4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump

Trump’s younger supporters know he’s an incompetent joke; in fact, that’s why they support him.

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An Italian newspaper reporting on Donald Trump retweeting himself depicted as Pepe the Frog in September of 2016. credit: Serena Danna / Corriere della Serra.

1. Born from Something Awful

Around 2005 or so a strange link started showing up in my old webcomic’s referral logs. This new site I didn’t understand. It was a bulletin board, but its system of navigation was opaque. Counter intuitively, you had to hit “reply” to read a thread. Moreover, the content was bizarre nonsense.

2. Anon Steps Out to Fight Lord Xenu

In the beginning I didn’t pay all that much attention 4chan. I knew they were a group of teen anime fans who met to party awkwardly like so many other teens at nerd-themed conventions. But around 2008 I realized I wanted to do a story on them. Their user base had grown exponentially and it was obvious they were about to explode into the mainstream. (Much to the dismay of its millions of users, who tried in vain desperation to keep it a secret.)

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4chan’s first day out. The Scientology protests of 2008 off Broadway.

3. New Horizons

The peculiar thing about the Scientology protest was how little 4chan cared about Scientology. The original cause of the dispute had to do with 4chan’s access to “lulz” on the internet. Scientology had removed a funny video featuring Tom Cruise rambling incoherently about Scientology. 4chan believed this had interfered with their unlimited right to post anything (and keep it) on the internet. There was a moral component to their protest, but it was tangential at best.

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An image saved off 4chan in February of 2011 by me, the lurking author.
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An early 4chan meme made from a screenshot of 4chan.

4. Gamergate: Anon Defends his Safe Spaces

It’s difficult to recall what started Gamergate because, like much of 4chan-style content, it never made sense on the surface. The mind tends to discard such things as nonsense. Nonetheless, there was a beginning. In 2014, a jilted lover claimed his ex-girlfriend had been unfaithful to him. He tried to prove to the internet that he was wronged in an embarrassing and incoherent blog post. The target of his post, his ex, happened to be a female game developer.

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Yiannopoulos is depicted as the last on the right in an Instagram image posted by Donald Trump in September of 2016.

5. Trump: the Loser who Won

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Another vintage 4chan meme from the author’s personal collection.

6. Trump the Frog

When Hillary’s campaign “explained” that Trump’s use of silly cartoon frog Pepe was a symbol of hate, it seemed to be yet another freakish oddity in a parade of horribles that was campaign 2016. Much of the attention at the time was focused on the question of: well, was he? Efforts to save Pepe got underway. Journalists, still falling for the same tricks of 2006, cited “anonymous” (that is to say, from 4chan) sources claiming they had invented the idea as a prank.

7. The Un-rarest Pepes of Them All

As I said when I began this essay, because I work in comics, video games, and animation, I’ve watched 4chan grow from a group of people who could fit inside a single room to a worldwide collective.

8. 4chan vs. Gender

In a previous essay about contemporary counter-culture, I mentioned Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men, a feminist critique that discusses how gender roles bind and control men. Ehrenreich writes about how, in post-war hyper-capitalist 1950s America (the baseline America to which both Trump and Hillary harken back) a new role was invented for men. A man’s wage and his Playboy “bachelor pad” linked his earning potential to his role as a ladies man. This replaced a previous, more conservative ideology in which your earning potential meant you were able to support a wife and children. These two schemes, Ehrenreich maintained, are still the dominant ideas that control men’s behavior in the U.S.

9. Can Pepe be un Nazi-fied?

In Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, she notes that the inevitable result of a society built around the endless accumulation of middle class wealth is a man “degraded into a cog in the power-accumulating machine, free to console himself with sublime thoughts about the ultimate destiny of the machine, which itself is constructed in such a way that it can devour the globe simply by following its own inherent law.”

Written by

Writer and artist. Author of It Came from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office

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