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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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This project began over a series of frenetic text messages, each attempting to make sense of the new landscape of digital propaganda. Both of us were trying to understand how our mediated friends and family members could fall so easily for obviously dubious persuasive tactics. As more information unfolded, we found that we, too, had been courted by such communiqués—this time by (at least) targeted messages from Russia’s Internet Research Agency. We also discovered that we were compelled to name and analyze what was happening—we could not sit idly by and not use our skills to help citizens grapple with ongoing information wars. Our individual areas of expertise, historical uses of propaganda, visual rhetoric, digital ecosystems, and algorithmic amplification, enabled us a certain level of know-how, but also provided us enough background information to underscore how much more we, and the general public, needed to learn about the new landscape of psychological operations. We have learned much over the course of this project. There is still much to discover and we hope that this project is a beginning, one that invests in areas of research that require ongoing and robust analysis.

We have quite a few folks to thank for helping us complete this project. First, we would like to thank Kathryn Harrison, who saw potential in this project and kept us invested in the work and the vision of Peter Lang and the←xi | xii→ Frontiers in Political Communication series. We are...

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