The White Knight: Batman as esoteric hero for the dissident right

Joseph Packer

Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, Michigan, United States

Ethan Stoneman

Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This paper examines how white-nationalist and identitarian fan communities read The Dark Knight film series as a coded attack on liberal values by the secretly sympathetic writer-director Christopher Nolan. In a classic esoteric reading, white nationalists posit super villains like Ra's al Ghul and Bane as giving voice to the true message of the trilogy, namely, that liberal countries have become decadent and must be destroyed so as to give rise to archeofuturistic ethnostates. We examine the white nationalists' criticisms of traditional media critics on both the left and the right in a way that helps differentiate esoteric hermeneutics from more conventional professional critical readings. We highlight the peculiar capacity of pronoiac, fan-based esotericism to resignify and circulate pop-cultural memes for radical, right-wing ends and to do so in ways that avoid the strategies of cultural censors.

[0.2] Keywords—Esoteric hermeneutics; Political fandom; The Dark Knight trilogy; White nationalism

Packer, Joseph, and Ethan Stoneman. 2023. "The White Knight: Batman as Esoteric Hero for the Dissident Right." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 40.

1. Introduction

[1.1] There have always been comic book characters espousing views that seem, to varying degrees, to align with white racial politics. Examples include Captain America's arch nemesis, Red Skull, Peacemaker's father, White Dragon, and, more questionably, fan favorite Rorschach from Watchmen (DC Comics), to name only a few. When one thinks of white nationalist characters in comics, however, presumably few would identify them as the moral centers of those make-believe worlds. Yet with respect to the Batman universe, some prominent white nationalists do just that. Specifically, they lay claim to director Christopher Nolan's Batman films as something of a pop cultural ambassador, arguing that a careful reading of The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005–2012) reveals messages (and characters) sympathetic to their political worldview. On a recent podcast with other members of the "dissident" far right, Richard Spencer said, "My conclusion is that Nolan—and I don't mean this as a criticism—is a kind of statist, almost fascist-like thinker, and he's presenting this under the guise of a mainstream popular comic book movie" (Neokrat [Affirmative Right] 2020, minute 46).

[1.2] But how does that happen? How is it possible that an enormously successful mainstream American film franchise, based on an even more popular American comic book character, could attract what in the cultural imagination amounts to a cult Nazi following? Or more specifically: How do white nationalists watching movies about a bat-inspired caped crusader decipher an overtly political message—and a politically fringe message at that—which escapes not only other fan groups and professional movie reviewers but also scholarly critics?

[1.3] Critics working within the multidisciplinary field of media and cultural studies have devoted significant scholarly attention to understanding the construction of meaning that operates within and across superhero media, and Batman-related media in particular. Over the past decade and a half, this interpretive work has increasingly involved the study of fans, fan cultures, and fan activities—and for good reason. As Ashley Hinck (2019, 6) reminds us, the fandoms cultivated by comics, movies, books, and so on can lead to "public engagement that emerges from [and blends with] a commitment to a fan-object." Hinck refers to this type of investment as fan-based citizenship, but we could just as easily flip the subject and predicate, as Hannah Mueller (2022) does, and call it the politics of fandom.

[1.4] On the surface, that interpretive lens is sufficiently capacious to include the critical examination of any number of political commitments and ideologies, no matter how outré or niche they may appear to fan studies scholars. Yet academic studies of the politics of fandom have tended to focus on the participatory, cocreative activities of left-leaning fans, often at the exclusion of their right-leaning counterparts. In the introduction to a recent special issue of Television and New Media, Mel Stanfill (2020, 124) writes, "Fan studies frequently sees fandom as fundamentally progressive." The issue itself, Stanfill argues, represents a concerted effort to help redress that imbalance. To that end, contributors take stock of various instances of reactionary cathexis—for instance, anger directed at professional Black athletes such as LeBron James (Johnson 2020) and Colin Kaepernick (Serazio and Thorson 2020), or in the case of GamerGate, anger over the increased inclusion of women and minorities in video games (Blodgett 2020). Other scholarly attempts to map what Stanfill describes as the reactionary in the fan and the fan in the reactionary (only some of which belong to the special issue) include interpretive analyses of conservative political commentators (Lewis 2020), the Spanish populist far right (Miro 2021), and Trump as an inductor of fandoms (Miller 2020). Adjacent to these engagements are efforts such as those by Paul Elliott Johnson (2017), whose rhetorical analysis of the television series Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013) in part explores the main character Walter White's resonance among conservative Americans, and Anastasia Salter (2020), who explores the phenomenon of fans who elevate the DC Comics character Harley Quinn, despite her connection to problematic representations of interpersonal violence.

