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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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Chapter 4: How the Alt-Right Moves: Memes as Tactical Circulation



How the Alt-Right Moves

Memes as Tactical Circulation

Memes are potent persuasive mechanisms for users on 4chan and reddit, who deploy these images as forms of tactical engagement. Yet, memes gain additional rhetorical traction as they move to sites outside their typical birthplaces. Indeed, memes are powerful persuasive mechanisms predominantly because of their circulation. Memes are designed to move and attract greater audiences. Some memes are more effective than others in this regard. Leading into the 2016 election and continuing into the present day, meme enthusiasts on 4chan and reddit have capitalized on the network culture that helps memes find—and create—new audiences. The networked nature of media platforms fashioned an ideal rhetorical situation for Trump to compose rhetorical messages that could gain traction with the nationalistic, nihilistic, and often xenophobic moods of supporters. Memes helped disseminate, distribute, and amplify these dispatches to ever widening publics. In this way, Alt-right memes impacted both the content and norms of public discourse by acting as key media nodal points in the Alt-right ecosystem. Most importantly, memes carried Alt-right messages—or else disrupted alternate, competing discourses—to diffuse audiences and conjoined those peoples who would otherwise remain unaffected.←137 | 138→

This chapter explores how some memes circulated with diverse audiences and marshaled those addressed by such images into sympathetic relation with the Alt-right. We elucidate how Alt-right memes moved across traditional media; enclaved and social media such as 4chan, reddit, and Facebook; and...

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