I watched the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump while chatting online with an alt-right(ish) teen — let's call him NS. I report on web culture for VICE News and had been interviewing alt-right types about Pepe the Frog, a decade-old meme now associated with Trump's Twitter fans. NS reached out to me late Saturday night with a very long Tumblr message explaining the meme's entire internet evolution.
As I sat in a cab on the way to a party, we debated via direct messages the relevance of social anxiety to the alt-right culture — he felt I was a "normie" more interested in psychoanalyzing the alt-right than engaging with its ideas, which is partly but not entirely true. It was fun. He said he was 19, from England, and going back to college — but of course, in this particularly trolly part of the internet, you never know. We started chatting again on Monday, and I asked him to send me the best debate memes. "im not your meme slut," he protested. But he gave me his meme theories anyway.
He was excited. The debate would be a major event in the meme war. "100 million people watching. no mic mute. no breaks," he said. "trump should offer clinton a cough drop. just place a packet of them on his podium in sight. and just smile at her… 'one cough bitch and it's over.'" At one point, NS paused for reflection: "fuck this is like reality tv but more is at stake."
The young memer offered some insights into the election's meme war. It's important to understand that the core concepts in this subculture have been folded into uncountable layers of irony. Memes have become campaign tools, with Clinton employing a highly organized group of designers to make attractive graphics to push out her message, and Trump occasionally retweeting an alt-right Twitter account, or his son retweeting an alt-right meme.
Clinton's campaign declared Pepe the Frog a white nationalist symbol, which is both true and not true. Pepe is used by many alt-right accounts, but he wasn't invented by them, and the whole point is to provoke a reaction from people who take the memes too seriously.
"You deliberately are trying to offend as many people as possible," the moderator of one Pepe subreddit told me. Half the fun of a Nazi-frog meme is not knowing whether its creator is ironically or seriously committed to national socialism. The mod said, "If people are telling you, 'You can't say that,' what are you going to do? The rules are there to be broken."
Instead of asking whether an idea is ironic or sincere, understand that it's more satisfying if it's both. One such concept is "meme magic" — a mystical belief/joke among meme purveyors that they can meme things into reality. As for his own views, NS said he enjoys the dark jokes and arcane internet history of the alt-right world without actually believing the ideology. "i dont associate with the alt right ideologically. i just connect people within it and find it interesting," he said.
He mostly posts about philosophy. But NS does believe there are inherent genetic differences between racial groups, and that political correctness is preventing people from talking about them. When he made a joke about the liberal media, "'trump bullies hilary into an early grave, proof of toxic sexist culture' - buzzfeed," I replied with a joke about an alt-right conspiracy theory: "hillary owns trump, proof of jewish global conspiracy to crush white identity." NS wanted to clarify on that: "No one actually believes that pls … some people are retards but the idea is more nuanced than that when properly expressed."
As for the election, "i dont support trump in the sense i believe in him. I just think he would be bantz and fuck hilary. Trump is the unofficial third party and fucking up the way elections are supposed to work for the parties. so im all for that." (Bantz is slang for funny banter.)
Just before the debate began, NS was joking about meme magic and willing Clinton to cough. "omg she must be wearing two catheter bags for all the shitting her pants she is doing." I asked what he would do if Trump died on stage instead. "laugh. it will only make the bantz better. imagine the shitstorm. ahahahah. 'did clinton assasinate trump???'"
And yet, in the opening minutes of the debate, those expectations were upended. Trump sounded like he had a runny nose. NS was in ironic agony. He typed:
trump is sniffing
its all over
NS thought Trump made a comeback when he made fun of Clinton for being in public service for 30 years. When Trump floated the idea that the recent hack of the Democratic National Committee could have been done by "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds," I asked NS if that hurt his feelings. He sent me a post on 4chan: "WHICH ONE OF YOU 400LB ASS HOLES HACKED THE DNC."
But as the debate ended, he was nervous:
really only matters now who is better at making memes
the losers like me
or professional memesters of hillary
its all about the memes now
thats literally all that matters
what memes will emerge, that is the question
no doubt trumps memes will be better
because they have the power of a thousand wizard level virgins to power them
Still, he thought his side had the upper hand. Hillary would try to capitalize on "SNIFF SNIFF," he said. "thats literally the best anti-Trump meme she could do. but it won't spread. because they go after his content and try to make informative memes. while other side [goes] 'diaper bag lady,' 'cough cough.' " Clinton's sincerity was no match for the alt-right's irony.
In a sense, he was right. Substantive memes don't really stick. But the meme that seems to have spread the farthest is the one where Clinton is looking directly at the camera, like Jim Halpert from The Office. Because it was Hillary looking into our eyes from the stage and acknowledging just how crazy this election is.