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The 2016 culture war, as illustrated by the alt-right

To Trump supporters, his win was a victory against corruption, political correctness, and conspiracies.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The 2016 campaign trail was a long and rocky, but for members of the self-described alt-right — the noxious, meme-wielding, internet-based movement built on a foundation of white nationalism — it was a turbulent ride to an unexpected victory. Amid the group’s triumphant reveling in the wake of Donald Trump’s win, the following image circulated online:

The poster combines several alt-right memes, and though it’s undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek — the alt-right’s rhetoric deliberately straddles a murky line between ironic hyperbole and sincere conspiratorial belief — it actually contains a lot of insight about Trump’s journey to the White House. In the eyes of Trump voters, their candidate’s win was more than a victory for white nationalism. It was also a victory against dangerous foreigners, feminism, attacks on the Second Amendment, and corrupt big government.

We’ve annotated the image to provide a glimpse into the memes, twisted humor, and bizarre conspiracies that shaped the worldview of the alt-right in 2016.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

1) The Alt-Right loves veterans

The American flag represents one of the alt-right’s champion causes: the plight of US veterans. Many members of the alt-right view President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as warmongers whose decision-making has endangered the lives of America’s finest.

2) David Clarke

One of the alt-right’s heroes is David Clarke, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sheriff who has gained fame as an outspoken right-wing media pundit despite being a registered Democrat. Clarke, who has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement because he believes it will join with ISIS, and has received awards from extremist groups like the militia-fostering Oath Keepers, spoke at the Republican National Convention in July in support of Trump. He’s stated often that he hopes Trump will disband what he calls the “Washington cartel.” Clarke has been lauded by conservatives, even as his views have grown more and more extremist. He was seriously considered for the role of Homeland Security Director in the Trump administration before Trump eventually picked John Kelly.

3) Kellyanne Conway

Kellyanne Conway was Trump's final campaign manager after a series of staff shake-ups. A former law professor and experienced pollster, Conway is the first woman ever to manage a winning US presidential campaign. After previous campaign manager Corey Lewandowski resigned over the summer, followed by campaign chair Paul Manafort, Conway and Breitbart News founder Stephen Bannon took over Trump’s campaign.

Despite the alt-right’s general alignment with sexist and anti-feminist ideologies and Conway’s attempt to distance the campaign from the movement, much (though not all) of the alt-right embraced her as a hero. After much speculation about what position, if any, she would assume in Trump’s administration, she accepted the powerful position of counselor to the president.

4) Alex Jones and Infowars

You could argue that Alex Jones is the original alt-right galvanizer. The creator of the fake news website Infowars and a massively popular conservative radio host — his weekly listening audience is reportedly larger than that of both Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh — has done his part to line the right-wing with conspiracy theories.

Throughout Obama’s administration and the 2016 election cycle, Jones has popularized the widespread use of the term “false flag” to identify and criticize a wide variety of government activities and societal tragedies, which he believes are attempts to infiltrate, distract, or somehow deceive the populace, from the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting to Pizzagate. Though Jones is not officially affiliated with the alt-right — he self-identifies as libertarian — he’s frequently lumped in with the movement, which has freely embraced him as one of its own.

5) Milo Yiannopoulos

Yiannopoulos — or, as he’s known by most of his adoring fans, just “Milo” — is an alt-right star. As Breitbart News’s most well-known writer, Yiannopoulos, like several of the other alt-right heroes on this list, doesn’t fit the straight-white-American mold; he’s gay and British. But he is the movement’s most influential, visible, and controversial member, by far.

His tendency to incite his fans to harassment ultimately got him banned from Twitter in July, but didn’t appear to affect his standing with his fans; he moved on to other platforms and embarked on a national tour, speaking at universities throughout the US. At one tour stop, he incited outrage with his onstage harassment of a transgender student (she later said she would drop out). His behavior did not stop a right-wing imprint of Simon and Schuster from awarding him to a major book deal in December, complete with a $250,000 advance.

6) The NRA

There are many points at which the alt-right movement diverges from traditional conservativism. It might seem odd, then, that gun rights are one point on which the movement converges with the broader right-wing, but as is often the case, the fundamental misogyny associated with the alt-right movement is at play.

The alt-right philosophizes that gun control is inherently a feminist plot. “A gun is an obvious symbol of male power, sexuality and virility,” the white nationalist journal Radix argued in 2012, insisting that feminists who wanted “to control, manage and limit male agency” were spearheading gun control movements as a kind of “symbolic castration of all men in society.”