[1.5] Apart from selecting an uncommon topic of analysis, these studies fundamentally differ in their approach compared to broad swaths of fan studies literature. Instead of focusing on how fans poach or appropriate texts, they primarily concern themselves either with fan backlash—specifically, backlash against the inclusion of progressive ideas in a popular culture thought to be politically neutral—or with conservatism as a form of fandom itself, independent of other forms of pop culture media (e.g., the "Make America Great Again" slogan as a pop culture phenomenon). Taken together, there simply is not very much academic literature that explores conservative or right-wing fans' in-depth readings of pop culture texts. This tendency is not without justification. There is a paucity of popular media that embrace overtly right-wing views, which we define as conservative or reactionary views that espouse some form of anti-egalitarianism. In order to enjoy popular media, the right, and especially racialist factions of the dissident right, have had to make do with readerly tactics such as textual poaching and oppositional, against-the-grain readings.

[1.6] Certain white nationalists, however, claim that in the case of Christopher Nolan's Batman films there is no need to resort to such counterhegemonic participatory practices. The Dark Knight trilogy, they argue, is in fact esoterically coded so as to communicate to elect viewers, and only the elect, a message of white nationalist revolution. We imagine that this interpretation will strike many as highly idiosyncratic, and it is safe to say that most viewers never interpreted the films as endorsing fascism. Nevertheless, from the perspective of dissident rightists—particularly the white nationalists associated with Greg Johnson's website and publishing house Counter-Currents—the rejoinder that millions of viewers miss the true coded message of fascism is entirely beside the point. In their view, the masses probably "don't get it" because they were never intended to understand it. These fans may even argue that the narrative was designed to prevent most audiences from being able to discern the true message animating the story. A true message would not be so obvious as to be embodied in the protagonist's words and actions; more likely it would be hidden between the lines and perhaps even be given voice by the villains.

[1.7] As per the rationale of esoteric hermeneutics, eyebrow-raising dismissals only serve to confirm the existence and efficacy of the very persecutorial conditions that make esoteric writing and reading a practical necessity. We examine and make sense of this interpretive phenomenon (note 1). After we contextualize The Dark Knight trilogy as one of the most successful movie franchises of its era and of all time, we analyze white-nationalist readings of the trilogy, highlighting the creative, politically charged, and at times counterintuitive use of esoteric hermeneutics. We then provide a framework for understanding the type of reading that white nationalists perform when they engage with the series: we compare it to the philosophical practice of esoteric reading, situating it in relation to alternative interpretive practices like oppositional readings and textual poaching. We conclude by explaining how this form of interpretive practice aligns with other bizarre trends such as the growing QAnon movement.

[1.8] To this end, we focus primarily on the book Dark Right: Batman Viewed from the Right, a collection of essays commissioned and distributed by the self-identified white ethno-nationalists at the website and publishing house Counter-Currents. The Southern Poverty Law Center refers to Counter-Currents as "an epicenter of 'academic' white nationalism" (2018), by which it means a practice of white nationalism that deliberately takes on a more formal and academic style as opposed to hyperbolic, epithet-laden venues like the Daily Stormer. The Counter-Currents website (from which many of the essays appearing in Dark Right originated) receives a shocking 130,000 unique visitors per month, a strong indicator of its privileged status within the global white-nationalist/identitarian ecosystem. The detailed, idiosyncratic interpretations contained in Dark Right serve both as exemplar of far-right readings of the trilogy and as a likely point of origin. What's more, combined with individual contributors' apparent appreciation of the films, the collection would seem to fit with Jenkins's ([2012] 2019) broad definition of fans as "individuals who maintain a passionate connection to popular media, assert their identity through their engagement with and mastery over its contents, and experience social affiliation around shared tastes and preferences."

[1.9] Appearances notwithstanding, it is more probable that the contributors to the Dark Right are less fans of the trilogy than partisans who strategically deploy extant Batman fandom for their own politico-rhetorical ends—poaching the poachers, so to speak, in a mimicry of fan culture. Insofar as that mimicry is potentially misrecognized as the genuine article, it can function as a form of strategic ambiguity, creating an interface or conduit between Batman fans and white-ethnonationalist partisans that otherwise might not have existed.

