In the early days of his campaign, it was conceivable to read Donald Trump like a book with an unreliable narrator. The content was absurd & offensive, but the absurdity was strangely calculated so that the act of being offensive still carried rhetorical value: Trump’s offensiveness wasn’t captained by personal conviction or robust political philosophy, but was reactionary. Trump said precisely the things which would provoke backlash from anyone remotely left-of-center: minorities aren’t an “economic burden,” they’re “rapists.” Hillary doesn’t merely “lack integrity,” she should be “locked up.”
The “provoking-qua-provoking” (i.e., forcefully stating beliefs he may not even have held), was the very source of Trump’s electoral power. He perceived that people were annoyed with the monotony of “political correctness,” so he offended and offended—even letting his offenses contradict one another. It was doubly-effective: offensiveness also got him the most airtime of any 2016 candidate, and airtime directly correlates with public support. Target those moves at swing audiences (Pennsylvania, etc.) and you’ve got yourself an election.
The Alt-Right had it First.
The same tactics were already being developed in the growing alt-right movement, a mutated political ideology which incubated in dark corners of the Internet, where casual holocaust jokes and anonymously-shared memes were infused with 1) male bravado and 2) honest disgust at the ineffectiveness of American politics. The internet had cheapened all talk, and unbreakable cultural myths practically made debate meaningless. Joining the alt-right, which claimed to both explain and rise above fruitless politics, yielded a sense of enlightenment. Even freedom from futility, Hope.
Memes—more properly memetics, the ideology behind them—are not incidental to the alt-right (nor American culture at large). They define the alt-right’s conceptions of society’s problem and the rules by which to fix it, as follows:
- Standards of “political correctness” (support for minorities, political & religious tolerance, &c.) have been co-opted by virtue signaling.
- Thus, standards of “political correctness” don’t exist to be truthful; instead they exist to perpetuate themselves in culture. In other words, “being PC” is a meme.
- The reproduction of this meme leaves its host (namely the American public) unable to think outside the “politically correct” box. This causes an inability to absorb any ideas which do not adopt the strictures of political correctness, thwarting discourse.
- Since memes operate by the rules of natural selection, the only thing which can kill a meme is another meme which catches and reproduces faster (is more “fit”).
- Therefore, to remove the memetic roadblock to public discourse, we must destroy “political correctness” with a rival, fitter meme.
This formulation of the problem is incredibly appealing. Thus, the alt-right co-opted Pepe, uncorked the finely-aged bottles of racially-insensitive jokes and misogynist opinions, and harnessed the power of backlash. Since the very point of the rhetoric was to prod those who hosted the “political correctness” meme, the outrage of those people only stoked the flames. A self-amplyfying, feedback loop began.
Trump Saw an Opportunity for Power, Not for Cultural Renovation.
Trump, seeing the unrest, frustration, and dissatisfaction, spied opportunity. As a businessman, he didn’t care about political philosophies, but merely about value. Power is valuable, and sometimes even lucrative. There was a power vacuum in the presidency following Obama, and the skill set needed to fill the vacuum was precisely Trump’s: marketing.
But now, now that the marketing campaign worked, what does he… do?
The answer is simple: exactly the same thing as before. You market, which for Trump means saying exactly what is desired to the people who want to hear it. (Cf. Evangelicals at Liberty University, and Trump’s use of “Two Corinthians.”)
The point has been accomplished. Trump got power, and he can continue to exert enough control using the same tactics. The only thing which is of concern now is losing power. Sure, he’s relatively safe as president (impeachment proceedings are still rare and inefficient enough that he might weather them), but that all depends on his relations with the public. There’s still some standard of decency which must not be crossed. He nearly hit it with Charlottesville.
