Meme Magic, Anons, and Trump
(This post was originally posted to a discussion board for my Philosophy and Fascism class. Context and allusions to other discussions are preserved.)
A recently released documentary called Feels Good Man will be the source of much of the content of this post. It came out recently and I highly recommend a viewing, as it will do a better job of exploring the topic in general.
So to continue our discussion on Incels, I want to talk about how 4chan and 8chan significantly assisted Trump's rise to power. It begins when Matt Furie draws a comic about living post-college with a bunch of friends called Boys Club. Later on, the phrase "feels good man", which appears in a panel, starts being posted to various bodybuilding forums to express the joy of completing a workout. Scans and colorings and new drawings of Pepe begin to appear, while the culture of it migrates to 4chan.
The denizens of 4chan, known as "anon"s, have formed a sort of corrupted class solidarity. For the most part, they are 20-something living in their parents' basement. The term NEET describes most of them. They have no drive to be successful in the world and only thrive off of posting and replying. These posts usually take the form of ferocious insults directed at other board members. But behind that vitriolic veil, exists the class solidarity. It is the knowledge that all of these people are "alone together", and they share in their suffering. As one subject put it, society does not allow perceived vulnerability. 4chan and the social media influencer era began at similar times, with one obsessing over negativity and wrapped up in nihilism, and the other obsessing over positivity and vanity, always trying to show the world how happy they are and how perfect their life is. That split is the inciting incident for anons' perception of the "normie", someone who has a regular happy life and seems to have no issues.
Bringing it back to Pepe for a moment, new drawings of the character expressing emotions that are normally taboo, along with a character called Wojack, which symbolizes the anon and their pain. The variety and creativity of Pepe images increased over time. At some point, the cartoon frog drew attention from various "normies", the majority being young girls. Alongside the self-obsession and vanity of regular social media, this symbolizes the commodification of the internet.
To put it lightly, anons were very upset about this. They began creating offensive Pepe images, Pepes performing acts that are crude and disgusting in most people's eyes. Most importantly, and this is the crux of the entire movement, the images were always portrayed as jokes, as ironic, as not really meaning anything. That irony provided a shield of ambiguity. It allowed anons to post these vulgar images without betraying their personal opinions.
The problem with irony is irony poisoning. This is a phenomenon in which a person begins making joke images or just regular snarky posts that they don't actually believe, but slowly begins to change their mind. This is an important step forward in the radicalization of anons, and ties into a discussion of magic.
John Michael Greer, a scholar and mystic, was interviewed for this film. He says that a new magic is taking place in America. People can focus their energies onto a totem or idol, which can create effects beyond regular empirical conception. In this case, the idol is Pepe, Trump, and the combination of the two: a famous image of Donald Trump redrawn as the green frog. When Trump posted that image on Twitter, it was an acknowledgment of the movement, and evidence that the new meme magic was working. Boards reacted to this with fervor. The powerless class of anons finally had evidence of their collective power. That's what makes this so interesting. Instead of being given a proper working-class revolution, the absence of a machine of leftist politics in American society left the abandoned anons to create their own online.
Another turning point in this meme magic story is the conversion of this internet energy into real-life events. Anons showed up at Trump rallies, screamed "Pepe" at a Hillary event, and even sought their own "promised land" of Kekistan.1 They sought to corrupt the truth and create chaos. Steve Bannon says it best: "flood the zone with shit." We begin to see fascist elements in this movement, not only with the promised land ideology of Kekistan but also the perception of winning and losing in a battle against the normies. These anons that perceive themselves to be at the bottom of society, are finally organizing to take back what is rightfully theirs. That sounds a little fascist to me. I relate it to the political rise of Mussolini and the fascists in the streets doing fascism on their own (Paxton).
A somewhat related facet of this discussion is Matt Braynard, the director of strategy and data for Trump's 2016 campaign. He now runs an organization called Look Ahead America. He uses the obscene plethora of online data available about everyone to target potential Trump voters. Braynard speaks here:
We're applying to identify patriotic Americans who've become disaffected and cynical, so we can engage them on issues relevant to them, get them registered, get them educated and turn them out to vote.
My intuition says that he is targeting the same kind of people who would use 4chan, if they were only born 30 or 40 years later. The organized right has successfully won the war of ideas in the minds of regular Americans.
I end this post and open it for discussion with the actual translations of online vitriol into real-world violence. It came up in discussion that a non-insignificant amount of shootings and murders in America were related to 4chan, and the "beta uprising", which is the movement discussed above. This is the world we live in, right now. Alongside the world created by liberal capitalist projects of the 80s, and the remnants of post-industrial monopolies, it leaks into the zeitgeist. After the initial fascination with this culture, I am left with a level of dread that isn't easy to ignore. But hope exists in a potential organized leftist movement to permanently change the power relations of this country.
Kek was originally gamer slang, which came about because rival factions Alliance and Horde in World of Warcraft were not allowed to read each other's messages, and they were scrambled by the game. When a Horde player typed "lol", Alliance players read that as "kek" and vice versa. But research preformed by anons led them to the ancient Egyptian god of the same name, which brought a plague of frogs upon the people. This is just a perfect coincidence and symbol for the movement. Anons imagined themselves as Pepe frogs, storming and terrorizing regular society with their numbers.