2. Popular readings of a popular franchise

[2.1] The Dark Knight trilogy began with the 2005 film Batman Begins (Warner Bros.) and became a commercial and critical success. The films made an enormous amount of money at the box office, with The Dark Knight (2008) being the fourth-highest grossing movie at the time. Reviewing Batman Begins, the renowned movie critic Roger Ebert (2005) wrote, "I said this is the Batman movie I've been waiting for; more correctly, this is the movie I did not realize I was waiting for, because I didn't realize that more emphasis on story and character and less emphasis on high-tech action was just what was needed. The movie works dramatically in addition to being an entertainment. There's something to it." Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television, calculates high percentages of positive reviews for each of the three films, with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) measuring approval scores of 84 percent, 94 percent, and 87 percent, respectively.

[2.2] The success of the series, combined with the already existent fan cultures surrounding the DC Comics character, virtually assured the generation of a significant body of commentary, much of which attached political significance to the films, individually and as a whole. This was especially true of the final film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, which, relative to previous installments, contained the most overt allusions to real-world politics. While pundits on both the left and the right produced many popular-press articles speculating about the film's underlying politics, there was never consensus about its political import, even among political tribes.

[2.3] Some on the liberal right saw the film as little more than an attack on conservatism (note 2). The popular conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, for instance, claimed that the name of the film's antagonist, Bane, was designed to create a negative association for then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose former employer, Bain Capital, is an American private investment firm based in Boston, Massachusetts, that specializes in private equity, venture capital, and impact investing, among other things. "[A] lot of brain-dead people…[are] gonna hear 'Bane' in the movie, and they're gonna associate Bain," Limbaugh claimed, arguing further, "the thought is that when they start paying attention to the campaign later in the year, and Obama and the Democrats keep talking about Bain, Romney and Bain, that these people will think back to the Batman movie" (quoted in Lieberman 2012). This was not perhaps the most sophisticated rhetorical analysis, but as reported in The Atlantic it was echoed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz and conservative commentator Jed Babbin (Zuckerman 2012).

[2.4] Other conservatives, however, offered very different, even antithetical interpretations. In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Andrew Klavan (2008) wrote that The Dark Knight was "at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war." Ben Shapiro (2012), writing at the time for the Breitbart website, called the film "probably the most conservative film of all time." In his review, Shapiro points to ten things that, he believes, evince a conservative ethos. Some of those things are rather odd—for instance, his connection of the film's fusion reactor with the failed solar panel company Solyndra—but some are rather substantive, like his argument that Bane's parroting of liberal shibboleths functions as a criticism of Occupy Wall Street. John Nolte (2012), also reviewing the film for Breitbart, made similar arguments, which he broadcast in the title of his review: "Nolan Slaps Obama with a Masterpiece."

[2.5] Left liberals and progressives were also of two minds about the film. Some, like former Clinton aide Christopher Lehane, followed conservatives in seeing connotative significance between the homophones Bane and Bain Capital (see Bedard 2012). Following suit, the Daily Kos site provided a template for readers to make memes connecting the two (Gaba 2012). These approaches to the film, like those of Limbaugh and company, were almost bracingly superficial—though, to be fair, many were publicized before the film's release date. However, reviews by leftists published after actually having seen the film tended to read into it a much more conservative messaging. The politically progressive/liberal website Salon, for instance, ran an article by its executive editor, Andrew O'Hehir (2012) that plainly stated, "It's no exaggeration to say that the 'Dark Knight' universe is fascistic (and I'm not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). It's simply a fact." In O'Hehir's view, the film presents "a vision of human history understood as a struggle between superior individual wills, a tale of symbolic heroism and sacrifice set against the hopeless corruption of society." He then goes on to analogize Batman's use of deceptive tactics to the esoteric philosophy of Leo Strauss, whom he describes as "a neocon founding father." Along similar lines, the award-winning journalist Matt Taibbi (2012) described The Dark Knight Rises as "a Hitlerian whack-off fantasy about an unfairly maligned billionaire who sneaks out at night in bondage masks and Kevlar underpants and uses secret military technology to beat the living shit out of the Occupy movement" (24). And in a since deleted tweet, blogger and journalist Matt Yglesias called The Dark Knight Rises a "balls-out insanely rightwing movie" (quoted in Yudelson 2012).

[2.6] In contrast to these readings, the esoteric interpretation of The Dark Knight trilogy eschews left-liberal and conservative viewpoints, favoring instead an antiliberal traditionalist or dissident right-wing perspective. The dissident right broadly rejects the liberal foundations against which left-liberals and conservatives are seen as mere variations. By that view, both camps are equally committed to the abstract, universal principles of liberal modernity, differing only in terms of the rank ordering of these principles; that is, whereas left-liberals privilege equality, conservatives (or conservative liberals) prize freedom. Skeptical of modern democracy and all the liberal aspirations that underlie it, the dissident right broadly advocates for a universal type of civilization. Such a civilization is characterized by the recognition of a metaphysical order as well as the presence and authority of elites who derive from this higher plane the principles and values necessary to found a well-articulated social organization, open paths to transcendent knowledge, and give life true meaning.

