Day of the trope: White nationalist memes thrive on Reddit's r/The_Donald
Like most social media companies, Reddit struggles to balance two of its core missions that often come into conflict — providing a platform for free expression and preventing harm to its users — and it tends to err on the side of the former unless there is clear evidence of the latter.
Reddit comprises autonomous communities called subreddits, or “subs,” that are expected to police themselves with minimal interference from administrators. But an unfortunate side-effect of Reddit’s laissez-faire content policy has been the proliferation of subs dedicated to hate speech and violence with names like r/c---town, r/b------women and r/watchn------die.
Though the site initially tolerated these communities, Reddit took action in 2015. Those that had engaged in harassment were banned and the rest were “quarantined,” or limited in their ability to interact with the rest of the site. Last year, Reddit revised its policy again after the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, prohibiting the incitement of violence and banning more than 100 explicitly violent and white supremacist subs, like r/KillTheJ--- and r/KKK.
However, one of Reddit’s largest platforms for hate speech managed to escape the fate of the others: r/The_Donald. The_Donald, abbreviated as T_D, is currently ranked the 153rd most popular subreddit on Reddit.
On the surface, The_Donald — Reddit’s “never-ending rally dedicated to the 45th President” — appears to be nothing more than a forum for bad jokes and the usual partisan vitriol.
But even though much of its content is just a more tasteless version of garden variety Tea Party populism, the online subculture of the alt-right forms the core of The_Donald’s identity. The subreddit inherited from /pol/, the alt-right’s stronghold on 4chan, a distinct brand of reactionary politics as well as a complete system of white nationalist slang and dog whistles.
In March 2017, FiveThirtyEight quantified this undercurrent of far-right extremism using latent semantic analysis, a technique developed to compare two works of literature. They found close similarities between The_Donald and the recently banned white nationalist sub r/uncensorednews as well as r/coontown, a member of the racist network of subs known as the “Chimpire.”
In many ways, The_Donald fulfils neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin’s vision of Reddit as a “fertile recruiting ground.” Though Anglin’s The Daily Stormer might be more open and aggressive in its white nationalist messaging, all the themes and memes in his “Normie’s guide to the alt-right” can be found among the thousands of threads on The_Donald, which serves as a major vehicle for these ideas to reach the “front page of the internet.”
In what form can white nationalist elements be found on The_Donald on a day-to-day basis? Beyond similarities in language and style, there are substantive parallels in content, with The_Donald acting as a bridge between fringe online communities like /pol/ and the wider internet. And in addition to finding a bigger audience among The_Donald’s more than half a million subscribers, white nationalist ideas gain a measure of legitimacy when they are promoted on a subreddit that once hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) with the president himself.
The Great Replacement, “white genocide”
“White people have (in the postwar period) failed to recognize that they are a coherent group with group interests. One of those interests is "not being systematically displaced from their homelands by violent low IQ third worlders.” — SirTossAside
The central theme of white nationalist propaganda is the concept of “white genocide,” also known as “the Great Replacement,” which is the idea that dark forces are conspiring to gradually exterminate the white race by encouraging mass immigration, low fertility, miscegenation and abortion. This myth is powerful because it speaks to the same anxieties over demographic transition in the United States that helped to propel Trump to the White House, transforming nebulous and impersonal social processes into concrete, identifiable enemies that the masses can struggle against — a shadowy, powerful “them.”
While there’s general agreement on The_Donald that this replacement is happening, users vary somewhat in their ideas about who is primarily responsible. Tea Party conservatives characterize it as a scheme by Democrats to gain voters. For the white nationalists, the main villain is “international J----.” Infowars fans blame “globalists” — a label that is often interchangeable with “Jews”— seeking to dumb down Western populations with “low-IQ migrants” who are more easily controlled.