That explains why Trump fired Bannon. In the aftermath of last weekend, Trump cut it a little too close to the critical mass of offensiveness which would genuinely tip public opinion. As ardent as white supremacists are in supporting Trump, they have zero—nay, negative—electoral power. He can’t stay in power using fringe groups alone. He must remain painfully tolerated by the establishment until his 4 years are up. So, in an effort to save face after his double-talk on Charlottesville was too agitating, Trump dumped Bannon, the most controversial and alt-right-associated member of his cabinet. That’s scapegoating (another memetic tactic): it creates an illusion that Trump’s administration has been purified, and it creates a independent object (Bannon/Breitbart) which will absorb public hatred.
So Here’s the Extant Danger.
Trump is a jester. In the classic sense. He is not afraid to speak literally meaningless words—emptied of meaning through self-contradiction—because it pleases disparate groups of people and maintains power. However, in front of the backdrop of a perversely democratic* society, Trump is de facto fulfilling the role of the tyrant. “Tyrant” there isn’t just a synonym for “bad president, me no like.” Here’s how Plato describes the genesis of a tyrannical leader and society:
What about when the possessions of his father and mother give out? With that great swarm of pleasures inside him, won’t he first try to break into someone’s house or snatch someone’s coat late at night? … [E]rotic love lives like a tyrant within him, in complete anarchy and lawlessness as his sole ruler, and drives him—as if he were a city—to dare anything that will provide sustenance for itself and the unruly mob around it. … [If the mob] chance to live in a time of peace and quiet, they’ll remain in the city and bring about lots of little evils. … [And] when such people become numerous and conscious of their numbers, it is they—aided by the foolishness of the people—who create a tyrant.
–Republic, Book IX
Trump isn’t consciously being tyrannical (if such a thing is possible). But his key tactic in governing is the textbook definition of tyrrany: supplying words, funds, power, “anything that will provide sustenance for [himself] and the unruly mob around [him].”
But notice the last line. It’s on me. (And you. And our neighbors.)
The essential premise of the alt-right’s political engagement—that of memetic thinking, which has spread only with the modern cultural phenomenon that is the Internet—is that rhetoric has value, but no meaning. All opinions are jokes, because all opinions can and will be contradicted as needed. Self-consistency, and with it integrity, is jettisoned. The only virtue is a kind of non-conformity, a kind of brash and brutal honesty that, ironically, simply has nothing to say. This rhetorical nihilism is antithetical to any sort of genuine political discourse, and needs to be refuted. Memetics drives the wedge deeper, and splitting the log won’t solve the problem.
The alt-right adopted offense for a subversive purpose, and in the process have constructed a cultural peninsula for white supremacists and neo-Nazis—the ones who really believe the ideological horrors which alt-righters merely joke about believing. Their nihilism is what allows the bright-eyed and vile idealism of the extremists to flourish. The alt-right, in turn has already surpassed the intended limits of Trump’s opportunist joke by believing it to have cultural value.
So, what will I try to do?
- Reject the dialectic of memetics. I want to remind myself that there’s more to life and truth than surviving and spreading. I think that looks like having a warm and joyful heart toward my peers and the institutions I’m a part of.
- Respond with a cool temper. I’m giving up Facebook comment wars, and I’m putting myself on guard against scapegoating. As a child of the internet, these societal problems have an efficient cause in my heart.
- Stop virtue signaling. Sharing this on Facebook probably seems like I’m negating myself here. But I’ve been one of those idiots mired in endless shouting matches on the internet. I often select who I talk to and befriend by the cultural (political, religious, etc.) phenomena they identify with. Putting this post here is my attempt to reach outside my echo chamber.
- Think before I joke. My words are more than mere sounds, and actually mean what I think they mean. I want to add constructive contributions to conversations rather than try to get a quick laugh.
I would love responses and critiques of this perspective from anyone who reads this. If you can’t contact me via Facebook or the comment section, my email is rsquared.reynolds (at) gmail.com. Let’s dialogue about where America, politics, and the Internet are—and how to better them.
* This goes back to Plato again. To him, Democracy wasn’t a positive thing. Instead, it was a far-devolved point of social affairs where the only political and societal value is freedom. In Plato’s estimation, it is “democracy’s insatiable desire for” freedom that is the very mechanism of its destruction.