[2.7] An important component of this civilizational ideal is racial homogeneity. Thus, at the extreme, the dissident right advocates for ethnonationalism, emphasizing above all the "health" and security of future white ethnostates. It is unclear how many Americans adhere to this worldview, but most global media conglomerates clearly do not. For the dissident right to find its views expressed in a mainstream movie franchise like the Batman trilogy requires a determined effort at reading between the lines. And that is exactly what some right-wing fans do.

3. Esoteric Batman

[3.1] Given their heterodox beliefs and values, it should come as no surprise that the dissident right counterpose their interpretations of The Dark Knight series against those of mainstream conservative liberals, often underscoring the oppositional nature of their readings in a manner quite unflattering to their conservative foes. Representative of this "shots-fired" approach is the white nationalist essayist Gregory Hood ([2012] 2018), who ascribes conservatives' poor filmic interpretations to intellectual deficiency, arguing that "what passes for the American Right is not intellectually capable of understanding [The Dark Knight Rises]" (47). For Hood and other like-minded right-wing critics of conservatism, "normie" conservatives are too ideologically committed to liberalism as a framework to pick up on the antimodern, antiliberal Traditionalism that constitutes the trilogy's core message. From that perspective, the professional-political enculturation of mainstream conservatives has so built their scheme of orientation that they can only interpret cultural artifacts in a dichotomous fashion, either as instances of left-liberal/progressive propaganda or as vindications of the bourgeois social order (i.e., one consisting of free-market capitalism, limited government, middle-class virtues, etc.).

[3.2] Special ire is directed at mainstream conservative readings of the films, with Gregory Hood and Luke Gordon writing that "conservatives misinterpret the movie because they lack the ability to comprehend anything deeper than corporate profiteering dressed up in platitudes like 'free markets' or 'shining city on a hill.' Higher ideas like Traditionalism or the nature of man, society, and power might as well be a foreign language to the Last Men pining for the second coming of Ronald Regan" ([2016] 2018, 65). Instead of approaching the trilogy through a liberal conservative or progressive framework, the dissident right tends to see it as consistent with, indeed expressive of, their own worldview. This resemblance, they argue, is most pronounced in the third installment of the series, The Dark Knight Rises. Writing under the pseudonym Trevor Lynch ([2012] 2018b), Greg Johnson describes it as an "extremely Right wing, authoritarian, fascistic movie" (38), and Gregory Hood and Luke Gordon ([2016] 2018) refer to it as "[the] most subversive and overtly right-wing movie to be made in many years" (51).

[3.3] The film certainly proliferated within the (mostly online) white-nationalist ecosystem. White nationalists and other dissident right-wing communities—identified generically at the time as the alt-right—would quote Bane or make Bane-related memes. Quotations from the revolutionary/terrorist appeared, for instance, in the white separatist writings of the Traditionalist Worker Party (dissolved as of 2018) and the commentary and message board website the Daily Stormer. A member of the notorious imageboard website 4chan dressed as the bit character CIA Agent from The Dark Knight Rises to disrupt Shia LaBeouf and Jaden Smith's anti-Trump streaming project (Broderick 2017). Armed white supremacists quoted Bane in a viral video uploaded shortly before three white men in masks opened fire on a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis (see Michel 2016). In an era of digital networked interactivity, however, what is peripheral has an uncanny ability of finding its way to the center, as Marshall McLuhan ([1964] 2003) observed in the 1960s vis-à-vis electronic media. Writing for the feminist website Jezebel, Gabrielle Bluestone (2017) accused Trump of plagiarizing Bane in his inaugural address. One does not need to commit to the principle of logographic necessity to appreciate the remarkable parallels between Bane's words and Trump's. Despite the widespread fan uptake among radical conservatives, the short memes never provide an explanation for what about the trilogy appeals to white supremacists.

[3.4] An equally interesting question is that if these critics are correct in their political analysis, and The Dark Knight trilogy is radically conservative, how did a movie series boasting an uncompromisingly fascistic message achieve such critical, commercial, and cultural success. The most probable and consistent answer—regardless of whether the specific term is referenced—is that the movies are esoterically coded: whereas the exoteric, surface-level mishmash of various political ideologies leaves something for everyone to latch onto, the true hidden message is one of Traditionalism, authoritarianism, and fascism—so much so, in fact, that The Dark Knight films are ones that run-of-the-mill "conservatives are attracted to" even if they "will never truly understand" (Hood and Gordon [2016] 2018, 65). These readings can be quite nuanced, and we explore them in more detail later.

