Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the Rise of the Alt-Right

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The Worms
The Face of the Alt-Right

One of the first things I learned to play on piano for myself, rather than for a piano teacher, was the Pink Floyd song “Nobody Home” when I was 12 years old, an ode to “having a strong urge to fly” but “nowhere to fly to”. The song comes from The Wall (1979), a theme album (and subsequent film (1982)) about a maladjusted, mentally ill rock star who becomes progressively more isolated, building up a “wall” between himself and the world around him. As a narrative it’s less a plot with characters than a cycle of emotional states layered on top of each other, more poetry than prose. The kind of thing that’s perhaps too easy for a moody young person to identify with. That is, at least, up until two thirds into its run time when the lead character has a breakdown, completes his wall, and it’s revealed that he beats his wife and he subsequently (whether in fantasy or reality, it’s not clear) becomes a Neo-Nazi leader out to route out the Jews and the coons and the queers.

It was a twist I didn’t get at all at the time. Up until this point, the lead character (“Pink Floyd”, a joke on how the band’s name was always confused for a person’s) is portrayed as victimized, oppressed by his mother, his school system, his adulterous wife. He’s sympathetic, if entirely in a bourgeois kind of way (cue the SNL skit about “white male rage”). In fact, he’s similar in broad strokes to the put-upon, adulated, Messianic white male protagonists of other ‘rock-operas’ of the era, such as The Who’s Tommy (1968) or David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972).

But there’s nothing sympathetic about becoming a Nazi, and no direct references to Nazism in the build-up to the twist that would give you a clue that it’s coming. And anyway, Nazis? I’d grown up with them as like this cartoonish villain, as real and present as Viking raiders or pirates. Why was this what Pink Floyd had decided to depict?

As an adult looking back from the vantage point of 2020, however, the arc of the character strikes me as not only ringing true, but prescient in ways I never could have anticipated.

At my high school there was a guy who oversaw the computer lab, fresh out of college and not so much older than me at the time. (This was the kind of upscale Connecticut public high school that had a computer lab in the early 90s.) We started talking about computers, but soon the topic turned to politics and he was ecstatic to turn me on to the wonders of Libertarianism and the wisdom of Ayn Rand.

Subtitle: How to be an Asshole

This was before the Web had become ubiquitous, before Google, before you could just go online and research something. I didn’t really have context for Libertarianism. But this guy was friendly and exuberant and I was lonely and soon I found myself reading The Fountainhead and parroting Libertarian talking points like the benefits of abolishing income tax and privatizing schools and roads and just about everything else. Submitting to Rand’s unrelenting selfishness-as-political-philosophy made me feel powerful and special and destined for greatness like the hero in her book.

One of the people I knew at school tried to warn me away from the guy–after all, he’d also been known to talk about “racial problems” and reference The Bell Curve. “What do you call ten people talking to a Nazi?” My acquaintance asked, invoking a very old expression. “Eleven Nazis.”

But how could he be a Nazi, I thought? Libertarians were about freedom and Nazis were about authoritarianism. The phrase “the Libertarian-to-Fascist Pipeline” had not entered the public consciousness. (The shortest explanation for how Libertarians become Fascists is that because by “freedom” they primarily mean property rights, they see Fascists as the only ones who can absolutely guarantee property rights against the inferior masses that might seek to take them away from their betters–this is what figures like Peter Thiel mean when they say they “no longer think freedom and democracy are compatible“. In other words, an even shorter explanation might be “racism”, because it’s inevitably minorities who are seeking to take your property away with absurd demands like ‘taxes’ for ‘health care’ and such.)

And as for the race question, well, I obviously didn’t agree with that, but of course I wasn’t racist so what did it matter if he was as long as he wasn’t racist against me?

When you’re insecure, you’ll do anything to not feel insecure. And so when someone offers you a narrative where you’re actually powerful and special, you grab ahold of it with both hands and refuse to let go. And thus, as the album would have it, the worms ate into my brain.

When we talk about the related subjects of the rise of the Alt-Right and the rise of Trump, what you’re talking about is a mass of people who feel loss and aggrievement over their fallen status. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that white male voters backed Trump because of the perceived threat to their dominance in society. As has been pointed out by others, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like discrimination. White people, and white men in particular in this country, feel humiliated and powerless. They resent the so-called “left wing media” for trying to make them feel ashamed of their history and heritage just because their ancestors enslaved Africans and murdered off and displaced native peoples.

