Published with permission from The Washington Spectator.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign draws energy from its rowdy, often racist, internet fans. On Wednesday evening, it embraced the unhinged shitposters who make up the candidate’s loudest fan base in all their meme-tastic glory.
Trump—who we now know can use a computer (or at least pose with it)—took to Reddit, or more exactly, to the alt-right-loving subreddit, /r/The_Donald for his first AMA (ask me anything). While AMAs have become one of the network’s more popular offerings, even among infrequent users, they’re usually coordinated by moderators from a subreddit that deals exclusively with these sorts of events. Anyone can ask anything. Your question may not be answered if, say, President Barack Obama is the featured guest, although in a lot of cases, the issue is the volume, not necessarily the content.
Trump, however, went his own way, accepting an invitation from an online community that, along with 4Chan and 8Chan, has been largely associated with the recent boom in white nationalist activity online. /r/The_Donald is, as one user told Wired, “like a 24/7 Trump rally.” And as in a real-life Trump rally, the candidate’s appeal to Reddit’s denizens was repetitive and dull. It showed, though, the campaign’s desire to use these self-governed online communities to amplify its message.
“Trump,” and presumably the big names affiliated with him, “cares about his people, and we are his people.”
That’s not to say any of this new media experimentation comes naturally for Trump. Despite apparently being seated in front of an actual laptop, his answers were brief and slow coming. Chicken pecking is a tedious process, and we can only imagine that Trump—like most businessmen who rely on personal assistants to do even the most basic of tasks—has been slow to adopt new technologies. (“New” obviously has a loose meaning here, as the PC has been around for decades.) Indeed, a close look at the photo verifying Trump was the one answering Redditors’ questions indicates that, while the computer is turned on, the man himself appears absolutely befuddled by the presence of this alien technology. He isn’t touching the keyboard; his expression is one of frustrated bemusement.
Aside from a few attempts to woo libertarian-leaning independents and former Bernie Sanders supporters into voting for him in November, Trump’s outreach was oddly devoid of substantive campaign pitches. Of the few questions Trump managed to hammer out a response to, two were on undecided voters, one was on whether he got sick of “winning,” and the rest were on issues the campaign has been forcing down voters’ throats for the past year—with the notable exception of an answer on NASA’s role in “Making America Great Again.” Although Trump hasn’t said much about space travel, it turns out the federal agency, which celebrated its 58th birthday this week, does have a role in returning the country to greatness.
Instead, Trump focused on lackadaisical base-building, pressing his views on immigration (“I have put forward a detailed plan for H-1B reform to protect American workers which can viewed on the immigration paper on my website”); money in politics (“[Keep] Crooked Hillary Clinton out of the White House!”); and the press’s dishonesty. For an added bonus, the phrase “crooked Hillary” made enough appearances that it’s tempting to wonder if Trump has access to a thesaurus. (May we suggest: “Duplicitous Hillary,” “Unscrupulous Hillary,” “Treacherous Hillary”?)
Meanwhile, unfriendly members of the media and anti-Trumpers found their questions either deleted—or their account permanently banned. One question on Donald Trump’s tax returns, which was posted by Daily Beast reporters, was deleted within 15 minutes.
Despite the low-energy performance, the Trump persona was certainly present, and was in keeping with the fact-free fun-fest that’s been the campaign since the beginning. Trump’s “big tent” approach doesn’t differ much from the subreddit’s freewheeling experimentation with alt-right ideals. Plus, these are the same people his campaign has drawn upon—directly or indirectly—to craft its message online. It’s no accident that some of the more questionable memes used by Trump on Twitter have come from places like Reddit, 4Chan, and the even more virulently racist 8Chan.
Unlike the latter two platforms—which are more or less free-for-alls—moderators have made the occasional attempt to rid /r/The_Donald of overt racism and anti-Semitism. Unsurprisingly, they rely on a different interpretation of proper behavior than your average internet user—frequent use of the term “cuck,” short for “cuckservative,” wouldn’t be tolerated in a number of internet subcultures. Coded racism—think “I’m not a racist but a race realist”—is abundant, however, and it doesn’t take a ton of digging to find instances of it.
That semblance of order has made it easier for public figures to associate themselves with /r/The_Donald: the subreddit’s third rule, “no racism/anti-semitism,” lends a little plausible deniability. As a result, the network has been able to rope in some big names, including the Nixon-branded former campaign adviser Roger Stone, Breitbart tech columnist Milo Yiannopoulos, former MLB player Curt Schilling, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, and—of course—writer and pundit Ann Coulter. With the exception of Yiannopoulos, who became a moderator two months ago, most have kept enough distance to separate themselves from the more controversial happenings.
Keeping that buffer as thin as possible is in the interest of all parties. After all, as Andrew Anglin, publisher of the white nationalist site Daily Stormer, wrote: “Trump,” and presumably the big names affiliated with him, “cares about his people, and we are his people.”
Even if Trump doesn’t, he’s not going to make that fact known, now is he?
Hannah Gais is The Washington Spectator’s associate digital editor.
Photo Credit: Darron Birgenheier