7) Marina Abramović and “Spirit Cooking

Before it made headlines on some conservative websites in November, “Spirit Cooking” was a whimsical artwork created by legendary performance artist Marina Abramović. After WikiLeaks released email correspondence from Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta, an exchange between Podesta and Abramović led to a viral rumor that the two were colluding in dark occult rites.

Some sources claimed that the practice is descended from an occult cooking rite originally used in the early 20th century. Though the story was widely debunked, it inflamed conspiracists and members of the alt-right, fueled by such unlikely alt-right proponents as WikiLeaks itself. A few days before the election, WikiLeaks tweeted an image of Abramović’s “Spirit Cooking” art, directly linking it to Podesta:

The image of Abramović that appears on the victory poster — in which she’s creepily holding a bloody goat’s head — was viewed by conspiracists as proof of the dark ritual. It actually comes from an unrelated fashion spread Abramović appeared in for Vogue Ukraine in 2014.

8) Bernie Sanders

When a vocal subset of Bernie Bros refused to support Clinton after the primaries, the alt-right did its best to lure male Sanders supporters into its midst by embracing Sanders’s populism and denouncing Clinton’s globalism. It didn’t really work, but it didn’t stop some Trump supporters from welcoming them into the fold.

9) Chelsea Clinton and the Clinton Foundation

One of the most plausible but unsubstantiated conspiracy theories to come out of Podesta’s hacked and leaked emails involved Chelsea Clinton. A vague allegation made in an email to Podesta from a former Bill Clinton aide convinced members of the alt-right and conservative conspiracy theorists that Chelsea Clinton used money from her family’s nonprofit, the Clinton Foundation, to pay for her 2010 wedding.

This complaint didn’t make waves in Washington, and an attempt by the FBI to begin a probe of the Clinton Foundation reportedly went nowhere due to lack of evidence. But another revelation of the leaked Podesta emails was that Chelsea Clinton had been doing her best to clear the Foundation of any ethical conflicts. As Vox’s Jeff Stein noted, there was nothing inherently wrong with Clinton’s efforts. But if you were already suspicious of the organization and the Clintons themselves, as the alt-right was, then Chelsea’s confirmed connection to the Foundation could be taken as confirmation that you were right to be alarmed.

10) George Soros

George Soros is a Hungarian-born US billionaire that alt-right conspiracists love to hate. A dedicated philanthropist, he invests heavily in developing nations and announced in September that he would invest $500 million in the startup businesses of refugees and migrants. To the alt-right, this looked insidious, because Soros is also a friend of the Clintons, and thus is rumored, in alt-right circles, to be involved in innumerable plots and schemes to infiltrate and take over the US economy.

In particular, Infowars’ Jones circulated the conspiracy theory that Clinton was merely Soros’s sock puppet. When protests broke out across the US after the election results, rumors flew that Soros was orchestrating many of the protests by secretly paying activists. The fact that he’s ethnically Jewish gives the conspiracies attached to him an anti-Semitic bent, in line with the alt-right’s white supremacy.

11) MSM (the mainstream media)

Defeating the media, which the alt-right believes lies and manipulates the public on behalf of Obama, Clinton, and other Democrats, was as much of a motivator for many alt-right Trump supporters as defeating the Clinton campaign. The poster’s gesture to CNN as being the “Clinton News Network” sums up the attitude nicely.

12) Pepe the Frog / Kek / Meme Magic

The four images at the top of the poster are, from left to right: 1) Pepe the frog, a character originally conceived by comic artist Matt Furie; 2) the head of the Egyptian frog-god Kek superimposed over an image of his counterpart, the Egyptian snake god Kauket, in a seal inscribed with the Latin phrase “satis mentibus obvia,” or, "resist closed minds”; 3) an image of Christ, to emphasize the religious nature of the figures; and finally, 4) a sculpture of Kek in his frog form.

It’s complicated, but basically, through a series of meme-heavy coincidences involving 4chan’s use of “kek” as a synonym for “lol,” 4chan users profess to believe that Pepe (yes, the cartoon frog) is a reincarnation of Kek, an Egyptian frog-god who ruled over chaos and darkness, and that his coming is a sign that Donald Trump will save them all. Their satirical worship is what turned Pepe from a random internet meme into a racist and white nationalist meme symbol of hate. The ordeal understandably left Furie outraged and upset, and he began a “take back Pepe” campaign in October.

13) You’re fired

In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is Trump’s famous catchphrase from his reality TV show The Apprentice. It appears on the poster in reference to Trump’s defeat of Clinton in the election.

