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Make America Meme Again

The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right


Heather Suzanne Woods and Leslie A. Hahner

As demonstrated by the 2016 presidential election, memes have become the suasory tactic par excellence for the promotional and recruitment efforts of the Alt-right. Memes are not simply humorous shorthands or pithy assertions, but play a significant role in the machinations of politics and how the public comes to understand and respond to their government and compatriots. Using the tools of rhetorical criticism, the authors detail how memetic persuasion operates, with a particular focus on the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump. Make America Meme Again reveals the rhetorical principles used to design Alt-right memes, outlining the myriad ways memes lure mainstream audiences to a number of extremist claims. In particular, this book argues that Alt-right memes impact the culture of digital boards and broader public culture by stultifying discourse, thereby shaping how publics congeal. The authors demonstrate that memes are a mechanism that proliferate white nationalism and exclusionary politics by spreading algorithmically through network cultures in ways that are often difficult to discern. Alt-right memes thus present a significant threat to democratic praxis, one that can begin to be combatted through a rigorous rhetorical analysis of their power and influence. Make America Meme Again illuminates the function of networked persuasion for scholars and practitioners of rhetoric, media, and communication; political theorists; digital humanists; and anyone who has ever seen, crafted, or proliferated a meme.

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Introduction: Alt-Right Memes and Networks of Public Discourse



Alt-Right Memes and Networks of Public Discourse

Heading into the 2018 midterms, a number of heavy-hitting financiers began to invest in the persuasive power of viral media. The New York Times reported that a wealth of enterprising liberals were raising money to fight for voters via those modes of communication at the forefront of political campaigns—spreadable content.1 New organizations such as Stand Up America joined forces with older social media groups such as The Other 98 % and Civic Ventures to generate social media dispatches that might bolster democratic candidates and issues. Reid Hoffman, one of the creators of LinkedIn, and Mark Pincus, of Zynga, founded Win the Future, a group aiming to turn “user-generated” messages into Washington, D.C. billboards.2 Social media users formed Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, and Tumblr feeds to sway constituents. Companies hired meme designers to fashion aspiring viral messages.3 Such efforts demonstrate how the battle for public opinion and political candidacies is focused on harnessing the opportunities of social media. Such investments follow the 2016 election in which conservative, often vicious, memetic imagery played a significant part in the outcomes. Indeed, the vast majority of viral social media messages toward the end of the election were either pro-Trump or anti-Clinton.4 Post-election, bolstering the reach of digital content entrenches the battle to win the hearts and clicks of voters.←1 | 2→

These entrepreneurial efforts are predicated on the unprecedented outcomes of the 2016 election—a contest that has come...

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