But these perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive nor are there really factions with discrete boundaries. Regardless of who the antagonists are in the “white genocide” myth, the stories converge on certain key elements, the most important being the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as Hart-Celler. Though it is despised by all anti-immigration groups, the Hart-Celler Act holds a special place in white nationalist lore as the catastrophic event that marked the end of America as a predominantly white country.
The act provides the perfect talking point for far-right recruitment. Adopting a typical tactic of piggybacking on a hot thread, WaltzRoommate, moderator of r/DebateAltRight and a self-described white nationalist, jumped in on a discussion about Norway with 3,500 upvotes and proceeded to coyly nudge it toward Hart-Celler:
Did you guys know that before 1965, we had a higher quality of living than they do? What changed, does anyone know?” The two versions of the narrative meet when someone responds, “Ted Kennedy’s immigration bill.”
With respect to Europe, the mythology of the “Kalergi plan” plays a similar role in constructing the “white genocide” narrative. Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi was an Austrian noble and early advocate of European integration. White nationalists mine his writings for evidence that the European Union is the culmination of a nefarious “plan” for white genocide put into motion decades ago.
In an August 2017 thread — one of the 330 threads on The_Donald that mention the “Kalergi plan,” — it is described as a conspiracy to:
replace the population of Europe with African migrants who have no ties to the land so they won't fight for it when the leaders of the EU move to take it all over and create one big nation.
In response to this remark, a throwaway account, whose comment history consists mostly of spamming the white nationalist slogan “diversity means white genocide” 130 times, starts prodding: “But what group of people could be so evil and malicious toward white people? I wonder...”
In another thread on the subject of the “Great Replacement,” user kikeslammer88 remarks “Could their agenda be any clearer at this point? The erasure of history is prelude to the erasure of people.”
The conspiracy theories in regular rotation on The_Donald, like Pizzagate and more recently QAnon, prime its users to accept the “white genocide” myth. Anglin recognized this potential synergy, when he identified conspiracy junkies as a pool for recruitment, saying “conspiracy-minded people are the most open to considering the reality, which is that international Jewry, in fact, runs our societies."
It doesn’t help that The_Donald subscribers are suckers for fake news, either. A post upvoted more than 700 times featured an image doctored to resemble a story from the Huffington Post. In it, the fictional “culture writer” celebrates the birthrate of mixed-race children in Sweden surpassing that of natives, drawing some predictable responses: “How is this not genocide?!?” and “GOOGLE THE KALERGI PLAN.”
“Genghis devoted several years to wiping the f------ off the map: massacring people, raising [sic] cities, etc.” — Uno_Hombre_de_Mal
The_Donald has a range of criteria for including someone in its pantheon of heroes. Figures might earn the honorary title “based” for standing firm on core conservative issues like gun control or immigration. But the surest path to canonization is to kill a lot of Muslims, communists or both. For placing a bounty on communists, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte becomes “Based Duterte.” For killing 1.5 million Muslims, Genghis Khan is dubbed “Based Genghis.”
The truly brutal have their images merged with Pepe, the alt-right’s green frog mascot. Pepe appears as Vlad the Impaler, and the deeds that earned him his title are described approvingly:
Primitive cultures like Islam think might makes right…Vlad demoralized the enemies Armies by showing them their God was not on their side. And it worked wonders.
The_Donald also favors Pepe clad in the military garb of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet and “helicopter rides” — referring to his “death flight” executions — have come to symbolize the anarcho-capitalist idea of “physical removal.” Pinochet memes formed the bulk of content on r/Physical_Removal, which Reddit banned for inciting violence in August 2017.
Pinochet is comparably popular on The_Donald with nearly 640 threads referencing him. A fairly typical example: “Make Pinochet proud! Free helicopter rides for all illegal alien parasites, demonrats/RIno's, the Alt-left/antifa, and commies/socialists!”
