The Secret Chatrooms Where Donald Trump Memes Are Born
"Nobody asks to be invited there, it’s one of those things where you have to be tapped."
Image: Shutterstock remixed by Jason Koebler
Over the last few months an astounding number of words have been written trying to understand the role "meme magic" and Donald Trump's meme army played in the 2016 election and our national political discourse. Considerably less time has been spent trying to understand how Trump's memes are made on a purely mechanical level. And so I went searching for them.
Trying to source memes is often a fruitless endeavor. If you're seeing a viral meme, you're probably seeing it far from its original source, and so it's not easy to track it back to its artist. But memes have to come from somewhere; no matter how iterative memes are, there are indeed individual people who make them. And it's usually possible to get much more specific than "it came from 4chan."
If you're trying to track down the main source of Trump memes, one good place to look is Discord, an app designed for gamers but popular with memelords, shitposters, and the far right. It's a voice and text chat app similar to Slack that has become a testbed and factory for political memes.
For instance this meme, which was posted on Instagram by Donald Trump Jr. and which you've surely seen more times than you'd like to recall, was made by a person called OfficerNasty on an /r/the_donald's Discord offshoot called CentipedeCentral, according to the administrators there. It is considered one of the server's biggest successes, and its national news coverage was brought up immediately by some of the administrators there.
Even though the election is long over, Trump's meme army doesn't sleep; it's preparing for the 2020 election already.
"We're not waiting for 2020," .based, an administrator of the CentipedeCentral Discord server, told me. "Basically we're in constant production mode, constantly looking for new people who can generate content, who are funny, who are just like on the cutting edge of everything and we put them in with the best of the best and we're creating an elite team."
Moderators of CentipedeCentral have created a few private servers dedicated entirely to meme creation, which they called both "sandboxes" and "a factory." About 40 people have been invited to the private meme servers.
"We have a lot of surface level servers like CentipedeCentral, but beneath that we've got a lot of private servers where we take the best meme creators and put them into a workshop," .based told me over a Discord voice chat. "Those guys bounce off each other, they float different ideas. One might have a great idea and the other one executes it."
"Discord allows for instant feedback and response," BasedBrit, another moderator of CentipedeCentral chimed in. "Voice chat and text chat together is very unique and it creates a very good [meme making] atmosphere compared to Reddit or the chans."
The overlords of these servers monitor CentipedeCentral and invite people who they believe have the proper mix of ideology, wit, and content creation skills to become a core meme maker.
"It's like, you've been here for months and we appreciate what you do, and we want to invite you to this place," .based told me over a Discord voice chat. "Nobody asks to be invited there, it's one of those things where you have to be tapped."
I spoke to a total of four people familiar with the meme servers, who say that the people in them treat the process of making memes "like a second job." There are no real rules, mandates, or even goals—the Discord members tell me it's mostly just artists fucking around and trying to outdo each other.
There are also fewer rules on CentipedeCentral than there are on Reddit, and so many of the memes are more overtly nativist, xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic:
There's not, say, a council of elders who approve certain memes for greater dissemination—sometimes memes come directly from the larger CentipedeCentral community, but others are workshopped in private before taken to CentipedeCentral and later to /r/the_donald, Twitter, and other more mainstream websites.
"There isn't some formula you can put together on the left and mimic this thing," .based said. "We know how not to stifle it and how to nurture it."
This isn't to say that all Donald Trump memes come from CentipedeCentral's private meme factories (lots come from /pol/, Twitter, or Facebook), but it's easy to trace many memes from there to /r/the_donald. For instance, this Alex Jones meme was posted on CentipedeCentral several hours before it ever made it to /r/the_donald, where it quickly shot to the top of the subreddit.
It's hard to know how much stock to put into the idea that memes had anything to do with Trump's success in the 2016 election. While it's a popular narrative, academics such as Whitney Phillips, Gabriella Coleman, and Jessica Beyer, who have spent years studying online communities, suggest that the mainstreaming and normalization of Trump's message—not his memes—played the most significant role in his electoral success.
Even though the "meme magic" narrative has been grossly oversold, it's worth considering just how seriously the right takes its shitposting, and how impotent the left's attempts to engage in meme warfare have been. In talking to some members of Trump's meme army, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with Ryan Milner, author of The World Made Meme who wrote his Ph.D dissertation on memetics.
"The clarity of focus, the clarity of vision, the clarity of what you're playing with and the message you're getting across—the right tends to be a little better at that," Milner said. "With memes, there's the sense of spreading an idea and working to circulate that and seeing if it resonates, which is something that on the_donald happens really well. You need this lingua franca so that the memes don't have to come from the top down, they can come from the bottom up."
Trump's meme army repeatedly said that the left isn't willing to "belittle other people" and that they lack a "passion" for mememaking. Whether you believe that or not, it's easy to pick out dozens of right wing memes that have resonated at a national level; it's difficult to think of more than a couple of left wing memes that have had the same impact. .based says that's by design—it's impossible to know for sure what will go viral, but by beta testing memes on Discord before they go into wide release, it's possible to ensure that at least some of them will.
"We know where everyone stands on the political spectrum. We don't want competing ideologies on one server, which cuts down on drama and gives everyone a common purpose," .based said. "What they produce is generally extremely high quality. Stuff that gets stickied on the_donald, stuff that makes it out into the mainstream, we've got a long history of that."