14) Big Gulps

This is an affectionate reference to the time Trump mentioned “our firemen down at 7/11” while talking about the 9/11 terror attacks. Yes, that really happened.

15) Trump riding a tank emblazoned with his name

The poster’s central image comes from an earlier image created by artist Jason Heuser. “The man with the golden hair has arrived,” he wrote when originally sharing it with the world.

16) A prediction

On January 20, Mic politics editor Luke Brinker tweeted the following tongue-in-cheek image.

Trump then reposted it sincerely. The alt-right remembers.

17) The Lion Guard:

In February, Trump retweeted an incendiary quote originally famously uttered by Fascist military dictator Mussolini: “It is better to live a day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” (He later claimed he knew the quote’s origin.) Before long, a new militia group calling itself the Lion Guard had formed online; the group was composed of Trump supporters across the country and used a variant of this phrase as their slogan, and the lion image you see in the poster as their logo.

The group reportedly formed in order to offer physical protection to Trump rally attendees during a time of escalating violence at Trump’s campaign events, as supporters scuffled with protesters. But as a concerned watchdog website pointed out, the group embraced white supremacist rhetoric and painted Trump protesters as “neo-Bolsheviks” and “armed Marxists.” Before the Republican National Convention in July, they suggested that such protestors would be “manipulating Ohio’s open carry laws to terrorize all convention goers.”

The use of the lion recurred among Trump’s supporters throughout the campaign, and also aligns with historically Fascist imagery used throughout the 20th century. The group has been relatively quiet on mainstream social media, but also organized through the private white supremacist social network Oopih — “a social network for us who stand for European culture and heritage.”

18) The FBI

The FBI became an unexpected ally for the Trump campaign in 2016, first over the summer and then again in the last few days before the election. After a federal investigation of Clinton’s private email server found no prosecutable wrongdoing in July, the FBI abruptly tweeted on November 5 that it had discovered more emails to investigate and was reopening its investigation. The “new emails” turned out to be duplicates of previously investigated emails, but the damage to Clinton’s campaign had already been done. Naturally, the alt-right saw the FBI as heroes running containment on what many of them viewed as a “soft coup of U.S. government.” Clinton has placed much of the blame for her loss on FBI Director James Comey’s decision to publicly announce the ultimately groundless second investigation.

19) Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta

In March, Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta was the victim of a classic phishing scam that enabled Russian hackers to steal thousands of emails from his account and deliver them to WikiLeaks. The emails provided an eye-opening, behind-the-curtain look at a major presidential campaign, but beyond the aforementioned evaporated concerns about potential ethical conflicts at the Clinton Foundation, they mostly revealed tidbits about Clinton making nice with Wall Street bankers, campaign strategies and procedures, politicians throwing shade at one another, and recipes — supernatural or otherwise. Still, the alt-right incorporated Podesta’s email hack into its ongoing narrative that the Clinton campaign was corrupt.

20) “Drain the swamp”

With this tweet, Trump gave his fans and supporters a new rallying cry. “Drain the swamp” became an instant meme, a social media hashtag, and a new fan chant heard at rallies across the country.

But what does it mean? Though the phrase has a long history as a call for socialist reform, Trump may have borrowed it from Ben Carson’s campaign. Carson pointed out in October 2015 that Washington, DC, was built on a real swamp, and said voters needed to “drain the swamp” by purging it of “stifling regulation, special interest politics, and partisan dysfunction.”

Trump seemed to be using the phrase the same way Carson did, implying a purge of politics-as-usual — but because of his previous threat to jail Hillary Clinton if he was elected, many people speculated that he meant a purge of individual politicians he deemed corrupt. An accompanying press release, which he followed up on in his plan for his first 100 days in office, suggested instead a sweeping attempt to curtail the influences of lobbying and former politicians with far-reaching connections.

Since winning the election, Trump seems to be in no rush to actually purge Washington of specific people; still, “drain the swamp” has become a mantra the alt-right fully embraces. In December, amid speculation he was dropping the slogan, Trump stated that although he had originally found the phrase “hokey,” the public loved it so much that it grew on him, and that he would continue using it.

21) “Reeeeeeee”

This is the alt-right’s battle cry — another broader 4chan meme subsumed into the movement. One redditor describes it as “something of ‘warcry’ for socially maladapted people.” And because it originated on 4chan, there’s also a good chance that it’s also intended to mock the mentally disabled.

22) Draining the swamp of feminists

The celebrities shown in this section of the poster are a motley bunch. Depicted from left to right are Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Amy Schumer, Beyoncé, Trump critic and Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, Abramović and her bloody goat’s head, and Cher.