Remove kebab, deus vult, rapefugees, cultural enrichment
“It’s time to put the fear of God into these third-world scum. Europe can no longer be a classless w---- who spreads her legs for these brutish savages. Muslims and Africans alike need to fear Europe and speak of Europeans like one might speak of a bogeyman who disappears people in the night. DEUS VULT” — BasedMcCulloch
On the grounds that “Islam is not a race,” Muslims are excepted from The_Donald’s weakly enforced rules against racism. Islamophobia is one form of bigotry that users can indulge in openly with the blessing of the moderators.
Threads on Muslims regularly mix open hatred with calls for violence that take the form of esoteric slogans, like “remove kebab” and the Crusader battle cry “deus vult.” Appearing in more than 800 threads, “remove kebab” is a meme that originates from the video “Serbia Strong,” in which a band of soldiers pays tribute to the Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadžić. It is usually accompanied by images of the band’s severe-looking accordion player Novislav Đajić — known as “Dat Face Soldier” — who was found guilty of acts of genocide in 1997.
There is also open support for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Myanmar. In a thread titled “SUCKS WHEN PEOPLE FIGHT BACK: Rohingya Muslims being wiped off Myanmar’s map,” the creator of the post wrote:
Buddhists don't appreciate watching their women and children being reaped [sic] and mutilated in the name of Islam's sick murdering pedophile prophet. The most peaceful people in the world have been forced to fight back against the disease of Islam. See a mosque? Burn it down. See a goat-f------ towel-head? put it down.
That comment was ultimately removed by the moderators after receiving 17 upvotes. The thread itself is still available.
The_Donald is also a fan of Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who has fanned the flames of ethnic violence in the region. In a thread featuring a quote from this “based Buddhist,” a commenter can’t help but see in the actions of Myanmar’s Buddhists a prescription for domestic issues:
7+ million islamists in the USA. They like to have lots of babies, it's one of their methods of conquering. Once they get their numbers high enough, they will kill more often, much as they are in places across Europe… It's an assault on all white nations on Earth, white genocide.
Muslims are described in dehumanizing terms, like “Rohingya roaches,” or with a variety of slurs like “m-------,” “m--------” and “goatf------.” The_Donald’s favorite, “rapefugees,” is used in 1,350 different threads — four times the number of hits for the term on Stormfront.
These epithets are used in conjunction with memes like “cultural enrichment.” Referencing the “white genocide” myth, Anglin’s “Normie’s Guide” explained that “cultural enrichment” mocks the narrative that he claims the “Jewish establishment” is pushing in furtherance of their multicultural agenda: “This is a means to point out that there is literally no tangible benefit, whatsoever, to bringing primitive third-world people into White countries.”
And on The_Donald, it’s used in the exact same way: “Furthermore, they want one people. It is easy to control a singular race of brownish people with no history or culture. By bringing in third world men to ‘culturally enrich’ European women they are doing just that.”
Dindus, We Wuz Kangz, Bix Nood, Mudsharking and Gibs
"How about this experiment?...Put some oxytocin in Chicago's grape soda supply, and see if they stop shooting each other as much." — rimper
When it comes to race, The_Donald alternates between transparent pandering and rehashing racist tropes. In one thread, you’ll find The_Donald gushing over a “based black man” while another rails against Black Lives Matter protesters “chimping out,” describing them as “animals” who “belong in a zoo.”
The_Donald eschews all the traditional racial slurs in favor of a whole new generation born on /pol/ and white nationalist forums. The newer epithets are derived from alt-right “counter-signaling” — mocking the opposition’s arguments — which manifests as parodies of black vernacular. Each word in the old lexicon of racism is being gradually supplanted by neologisms like “dindu,” short for “dindu nuffin,’” a word that took hold in the context of high-profile killings of black youth, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
“Gibs,” an alt-right slang for welfare widely used by The_Donald, is short for “gibs me dat” while “WE WUZ KANGZ” is used to mock both Afrocentrism and black pride in general. This style of digital minstrelsy was popularized in the earliest days of 4chan in the form of a meme called “bix nood.”
