Meme war is nothing new or original in human history, but the battlefields we wage it on have completely transformed. Peace is merely the absence of war, and in a democracy, all are at war in an implied sense. We form factions to decide who will rule and then by a simple majority declare a winner. How those factions are formed in our times depends largely on media consumption and the creation of political identities. Media becomes a conduit for political memes, what people believe the government should or should not do, how society should be ordered or disordered, etc. There’s a reason people who read Breitbart and watch Fox News voted for Trump, while people who read Huffington Post and watch Last Week Tonight with John Oliver voted for Clinton. Memes are in a sense the environmental form of genes; something you receive from around you that has mutated and evolved to reach you.
Meme war is as much a battle of ideas as it is a battle of images representing those ideas, and those who stand for those ideas. Unsurprisingly, in a political landscape dominated by “identity,” having identifiers matters a great deal. Aesthetics and memetics cannot be separated.
From the Roman vexillum, to the Icon of Virgin Mary, to the royal arms of the duke or the king, we’ve always carried something linking the temporal and the spiritual into battle with us. The symbol serves as both a source of inspiration and identification in whatever our cause may be.
We are not alone in that regard. The iconic jihadist standard, the black-and-white banner emblazoned with the shahada, is perhaps today’s best known war signal.
Other than the American flag, or perhaps a green cartoon amphibian.
Pepe the Frog, icon of Kek the chaos god, the heretical Joan of Arc to our divinely-protected Dauphin; he is the signal of the Great Meme War of 2016. A meme so dangerous it was lumped in with the swastika and the wolfsangel by the organized Jewish community of the United States and denounced by the heir-apparent to the presidency. Just who are these immoral insurgents who take up the frog and the keyboard, and what do they want?
New York Magazine has written a seemingly formidable analysis piece complete with topical sub-articles on the Alt Right, a sure sign that the Cathedral (or Synagogue, if you will) regards it as a permanent post-election problem to be studied and dealt with in 2017. Which is good news in a way. But with establishment media being what it is, when there’s coverage of something it doesn’t like, it’s less about getting things right and more about spinning them wrong. If they didn’t suck at their job of creating consensus, we wouldn’t be here. To be fair, I think there are a number of areas where they are becoming more accurate, though still not saying anything we didn’t already know. In particular I would like to draw attention to the articles’ coverage of memes, Internet culture, and what could be considered a sociology of the Right.
For all its theoretical anti-modernity, the alt-right is a uniquely modern movement, after all, enabled in reach by the connective tools of the social internet and by the clever use of the sort of irony that every young American raised on TV and memes recognizes as our pop-culture lingua franca. It’s an irony they’ve used as armor, too: If you take them seriously, they’ll claim you missed the joke. But of course, by treating them as a joke, you can miss their importance — as so many of us who planned our November 9, 2016, around a certain Hillary Clinton win did.
They would have us rely on passenger pigeons if they could, and have us go extinct along with them. No, today we embrace the tweet, just like we embrace whatever other tools the age we live in has furnished us with. We joke because America is not a serious country. We are ironic until we aren’t. We have grown up under the same civilizational malaise that you have, only we reject it.
For most of last year, it was hard to avoid the sensation that something had broken somewhere and the internet was leaking into real life . . . The subcultures and folkways of the internet had become powerful enough that the entire election apparatus was obligated to attend to and dissect them. In January, the Republican consultant Rick Wilson dismissed a portion of Trump supporters as “childless single men who masturbate to anime”; by September, the Clinton campaign was concerned enough with the threat of meme warfare that it released an explainer denouncing the cartoon frog Pepe under the title “Donald Trump, Pepe the frog, and white supremacists: an explainer.” When Election Night rolled around, it was hard to begrudge the exuberant 4chan poster, thrilling in his candidate’s surprise victory, who bragged that “we actually elected a meme as president.”
How does that saying go? First they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you . . . then you win. In order to completely avoid the issue we were putting on the table—the demographics of the United States as impacted by mass immigration from the third world—the establishment media focused on everything but our message. They were so used to labeling things “white supremacist” or “racist” and watching them disappear that when confronted with something that wouldn’t disappear, they collapsed into a fit of absurdity. Our cultural shock troops exploited this perfectly, where every instance of one of our memes triggered a massive signal boost complete with the repetition of our ideas and imagery, which were often thought to be so odious as to speak for themselves. But whether the end goal was to stop the election of Trump or to stop the Alt Right, both failed.
Whatever else the alt-right is, it is a movement born and incubated on the internet, and it couldn’t have existed without that technology. Circulation, discussion, and debate are oxygen to political ideas. Commercial and social mechanisms like “the cost of owning a printing press” and “No one will invite you to parties if you openly praise Hitler” traditionally cut off extreme thinkers from mass circulation. Now, though, you can reproduce your ideas essentially infinitely, for prices so low as to be effectively free, and suffer no ill social effect.
