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Scrupulously Avoiding Coherence: Memes and the Alt-Right

Opinion | February 6, 2017

Richard Spencer could be described as “moderately infamous.” In the past year, he became fairly well-known among followers of politics as an intellectual leader of the alt-right movement; however, I doubt that many of my older relatives would be able to say with any certainty who he is. He and the movement he leads were devoted followers of Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. His movement maintains a heavy social media presence and is notable for its highly active user base.

Richard Spencer is also perhaps the most well-known and prominent White supremacist in America today. He has been called a neo-Nazi, a label which he repudiates, mostly due to the bad optics surrounding the term “Nazi.” In truth, there is little daylight between his political views and the tenets of National Socialism, and he is, overall, best described as blood-curdlingly racist. He has advocated for massive ethnic cleansing measures to rid the US of people of color, and has, in the past, proclaimed the benefits of “black genocide.” There is, sickeningly, much more I could say, given more space.

Spencer supported Donald Trump’s campaign because he felt that many of Trump’s policy positions legitimized his views and the messaging of the alt-right as a whole; when Trump won, Spencer’s purposefully blandly-named National Policy Institute held a conference in Washington, D.C. where he and attendees joined together in a Nazi salute, shouting, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”

The alt-right’s online presence, meanwhile, consists of a legion of trolls—recruited from and organized in the more fetid corners of the internet—who engage in targeted, relentless harassment campaigns against Jewish people and people of color, particularly celebrities, journalists, or other media personalities. They make extensive use of memes in these efforts: crudely photoshopping their targets into Holocaust imagery (concentration camp jumpsuits, gas chambers, and ovens); the (((echoes))) meme originally used by members of the group to mark Jewish targets on social media for harassment, which originated on the neo-Nazi podcast, The Daily Shoah, and has since been repurposed by non-alt-righters in a show of solidarity with the targets of anti-Semitic hate; most famously, “Pepe the Frog,” a crudely-drawn cartoon frog which originated as a “chill” and “good-natured” cartoon character in 2005, became a meme shortly thereafter, and was resurrected as a symbol of White supremacist hate by alt-righters during the recent presidential campaign.

Of course, this is all old, awful news. What’s new is that Spencer himself is now a meme.

You see, on January 20, shortly after Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States of America, a video of Spencer being sucker-punched during a news interview went viral. The low-definition video depicts a grinning Spencer explaining the significance of a Pepe pin on his lapel, until a black-clad protester erupts from the left side of the frame and punches him in the jaw, hard, before ducking back into the surrounding crowd. The camera searches to the right to find Spencer rubbing his jaw and readjusting his hair as he stumbles away. Even without context, the video is an accidental masterpiece of comedic timing. In context, it is the kind of beautiful twist of fate the world so often denies us: here is the smug neo-Nazi explaining his ghastly meme, here is the punch that silences him, here is everyone who hates hate, cackling in delight.

(A note: of course it is okay to laugh at Spencer being punched. Never has there been a man who more obviously deserved a swift blow to the head. I say this as not at all the face-punching type: Nazism, as an ideology, is fundamentally corrosive to the very concept of free, reasonable public discourse, and will, given the opportunity, erode it at every turn. It does not deserve engagement, negotiation, or discussion.)

Why is this important, though? Why am I writing about it instead of just watching the video again? Because the alt-right is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it is a pernicious movement of hate-speaking trolls who advocate for genocide, engage in vile targeted harassment campaigns, seem to be gaining traction in the greater media and cultural landscape, and possess a worryingly close link to the President of the United States. On the other hand, it is a laughably pathetic movement that exists purely in digital form, is represented by a badly-drawn cartoon frog, and is afraid to stage protests because people might heckle them. Its moment of maximum public exposure involves a viral video of its dear leader Richard Spencer, an SS-haircut-wearing, shitty tweed jacket-owning, walking embodiment of the thinking face emoji, getting punched in the face.

There’s intentional self-contradiction in that paragraph because, I suppose, that’s just how things work now. The alt-right is both dangerous and deeply sad. They are both a joke and very, very real. This is, in fact, how they operate: their preferred tactic is to, essentially, say a deeply horrible thing and seriously discuss it with those who agree with them, while taking cover under the justification of “irony” for those who (rightly) react with shock and condemnation. Milo Yiannopolous is another famously (air-quotes) “ironic” alt-right figurehead (I say this because he seems to have very little idea of how irony actually works; he, or at least his public persona, is apocalyptically stupid). He claims, between inciting harassment campaigns against Black comedians, to be a “free speech activist.”

This is a tactic that has proven to be shockingly effective. By scrupulously avoiding any semblance of earnestness or coherence, alt-righters confuse the uninitiated who try to discern what is happening on their own and stave off mainstream condemnation (despite growing awareness of the group’s hateful nature, Yiannopolous recently received a large book deal from Simon and Schuster). While doing this, they still manage to energize their compatriots and terrify their targets, who rightly don’t care if the account tweeting Holocaust cartoons at them has a profile picture of a cartoon frog.

The perniciousness of the alt-right lies in its irrefutability; it is a target that cannot be hit with earnestness. The views this group holds are beyond the realm of earnest debate; the way they espouse them is, in fact, intended to make a mockery of the very concept. No one can have a real debate with a cartoon frog that calls you some slur or another, posts a Holocaust cartoon, and then disappears into the ether. Their “engagement” with the rest of the American public, primarily in online forums like Twitter, comes mostly in the form of trolling, which, of course, isn’t a behavior designed to produce meaningful responses. It is meant to infuriate the target and invigorate the troll. This is, in fact, part of how the alt-right recruits, how they maintain morale—by selling the appeal of being a frustrating asshole.

The fact that these strategies are used to advance the politics of violent racism is what makes the group so dangerous. With memes and harassment and a select few public figures who make a surface effort at respectability—while I noted Spencer’s clever tactic of giving vile concepts misleadingly bland names, he’s also been careful to buck the cultural image of neo-Nazis as sweaty basement weirdos by instead dressing, basically, like a normal person—the group has made remarkable and worrying progress in advancing open White nationalism back into the realm of mainstream political discourse.

So, what is the best way to fight them? How do you push back against a group that refuses to engage in the first place? The best solution, of course, would be for the mainstream social networks that see the most action by alt-right trolls—looking at you, Twitter and Reddit—to ban them outright. Forcing alt-righters back into the darker corners of the Internet that they normally tend to inhabit limits their ability to pollute normal political discourse, recruit new followers, and, most of all, prevents them from engaging in further harassment. Given the worrisome lack of progress on this front, though, there will have to be other measures as well.

I believe that the best way for individuals to push back against the alt-right is by repurposing their tactics against them. Spencer being punched is the perfect tool to do this; already there has been a flood of Twitter users replying to his posts with gifs or videos of the punch. (My favorite version of the video is one set to “The Star-Spangled Banner:” every time the cymbals crash, Spencer gets punched. Here’s a good collection of some other versions.) A few days after the punch became a meme, an image of Spencer getting punched at a different rally surfaced; it, too, became ammunition for counter-trolls.

The most telling sign of this tactic’s efficacy is in Spencer’s own response to it. A few days after being punched, he hosted a Periscope talk with fellow alt-righters: during it, he said, “I’m afraid that this will become the meme to end all memes. That I’m going to hate watching this.” I think that, in this case, he’s right.