Buyer's remorse is setting in (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

June 1, 2023   6 mins

Once upon a time, the Republican primaries were a soporific spectacle of speeches, policy discussions and debates. That all changed in 2016, when Trump’s trolling army descended on a sedate slate of centrists; Jeb Bush, for instance, was reduced to meme fodder, begging audiences to “please clap” for him. This time around, however, a fully fledged meme war is playing out — the battle for the soul of the Online Right.

At first glance, this group — made up of internet-savvy provocateurs, anonymous contributors, eccentric celebrities, and some vestigial “alt-Right” figureheads — still seems to be supporting Donald Trump, their once and future president. In 2016, they viewed him as a figure of entertainment, a political outsider who was wittily disruptive and assumed the status of a fantastical, Warhammer-esque “God-Emperor”. The portly University of Chicago graduate William Thomas Clark, also known as “Kantbot”, was among those who fervently amplified this narrative, riding a small wave of internet virality after he was filmed shrieking about Trump “completing the system of German idealism”.

Though pollsters and political scientists continue to debate the extent to which this group swayed the outcome of the election, there’s little doubt that their online activities played a role in shaping the larger narrative. Their memes and posts, known for their unique blend of political cynicism, irreverence and humour, served to attract some undecided voters and further embolden Trump supporters. Twitter user @Ricky_Vaughn99, one of the most prominent and vitriolic voices within this community, expressed a keen insight into the fiery populist movements emerging on both the Left and Right. “There is definitely anger among the youth,” he told me in 2016. “The Bernie people are angry. The #BlackLivesMatter people are angry.” (Vaughn, it bears noting, was later outed as Douglass Mackey and convicted by a federal jury of depriving individuals of their constitutional right to vote for his role in a conspiracy that used memes to convince black voters to vote via text, which is not possible.)

Trump, a master of obtaining free publicity in his own right, benefited immensely from the countless articles scrutinising the role of the alt-Right in his campaign — articles of which I wrote more than my fair share. However, it was only after the election, as the alt-Right splintered into factions such as the “Post-Left”, the “Based Right” and a partly tongue-in-cheek, partly earnest “racist Right”, that the complexity of the Online Right’s influence began to fully reveal itself.

Into this arena steps Ron DeSantis, an exceedingly unexciting and well-qualified gentleman known for his relentless pursuit of upper-middle-class excellence. Whether it was leading his Yale baseball team in batting average, graduating with honours from Harvard Law School, or earning a Bronze Star and other military medals in Iraq, DeSantis has consistently demonstrated an unwavering dedication to lining his CV. And now, he’s aiming to add the support of the Online Right to it.

As befits such a plodding overachiever, DeSantis’s approach has been methodical and overt. His systematic attempts to usurp Trump’s dominance in this arena reveal his characteristic ambition, yet also underscore a glaring deficiency in political charisma. Despite his obvious intellect, DeSantis’s rigid demeanour and unusually high-pitched voice can seem off-putting to those accustomed to Trump’s brash and theatrical style.

In a move that couldn’t be more emblematic of his ham-fisted efforts to capture the Online Right, DeSantis chose to formally announce his candidacy in a glitch-ridden Twitter Spaces session, alongside none other than Elon Musk, a veritable rock star within these circles. Despite technical difficulties and a less-than-stellar audience count of around 150,000 listeners, DeSantis pressed on, evidently reading his campaign announcement off a script. Immediately afterwards, DeSantis’s campaign released a video featuring Musk so prominently that one might have mistaken him for DeSantis’s running mate.

Elsewhere, DeSantis’s campaign seems to have actively courted Seth Dillon, the head of the Right-leaning satire site, The Babylon Bee. In return, apparently, the Bee has been churning out pro-DeSantis content in support of his ongoing dispute with Disney, and even purging those who publicly clash with DeSantis’s associates. Only last week, for instance, Gavin Mario Wax, a pro-Trump Bee staffer, was unceremoniously fired by Dillon for a brusque tweet directed at Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’s top media advisor. The spat culminated in Dillon telling Wax — via Twitter, of course, because this is how HR business is transacted today — to remove his association with The Bee from his Twitter bio, triggering a fiery response from its readers, particularly those loyal to Trump.