At the near end these feelings of aggrievement gives you your average Trump Supporter, eager to keep out the mythical Mexican coming to take his job, and at the far end this metastasizes into full-on Neo-Nazis marching with torches and chanting slogans about the Jews. This mirrors how the rise of Nazism in Germany was directly related to the feelings of disempowerment and shame felt by the German people after their loss in WWI and the crippling economic conditions the war debts put them under especially during the Great Depression.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of books on masculinity and the Neo-Nazi movement, talks about how many men feel “aggrieved entitlement … that sense of entitlement that can no longer be assumed and that is unlikely to be fulfilled.”

He elaborates on what causes people to fall down the slope of Nazism and violence in a recent interview in the Guardian:

Many of [the Neo-Nazis], especially the American guys, were sexually abused, beat up, bullied as children. Some of them have basically the same sort of profile as the victims of the Catholic priests. Growing up they were deeply ashamed of themselves; they didn’t do well in school, they didn’t have friends, they were sad, miserable, and they escaped into themselves. That just made them better targets, and the far right drew them in.

The camaraderie of the community validates their masculinity, and – even more importantly than that – gives them a sacred mission. That is really powerful for these guys.

Which brings us back to The Wall. Pink’s embrace of Nazism isn’t a strange side-track in the story of his feelings of emasculation and shame from his mother, teachers, and wife. They’re a direct outgrowth of them. Indeed, the (admittedly sexist) focus on overbearing mother and cheating wife (literally making Pink a cuckold, that most Alt-Right of insults) jibes well with this idea of a Right driven by the threat of emasculation. Pink embraces the narrative of Nazism because he needs something to hold onto now that the wall between himself and the world is complete. And there’s a neatness to the fact that the ideology he chooses is the same one that killed his father as a soldier in the Second World War, a way for the narrative to come full circle.

Trump voters and Nazis alike want to feel powerful again. And so Trump supporters love ‘owning the libs’ because by making liberals freak out they’re asserting their own dominance, giving themselves a thrill of schadenfreude in lives where they feel like they have no control. They see no problem with separating families and putting children in cages. Cruelty, and the power it represents, is the point.

Back to myself as a disgruntled teenager, Ayn Rand made me feel powerful where in the rest of my life–especially my social life—I felt utterly powerless and confused. In the long run I was saved from this ideological slip-n-slide in no small part because I was surrounded by left-leaning people in my little bubble of educated, privileged North Easterners. But it’s not hard for me to see how things could have gone in a different direction. Even just living somewhere else, with others who shared these ideas waiting to show me camaraderie and make me feel like I belong, and my belief system might have become different. This fact haunts me in ways I still find hard to admit.

Racism makes white people feel powerful. That’s the tool that rich slave owners used to make poor whites hate the poor blacks with whom they actually had much more in common. And it’s the tool that someone like Donald Trump uses to fuel his cult-like political tsunami.

All that really needs to be said about The Bell Curve

And so The Wall works because racism has nothing to do with logic or reason, as much as racists might protest otherwise. It isn’t about reading The Bell Curve and suddenly understanding that racism is science. If that were the case, then something like Shaun Skull’s epic 2.5 hour deep dive into the book which exposes exactly how the studies it’s based on are fundamentally flawed and intentionally misused would put a rest to the whole thing. Racists will proudly proclaim that they’re simply willing to go where the facts take them, while they blithely ignore facts that contradict what they already believe.

No, racism, and the drive towards fascism with which it’s fundamentally bound, are both about making people feel powerful and providing cover for dehumanizing behavior. And the people who most need to feel powerful are people like Pink–sad, sad boys (and girls) desperate for something to reach out and hold on to. For something out beyond the Wall. Even if doing so transforms them into something monstrous.

I don’t think Roger Waters–Pink Floyd’s bassist, lyricist, songwriter, and architect of the album–could have remotely anticipated the irony to come when masses of Trump voters would shout “build the wall”. But as I said, when you’re insecure you’ll do anything to not feel insecure, and that goes for building a wall around your country as easily as it does for building a wall around yourself.

It would have been an easy thing for Waters to make Pink a more sympathetic character all the way to the end. He could have taken the tack of a film like Joker, which portrays its protagonist in such a way that his horrific actions are somehow justified and even celebrated by society (the problems of which are explored in depth in an excellent essay by Film Crit Hulk). But it doesn’t. The Wall looks straight at its protagonist and doesn’t blink. From the moment Pink sings “I need you, babe/to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”, you see the creature he’s already become well before the descent into Nazism. Pink isn’t a hero. He’s a warning.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

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