Krasodomski-Jones: Donald Trump's alt-right supporters were skilled at packaging their message in a way irresistible to the media
The meme, wielded by those who understood its potency, emerged as the ultimate campaign weapon, he says
Editor’s Note: Alex Krasodomski-Jones is a researcher of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tankd Demos in London. His primary research interest is political extremism and its reportage on social media. The opinions in this article belong to the author
“It’s still sinking in; we literally memed the absolute MADMAN into the White House.”
When all the votes were in, the loudest celebrations – like this comment on Reddit – might have been online. When Republicans and conservatives were faltering in their support for Donald Trump, one group stood up unwaveringly: the cyber warriors of the “alternative right.”
Trump’s online support was a complicated galaxy. Conservatives, right-wingers and conspiracy theorists all rallied round his flag. But the most vocal group, the group best versed in packaging their message and hurling it in a way irresistible to a media obsessed with the shocking and offensive, were the alt-right.
Their beliefs have found a safe home on the web. Defining them isn’t easy. Many who have been held up as its figureheads – Milo Yiannopoulos, James O’Keefe and Alex Jones, among others – have suggested the label is a new and convenient insult for a long-standing collection of libertarian political beliefs.
There are 290,000 “centipedes” – their epithet, not mine – on Reddit’s “TheDonald” forum, a message board for Trump’s fans.
Web forums like 4Chan and 8Chan boast politics sections visited by millions a month. They host the kind of far-right discussions and memes so loved by the alt-right movement.
Right-wing alternative media has exploded over the course of the year as Trump encouraged his supporters to “forget the press, read the Internet.” Infowars, Drudge Report and – above all – Breitbart.com have seen their readerships skyrocket. Breitbart received a record-breaking 37 million unique visitors in September. In a nod to its influence, its executive chairman Steve Bannon will now serve as Trump’s chief strategist.
Shades of conservatism aside, the alt-right are cultural rebels and nationalists whose firmament is the Internet.
If defining them is hard, their political agenda is clearer. Liberalism is the dirtiest word, and its trappings – feminism, political correctness, multiculturalism, “social justice” – are to be resisted. The establishment is corrupt and full of political cuckolds, or “cucks,” who have failed America through their cowardice.
Below this, there bubbles a more insidious layer: white racial superiority, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim tendencies and a conspiratorial anger against the Jewish cabal that it claims runs the world.
Many of the more serious alt-right figureheads would distance themselves from some of these inflammatory ideas. But a glance through their main online playpens suggests they are a significant enough part of the group’s mindset.
Last week, their “God Emperor” ascended the throne to raucous applause from his digital supporters. “We actually elected a meme as president,” wrote one centipede on 4Chan, echoing a feeling that somehow their digital campaign had swung it for Trump. Thousands delighted in the schadenfreude, sharing images of miserable-looking Clinton supporters. Thousands others turned their eye to the future.
So what now for the alt-right? It’s clear that they are not going anywhere soon. In their minds their views have been validated, after all, and the process of “de-cucking” America can begin.
One thing seems clear. The God Emperor will not be held to account. Through their discourse and his own, Trump quickly ascended from a politician into a messiah. If the wall isn’t built and the Mexicans aren’t deported and Obamacare isn’t repealed, it won’t be for the president’s failings. “They are going to try to collapse the world economy,” warned Infowars’ Alex Jones, alluding to the “globalist order.” “They are going to blame Donald Trump.”
“The MSM [Mainstream Media] will now try to make this the worst presidency ever so WE get disillusioned and stop doing what we do,” wrote a Trump supporter on Reddit.
The scorn poured by the Daily Mail and other tabloids on the three judges accused of holding up the triggering of Brexit’s Article 50 is a useful British parallel. The liberal establishment, smarting after a good kicking, will not go quietly – making it an enemy that in the far right’s eyes still needs defeating.
In a year that has seen the establishment take two heavy beatings in the form of Brexit and Trump’s surprise victory, the alt-right will start to look further afield. Elections in the Netherlands and France have caught their eye: It’s time to Make Europe Great Again.
Dedicated forums for far-right candidates Geert Wilders (the Netherlands), Marine Le Pen (France) and Norbert Hofer (Austria) are in overdrive. “The American Meme Soldiers are here to help liberate France!!! Man your battlestations, fellow meme warriors!” goes one Reddit post. “Centipedes! We’re fighting on two fronts now. Get in there! Even if you don’t care about France, you need to care about stopping the liberal disease!” goes another.
And aside from domestic and world politics, there is a third activity that the alt-right likes to indulge in: revenge.
In 2016 their digital boiler rooms churned out ever-greater quantities of racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic abuse, reaching a frenzy in the final months of the campaign. The mainstream media picked it up. Hillary Clinton called it out. Trump shared the memes. It received its final mandate at the ballot box.
The alt-right trolls have been well fed and their witch hunts will continue in earnest.
It is difficult to predict the effects of all this. If the far-right Front National party succeeds in France next year, it won’t be the result of American trolls. Trump may disown their excesses as he seeks to plot a more moderate course through his presidency.
But the group has left a legacy that cannot be denied.
As Democrats wring their hands and ponder research showing how more millennial voters would have changed the electoral map (it’s very blue), they ignore the inconvenient truth that Trump’s digital covens included a host of young, digitally savvy politicos who radically redrew the way young people engage with politics.
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Much of it was deplorable, of course, but it was also juvenile, idiosyncratic and perfectly suited to the channels of digital politics. The meme, when wielded by those who best understood its potency, emerged as the ultimate online weapon. The infographics, the data visualizations and the stale clips pulled from mainstream media were obliterated by the alt-right’s memes.
Shareability is more important than verifiability. Emotion trumps truth. No sense, but plenty of sensibility. This is the alt-right’s 2016 legacy, and, in the coming years, it will shape our online politics profoundly.