[3.5] In broad strokes the overarching esoteric interpretation is as follows: Gotham City, the home of Batman, represents America—or any liberal, market-oriented democracy; it is hopelessly corrupt, dirty, mismanaged, and overrun by crime, both organized and chaotic. The League of Shadows—an ancient, martial secret society that acts as a catalyst for the restructuring of decadent civilizations around the globe—recognizes that Gotham cannot be redeemed and so plans to destroy it in the hopes that a better, more noble community can emerge in its place. It has successfully carried out such missions many times before, as its leader, Ra's al Ghul, tells a young Bruce in Batman Begins: "The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance." Although Bruce Wayne acknowledges Gotham's systemic problems, he ultimately rejects the world-revolutionary spirit of the League of Shadows (as well as its edict that killing is often a necessary evil). Instead of revolutionary action, he takes up the vigilante identity of Batman as a means of saving the city from itself and restoring justice.

[3.6] At the level of exoteric encoding, the League of Shadows and its members are positioned as the villains: they represent obstacles to Batman's goal of restorative justice and are thus in the wrong. Against that interpretation, the antiliberal right argues that, like the villains of so many other esoteric texts, the League of Shadows functions as the narrative's voice of reason, speaking the hidden truth of the films. Although Batman does triumph at the end of the first installment, his victory over the League of Shadows is not a clear victory for liberal reformism; rather, Batman, in this view, represents the intervention of Nietzsche's Übermensch—an exceptionally virtuous, self-overcoming individual—to save Gotham from its own decadence and subvert its entropic decline, a situation that cannot be sustained over the long range. Despite the esoteric encryption, this message, the dissident right maintains, only becomes more incontrovertible as the trilogy unfolds.

[3.7] In The Dark Knight, organized crime and other forms of corruption once again run rampant in Gotham, despite Batman's continued efforts to shore up the fabric of civil society. Impressed by the idealism of the new district attorney, Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne hopes that Dent, in coordination with Lieutenant Jim Gordon of the Gotham City Police Department, can replace the extrajudicial justice that had been necessary to keep Gotham from falling into chaos. This plan fails spectacularly with the appearance of the Joker, whose wanton, violent criminality centers on Dent and results in the moral and physical transformation of Dent from law-upholding prosecutor to the vengeful, spree-killer Two-Face. With the loss of Dent as a beacon for hope, Gotham's need for a Batman-like figure reasserts itself, and Batman, in concert with Lieutenant Gordon, decides that the news of Dent's fall would be too demoralizing to publicize. As Gordon explains, "The Joker won. Harvey's prosecution, everything he fought for…undone. Whatever chance you gave us at fixing our city dies with Harvey's reputation. We bet it all on him. The Joker took the best of us and tore him down. People will lose hope."

[3.8] Batman insists that Gotham's citizens should never know about Dent's devolution, and Gordon and Batman concoct a story that Batman was responsible for Dent's death. This noble lie functions to preserve the myth that reforms from within the system could ultimately save Gotham. That such a myth is necessary, however, underscores Gotham's politico-existential need for a superhero, and this exigence, the radical right argues, renders the film fascistic. As Hood and Gordon ([2016] 2018) explain, "The idea of a superhero can be inherently 'fascist'—a superhero is a being of pure will and great power who is held to a different standard so he can impose that will on the larger society. A superhero saves society from itself…Democracy can only be saved by people who don't really believe in democracy" (64).

[3.9] Among the three films, the final installment, The Dark Knight Rises, has attracted the most attention from dissident right-wing critics. In their view, the film provides the master key for grasping the trilogy as a whole. The film introduces a new villain, Bane, a masked terrorist/revolutionary and former member of the League of Shadows. In short order, Bane seizes control of Gotham city, destroying its bridges, instituting martial law, releasing violent criminals from Blackgate Penitentiary, and exiling and killing its elite. At each step of the way, Bane publicly and explicitly justifies his actions in terms of left-wing populist and egalitarian ideals that could have been lifted from the Occupy Wall Street protest movement of 2011–2012. This left-liberal/progressive messaging, however, was merely a cover. Bane, it turns out, remains an active member of the League of Shadows. After physically crippling Batman and imprisoning him abroad, Bane converts a fusion reactor core into a decaying neutron bomb with the aim of accelerating the collapse that the League of Shadows predicts is inevitable. While the League appears to have been vindicated, by the end of the film a healed Batman escapes from prison and returns to Gotham, defeating Bane and restoring some semblance of order to the city. Bruce Wayne, however, is no longer interested in being Batman. He retires, leaving a young police officer to potentially fill his shoes.

