Discover more from Arc Digital
Stimulant Politics: Arousal, Agitation, Amphetamines, and the Froth of Politics
One way or another, we’re all getting pilled
It’s common to use words like agitate, excited, and rouse when describing the mobilizing effects of politics, particularly politics that tends toward the radical or transformative. Politics itself has long been an activity that gets the blood up, and it has at times even been fueled by and interconnected with the consumption of stimulants. From caffeine, to crystal meth, to testosterone, natural and synthetic sources of added energy have regularly featured in the froth of political agitation and change.
Politics Enhancing Drugs
Caffeine was at the heart of the revolutionary politics that swept through Western politics in the 17th and 18th centuries. The drink set Europe buzzing, and a new culture of political participation grew up around the caffeine-and-tobacco-fueled discussions of coffee shops in London and Paris. Here, the first political junkies were born, and ideas about law, liberty, and sovereignty were bandied about over the day’s news.
In England, the 17th century witnessed religious transformation, plague, and a fatal showdown between crown and parliament that forged the foundations of the political settlement that continues to this day. In Paris, the famed Café Le Procope hosted the likes of Jefferson, Rousseau, and Robespierre. The storming of the Bastille was launched from a Parisian coffee house, Café Foy.
In both countries, the old guard took note of the agitating effects of the coffee house on politics. Charles II issued a 1672 proclamation aimed at curbing the spread of politically damaging information and ideas, in which he stated,
men have assumed to themselves a liberty, not only in Coffee-houses, but in other Places and Meetings, both public and private, to censure and defame the proceedings of State by speaking evil of things they understand not.
In Revolutionary France, Royalist P.J.G. Gerbier remarked
Where does so much mad agitation come from? From a crowd of minor clerks and lawyers, from unknown writers, starving scribblers, who go about rabble-rousing in clubs and cafés. These are the hotbeds that have forged the weapons with which the masses are armed today.
Coffee’s place in the political upheavals of the early modern period wasn’t simply about the effects of caffeine. It was about the culture of the coffeehouses themselves, which fostered lively discussion and an egalitarian atmosphere among the clientele.
Of course, caffeine is only one of the many stimulants, both naturally and synthetically derived, on offer in modern life. And, if we associate coffee’s early adoption period in Europe with the Enlightenment and republican revolutions, the 20th and 21st centuries offer some examples of stimulants at work for the radical right.
Norman Ohler’s Blizted is a remarkable examination of the place of amphetamines in Nazi Germany. In it, Ohler recounts how Pervitin, a methamphetamine-based drug introduced in the late 1930s, became a staple for German soldiers fighting on the front lines and bomber pilots flying over British cities. The drug provided energy, helped overcome the effects of sleep deprivation, and enhanced the fighting spirit. But this drug wasn’t just for supplying artificial valor to the German soldier. It flooded German society, earning the label volksdroge (“people’s drug”).
Ohler notes that the drug’s rise was meteoric. “Pervitin (methamphetamine) became a sensation,” one psychologist reported.
It soon gained acceptance in a very wide range of circles; students used it as a survival strategy for the exertions of exams; telephone switchboard operators and nurses swallowed it to get through the night shift, and people doing difficult physical or mental labour used it to improve their performance.
As stated, this wasn’t merely a drug for the grunts of the Third Reich. It penetrated the professional and political classes, becoming a critical part of the the advanced activities of the German economy and state. As Ohler writes, “Doctors treated themselves with it. Businessmen who had to rush from meeting to meeting pepped themselves up. Party members did the same, and so did the SS.”
If Germany was riding a national high, this was also true of the man at the very top. Hitler’s drug use is now well-known. Ohler sums up the intoxicated state of the Führer as follows:
The fact was that between the autumn of 1941, when he started being given hormone and steroid injections, and the second half of 1944, when first the cocaine and then above all the Eukodal kicked in, Hitler hardly enjoyed a sober day.
Ultimately, the widespread use of stimulants came to be regulated, and we now recognize the potentially destructive effects of meth and its upper cousins. But the appeal of these drugs in a political context, especially among the radical right, has not faded away.
Amphetamines are still popular among modern-day extremists. Anders Brevik, the Norwegian mass killer, admitted to imbibing a cocktail of caffeine, amphetamines, and other stimulants to fuel him as he murdered 77 people in Oslo and a nearby island in the name of self-declared war on multiculturalism. He told the court he “wanted to make sure [his] body could handle it.”
