On Copium Memes and Media Martyrdom
Grief and loss are difficult and even more if you live in the alternative reality of the president. Memes are one way of coping and they require our attention if we want to understand future strategies of the far right.
On the day of President Trump’s Inauguration, Jessica Starr was recorded screaming in angst at the thought of Trump becoming the United States’ next Commander in Chief. The New York Post went out of their way to make Jessica the face of the liberal “snowflake” — a pejorative term for someone melting down. Over the last several years, Jessica’s image has been used in far-right meme spaces and in the miasma of message boards where Trump supporters revel in their appreciation of a leader who would truly upset the opposition.
Today, in the wake of Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump, his ardent followers are the ones experiencing shock and dismay. They had spent the last four years believing that the President’s social media claims, delivered in their Facebook and Twitter feeds, represented reality. Many were primed to reject the outcome of the vote and accept his claims of fraud. Among the most devoted, including those who halfway mean it when they call him a “god emperor,” this does not end without a fight.
In the fantasy of the far-right followers of the President’s feed, there is still a chance to pull off a successful win for their leader, but only if they support the president en masse and undemocratically.
To enable this action, they’re deploying their favorite weapons: memes. As we near the end of Trump’s term, some of these memes may pop-up on your accounts. Before you can assess and, perhaps, respond, you have to understand their meaning.
For years, Trump supporters have used Pepe the Frog, the ubiquitous green frog of the internet, as a stand-in for their digital identity. Pepe, who began life as a chill stoner character that was easy to draw, was turned into a hate symbol by white nationalists. (This journey is chronicled in the documentary Feels Good Man.)
Today he’s the face of the grieving. Trump supporters are attempting to cope with the loss of the man they know to be their best defense against the tyranny of political correctness, “wokeness” and overall rules of appropriate behavior.
It should be no surprise that after 50 unsuccessful lawsuits followed by the certification of state legislatures, Trump supporters are still fighting. January 6th is expected to be their last day of hope as Congress meets to affirm the Electoral College and certify Joe Biden as President. Many of the die-hards believe the day will bring a thrilling sudden victory as the Congress refuses its duty or a loss that will transform them into victims.
Feelings of victimization are not new for this group. In fact, prior to the rise of Trump it was what defined them. In their minds, they believed the left marginalized them through its control of academia and media. In response, they retreated to the internet where they mastered the language and often dominated the discourse. This was possible because, unlike mainstream media, the web operates with few gatekeepers and tolerates disturbing, hateful, and sometimes rhetorically dangerous speech. It also enables harassment that can have real-world consequences when a target’s address is made public.
When Trump took office, the denizens of far-right Internet felt they had finally elected someone who shared their scornful adolescent attitude toward decorum or respect for others. (Before he was elected Trump infamously said, “you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect.”)
In return for their support, Trump empowered his followers to push for their rights to their version of free speech. Throughout his presidency Trump has had a mostly antagonistic, yet symbiotic, relationship with the media. Over the last several years, Trump has often made it a point to say that he more poorly treated that any other president including Abraham Lincoln. Absurd as the claim was, his most ardent supporters accept this as gospel.
Faced with the prospect of their hero’s defeat, Trump’s online legion has been resorting to a kind of therapy — in a play on opium they call “copium,” — to come to grips with the actual reality. Based on these copium memes, we should understand that electoral politics no longer matters to the followers who reside deepest in the web, however they hope that Trump will fight on for them.
Trump understands how to keep the masses connected. On December 18, 2019, the day of his official impeachment, he tweeted a meme that stated, “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you, I’m just in the way.” The meme became a common trope that substantiated the Trump fans belief that he is the god-emperor to their Pepe.
Memes are insiders’ tools that reference something you either know or you don’t. Like emojis, they are stand-ins for emotions that reduce complex thoughts and feelings into easily shareable bits. Trump’s troll-friendly approach originally resembled an ethos of using any means possible to “own the libs” and the ideologies of the Trump years bordered on nihilism. No real policy, just an attempt to restructure a hegemony that had disenfranchised millions of forum-dwelling internet posters who previously lacked a voice or representation. The followers see themselves as the ubiquitous Pepe the Frog and Trump their fearless defender.
In the end, Trump’s loss severely damages their meme weaponry. You cannot “own the libs” if you have lost and the existential thought of once again being restricted from saying hate speech or racist bigotry is too frightening to grapple with. In the short term, we may encounter violence as the energy emitted from meme pages result in physical direct action. In the long term, we have to remember that these memes, though they represent a version of grieving, display an uncomfortable fact: the far-right now knows how it feels to have a leader. To that end, they will never stop looking for a new one.
Josh Chapdelaine and I continue this conversation on our Digital Void Podcast. Listen, subscribe and share.