If in a millennium from now historians were to search the archaeological remains of the Trump presidency for an understanding of public attitude, they would find no better evidence than internet memes. Sad Melania, Tiny Trump, Trump Draws, and Trump’s Speechall demonstrate the public’s disdain for the president, as well as its ability to capitalize on Trump’s well-documented overconfidence in his own intelligence, sexual prowess, and masculinity.
Similar to the political cartoons of yore, anti-Trump memes function as a mode of critique. Not only do they present the president and those closest to him as caricatures to mock, but they also criticize his public policy, shown best through the Trumpcare memes.
While Generation X attends town hall meetings to vent their grievances, a new generation of tech-savvy Americans has turned away from public discussion to spread their political ideas through the Internet.
But the irreverent Sad Melania’s and Tiny Trump’s wouldn’t be as significant without their counterparts on the alt-right. Nurtured on 4chan, these memes offer a different perspective on the Trump presidency, one of both amusement and admiration. Unlike leftist memes, which 4chan users deem to be “normie” and “libtard,” or memes that have been filtered through a broader internet community, the alt-right memes are imbued with complex histories.
Many alt-right memes were created in the mid-2000s and have undergone several incarnations throughout the years. In most instances, these memes originated from 4chan chat boards like /pol, a forum devoted to discussing current political issues. But due to the quick attention spans fostered by the Internet, the significance of alt-right memes can change rapidly.
Pepe’s humble beginnings
In his essay “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump,” Dale Beran explains 4chan’s alt-right adoption of the meme Pepe the Frog, which up until the 2016 presidential campaign was mostly innocuous.
Pepe began as a character in a web comic, moved to 4chan, was adopted by Tumblr, and then, as an effort to reclaim it from “normie” culture, was transformed by 4chan users into a symbol of white supremacy. Under alt-right interpretation, Pepe acted as a way of expressing the community’s shared belief of what Beran describes as “utter, contemptuous despair.” To them, Pepe represented the world-weary, “I don’t care” attitude that they wished to emulate in their real-life interactions, but were forced to express only through online forums and memes.
Disgruntled by the current social change that they viewed as an affront on their community, 4chan communities used Pepe to communicate their disapproval on their home turf, the Internet. When Pepe gained prominence as an alt-right symbol in the real world, it proved to the 4chan community that their trolling could have just as much effect on the American populace as on an insular internet community. The significance of these memes does not lie in their denotation, but in their potential as blank canvases.
The newly found focus on internet-based “activism” is logical considering the community it stems from. The site is frequented by mostly males, the majority of whom have more success interacting in the virtual world than outside. As the breeding ground of memes like “forever alone” and movements like Gamergate, its reputation as a hypermasculine, anti-female site isn’t unearned.
Hypermasculine communities like TheRedPill have become more visible on normie-friendly Reddit, but they owe their existence to the original “alpha males” of 4chan. It’s not just 4chan critics who stereotype the average user as an unsuccessful, virginal loner with a video game obsession, it’s the users themselves. According to Beran, the bulk of 4chan users wear this identity as a badge of pride. There is no shame if they are unemployed, single, and living in their parents’ basement when millions of other users share the same experience of rejection and disenchantment with a progressing world.
A mascot for the internet trolls
It’s no surprise that this community chose Donald Trump as their figurehead. When early supporters hailed him as a rejection of the political norm, they didn’t realize how fervently members of 4chan and other alt-right watering holes would latch on to the rejection of normalcy as a validation of their alienated worldview. For them, voting for Trump wasn’t only a refutation of the standard political spectrum, but of American culture as a whole, a culture that encourages “social justice warriors” and “cucks” to inhibit 4channers’ right to treat the internet as a free-for-all.
4chan alone was not responsible for Trump’s presidential victory, but their “meme magic,” as they called it on the night of his win, was and still is influential enough to propel their ideas out of the alt-right underbelly of the internet and into mass audiences. The key to their success is that these memes, whether they be Pepe the Frog or any other iteration, are completely open to interpretation.
When early supporters hailed him as a rejection of the political norm, they didn’t realize how fervently members of 4chan and other alt-right watering holes would latch on to the rejection of normalcy as a validation of their alienated worldview.
Trump is a perfect example of this inconsistency. When he first entered the stage as a presidential candidate, Americans had no clear idea what values he represented, or what he would offer as a candidate. As the race continued, the outline of Trump was filled in like a page in a coloring book— different factions collected his breadcrumb statements, each believing that he represented their unique interests.
The alt-right users of 4chan understood that the most important quality of a meme is its malleability and its ability to go viral. From the start, Trump was inconsistent and comical, more suited to a SNL skit than a political rally. But to 4chan, he was more than a favored candidate, he was the living embodiment of a perfect meme.
Now that he’s been elected, where does Trump fit into this continued volatile meme crucible? He is at the center of a battle between two sides: the “normie” left, which aims to ridicule him through memes that paint him as a childish, incompetent fool, and the alt-right, whose memes portray Trump as a lord of chaos and most importantly, a troll of the Establishment.
He is not the first president to be memefied (Recall, “Thanks, Obama”), but he is the first president whose ascendancy could be ascribed to meme culture. It is certain that with each misstep Trump makes, the left will continue to use memes as their method of critique, but as for the alt-right, their actions are more unpredictable. The alt-right helped a meme become president, but even normies know how quickly a meme can go out of style.