In Germany, the contemporary neo-Nazi movement remains in thrall to crystal meth. Official right-wing institutions, including parties like the NPD, denounce drug consumption, but many far-right activists and footsoldiers, from hooligans to NPD members, are active users and even distributors and dealers. Despite the anti-meth position of NPD leadership, Michael Knodt argues that the drug is well-matched to the neo-Nazi view of the world. As he writes for Vice
The meth high fits right-wing ideology like a black, leather glove on an outstretched hand. Meth can make you as aggressive and insensitive to pain as alcohol does, but it doesn't incapacitate you in the same way.
Stimulants, both in their physiological effects and in the micro-economies and subcultures they foster, have long played a part in political change and unrest. I’m not making a scientific, causal argument about the places of these substances. But I am offering a kind of lens through which to look at some moments and places in political radicalization, particularly on the right, via a select few stimulants and the attendant concerns with vitality, agitation, aggression, motivation, and strength that accompany them.
In the 21st century, a mixture of extreme sport enthusiasm and online gaming culture have helped make energy drinks like Monster, Red Bull, and Bang the favored pick-me-up of young men across America. The politics around these companies can often be conservative and even reactionary, dialed into boyish ideas about power and success.
In a 2018 exposé on sexual discrimination and abuse at Monster, Emily Peck reported at the time that
Monster is also facing lawsuits from five other women over complaints of sexual discrimination and other issues, as first reported in a HuffPost investigation in January. One Monster executive, head of music marketing Brent Hamilton, is facing felony assault charges for allegedly strangling his girlfriend on a company business trip. He is still employed by the company.
Masculinity features heavily in energy drink advertising and in the subcultures of energy drink enthusiasts that exist online. New research has emerged showing the relationship between energy drink consumption and beliefs about masculinity. According to The New Yorker, a University of Akron and Texas Tech study “found that the more a man bought into masculine ideals, the more he believed that energy drinks made him manly.”
At The Atlantic, Olga Khazan also highlighted how that same study shows how these views drive consumption:
[M]en who subscribed most to stereotypically masculine beliefs were also more likely to believe that energy drinks work wonders. … The association between masculinity and energy drinks hinged on demographics. For the younger men in the study, masculinity ideology was significantly correlated with energy drink outcome expectations, but that wasn't the case for men who were older than about 32. And for the white men, but not men of color, higher energy drink outcome expectations were associated with greater energy-drink consumption.
But cans of varyingly drinkable energy elixirs are not the only way men are looking to supplement their feelings of masculine strength and vitality. Even before the new wave of outrage over hormone treatments for trans youth, the politics of testosterone were becoming increasingly fraught.
A pervasive concern with “soft” men dominates a lot of far right discourse. Sam Wolfson wrote an excellent 2019 piece for The Guardian, charting the journey of testosterone-obsessed troll politics from snarky chat boards to reified ideology. He observes,
Like much of conspiracy conservatism, it began on message boards where various alt-right activists gather. There, being ‘low-T’ has become the ultimate insult, alongside other masculinity-challenging burns such as ‘cuck’, ‘soyboy’ and ‘beta’. On Reddit’s biggest Trump community, The Donald, there are thousands of posts that say things like ‘POST-VEGAS CUCKOLDRY: Low-T Leftist Decides to Virtue Signal by Turning in His Guns.’
This obsession with strong vs soft men has traveled all the way to Capitol Hill. Representative Matt Gaetz described the first impeachment of Donald Trump in 2019 as an exercise “in drag” and a “low-T impeachment.” This month, Senator Josh Hawley wrote an op-ed at Fox News on America’s masculinity crisis. In it, he argues that “Strong men aren’t the problem. For America, stronger, better men are the solution.”
In a general sense, this is just part of the much longer tradition of male politicians seeking to exude strength and other manly features. It’s also more specifically true of extreme right-wing politics. The far right has long been enamored with male fitness, vigor, and virility. As Cynthia Miller-Idriss writes, “The intersection of extremism and fitness leans into a shared obsession with the male body, training, masculinity, testosterone, strength and competition.”
But, as Wolfson stresses,
[T]he obsession with testosterone is about more than being able to win in a fight. Testosterone is an often-misunderstood hormone, present in both men and women. It plays an important role in sexual function and having a lot of it can help you build muscle, but it also helps with cognition, energy and mood. People with low testosterone are more likely to have multiple chronic health conditions (although researchers argue that a causal link has not been proven). So saying someone has low testosterone taps into a murky mix of insecurities: about not being manly, lacking assertiveness and being unable to satisfy sexually.
And that’s certainly what Donald Trump has represented, both implicitly and explicitly, for many of his supporters. He’s not just strong. He’s smart, virile, unflappable, and—crucially—unfailingly self-assured. Back in 2016, he went on Dr. Oz, where the host assured him and the audience that his testosterone levels were perfectly fine.
