Dark magic: the memes that made Donald Trump’s victory


Dr Ryan M. Milner 

Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston and the author of The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. He is co-author of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online


Dr Whitney Phillips

Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and writing at Mercer University and the author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. She is co-author of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online


US2016 - Section 6

Section 6: Digital Campaign

Move aside 2012, the 2016 US Presidential election was the real meme election. Since the primary season kicked off, the American people have lent their time, attention, and Twitter hashtags to vernacular play with Little Marco, Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer (or blobfish, or sweaty, sad phone banker), and the disposable camera snapping sweater prodigy known as Ken Bone. Don’t see any of your favorites? Try this A-Z guide.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Alongside more lighthearted play were memes premised on broader identity politics. Progressives proudly reclaimed Donald Trump’s accusations that many undocumented immigrants are “bad hombres” and Hillary Clinton is a “nasty woman.” Conservatives, for their part, proudly reclaimed Clinton’s assertion that racist, misogynist, and xenophobic Trump supporters were “deplorables.”

On the furthest end of the conservative spectrum, white nationalists operating under the banner of the so-called alt-right were especially prolific. Participants hijacking Pepe the Frog, for example, managed to catapult its maybe ironic, maybe sincere bigotry to mass attention, prompting months of journalistic coverage (and prompting us to declare the motives behind racist Pepe memes were irrelevant).

Alt-right icon, Breitbart editor, and exiled Twitter hate vessel Milo Yiannopoulos has called this “meme magic,” arguing the alt-right’s “shitpost” machine is so influential it is able to directly influence the process in favor of their “God Emperor” Trump, whose unapologetic bigotry the alt-right embraced and helped perpetuate. 

Despite the alt-right’s gleeful self-congratulation, however, 2016’s “meme magic” conjured very little wholly new. If 2016 was the meme election, it’s not because of alt-right shitposts or even Trump himself. Rather, it’s because Trump tapped into prejudices bigger and older than the internet: hateful racial stereotypes, oppressive gender norms, sweeping anti-elitism, and good old fashioned fear of the other. By tugging at these strings, Trump ran a campaign whose platform consisted not of policy proposals or thoughtful argumentation, but almost entirely of memes.

The term meme in this sense, as described by Milner, doesn’t merely label internet play. Online or off, memes emerge when resonant ideas spread within and across social collectives. Factual, objective truth isn’t a requisite if underlying idea connects and compels sharing.

Through savvy appropriation of supporters’ existing anxieties and biases, Trump exploited this process, invoking the following resonant memes:

Many Mexicans are murderers and rapists, (so we need to “build the wall”)

Muslims pose a threat to national security and should be barred entry (until we can “figure out what is going on” with them)

Crime is rising in “inner cities” full of dangerous, violent people (read “black people” and “poor people”) 

There’s unchecked voter fraud (especially in those “inner cities,” and so you have to watch, and by watch “you know what I’m talking about, right?”)

The federal government is full of corrupt failures (and Trump will “drain the swamp”)

“Career politicians” are untrustworthy (contrasted with Trump who “tells it like it is” and “says what he thinks”)

Crooked Hillary” Clinton is a criminal (so we should “lock her up”)

Women are emotional slaves to their biology (especially when a woman has “blood coming out of her…wherever”)

Women who get abortions are waging a war against future generations (and therefore “should be punished”)

Women are sexual objects (“grab them by the pussy,” the President-Elect suggests)

America needs to return to its glorious roots (i.e. that we can “Make America Great Again” by going back to a time of much narrower political and social enfranchisement)

These ideas are memetic; each resonates independent of factual realities, to the point of countering factual realities. Why these memes resonated with Trump’s supporters is, like the motivations behind the alt-right’s “meme magic,” opaque. Maybe they agreed (“he says what we’re thinking”). Maybe they cherry-picked the memes that resonated most, while downplaying others (in order to “drain the swamp” you have to deal with a little “locker room banter”). Maybe they just couldn’t stand the thought of electing…that woman… (a meme itself). Maybe they were willing to burn down the house because one leg of the table wobbles (that’ll really “shake things up”).

What Trump himself thinks about the memes he propagates is unimportant. What matters is the impact these memes have. The most fundamental impact is they normalize hate and denigration to the point hate speech is no longer seen as hate speech. It just becomes speech, whatever Trump happened to tweet that day was later reported by journalists as an expected part of the news cycle.

The second, more visceral, impact is the power of these memes to undermine the basic sense of safety, worthiness, and political visibility of those populations–women, Mexican Americans, Muslim Americans, Black Americans, Americans with disabilities, the list goes on–that have been targeted by the memes Trump and his supporters circulate. 

And these memes will continue to work their dark magic, so long as they resonate with enough people willing to embrace–or conveniently ignore–their very real, embodied consequences.