Racism as a tactic is nothing new to the modern Republican Party, dating back to Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, which appealed to white voters embittered by the civil rights movement. Yet mainstream conservatism mostly kept bigotry in the shadows until 2009, when the inauguration of the nation's first black president prompted the tea partiers to paint Obama as un-American. But it was Trump who opened the floodgates and rode the ugly tide all the way to the White House.
Some far-right figures see a burgeoning online presence as key to moving the "Overton window"—changing the range of acceptable rhetoric and behavior by pushing its edges out to greater extremes. It's a fancy way of saying that what was once aberrant is now considered normal. "If you want to radically shift the Overton window, you need that far-right flank," says white nationalist Richard Spencer, who is widely credited with helping launch the alt-right. "Trump has been declared a deplorable racist, and [yet] he won," Spencer says. "So the whole PC game of 'we can call you the R-word [Racist] and you will vaporize,' that game has been shattered.
The alt-right has elevated fringe trolling into a virulent form of propaganda that Spencer and others dub "meme magic." Trolls push hateful memes such as the Jewish "Happy Merchant" and the black "dindu nuffin" (a slur meant to echo "I didn't do nothin'") without fear of censure, thanks to the anonymity of Twitter and other platforms. Some journalists have speculated that the spread of this content is in part the work of Russian troll farms, though the extent of foreign involvement is unknown.
Social-media attacks have been weaponized around the globe. "We saw it in the Arab Spring, we've seen it with ISIS, and now we're seeing it with white nationalists," says J.M. Berger, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism. Richard Dawkins, who coined the word "meme" in 1976 to describe cultural transmissions that "leap from brain to brain," told The New Yorker that he never imagined their full potential: "Now, however ridiculous what you're saying is…something really bad can spread through the culture