Welp. You screwed this one up big time. Who’d have thought that decentralizing and flattening communication would lead to “fascism.” No, I’m serious. I don’t think anyone could have predicted this. Unless you want to frame it as some kind of techno-corporatism where ideological unions of shitposters collaborate across class lines to attack their national enemies in the media and seize control of cyberspace. Which actually sounds kind of cool, so let’s go with that. You heard it here first. The Alt Right is a techno-corporatist movement to control cyberspace and shape the memes of mankind.
And there is a literal army of dissatisfied, disenchanted, mostly male young adults ripe for radicalization. The internet is host to what the writer and programmer David Auerbach calls “the first wide-scale collective gathering of those who are alienated, voiceless, and just plain unsocialized” — seeking freedom from the disappointments of the physical world in places where social interaction is decoupled from material and emotional signals they don’t understand or have access to.
Wow, it’s like all these morally disenfranchised White people are getting fed up or something. I guess watching your neighborhood turn into Mexico in twenty years while black people riot and college professors (hell, educators at all levels, really) tell you about the evil history of white Americans and how they caused all of society’s ills fires something off in the hindbrain.
So the authors are definitely on to something here, even quoting scholars of conservatism like George Hawley to support some of their points. But on the other hand, there is plenty of nonsense that keeps cropping up as a (rather tiresome and unoriginal) method of trying to make the Alt Right somehow less appealing, you know, in case labeling it Hitler wasn’t good enough. Did you know the Alt Right is literally Gamergate and ISIS? Also, they aren’t really anti-establishment, because a handful of millionaires and one billionaire are willing to play footsie with them (pay no attention to our bottomless progressive corporate sponsors in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street).
Here is where things actually get insightful:
4chan in particular has always had a flair for attracting sensationalist media coverage; its members also liked to “brigade” other platforms and communities to troll and wreak havoc — maybe most famously the adolescent social network Club Penguin, which was routinely invaded by bots that formed swastikas out of penguin bodies. This might seem like a particularly useless skill, but forming swastikas in Club Penguin is structurally not much different from creating digital armies to artificially influence trending topics in Twitter, creating the impression of mass support or mass outrage.
The digital communications skills to wage meme war already existed. It was only a matter of employing them to some practical end. This, combined with the process of A-B testing memes inside an anonymous space where the only thing that matters is the quality of posts, accelerated the evolution of far-Right memetics and unleashed a monster upon a world of unsuspecting normies, Jewish journalists, Democratic party analysts, and cucks. The God-Emperor from a Machine cometh.
I suppose no overview of Alt Right memetics and the 2016 election is complete without addressing the “God-Emperor” meme itself. The NY Mag article made no real attempt to understand this and just pulled directly from Wikipedia.
It’s simpler than it seems. Americans are an imperial people. The republican phase is long over. We require an Emperor. And as things become more complex and unstable, we are going to get one. We will have our champion, who will draw from our collective strength to stand up against our foes and protect our patrimony. President Trump is the first of a new kind of politician. He is not going to deliver, but he has created the promise of a strongman populist nationalist government in the United States. People voted for this. They won’t get it from the look of things and how Trump is governing more like a neocon puppet and less like a Bannon/Miller speech, but we shall see. The desire for this is not going to go away, and neither are the people who’ve developed the skills and media platforms to promote it.
God-Emperor is also just a great meme, positing that we’re going to have this herculean fellow as our leader and our enemies are going to be beaten like the losers they are. There was no God-Empress Hillary, not even ironically. Only shrieking fear and horror at the man who “regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.”
One quote from an academic the authors interviewed really stood out and seemed to ominously portend the possibility of having a strongman nationalist government, or having the ethno-sectarian tensions which would render one necessary:
As the white population becomes a smaller majority and ultimately a minority, there is going to be more white panic. It’s not super-common as a natural democratic process. How will people deal with that? Whites would be a power majority in the economy and politics, which creates a dangerous-imbalance power dynamic, like the dangerous sectarian resentments seen in some Middle Eastern conflicts. That’s why I’m not super-optimistic about this, unless we can allow some room for a legitimate expression of white identity. White self-interest that doesn’t discriminate against others, that isn’t racist toward minority groups. A stark understanding of “You’re a racist or non-racist,” is not a good idea and not sustainable.—Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
I do wonder what the meme war veterans of 2016 and beyond will do with boiling pressures of ethnocentrism and demographic shifts in future political contests where the range of acceptable discourse has widened. You should, too. This is not merely a question for White Americans, but for all the occupants of this land. Who will have a future in Amerikaner Afghanistan? And who will be to blame for it? Chaos calls, but who will answer?