‘Any critic of yours online gets absolutely lambasted by your followers,’ Cathy Newman told Jordan Peterson on Channel 4 News in January. After the interview, Newman received such torrents of online abuse that Channel 4 had to call in security specialists. Peterson, a clinical psychologist at Toronto University, was on the show to discuss the gender pay gap and to promote his new book, Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The gender pay gap, he insists, is not a result of discrimination: he believes that women are by their nature more inclined to take jobs which, it so happens, are less well paid.

Peterson sympathised with his supporters’ contempt for Newman’s style of questioning, but distanced himself from the abuse. ‘If you're threatening her, stop,’ he told his 300,000 Twitter followers (now more than half a million). But ‘the dark part of me thought,’ he said later, that ‘if I wanted to sick my internet trolls on Channel 4, then there would be nothing but broken windows and riots. And then there's a little part of me that thinks – wouldn't that be fun?’

Peterson is already enjoying himself. His meteoric rise has made Twelve Rules for Life a bestseller. Penguin, his British publisher, recently boasted that he is ‘outselling the Bible’, ‘the most influential psychologist since Carl Jung’, ‘more popular than Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘the biggest philosopher since Albert Camus'. (His only other book, Maps of Meaning, published in 1999, sold fewer than 500 copies in hardback.) His appearance on Channel 4 News has had eight million views on YouTube. In the fifteen days before the interview, his following across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube rose by roughly 35,000 users. In the fifteen days after, it increased by 253,000 users (40,000 more Twitter followers, 100,000 on Facebook, and 113,000 new subscribers on YouTube). His Patreon account now earns him over $60,000 a month from his supporters’ donations, on top of his professional salary. His recent promo-tour in London was extended twice, with four events that each sold out within 24 hours. He appeared on stage in front of a huge portrait of himself with a halo around his head. 'Are you a prophet?' someone in the crowd asked. He will be back in May.

Most of Peterson’s followers are young white men. His digressive lectures on YouTube offer lessons on philosophy, religion, evolutionary biology, the inevitability of suffering and the need to ‘aim at the highest pursuit you can think of, and act and tell the truth in that pursuit’. Meanwhile, his defence of traditional family values, individualism and free speech, accompanied by diatribes against ‘identity politics’, ‘radical left ideologues’ and ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ have made him a favourite on the right, bridging the distance between Breitbart and the Spectator.

If suffering is inevitable and universal, he argues, then you are misguided if you see a connection between your suffering and your gender, race or class. For Peterson, identity politics is ‘just an excuse for failing to live your life in a respectable and noble manner’; Islamophobia is a ‘word created by fascists and used by cowards’; white privilege is a ‘Marxist lie’; and ‘each sex has its own unfairness to deal with, but to think of that as a consequence of the social structure – come on, really?’

For Peterson, the world’s hierarchies and inequalities are natural and ahistorical, existing outside society’s influence. Private property and the free market are ‘the articulated reflections of much deeper natural laws’, he says. The idea that society’s hierarchies might be ‘socio-cultural constructions’ or ‘a secondary consequence of capitalism’ is ‘absolute nonsense’. If women wanted or were suited to higher-paid jobs, he says, they would be in them, because markets, like the natural world, reward competence. Proof of gender discrimination – the absence of women in powerful and better-paid positions – thus becomes proof that it does not exist.

He occasionally concedes that sexism exists: ‘Oh, of course there is, it’s a multivariate problem.’ But he thinks the answer is not to increase equality between men and women, but to insist on the biological differences between them. ‘These biological differences,’ he says, ‘are by the standards of psychological and social science research, actually quite large. Especially the difference in interest between people and things.’

In July 2017, James Damore was fired by Google after he sent a memo to his peers, criticising the company’s diversity drive because women were suited to ‘people and aesthetics’, not coding. He immediately appeared on Peterson’s YouTube channel and revealed he was a ‘huge fan’. He was also interviewed by Stefan Molyneux, with whom Peterson regularly collaborates. Molyneux posts weekly rants on YouTube against ‘female evil’ and the ‘Matriarchal Lineage of Corruption’, and defends notions of white supremacy. Peterson praised Damore’s ‘spine of steel’ and intellectual acumen: ‘everything James claimed is solidly backed by well-developed scientific literatures.’ (He picks and chooses his scientific literatures, however, saying he’s ‘very sceptical of the models that are used to predict climate change’.)

It may be tempting to ignore Peterson and hope he sinks back into obscurity. But hundreds of thousands of people find meaning and guidance in his lectures; many say he has changed, even saved, their lives. His support, like his thought, is riddled with contradictions. He attacks identity politics while appealing specifically to young white men. He tells his audience to ‘grow up’, but thrives on their childish, trolling behaviour. He insists on the paramount importance of independence – ‘Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period’ – but cultivates a network of young men who have become disconcertingly dependent on him.