As DeSantis wrestled with these issues, Trump, who had seemed adrift on the meme and comedy performance fronts for months, found his groove again with a lively CNN Town Hall. Trump delighted the audience with memorably nasty lines, showing a return to form that contrasted starkly with his opponent’s struggles. Later, on the day of DeSantis’s fraught Twitter Spaces event, Trump’s team did not miss the opportunity to land a body blow: they shared a bizarre fan-made parody of the event, which was doctored to include figures such as Hitler, George Soros, and the devil. And the jabs didn’t end there. Donald Trump Jr. later posted an AI-generated video featuring DeSantis superimposed onto Steve Carell’s character from The Office.

Not everyone in the Online Right was forthcoming with applause, however. For instance, prominent figurehead @LindyMan, a lawyer named Paul Skallas, misses the charm of the 2016 meme war. In a now-deleted tweet, he mourned the loss of “crude photoshops”, deeming the recent onslaught of Trump memes “too much” and comparing their appearance to “encountering a neanderthal on the street”. Despite this, a number of high-profile Online Right figures have told me that Trump still maintains an edge as a captivating figure. But even so, the tenor of the meme landscape has undoubtedly evolved since 2016. Back then, the goal was conversion; today, the aim seems to be to galvanise an existing base.

By this metric, Trump’s recent performance is certainly better than it was following his 2020 loss, though not quite at its 2016 peak. DeSantis, meanwhile, merely provides meme material, Ă  la Jeb Bush, through a persona that lends itself to ridicule. His technical debacle during the Twitter Spaces event didn’t help his cause either. The stark contrast between the two candidates only fed the popular alpha/beta dichotomy that fuels many Online Right memes.

Even the proxy battles, such as the Babylon Bee incident, have taken an eccentric turn. An otherwise unremarkable Twitter scrap between Claremont fellow Dave Reaboi, a DeSantis supporter, and Trump-backing pundit Scott Greer led to an amusing ad hominem exchange over physical stature, age and marital status. This might seem absurd and pointless, yet it aligns with the dynamics of an online arena that amplifies and distorts, especially during political primaries.

These online dust-ups, all too easily dismissed as mere noise, play a critical role in shaping the narrative of a primary election. As thousands of them unfold in real time, they offer raw material for the media to dissect and amplify, drawing attention away from policy issues and focusing instead on personality clashes and personal drama. This can have a significant distorting effect, as perceptions of the candidates end up being influenced as much by these disputes as by their actual policy positions or leadership abilities — two areas in which DeSantis, at least on paper, would seem to hold an edge over Trump. Some Online Right posters have told me they hate seeing their cohort descend into this sort of linguistic violence, but this is precisely what happens during a political dogfight: a political poster can choose to either see the show — and thus risk losing the war for attention — or weigh in and gain followers by being the show.

In such a scenario, how can DeSantis hope to win? At present, his primary tactic seems to be to harvest online discourse and then turn off the internet — with the result that his attempts to sell himself to the Online Right come across as an application for admission to Harvard rather than genuine engagement. It’s as though the group’s highly memeable and mockable concerns — lax policing, black-on-white and black-on-black crime, corporate and public school diversity programming, transgender rights, unsafe lockdowns and hastily released vaccines — have been diluted in his new strategic approach, which merely involves attempting to address these concerns through legislation.

In other words, DeSantis, a decidedly offline figure, is attempting to serve up a beggar’s banquet of Online Right issues. The problem is that this offering feels disingenuous to the intended consumer. It’s akin to a diner at a restaurant, peering down at the plate of food they’ve ordered from DeSantis’s meme-inspired menu. A friend notices their hesitation and asks: “Is there a problem?” The diner responds: “This is what I ordered, but now that I see it, I realise it was a bad choice.” It’s as if there’s a growing sense of buyer’s remorse with regard to the dullness of DeSantis, or a shock that he is either cynically or selflessly attempting to turn their smoke-filled chatroom banter into a cohesive political platform.

From this perspective, the overarching lesson is that the best and most viral memes cannot be forced into existence through market research (a lesson Hillary Clinton’s social media team learnt all too well). They are an improvisational performance that one can neither script nor control. And, for the time being, despite his age and political scars, Trump remains the most adroit improviser in the Republican field. As we hurtle towards the 2024 election, this tale of two meme strategies will continue to unfold. For now, though, “The Donald” still appears to be winning the war.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work