The phrase originally appeared in a racist caricature drawn by “A. Wyatt Man,” which is believed to be a pen name for cult filmmaker Nick Bougas. In the cartoon, a black man speaks a long string of nonsense into a cell phone: “…gub bidda be dat tum muhfugen bix nood…”
Anglin describes how at first these racist jokes were kicked around semi-ironically on 4chan’s /b/ board, but on /pol/, “the sentiments behind the jokes slowly became serious… /pol/ became a haven for virulent anti-Semites and aggressive racists, and the tone of the Alt-Right is drawn directly from these roots on 4chan.”
Then there is the term “mudshark,” which means a woman who dates black men. In a thread about the gruesome murder of a young woman in Myrtle Beach, user MethMouthMary comments: “Play mud-shark games and win mud-shark prizes.” In another, nonameforyou1234 writes of Colin Kaepernick: “F--- him. Same goes for his Muslim m-------.”
The 6 gorillion, Le Happy Merchant and Oy vey
“I want to smash this creep’s hook nose.” — Banana_Flask on Chuck Schumer
The same sort of duality shows in The_Donald’s attitude toward antisemitism. Insincere overtures to inclusiveness or expressions of support for Israel are often met with derision by some of the more hardline users, demonstrating the fault lines between the alt-right and the civic nationalist “alt-lite” over the “JQ,” or “Jewish question.” Some clues about which side The_Donald leans toward are found in debates over Republican candidate Paul Nehlen’s appearance on the alt-right podcast “Fash the Nation.”
A user criticizing Nehlen was heavily downvoted and had many of his comments censored by mods, whereas upvotes were awarded to a response that said: “This sub has become c---- for Israel. Stop licking Jew balls.”
Some antisemitism is relatively covert, taking the form of inside jokes like “Remember the 6 gorillion,” which is used to mock the Holocaust. Though it generally isn’t used to reference the Holocaust explicitly, there is implicit denialism because the meme carries the connotation of an exaggerated claim or an impossibly large number. Other antisemitic memes that originated on 4chan are also common, like “Oy Vey! It’s annuda Shoah,” which also mocks the Holocaust, and “The goyim know. Shut it down,” an allusion to antisemitic conspiracy theories. Any Jewish Trump supporters who object to these “jokes” gets mocked and branded a “shill.”
In other cases, antisemitism is overt, including the use of “Le Happy Merchant” cartoon of a Jewish man rubbing his hands together, which harkens back to the propaganda of Nazi Germany. Mods will remove the meme if it winds up at the top of the post because of “bad optics,” but links to it constantly slip into the comment section unnoticed.
Day of the Rope, Rightwing Death Squads when?
“On the day of the rope, traitors go first.” — Sean1488
Many threads on The_Donald take on a “two minutes hate” character. A post will start with a news item that inspires outrage, like a story about Twitter banning alt-right accounts, and users will vent their spleens — in this case, one called for the company’s executives to face military tribunals and firing squads. In threads like this, it’s not uncommon to see the cryptic reply “DOTR soon?”
Short for “The Day of the Rope,” this meme refers to a day of mass executions in the neo-Nazi novel The Turner Diaries as part of a millenarian race war.
Though it is recast on The_Donald in terms that are more 1776 than 1488 — e.g. watering the “tree of liberty” with the “blood of tyrants” — the meme carries the same ominous connotations of a cleansing wave of violence against corrupt politicians, mainstream media, globalists and other “c----.”
From time to time, users will break into sick fantasies that read like Turner Diaries fan fiction. One dreams about a day when Germans fight back against Muslim immigration: “They’ll blow up and start going on rampages. You’ll hear about school shooter type situations but it will be Muslim camps instead of schools.”
The user imagines an orgy of violence by “Caucasian men wielding baseball bats, guns of all kinds, axes, 2x4s” and then Trump arrives in a helicopter to say to the German people “You are true patriots. You fought and won for your country. You will make Germany great again.” The story ends with Trump introducing an unnamed German leader who has returned to “save Europe.”