And overall fitness is key to many on the far right, who see it as part of a political struggle against ethnic and political takeovers. This plays out in other countries as well. Mark Townsend examined the rise of fascist-aligned men’s fitness groups for The Guardian in 2022. He emphasizes that
Analysis by anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate says the British far right has positioned physical fitness as part of a ‘wider political struggle’ and helped explain how online groups like WSAC could grow even after Covid restrictions have been lifted.
Low-T dominates their imagination, as well, as do concerns about becoming “soft,” “weak,” and “effeminate.”
Vim and vigor are needed. They are needed to achieve great things. They are needed to make gains. They are needed to set society and culture right and to defend the nation, the women and children, and even oneself from the enervating effects of political correctness, eroding gender norms, and rising multiculturalism.
Hooked on a Feeling
As much as political commentators and analysts have expressed concerns about the rising levels of anger in American politics, a growing body of research also shows that the sensational emotions that accompany our political fights can function in drug-like ways. Anger at injustice or worry over serious issues like climate change or economic downturns are all entirely reasonable. But our current moment offers more and more scenarios in which our limbic systems are dialed to eleven.
[R]ecent studies show that experiencing a perceived wrong or injustice — especially to one’s in-group — activates the same reward and habit regions of the brain (the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum) as substance addiction, triggering cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through retaliation. When these grievances become chronic because of the mounting effects of psychological tendencies like a heightened brain sensitivity to threat, intentional forms of political manipulation, internet platform algorithms that prey on outrage, and dysphoric rumination within politically homogenous social networks, to name just a few, we often become trapped.
Through this lens, America has a drug lord at the top of the political marketplace, one who freely and daily shoots up on his own product. Donald Trump’s grievance-laden assault on our democracy has only grown more potent and deadly since his 2016 campaign. Continuing his preaching of the Big Lie that he never really lost the 2020 election, he has kicked off his 2024 campaign by telling his supporters “I am your retribution.”
Writing for Politico just after the 2020 election, Yale psychiatrist James Kimmel, Jr. argued that there is value in approaching Trump’s politics of grievance from the perspective of addiction:
The science of addiction provides another cautionary insight: Trump’s revenge habit hurts not only himself and the targets of his retaliatory wrath, but the rest of us, too. Like substance addiction, revenge addiction appears to spread from person to person. For instance, inner-city gun violence spreads in neighborhoods like a social contagion, with one person’s grievances infecting others with a desire to seek vengeance.
If Trump is the Pablo Escobar of America’s toxic political crisis, there is still no shortage of other dealers in both literal and figurative politics enhancing substances.
A host of influencers and executives associated with energy drink, fitness, and performance brands espouse extreme views online or are entangled with America’s new hard right politics.
Bang CEO Jake Owoc was a Trump cheerleader in 2016, once tweeting, “Your brilliance has fueled the most epic turn of events in the history of politics. God bless the inevitable – Trump wins!” In 2017, Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz (who passed away in 2022), floated plans to launch a right-wing news outlet—although, it should be noted the proposed media venture would not have been tied to Red Bull. A German paper compared the idea to Breitbart, and Breitbart itself ran a favorable piece on the Trump-supporting Austrian executive’s anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigrant views.
Fitness and masculinity influencers peddle in I healthy ideas around male health, endurance, and aggression—and many of these influencers also become conduits for hateful, far-right, and conspiratorial ideologies. Famously misogynistic influencer Andrew Tate has even been cited as a cause in the rise of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior among young boys in places like the U.K., Australia, and the United States.
The Anti-Defamation league has expressed these exact concerns, releasing a report that states, “The alt right is defined by its white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideology, but when alt righters talk about the women who are standing between them and their ‘rightful’ position, their language is virtually indistinguishable from what you can find on misogynistic MRA or incel message boards. MRAs, or Men’s Rights Activists, believe that men are being victimized by employment and family law, among other things.”
Again, more generally, Trump and the wider MAGA movement traffic in an endless cycle of agitation around masculinity, national vitality, and an endless stream of fear mongering about the forces that are sapping us of our life-force. The preferred epithet against Joe Biden, both as candidate and president, remains “sleepy.” In 2022, CPAC claimed to be “Awake! Not woke!”
But all stimulants wash out like the tide. The caffeine—or cocaine—high wears off. Our emotional bursts subside, leaving us feeling raw and our systems flooded with stress hormones. And we are left with a choice of whether to endure the withdrawal or to reach for yet another hit.