[3.10] In effect, the dissident right argues, the extraordinary effort of unique individuals can stave off societal corruption, but perhaps not forever. Or, as Hood and Luke Gordon put it,

[3.11] Despite the happy ending of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle palling around in Florence, the ultimate message of the film, and the trilogy, is far too dark for ever-optimistic American conservatives to internalize. Gotham only functions when it is built on lies. Lacking both an aristocracy capable of leading, and a populace capable of being lead [sic], Gotham reverts to brutal authoritarianism in order to bring about order…The nature of the people themselves ultimately never changes. When left to their own devices, the people allow radical psychopaths to run the roost, a reflection of their own fractured existence. At the end Gotham is saved from total destruction, but once again needs the false lie of a higher man's sacrifice in order to make sense. Bruce Wayne escapes, turns his back on the city, and moves on with his life in a foreign country…Much like modern America though, Gotham can only make sense for so long before the wheels come undone. What is Nolan really saying then? Is it possible he's challenging our notions of what we actually are conserving? Gotham is reminiscent of modern America, decadent, soulless, and lacking any social capital. Is there a Gotham still worth saving? An America? That's Nolan's real question, and something Batman, like conservatives, omit themselves from ever having to answer. (64–65)

[3.12] Hood and Gordon's synopsis of the films both explains the appeal to fascists and justifies the esoteric reading of the trilogy. For these and other white nationalists, The Dark Knight trilogy is itself about esotericism, which reflexively invites an esoteric reading. Surface-level appearances, they argue, draw attention to the interplay between exoteric and esoteric structures, essentially thematizing the cultural role of esoteric encoding/decoding.

[3.13] To some extent this is true of any movie centered on an alter-ego superhero, but The Dark Knight trilogy takes it a step farther. Consider the palatable lie that Batman and Gordon tell the public regarding Harvey Dent/Two-Face: their explicit motive in telling the lie is to protect the public from a truth they believe it cannot handle, which, according to Jason Jorjani (2018, 76), tracks with the esoterica reasoning behind the "noble lie" in Plato's Republic (1992). Hood and Gordon ([2016] 2018) likewise refer to this and the other lies necessary to keep Gotham going as "noble lies that would make Leo Strauss blush" (64). And Andy Nowicki, Colin Liddell, and Richard Spencer explicitly discuss the film in terms of Strauss's concepts of esoteric and exoteric messaging (Neokrat [Affirmative Right] 2020, minutes 46–56).

[3.14] The series also includes numerous instances of surface-level appearances failing to divulge the true story. The Joker tells two mutually exclusive origin stories about how he came by his Glasgow smile—first, that he received it from his abusive father, second, that he self-inflicted the scars in a grotesque attempt to cheer up his wife. According to Christopher Pankhurst ([2016] 2018, 99), this narrative contradiction renders the character a cypher and allows his "more mythic qualities" to shine through. When Batman remarks of the Joker's violent behavior that "criminals aren't complicated," his wise butler, Alfred, disabuses him of that notion: "With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don't fully understand either." Alfred then tells the story of a bandit he fought during his time in Burma who raided and stole from local caravans, only later to throw away the purloined valuables. The exoteric point of the anecdote is to reveal the existence of an ethical system totally alien to Batman's sense of political justice, one that may require further analysis for Bruce Wayne to comprehend. Esoterically, Jorjani (2018) argues, the story seems designed to prompt such reflection in the viewer.

[3.15] When responding to the mainstream conservative interpretations of the films in defense of an esoteric Traditionalist reading, Hood and Gordon ([2016] 2018) write, "But how do we know this? How can we be sure that we aren't like Big Hollywood, just reading into the movie our own ideological prejudices? Well, it's pretty easy. Bane directly tells us" (60, emphasis in original). They argue that Bane tells Batman that the socialist platitudes he spouts are really just him "feeding [Gothamites] hope to poison their souls." The message again is that simple exoteric readings of the film, like those performed by many conservative and liberal critics, are inconsistent with the way the film asks the audience to understand it.

