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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 2: Pepe the Frog and Iconic Assemblages

Extract

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Pepe the Frog and Iconic Assemblages

On October 13, 2015, a new meme appeared on Donald J. Trump’s Twitter feed. It was a cartoon depiction of Trump as president of the United States, but in place of his tanned face was the visage of a green frog (See Fig. 2.1). The caption referenced the Drudge Report and Brietbart News—far right content and news sites—and @codyave, a Trump supporter. The retweet also linked to a video entitled, “You Can’t Stump the Trump,” a montage with scenes of Trump exerting his dominance over other presidential candidates and ending with a series of references to the Illuminati and other conspiracy theories. Despite this robust and complex message, what proved most significant about this tweet for the larger public was the candidate’s green face. For those who recognized Trump’s mask, they understood that Trump had retweeted an image of himself as Pepe the Frog. Although a cartoon frog might appear to the uninitiated as a rather curious association, the image was far from benign. Instead, the meme was a dog whistle to the Alt-right. It conveyed a secondary meaning only understood by those able to decode its significance. As marked by the accompanying conspiracy theory video, Trump’s juxtaposition with Pepe enmeshed his candidacy with a particular group of would-be conspirators.←65 | 66→

Figure 2.1: Can’t Stump the Trump.

The use of Pepe aligned Trump with Alt-right members of 4chan and reddit. By October...

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