Navigating Trump’s Twitter: @realDonaldTrump and the alt-right meme factory
Navigating Trump’s Twitter is a new series from Mic that explores how the president elects to use his favorite medium to impact policy, express his viewpoints and attack the media. Instead of covering Trump’s tweets as they come, we look for patterns in behavior that offer a window into the president’s actual world view and how he chooses to express it through unmediated 140-character missives.
On Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted a disturbing video of himself bodyslamming a man who had the CNN logo digitally pasted over his face.
The tweet, which rounded out a week of controversy over Trump’s salacious Twitter usage, was widely criticized both by Democrats and Republicans for going too far. CNN issued a response saying Trump was engaging in “juvenile behavior far below the dignity of his office.”
But perhaps the most disturbing element of the entire controversy was the fact that the meme appears to have been created by a racist Reddit user who posts under the handle HanAssholeSolo.
Many were shocked that the president — whose deputy press secretary claimed just days earlier that Trump had never “promoted or encouraged violence” — would capriciously spread alt-right propaganda insinuating physical violence against the media is OK.
But this isn’t the first time or even the second time that Trump has tweeted out memes originating from the darkest corners of the internet in order to promote his agenda, and it likely won’t be the last.
During his presidential campaign, Trump famously tweeted an anti-Semitic meme of his opponent Hillary Clinton, which featured a Star of David over a pile of money labeling Clinton the “most corrupt candidate ever.” The image appeared to be an attempt to draw a connection between Clinton and anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish people and money, or possibly global banking conspiracies.
Less than a year before that, Trump manually retweeted an image that purported to show statistics about the percentage of black people killed by other black people in the U.S. The image, which has since been deleted by the original user, was based on made-up statistics from the “Crime Statistics Bureau — San Francisco,” an agency that does not exist.
Sure enough, the origins of the image appear to trace back to white supremacist Twitter.
The crime statistics tweet was one of many manual retweets in which the president copied and pasted problematic content from his supporters into his own Twitter feed. The method is a holdover from a time before Twitter created a retweet function and users would have to copy others’ content to post it on their feed.
Trump continued to manually retweet things well after Twitter developed the retweet function, which frequently led to incidents during the campaign in which Trump retweeted his own racist followers with Twitter handles like @WhiteGenocideTM.
Trump’s ability to credulously retweet his followers without any due diligence even led now-defunct Gawker to create a fake Benito Mussolini Twitterbot, which tweeted quotes from the fascist leader at Trump with the hope that he might retweet one of them — which he eventually did.
The retweeted white supremacist content can be easily explained by the president’s famous lack of attention to detail. The same cannot be said of content like the CNN tweet or the Star of David tweet, both of which required the president to download or copy the source material into an original tweet.
The image of Hillary Clinton Trump tweeted had been edited from the original meme to obscure its attribution to a white supremacist website at the bottom.
In both the Star of David tweet and the CNN video tweet, questions remain about how the content made its way from the internet’s racist message board fever-swamps to the president’s Twitter feed.
Further, in at least one other case, Trump has had problems with Nazi imagery appearing in tweets that his campaign claims to have made themselves.
In a tweet sent out near the beginning of his campaign Trump tweeted a photo of himself, an American flag, $100 bills and soldiers. The only problem is that the soldiers, which were taken from a stock image, were wearing Nazi uniforms.
At the time, the Trump campaign blamed a nameless intern who they claimed had apologized and removed the link. But given what we have since learned about the resources of the early Trump campaign, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to imagine that Trump actually sourced the image from the internet.
One possible window into how alt-right memes end up in front of the president comes from his son, Donald Trump Jr. Following the 2016 campaign moment that saw Hillary Clinton claiming half of Trump’s supporters are “in a basket of deplorables,” Trump’s eldest son posted a meme on his Instagram account that featured him and his father alongside other prominent republicans as well as alt-right cartoon symbol “Pepe the Frog” and alt-right provocateurs Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopolous.
In the caption, Trump Jr. claims that a friend sent him the image. That same day, a similar version of the same meme, based on the movie campaign for The Expendables, had been tweeted by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke.
It’s possible that Trump and his family come by these memes through their connections with people who spend time in and around alt-right circles. Conspiracy theorist and alt-right personality Alex Jones has boasted that he has spoken to the president multiple times since he took office, and others like the eccentric Roger Stone, who frequently appears on Jones’ show, are also thought to have the the president’s ear.
Despite the president’s avid Twitter use, he is not a person who frequently seeks out information and culture online. His infamous Twitter account only follows 45 other accounts, most of which belonging to members of his campaign and Fox News hosts. And he has frequently demonstrated his preference for cable news over other forms of news media consumption.
But if someone close to Trump is sharing this content with him, then the question is who? And how much influence do they have over a president who plays fast and loose with his messages to the public?