How Donald Trump won the 2016 meme wars

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump did not give a subculture a corporate, establishment sheen by appropriating it. EPA/Cesare Abbate

If news pundits had been paying closer attention to memes, they might have been less shocked by the result of the 2016 US presidential election. Election memes reflected the political narrative of Hillary Clinton’s inauthenticity and corruption, and Donald Trump’s capacity to understand and connect to his followers.

Clinton’s persona was shaped, in part, by her engagement with celebrity and popular culture. Along the campaign trail, she committed the cardinal sins of misusing teen slang and adopting youth culture for political gain.

On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Clinton learned how to “dab”:

Hillary Clinton ‘dabs’.

Her Twitter account asked:

And, at a rally, she implored voters to “Pokemon Go to the polls”:

Clinton’s pandering emphasised her campaign’s similarities to the marketing strategies of Big Business, reeking of inauthenticity. The message many young voters received was that Clinton condescended to them with exploitative versions of their own subcultures.

The “Bernie Or Hillary” meme demonstrates this sentiment in action. It compared Bernie Sanders’ popularity among young voters to Clinton’s generational pandering. The memes depict Hillary as lamely mainstream, while Bernie answers with a “cool” response.

One version of the Bernie or Hillary meme. Slate

The creators of these memes act as self-appointed cultural gatekeepers, excluding Clinton and welcoming Sanders. At the heart of these memes is the translation of Sanders’ passion in discussions of economic inequality to a meaningless cultural dispute he’d never actually address.

Also, they compare how Clinton fielded soft questions with how Sanders replied to hard ones.

In addition to depicting Clinton as a cloying woman, the “Bernie Or Hillary” meme implied that Clinton should not have been judged by the same metric as her male opponent for the Democratic nomination.

Ultimately, the meme reflects the failure to connect with the general public, and it acts in tandem with the sexist systems of production and consumption that have worked to delegitimise Clinton for 30 years (for example, being judged by her husband’s actions).

Meanwhile, Trump was praised for his directness of speech – no matter how contradictory, garbled, or inflammatory. He became a mascot of anti-political-correctness for groups such as the alt-right, an online far-right movement housed in forums like Reddit and its hostile brother 4chan. In recent years, communities on 4chan and Reddit have radicalised a significant number of young, mostly white men.

Pepe before alt-right reclamation. Know Your Meme
Pepe after alt-right reclamation. Know Your Meme

These spaces have evolved into echo chambers for many far-right ideologies: nationalism, pro-guns, anti-feminism, anti-Semitism, anti-multiculturalism and white supremacy. And they quickly became bases of Trump fandom.

Their fandom merged with an endeavour to restore 4chan’s claim to ownership of meme culture. On 4chan and Reddit, a self-made mythology canonises forums as the true and “original” internet. One “anonymous white nationalist” said:

[Pepe the Frog] belongs to us, and we’ll make him toxic if we have to.

Pepe the Frog is a character adapted from comic artist Matt Furie. In the late 2000s, Pepe expanded beyond 4chan and Reddit, and became a widely used online avatar for emotional reaction.

In reaction to Pepe’s status as a “mainstream” meme, the alt-right “mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda” to build an association between Pepe and white supremacy.

The alt-right spread neo-Nazi Pepes to Twitter, and began integrating Trump imagery with the revamped meme. In October 2015, Trump quoted this in a tweet:

Trump’s continual retweeting of alt-right tweets “propelled the movement into the limelight”. Trump and his campaign team retweeted many memes made by the alt-right, using Trump’s vast social media platform to amplify their voices.

Yet Trump never once made memes of his own. Instead, he acknowledged the support without overtly co-opting memes. Unlike Clinton, he did not give a subculture a corporate, establishment sheen by appropriating the form.

When, later, Clinton’s campaign condemned Pepe as a hate symbol, she solidified the link between Pepe and white supremacy, effectively postering her infamous “basket of deplorables” with images of a xenophobic frog.

Clinton engaged with the memetic idea of Pepe rather than the political narrative of reclamation that Pepe represented. Trump spoke loudly and endlessly to this desire to reclaim that which had been taken – whether this was jobs, racial and gendered power, or memes.

Ultimately, Trump succeeded because he used the political language of the alt-right without explicitly mentioning them. He heard their ideas and, instead of exploiting their means of communication, implemented their politics.

Tellingly, one week after the election, Trump appointed Steve Bannon, the former executive charmain of the far-right news site, Breitbart News, as his head strategist and senior counsellor. This further solidifies his ties to the alt-right movement.

Trump did not speak to voters with memetic language – nor indeed, with a language of consensus politics. Trump’s success derived from his seemingly warts-and-all authenticity. Clinton tried to tell it like it she thought it could or should be. Trump told it like many thought it was. And he won.

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