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Make America Meme Again

The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right

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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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Chapter 1: The Origins of Alt-Right Memes and Their Proliferation

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The Origins of Alt-Right Memes and Their Proliferation

In spring of 2016, Politico Magazine published an essay entitled “World War Meme.” In it, author Ben Schreckinger describes the power of the meme to sway the election for the highest office in the United States: that of the presidency. “There is no real evidence that memes won the election,” Shreckinger writes, “but there is little question they changed its tone, especially in the fast-moving and influential currents of social media.”1 Yet, before memes even reached social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, many of them were created in enclaved websites. These websites, including 4chan and reddit, were memetic laboratories where users would experiment with persuasive memetic texts and later unleash some on the world. For many meme generators in these locales, the Great Meme War would unseat the liberal Democratic Party and install a new conservative, populist leader in its place. As Schreckinger puts it,

The fighters in the Great Meme War took their intimate knowledge of this ecosystem and weaponized it, genetically engineering pro-Trump and anti-Clinton supermemes they designed to gain as much mainstream traction as possible. The staging ground was an anonymous message board called “/pol/”—the “politically incorrect” section of 4Chan, which was founded in 2003 to host discussions about anime and has since evolved into a malignant hive mind with vast influence over online culture.2←25 | 26→

The Great Meme War was fought in many...

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