“Rightwing death squads,” abbreviated “RWDS,” has been used the same way in a post now deleted: “Shit like this makes me want to go full RWDS on these f------ pieces of human filth. The left claims to be the side of reasonable viewpoints and peace, but they sure are pretty god damn violent and irrational with all the fear mongering and vitriol.”
The dark side of ‘meme magic’
The_Donald is fond of talking about “meme magic”— the idea that the products of their collective imagination can be willed into existence — but there are some sinister examples that The_Donald would probably rather not call attention to.
For months leading up to the events in Charlottesville, memes had circulated in various rightwing spaces, including The_Donald, with the slogan “All Lives Splatter” alongside cartoons of protesters being run over. James Alex Fields, Jr., brought the meme to life when he plowed his car into a group of protestors, killing one and injuring dozens.
The relationship between violent speech and violent action was a central theme to many landmark free speech cases of the 20thcentury like Brandenburg v. Ohio, which declared speech that incites “imminent lawless action” to be unprotected. Until the fall of 2017, Reddit had its own version of the Brandenburg standard, but after Charlottesville, the guidelines for proscribed content were expanded to include not only incitement but also glorification of violence.
It was relatively easy for Reddit admins to decide to ban subs like Physical_Removal that are premised entirely on promoting violence, but with The_Donald, enforcing the policy has not been so clear cut. While it may not be The_Donald’s main purpose, violent speech is acceptable according to the norms of the community and engaged in regularly on a mass scale.
And one would be hard-pressed to argue that participation in ritual collective fantasies of violence had no role to play in the decision of Lane Davis to murder his “leftist” father. Davis, who posted frequently on The_Donald under the name Seattle4Truth, was described by his mother Catherine as someone who “lives on the Internet.”
In April 2017, shortly before the murder, he posted a video with the alarmist title “CNN Says White Genocide is ‘THE ONLY SOLUTION’” and in the transcript of an earlier 911 call, his mother alluded to his obsession with Pizzagate, a perennial feature on The_Donald, saying, “He’s mad about something on the internet about leftist pedophiles.”
And beyond the more direct connections between The_Donald and violence, there are disturbing parallels between its content and the kind of demonization that precedes acts of genocide and racial terrorism. Like The_Donald, the defendants in the recently foiled Kansas City plot to murder Somali immigrants spoke of Muslims as “cockroaches” and styled themselves as modern-day “Crusaders.” Somalis are frequent targets of the subreddit. A post upvoted 4,500 times depicts them as shock troops for the “globalists:” “Soros is targeting pakistanis, afghanis and somalis BECAUSE they are the most inbred populations around.”
Reddit has banned several subs that are similar, both in terms of content as well as toxic behaviors like doxing and harassment, prompting other redditors to question administrators’ continued inaction against The_Donald. One of the top commenters in an /r/announcement thread speculates that Reddit’s leadership fears banning the subreddit would bring allegations of discrimination against Trump supporters or conservatives in general.
Admins claim the The_Donald’s mod team is working to clamp down on policy violations, but critics say the response is too slow. With a few exceptions, most of the examples used in this article were still not removed at the time of writing. Comments promoting violence will sometimes stay up for months before being flagged by one of the subs that function as surrogate mods, like r/AgainstHateSubreddits and r/EnoughTrumpSpam.
Axioms like “the solution to bad speech is more speech” are put to the test in a place where even the slightest criticisms of Trump are removed instantly and dissenting users are permanently banned while calls for violence — either open or masked in obscure euphemisms — often stay up indefinitely.
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, known on the site as “spez,” defends the decision not to ban The_Donald, saying “it is a small part of a large problem we face in this country — that a large part of the population feels unheard, and the last thing we're going to do is take their voice away.”
However, Reddit must weigh its commitment to free speech absolutism against the potential for hate speech to cause real harm while confronting the uncomfortable truth that white nationalism is among those “unheard” perspectives finding a voice on a forum that has the ear of a sitting president.