The Far Right’s Strange Obsession with Portland Author Chuck Palahniuk

Though its only clear politics are anti-consumerist, Palahniuk’s hyperviolent, masculinity-obsessed 1996 novel has become a touchstone for the angry men of the alt-right.

Jack Donovan (left) with Chuck Palahniuk via Jack Donovan's Instagram feed.

If a sheep dies in the woods outside Portland, it might be because of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk.

A man named Jack Donovan runs the local chapter of a far-right group called Wolves of Vinland that doubles as an insurrectionist fight club in the style of antihero Tyler Durden in Palahniuk's book. Obsessed with the idea that American masculinity has been degraded and feminized, the Wolves of Vinland sacrifice animals to old gods, beat the snot out of each other and prepare for the inevitable fall of civilization. Donovan cites Palahniuk as an inspiration, and so does the Wolves' main leadership in Virginia. Their training manual quotes only two people: Vlad the Impaler and Tyler Durden.

They're not alone. Though its only clear politics are anti-consumerist, Palahniuk's hyperviolent, masculinity-obsessed 1996 novel has become a touchstone for the angry men of the alt-right. Fight Club, which achieved cult status as a 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt, is about a group of men who form a secret cult of warriors and stage ritualist fights, waging war against the inauthentic modern world that has taken their manhood from them.

In January, Vice called Fight Club the "ultimate handbook for men's right's activists." Renegade-right Wall Street blog Zero Hedge, derided by one of its own former writers as "a 24-hour cheerleader for Hezbollah, Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, and Trump," signed every post with the name Tyler Durden.

This July, Richard Spencer's alt-right blog reprinted a seminal essay called "Generation Alt-Right" written by a guy who identified himself as Hannibal Bateman.

"Our credo," Bateman writes, "could be summed up in that most angsty of films, Fight Club: 'We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place.…We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.'" The photo accompanying the essay depicts Brad Pitt as cult leader Tyler Durden.

The common thread to the alt-right's love of Palahniuk's book is Durden's sense that men no longer have a sense of themselves as heroic: They are, evolutionarily, mighty hunters and warriors adrift in a sea of shopping malls.

"Fight Club asked the question, 'How much do you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?'" Wolves of Vinland's Jack Donovan tells WW. "Fight Club inspired me to begin challenging my own received ideas about masculinity and identity and the psychological relationship that men have with violence."

But of course, the character most right-leaners admire in Fight Club is not the hero of the book. Tyler Durden is a sociopathic split personality resulting from a psychotic break, whose messianic fight cult becomes a violent farce. The book was less a celebration than a dark send-up of masculinity, with the lion's share of its bile reserved for consumer culture.

Though it's hard to blame Palahniuk's book for what the far right has made of it, Palahniuk has nonetheless proudly claimed parentage of the Trump crowd's favorite insult, "snowflake," trotted out to shame anyone who gets offended on the internet. The first time the word was used in the modern sense was in Fight Club.

"You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake," Durden says. "You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else."

Strangely, Palahniuk, who started his career in Portland and lives in the Columbia River Gorge, once posed for a photo with his arm around the neck of Vinland's Donovan, who along with leading a wolf-cult chapter is a far-right media figure flirting with white nationalism.

"'Fight Club' author Chuck Palahniuk stopped by my office today to talk about masculinity and choke me out. #fightclub #wolvesofvinland #operationwerewolf #opww #masculinity," Donovan posted on Instagram in August 2015. Through a representative, Palahniuk told the website Daily Beast they were only acquaintances, and that the choke-out was his standard pose when being photographed with fans.

When asked about the right's love of Fight Club, Palahniuk is quick to say the book's dark vision has also been adopted by the left.

"Please note," he tells WW, "that the left has also embraced the concept and is running a network of college-based 'fight clubs' to train Antifa how to punch Nazis."

According to Palahniuk, the reason Fight Club is so popular with political radicals is that there are so few options for people dissatisfied with the world as it is.

"A man recently asked me why Fight Club and The Matrix provide most of the language and metaphors for political discourse right now," he tells WW. "My sad answer is that very few books or films have questioned the status quo in recent decades. Perhaps we'll see more 'game-changing' narratives instead of stories set in stock reality."

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