Outraging Ourselves to Death Political Discourse in the Online Era
The 2016 election cycle and the subsequent controversy over foreign influence in American politics and “fake news” has shown the massive political power that is available to whoever controls online discourse. The dominant and most powerful mode of online expression has become the internet meme, an aesthetic and ideological tool wielded by multiple political groups but most effectively by the new “alt-right” movement. I seek to define the meme as its own distinct, new art form. The meme is defined as a certain image or joke that can be repeated and slightly modified, even across multiple media, that is passed from person to person through varied imitation. Culture is composed of imitated and repeated action, and the meme is the unit of signified culture in the online space. The meme can be used for light, relatable humor, but also for transmitting political news and ideologies.
Through this control of online culture and memes, the alt-right and their concurrent online media networks helped propel the dark horse candidate Donald Trump to the presidency and shape U.S. political discourse away from reasoned debate to spectacle. In my paper, I want to draw a timeline from the repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987 that led to the modern 24-hour spectacle driven news cycle, to the now-constant online news algorithms which drive consumers to hermetically seal themselves with news sources that only reinforce their views and feed their outrage. This spectacle and outrage driven news deluge was then harnessed by a growing and increasingly radical right wing online community. This creation of “spectacle politics” removes the viewer from the political realities of what is happening, and instead turns politics into a media art where the winner is the one who controls the media narrative and optics and feeds more effectively into the collective outrage addiction.
It is in the post-modern political landscape that the political goals of the alt-right and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump aligned, and a meme economy and culture formed around Trump’s candidacy and Trump himself, intentionally and unintentionally endorsing alt-right ideology and meme culture. Alt-right figures created an ideological pipeline that laundered far-right and neo-Nazi rhetoric for mainstream online consumption, and a distinct alt-right subculture emerged. In my paper, I analyze the alt-right as not just a political aberration or an insignificant collection of social miscreants but a subculture and political force. Like all subcultures, the alt-right is defined through its opposition to what it views as an oppressive mainstream culture and a shared collection of signs and symbols. In the standard idea of a subculture, these shared signifiers usually consist of things like fashion, music tastes, and slang that separate the subculture and denote its members as being part of the “club.” But in the case of the alt-right, an online culture, the dominant signifier becomes the meme. The meme serves as the group’s inside joke, and understanding the memes and the delicate play between ironic humor and white neo-fascist allusions is what marks someone as a member. I hope to unpack the confluence of meme culture, online aesthetics, hard right politics, spectacle, and philosophy that has catapulted this movement to mainstream political relevance.