Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” James Cohen, PhD, is assistant professor of media studies at City College of New York and co-author with Thomas Kenny of “Producing New and Digital Media.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
A man, armed with a machete and a knife and expressing White supremacist views, was arrested near the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters on Monday as Washington awaits a rally of diehard Trump supporters set for Saturday. The adornments on his truck flashed old-fashioned signs of hate, including a swastika – an old-fashioned symbol in an era when right-wing extremists are more likely to rally behind internet memes. Whether old or new, these symbols have one thing in common: They are meant to terrorize.
Mindful of the bloody attack on January 6, police have erected fencing and are preparing just in case violence erupts among the demonstrators gathering to show their solidarity with those charged with crimes related to the attacks. Capitol Hill residents are expressing anxiety and dread, which means that the demonstrators have already had an impact – intimidating locals and forcing the government to mobilize defenses.
The rally itself is not an act of terrorism, but fear instilled by an attack, or even the mere threat of one, accomplishes the same goal. In the case of Trump extremists, including those who belong to the so-called Proud Boys and various self-described militias, the terror campaign is already years long. While it’s legal to bear arms in Michigan, this terror campaign was evident when armed men crowded into the state’s Capitol to support Trump’s view on the pandemic, and in Arizona when they paraded to support his claims of election fraud. Seen any where else in the world, we would decry the threats against election officials as undemocratic. Here, however, we have been slow to recognize them as such.
Two factors have made it difficult for the press to report on the radicalization of far-right extremists and for the public to understand what has happened. The first is the fact that the process mostly takes place online, out of the view of outsiders and powered by seemingly innocuous social media memes. With startling or humorous images and phrases, the memes invite viewers to believe, for example, that White people are victims of oppression and the West is under threat from outsiders.
Borrowing from the film “The Matrix,” those who are persuaded use the term “red pilling” to indicate they had accepted the challenge of learning truths that others feared. As the Anti-Defamation League and others would eventually explain, “red pilling” could lead to developments as “radical as someone coming to believe that Jews control the world or that feminism is destroying the West.”
Of special concern has been the canny use of memes by right wing extremists around the world who develop clickbait to engage viewers with messages about the supposed oppression of White people and the dangers of Islam. In the US, Donald Trump was the subject of many of these memes. When he was elected, one online poster declared, “We actually elected a meme as president.”
The second difficulty we encounter as we look at right wing extremists is an overall reticence to recognize that their activities are sometimes terroristic. This problem was identified in 2017 in the Fordham Law Review by University of Miami law professor Caroline Mala Corbin. She writes that false narratives about Muslims and White Americans shape assumptions. Sometimes, as in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, this way of thinking leads to the initial belief that an attack carried out by a White perpetrator must have been executed by Muslims.
In the fall of 2020 the Department of Homeland Security declared White supremacists the greatest terror threat facing the country. However, the government did not connect this movement to the Trump cause. Any doubt that the two intersect should have been erased on January 6 when Trump flags and Confederate battle flags were waved together by the rioters who attacked the Capitol. Members of the mob also displayed images and phrases taken from the most popular memes in extremist online communities. For example, flags for the make-believe country of Kekistan and placards honoring the god “Kek,” which takes the form of a cartoon frog, signaled the presence of red-pilled Trump supporters who play with memes about how Kek grants Trump magical powers.
In memes popular with extremist Trump supporters, hateful messages are combined with American flags and shareable quips. These are often decorated with Christian crosses, Confederate battle flags, and show Trump as a superhero or godlike emperor. The murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and his black helicopters are also popular in this memestream, as is Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character whose “Feels Good Man” message ironically confirms that your emotions are what really matter.
As they share the memes online, these citizens of MAGA World wind each other up emotionally with a torrent of messages about a nation in crisis that must be saved from its enemies. While this may all be fantasy, it is powerful and motivating for true believers.
There’s a tendency among many to focus on the acts of MAGA extremists, but that misses the full picture of the parallels with other kinds of radicalism, as well as the roots of aggressive actions.
Whether it’s an armed “militia” at Michigan’s state Capitol or the Proud Boys committing street violence, much of the organizing and motivation comes from deep online spaces where the uninitiated would struggle to understand the coded messages that are promoted repeatedly. If we are to confront the domestic threat identified by Homeland Security, we must expose this process and how it leads some people from laughing at memes to extremist views and terroristic actions.
Just last month, Trump supporter Floyd Ray Roseberry parked his truck outside the Library of Congress, turned on his cellphone camera and posted on Facebook that the vehicle was loaded with enough explosives to level “two and a half blocks.” During his five-hour livestream standoff with police he told viewers that Trump had been deprived of re-election by a massive fraud and announced that “the revolution’s on.”
“When this bomb goes off there’s gonna be four more right behind it,” said Roseberry, “and the patriots are gonna come.” After hours of negotiations with police, Roseberry surrendered. A search of the truck turned up bomb-making materials but not a working device, police said. Roseberry was charged with threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to use an explosive device.
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As he spoke, Roseberry was visibly in real distress, suggesting that mental health issues may have been a factor in the incident at the Library of Congress. But it would be wrong to ignore the influence of the digital toxic energy that was obviously part of his online environment. His claims, phrases and even his live streaming are all staples of the online MAGAverse. He claimed to be a patriot and deplored the idea of America sheltering refugees from Afghanistan.
Outrage stirred online became real life action on January 6. Many of the attackers decorated themselves with symbols made popular in memes, which they showed as they ransacked the Capitol. These images are certain to appear at future extremist events, including the demonstration planned for September 18. Designed to threaten outsiders and incite those waiting for their time to act, they are, when used this way, emblems of terrorists. By their memes we should know them.