[3.16] Hood and Gordon present themselves as fans of the trilogy, having conducted in-depth interpretive analyses that show appreciation of the films at virtually every level. They purport to explain the often-unstated attraction of white-nationalist fans to the films. And the book's authors appeal to fans more generally in what is perhaps a gesture of strategic ambiguity. Hood and Gordon and other contributors essentially ask how a fan, frequently defined by loving attention to detail, could miss all the signs that point to a white-nationalist (or Traditionalist) reading of the trilogy. The appeal to, or mimicry of, a fanlike close reading is, however, a hallmark of all esoteric textual interpretation. A call to read something esoterically, between the lines, presupposes fans as both consumers and producers of fan culture. Of course, that is why there are virtually no esoteric readings of materials that do not elicit high levels of subjective adherence, that do not generate fandoms. Esoteric readings are all centered around great works. And that helps to explain the rhetorical motivation animating white nationalists' esoteric engagement with The Dark Knight trilogy: it looks exactly like what true fans would do.

4. The future is esoteric

[4.1] Fan studies have long viewed the consumption of texts as an active, creative process rather than mere passive reception. Henry Jenkins ([1992] 2013, 26, 46) argues that fans who poach from places of "cultural marginality and social weakness" can create "their own culture built from the semiotic raw materials the media provides." For example, queer fans can write fiction about homosexual couplings between characters who, in the primary source material, are coded as straight. Such textual poaching, in effect, produces texts that critique, expand, or queer the textual plan of the source material, developing narratives in ways that may deviate from dominant representations or the intended meanings of the media industry. Although the complexity of textual poaching varies widely, both within and across fan communities, the sophistication of some fan readings is on a par with academic criticism.

[4.2] White nationalists who appropriate The Dark Knight trilogy and read it through an overtly racialized right-wing lens do in fact constitute a distinct subcommunity within the broad, multifarious world of Batman fandom. What's more, relative to other Batman fan groups, their outré political commitments situate them at the margins both of Batman fandom and society at large. And yet their hermeneutical approach to the trilogy cannot be said to fall under the rubric of textual decoding, textual poaching, or indeed any other mainstream critical-cultural practice. In keeping with their archeofuturistic political predilections, white nationalists seem to adhere to a model of interpretation that predates modernity while going beyond it. As we have seen, when it comes to Nolan's trilogy, white nationalists prefer to read things esoterically, between the lines.

[4.3] According to the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss ([1952] 1988), prior to the nineteenth century philosophers felt compelled, for reasons of persecution, to write and teach esoterically—that is, to disguise multiple levels of meaning within an exoteric structure of philosophical communication. Using a variety of rhetorical stratagems and compositional techniques to encrypt the true meaning of texts—using obscure references, irony or paradox, hyperbole, even deliberate self-contradictions—these premodern writers deployed esoteric writing so as to transmit radical, hidden messages to "thoughtful…careful readers" (25). Decryption of these messages differs from oppositional reading—even of oppositional texts—because it involves not only (1) the attribution of a perceived oppositional motive on the part of the author, whether Plato or Maimonides or whomever, but also (2) the encryption, rather than encoding, of what is perceived to be an oppositional message. By that view, common, exoteric readings of a work like Plato's Republic function simply as a discursive means of bypassing the censors of a punitive society and safely distributing a truth that is potentially inimical or offensive to common belief and opinion.

[4.4] To be sure, nothing about The Dark Knight trilogy overtly endorses white nationalism; in fact, at the level of exoteric messaging, the movie does not have much to say at all about the politics of racial identity. But white nationalist fan interpretations of the series operate very much between the lines, seeing within the text a secret, intercalated, even risky message designed for their eyes only.

[4.5] Whether Christopher Nolan esoterically encoded The Dark Knight trilogy with white-nationalist messages is very close to unknowable, but the same could be said regarding Xenophon or other classical writers whose texts academic Straussians examine like so many animal entrails awaiting divination. And that is the rhetorical rub of esoteric hermeneutics: although no esoteric interpretation can be proven, the impossibility of ever becoming certain of one's esoteric reading is one of the conditions that makes esoteric writing possible in the first place; indeed, this interpretive torsion is the source of a paradoxical strength. If it were possible for a reader to prove—beyond reasonable doubt—that a given author is engaged in esoteric writing, then esoteric writing would simply fail as a strategy of self-protection against a persecutional society. Esoteric writing, in other words, can only work if esoteric reading is always subject to uncertainty.

