Politics & Policy

Donald Trump’s Online Personality Cult

(Janaka Dharmasena/Dreamstime)
Affection for Trump characterizes the alt-right.

Mainstream society has only just now begun to figure out the alt-right. This relative tardiness makes sense: Prolonged alienation from mainstream society is the only explanation for the noxious concoction of racism, illiberalism, and psychological derangement that defines the movement. But after years of incubating online in harmless irrelevancy, the alt-right is getting attention. This is in large part owing to the way that certain parts of its online coalition have latched onto Donald Trump as their conquering vanguard.

Trump, whose charisma appears to be his only redeeming attribute, has won the hearts and minds of people whose social circles rarely extend beyond their disappointed parents. Opposites indeed attract. But what explains this particular attraction?

It is not sufficient to say that the GOP nominee is an exponent of alt-right ideology. Sure, he dabbles in white identity politics, but he remains relatively constrained by the political norms that Internet denizens so gleefully eschew. Trump called for America to be a “tolerant and open society” after Orlando; nobody in the alt-right would endorse this statement without appending the qualification “for white people” after it. Rather it is the sheer force of Trump’s personality that seems to capture the imagination. His bluster and success are the keys to his online support.

On 4chan’s politics board, which has accumulated more than 77 million posts over the years, loyal followers start new “Trump General” threads as soon as the forum’s deletion mechanism cannibalizes the old ones. These threads are headlined with a helpful reminder: “Text TRUMP to 88022 for important crisis updates.” They compile videos of Trump’s most recent rallies and interviews. They provide a Spotify link to the “Trump rally playlist.” Anyone who posts about Trump’s flagging poll numbers is instantly declared to be a shill, for either Hillary, the Jews, or both.

It is the sheer force of Trump’s personality that seems to capture the imagination.

Subreddit “The_Donald,” with 164,000 subscribers, is no less reverent. Its heading banner features a scrolling array of images. “Vote Trump,” urges a dramatically edited black-and-white photo of Trump. Rule number three helpfully reminds visitors: “No Racism/Anti-Semitism.” This has been a problem. The subreddit — one of thousands of Reddit subsections dedicated to a single topic — experienced an exodus from a large contingent of users who also frequented subreddits dedicated to “European nationalism” and “ethnic crime.” 

Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who calls Trump “Daddy,” has penned the most comprehensive alt-right apologia. According to him, the movement’s deployment of white-nationalist imagery and rhetoric is provocative satire. And one might well ask, What’s so weird, after all, about Trump fan sites posting Trump-related images and links?

To find an answer to that question, watch this video. It is in the form of a commercial; uploaded on Wednesday, it currently has more than 600,000 views. The video has a stylized, futuristic aesthetic common to Japanese popular culture, a semiotic hallmark of the alt-right. But its origins are decidedly American: It was created by meme generator Mike Diva. Perhaps Diva created this video out of an artistic impulse or as a clever ploy for money; he’s selling the video’s song on iTunes for $0.99.

But people are genuinely watching this stuff. They are posting in these “Trump General” threads, and waging furious comment wars on Reddit about the reasons neo-Nazis should be welcome in “The_Donald.” People are spending hours rebuking journalists on Twitter who pronounce their disdain for Donald Trump. The defense that it’s somehow lighthearted satire is hard to maintain when you look at the all-consuming investment that the online people have in the Trump campaign.

As is true with any group, members of the alt-right have varying interests. Some, particularly those who prefer to label their beliefs as “Dark Enlightenment” or “neoreaction,” spend much less time than others on the Trump phenomenon. But there is indeed an affiliation between Trump’s online outposts of support and these self-styled intellectuals. Richard Spencer, often considered the movement’s forebear, has said that Trump’s rise has been “inspiring and liberating for a lot of alt-righters.” Milo Yiannopoulos has done a question-and-answer session on “The_Donald.” So has Vox Day, whose blog is an alt-right staple. Even if inconvenient, this connection is anything but imagined.

Trump enjoys constant attention from these underground sites. Even though there is little continuity between the alt-right ideology and Trump’s populist opportunism, these subsets of the alt-right have fashioned a cult of personality around the GOP nominee. Its psychological roots are easy to speculate upon, especially given the alt-right’s demography: People for whom success is elusive and interpersonal connections are scant are drawn to someone like Trump, who presents himself as a successful and charismatic man. Its trickle upward, into mainstream American culture, is alarming.

Cults of personality are usually compulsory. Online, thousands of people are volunteering their time to construct one around Trump.

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