Over the past week, Donald Trump Jr. has been widely condemned for tweeting a meme captioned, “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem” placed over a picture of the brightly multicolored candies. While we must focus on the absolute callousness, xenophobia and lack of basic quantitative skills reflected in Trump Jr.’s post, we must also take time to situate it in the far-reaching developments in political discourse precipitated by the 2016 presidential election. As formal politics increasingly rely on the medium of the meme for propagandizing, it becomes increasingly susceptible to the influence of factions of marginalized opinion and identity that are among the most prolific meme creators.
The most iconic example of this emerging relationship between politics and memes, and the communities that circulate them, is none other than Donald Trump Sr., who has retweeted images and posts from the “White-supremacists of the Alt- Right” internet subculture. Every time the racist roots of his retweets are brought to light, Donald Trump maintains that he was not aware of any such connections. For example, after Trump got into hot water for retweeting an image of Hillary Clinton next to a filled in six-pointed (Jewish) star over a background of money, he claimed that it was just a sheriff’s star. Crafty excuse, except for that fact that sheriff’s stars are five pointed. The origin of the meme was eventually traced to a Twitter account littered with white supremacist content from dark corners of the internet like 4chan and 8chan.
The increasing prominence of memes in today’s campaigns can not only be ascribed to the Right, but must also be recognized on the Left. Memes played an influential role in the Bernie Sanders campaign. The “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash” still has roughly 430,000 members while far-Left meme pages like “Marxist Memes” and “Comemenism” have 100,000 and 68,000 members respectively. The political instrument of the meme, rather than being the exclusive preserve of Trumpizoids, can be seen as a practice especially apt for populism. This practice is at its most extreme in the Trump campaign because unlike Bernie, he is incredibly active on his personal social media.
But how does this barrage of memes, dank or otherwise, translate into influence from the ideological fringes of the internet into mainstream debate? The answer lies in the changing nature of public space in the internet age. Before the rise of the internet, the strength of a social movement depended on the amount of bodies it could mobilize. Now, although there is no substitute for physical mass action, a type of online mobilization takes place that can propagate opinions that for decades remained anathema in mainstream political discourse. The anonymity of the internet has allowed many people to express contemptible opinions.
Though the Alt-Right is small in numbers, it has so thoroughly staked its claim to certain parts of the internet, and been so often mobilized to harass people ranging from female game developers to Jewish reporters to Black actresses, that it can present itself as a force to be respected and utilized. Donald Trump and his campaign retweeting the Alt-Right is not a result of the campaign becoming unwittingly sucked into an ideological blackhole, but should rather be seen as a conscious effort to co opt an influential segment of the internet and its corresponding younger demographic. It was evident that parts of the Alt-Right recognized and welcomed this when they popularized the meme caption, “Donald Trump will make anime real.”
Nevertheless, this attempt to co-opt can often go wrong, as was the case with the Hillary meme. Donald Trump had nothing to gain by retweeting such an item when he’s already got the white supremacist vote in the bag. Perhaps, and maybe this is giving him too much credit, he did not automatically grasp the antisemitic implications of the tweet. After all, many memes circulated by internet subcultures are meta-memes that refer to previous memes and so on and so forth. If you do not spend a considerable chunk of time frequenting parts of the internet where such a group symbolic language develops, then you always miss something of the full meaning encased in the meme. In other words, you have got to grow a little “dank” yourself before you measure just how “dank” a meme is. Trump is not only using the Alt-Right to boost his campaign, but the Alt-Right itself is using him to popularize a chat room-based racist subculture that is off brand even for The Donald.
But this elaborate waltz in the Twitterverse, once it becomes central enough to the image of the campaign, can result in real changes on the ground. By establishing itself strongly enough on the internet, the Alt-Right was able to impress its cyberpolitics on the “real world” by giving its main avatars enough cultural capital to enter the orbit of Trump’s campaign. Milo Yiannopoulos, the technology editor at the unofficial mouthpiece of the Alt-Right, Breitbart News, made quite a splash at a private press conference at the Republican National Convention when he announced that he had just been banned from Twitter for inciting his followers to harass African-American actress Leslie Jones. He supplements his income with speaking tours where he rails against PC culture and, in the most Freudian fashion, calls Trump “Daddy.” Others like Steve Bannon, the current Trump campaign CEO and executive chairman of the aforementioned Breitbart News, are simply sinister. Bannon’s effective replacement of the savvy but orthodox political consultant Paul Manafort signaled a further shift from the Right to the Alt-Right. Could the emergence of these figures into the Trump campaign have happened without the murky world of white supremacy and memes in which they cultivated their audience and notoriety? I think not. We have reached a point in the world where the virtual can increasingly intervene in the norms of day to day life and make the unsayable sayable again.
An immediate visceral reaction to these political developments would be to reject this new relationship between the browser and the ballot box, but this is a short-sighted approach. There are radically progressive possibilities inherent in this relationship. What could an Alt-Left do, going much further than “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash,” if properly mobilized and presented with another populist opening in political discourse? There are hints of these potentialities in how social media is used to organize grassroots protests against police violence or the hike of drug prices. What is highly pressing is that we absorb important organizational lessons from the Alt-Right in addition to refuting it. The Revolution will not be televised, but perhaps it can still be memed.