[4.6] The method presumes what Strauss, in a 1957 lecture series on Plato, refers to as "logographic necessity" (2014, 19, emphasis in original)—that is, the presupposition that a text is constructed like a living organism: each and every part, no matter how apparently accidental its arrangement, functions in coordination with all other parts to create an overall meaning. "Everything is necessary," Strauss says; "nothing is accidental." This at once puts the critic of esotericism at a rhetorical disadvantage because the very question of veracity can be dismissed by an esoteric reader as a red herring (or McGuffin). What's more, if a work could be said to invite an esoteric reading, then that reading could take on a life of its own, building discursive communities committed to preserving the hidden meaning of the text. Even so, there is no compelling reason to grant the truth of logographic necessity. And even if the principle were true in general, it would be quite another thing to argue that applies to any particular text—to Plato's Gorgias or Nolan's Batman.

[4.7] As progressive values like racial, LGBTQ+, and gender equality become increasingly ubiquitous in Western media and popular culture, white nationalists and their fellow travelers on the dissident right are faced with a choice: tune out and turn away from major institutions of communication and culture or adopt interpretive means of repurposing mainstream cultural production (such as it is). The practice of esoteric hermeneutics has ensured that this choice is not merely rhetorical—or no longer is, if it ever was. As we have tried to demonstrate in the case of The Dark Knight trilogy, textual esotericism provides an effective mechanism whereby fringe political movements can interstitially decipher their own ideology within and between meaningful structures that are indifferent or even hostile to their worldview.

[4.8] Regardless of whether mainstream viewers of the trilogy find an esoteric white-nationalist reading absurd, that interpretive framework provides a plausible explanation as to why the trilogy was enthusiastically embraced by certain segments of right-wing political culture. Given the enthusiasm and obsessional care with which white nationalists took up Nolan's reimagining of the Batman franchise, in combination with a media-cultural environment that is perceived to be overtly left leaning, it is reasonable to expect the future proliferation of esoteric interpretations of pop cultural artifacts, not only from white nationalists but from any movement that views itself as the potential object of censure and persecution. In fact, similar esoteric readings frequently emerge among participants of QAnon (see Packer and Stoneman 2021). Counter-Currents publishes esoterically interpretive analyses of other mainstream American films as well, such as Dune (both the 1982 original and 2021 remake) and The Dark Crystal series (2019).

[4.9] It is safe to say that popular texts that reward careful reading deal with topics controversial enough to provoke persecution, and the hints at carefully constructed levels of meaning will continue to invite esoteric readings by those who hold heterodox opinions. In at least the short term, the forecast looks like more and more esoteric interpretations from white nationalists and their fellow travelers.

[4.10] Fan studies research on right-of-center fandoms have tended to treat such groups almost entirely as reactions to what conservatives and rightists perceive as an increasingly progressive pop culture. This is a reasonable approach. After all, reactionaries are by their very nature oppositional identities, responding to political or social liberalization or reform. What's more, these works are important if we want to expand our understanding of fandom's intersection with politics, and its multifarious vectors of politicization. In the spirit of that project, however, we hope that more fan studies scholars may themselves see fit to scratch beneath the exoteric shell of reactionary or even conservative fandoms and analyze the hidden cocreative production of meaning that animates certain right-wing engagements with popular texts. These meanings may turn on inegalitarianism, antiprogressivism, and the like, but that should not disguise the fact that they are actively coconstructed. From traditionalists and normie conservatives to white nationalists, rightists of all stripes do enjoy popular forms of media and not infrequently find that some of these forms resonate with their worldview and sustain their subjective adherence to it.

[4.11] Right-wing fandoms may not always be as straightforward as left-liberal or progressive ones, but they can just as easily serve as inductors for political subjectivation and action. If fandoms are subject to politicization—and all signs currently point to increased politicization—then it is important to study this process across the political spectrum and be alert to its potential to manifest in unorthodox perhaps even bizarre ways.

5. Notes

1. Both authors contributed equally to this work. Our author order on this article was based on lines of dialogue remembered from Ralph Bakshi's Wizards (20th Century Fox, 1977).

2. Throughout the article, we use political terms referring to variants of liberalism understood as a left–right political spectrum. Accordingly, conservative liberalism, also referred to as right-liberalism, is treated as a category of liberalism, combining liberal values and policies (e.g., individual rights, equality before the law, right to private property, etc.) with conservative stances such as support for a laissez-faire economy and socially conservative principles, or simply representing the right-wing branch of the liberal movement. Social liberalism is another variety of liberalism. Also referred to as left-liberalism, new liberalism, modern liberalism, and progressive liberalism, it endorses social justice and the expansion of civil and political rights. Both the nonliberal right and the nonliberal left situate themselves in opposition to liberalism as a whole, albeit differently. Given that the present article focuses on interpretive interventions of the nonliberal right (white nationalists, in particular) into popular culture, we believe it is advantageous, in our analysis, to employ variant categories of liberalism.

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