The women don’t have much in common — except their gender, natch — but all of them represent, in various ways, opposition to Trump. A few (most notably Beyoncé, who endorsed Hillary Clinton in November, days before the election) additionally represent the rise of feminism and female empowerment that has swept through pop culture in recent years. Even Kelly, who represents a still-conservative reaction to Trump’s offensive behavior toward women, falls into the category of an enemy of the alt-right in this compendium. Coincidentally, several of the women, including Cyrus, Schumer, and Cher, had vowed to leave the country if Trump was elected.

23) Les Deplorables

In September, Clinton followed up her incendiary call-out speech against the alt-right with a new assertion that roughly half of Trump supporters were a “basket of deplorables” whose racist, nationalist rhetoric had been enfolded into Trump’s campaign. The alt-right immediately embraced the memorable insult, and Trump himself capitalized on the moment: At a September campaign rally, he unveiled the “Les Deplorables” image shown on the poster, walking out to the French battle song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the famous musical Les Miserables. “Les Deplorables” is a mashup of Clinton’s “deplorables” comment with the famous Parisian barricade imagery from Les Mis. Relevant flags of 1830s French student rebellion have been swapped out in this meme for the US flag and the Trump campaign banner.

There are a few key differences, however, that Trump seems to have overlooked: the doomed revolutionary students in the 1832 June Revolution — the subject of the Victor Hugo novel from whence the musical was adapted — represented a populist revolt against the very kind of authoritarian rule Trump threatens to enact. The students at the barricade were a mix of die-hard left-wing proto-socialists and radicals fighting for workers’ rights, better economic conditions, and equality. They were also joined by a wave of immigrants from other European countries.

In other words, alt-right members may be singing the songs of angry men, but the fictional revolutionary heroes they’re emulating would not approve.

24) WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

It’s no secret that WikiLeaks, an allegedly “independent” organization, shifted toward the right as the campaign wore on, via its bizarre support of conspiracy theories surrounding Clinton, its connections to Russian hackers who provided it with Podesta’s phished emails, and its decision to leak of all those emails. Following the election, WikiLeaks’ staff triumphantly held a Reddit AMA, praising the site’s Trump-voting members for their “citizen journalism” in diligently rooting through all those emails looking for evidence of wrongdoing.

The organization’s controversial founder Julian Assange has been overtly hostile to Clinton over the foreign policy she practiced as Obama’s secretary of state. But to the alt-right, Assange and WikiLeaks are heroes. That WikiLeaks also fueled nonsensical theories about Clinton-linked Satanic rituals and a secret brain tumor during the campaign made no difference: To the alt-right, that was just a sign that WikiLeaks was “revealing the Matrix.”

25) The Matrix

The alt-right’s love of the titular concept from the famous sci-fi film trilogy was borne of sexism. The iconic movie’s famous metaphor for waking up to reality by taking “the red pill” has been appropriated by the alt-right to suggest that most of us are living a lie perpetuated by feminism, a cultural worldview which seeks to emasculate men and promote the superiority of women. The only way out of this lie, as many of its members argue, is to ‘take the red pill’ — that is, to fall down the rabbit hole of the “men’s rights” movement, which will ultimately lead you to an awareness that traditional gender roles and the reestablishment of the patriarchy is better for everyone.

The “Matrix” in this context is a carefully constructed web of myths about feminism and gender equality designed to keep this truth from the general populace. If you throw in racial politics, as the alt-right has also done, you’ve got a perfect metaphor for the movement’s unease at the advance of progressive politics, feminism, and multiculturalism.

The Matrix metaphor works for just about every conceivable social system you might hate; but the alt-right movement has explicitly used it to construct a protective feedback loop around its misogyny and white supremacy.

In other words, if you disagree or offer an opposing viewpoint, to the alt-right, it’s because you’re still living within the Matrix — you’ve taken the blue pill, you’re a mindless sheep, a weak cuck, or a shill for the insidious threat of progressive identity politics.

Naturally, those who occupy a different ideological nexus than Trump supporters and the alt-right believe they are already on the right side of history. But the same can be said of those Trump supporters and the alt-right, and it’s important to understand how memes, imagery, and narratives like the ones captured in this poster helped usher in not only Trump’s presidency, but an increasingly fractured culture war.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Conway was the first woman to lead a presidential campaign, rather than the first woman to lead a winning presidential campaign. The sentence has been reworded for accuracy. Vox regrets the error.

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