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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 5: Silencing the Opposition: Memes as Warfare

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·5·

Silencing the Opposition

Memes as Warfare

On October 20, 2017, two signs were posted on the campus of Boston College. The signs featured a World War II-era image of Uncle Sam announcing the caption, “I want you to love who you are. Don’t apologize for being white.”1 The small posters were placed by a known white supremacist organization and followed the vandalization of Black Lives Matter posters a few days prior.2 By October 31, users on /pol/ proposed that members hang posters with the slogan “It’s Okay to Be White” in various locales as a “‘proof of concept’ that a ‘harmless message’ would cause a ‘massive media shitstorm (See Fig. 5.1).’”3 Within days, in some cases hours, of this comment, posters proliferated. They were found on municipal telephone poles, within YouTube videos, and on stickers affixed in public places.4 As anticipated, the images prompted immediate response. University administrators denounced the posters for their racist messages.5 Op-eds sifted through the privilege and resentment displayed by such visuals.6 Social media users railed against these dispatches and the individuals who supported this vitriol. While the posters, stickers, and YouTube videos were widespread, their circulation amplified uptake. Significantly, reactions to these images provided a greater media presence for such messages. In effect, public response had bolstered the signal of white supremacist propaganda.←179 | 180→

Figure 5.1: It’s Okay to Be White Poster.

By early November, Tucker Carlson, a conservative pundit,...

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