Jan 8, 2021 - Technology

The far right's circus of memes

A photo of a costumed pro-Trump protester screaming inside the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6.

Photo: Win McNamee via Getty Images

So much of Wednesday's assault on the Capitol looked readymade for memes because, for many of today's far-right digital natives, that is the point.

What happened: The outlandishly costumed rioters — among them, shirtless, horned "Q Shaman" Jake Angeli and fur-clad Brooklynite Aaron Mostofsky — had no wish to fade into the crowd.

  • Others livestreamed their own vandalism, mugging for their phone cameras as they, for instance, picked up House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office phone and pretended to make a call, egged on by amused commenters.

Yes, but: The unseriousness is intentional — a core feature of modern far-right extremism.

Between the lines: "The left can't meme" is itself a meme among the online right. In this milieu, liberals and leftists are mocked as self-serious and censorious and nihilist irony is the norm.

  • Graphic footage of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse gunning down protesters this summer got recut and remixed into videos passed around as a joke by far-right users even on mainstream platforms like Twitter.
  • Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people at a 2019 mass shooting in a New Zealand mosque, filled a racist manifesto with inside jokes aimed at far-right users of forums like 8chan (now 8kun).

The jokes can't be separated from actual malicious intent.

  • White supremacist Tim "Baked Alaska" Gionet — the livestreamer toying with Pelosi's phone — might give you the impression he's just in it for the meme potential.
  • Another rioter photographed in a congressional gallery with body armor, holsters and zip ties looks like he might be up to darker things.
  • There's no way to know for sure — and when they're all part of the same mob, it doesn't much matter who's just in it to amuse their online friends and who actually aims to overthrow the government.

The far-right circus offers camouflage for plainer hate speech — like sweatshirts at Wednesday's event reading "Camp Auschwitz" or T-shirts sporting an acronym meaning "6 million wasn't enough."

Be smart: History is full of groups of disaffected extremists getting enjoyment out of bucking norms and flouting authority.

  • Fifty years ago, they were found on the left, as Yippies performed their radicalism for TV cameras.
  • Today, the transgressive thrill of not taking institutions or rules seriously is a huge part of the allure of the far right to its participants.
  • Whatever the politics, it rarely ends well.

Go deeper: How QAnon works like a video game to hook people

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