism and ended with a right-wing vanguard envying it.
At least before Thursday’s devastating terrorist attacks, there was a subtler form of satisfaction with the Taliban’s takeover among more respectable nationalist conservatives. They don’t sympathize with barbarism but were pleased to see liberal internationalism lose.
“The humiliation of Afghanistan will have been worth it if it pries the old paradigm loose and lets new thoughts in,” Yoram Hazony, an influential nationalist intellectual whose conferences feature figures such as Josh Hawley and Peter Thiel, tweeted this month.
What old paradigm? Well, a few days later, he tweeted, “What went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan was, first and foremost, the ideas in the heads of the people running the show. Say its name: Liberalism.”
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the most important nationalist voice in America, seemed to sympathize with the gender politics of Taliban-supporting Afghans.
“They don’t hate their own masculinity,” he said shortly after the fall of Kabul. “They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.” (By “neoliberalism,” he seems to mean social liberalism, not austerity economics.)
It turns out that when the government deceptively invokes liberal democracy to justify a war, liberal democracy can be discredited by a grueling defeat. In his new book, “Reign of Terror,” national security journalist Spencer Ackerman draws a direct line between our stalemated post-9/11 wars and the rise of Donald Trump. “Trump was able to safely voice the reality of the war by articulating what about it most offended right-wing exceptionalists: humiliation,” he wrote.
Humiliation is a volatile emotion. Many have written about its role in motivating al-Qaida. Perhaps it’s not surprising that parts of the right would respond to humiliation by identifying with images of brutal masculinity.
Some of this identification might just be for shock value; the alt-right is adept at using irony to occlude its intentions. But some of it is deadly earnest.
“We’ve come across a lot of content that’s U.S.-based extreme far-right websites saying how good the Taliban victory is, and why it’s good for their cause,” said Adam Hadley, director of Tech Against Terrorism, a U.N.-supported project that monitors extremists online. One neo-Nazi website has a tract hailing the Taliban victory in part for showing that a small band of armed fundamentalists can defeat the American empire.
As for the rest of the pro-Taliban right, the Proud Boys and incels and MAGA splinter factions, some of them are probably just trolling. But as groups such as QAnon and the civil war-hungry Boogaloo Bois show, a movement can seem absurd and still be a source of real radicalization.
“The classic response to any of this is, ‘Ah, they’re just a fringe group,’ and then when that metastasizes, a lot of people eat their words,” said Ayad.
If there’s one lesson of recent American history, it’s that there’s no such thing as something too ridiculous to be dangerous.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.