Alt-Right Memes and Clive Palmer’s Return to Politics
Former federal MP Clive Palmer has never been shy of the spotlight. In his latest effort to revive his political career, the embattled mining magnate, has taken a distinctive turn to the far right.
Online, Palmer’s verified Facebook and Twitter accounts are mixing in far-right and in particular Alt-Right memes into their campaign content. This includes Alt-Right staples Pepe the Frog, Trash Bird, as well as not-so-subtle nods to the anti-Semitic “happy merchant” and even Adolf Hitler[i]. While it has never been confirmed whether Palmer himself runs his social media, or has any real input on the content, this is cause for alarm.
Though there is no consensus yet as to a precise definition of the far right, it is typically perceived as a diverse political community, unified by a core of ideological features, generally including authoritarianism, nativism, nationalism, populism and xenophobia.[ii] The Alt-Right is a subgroup within the broader far right. Though amorphous, it has a white-nationalist core and a focus on online activism and communities.[iii] The Alt-Right is deeply rooted in the ‘troll culture’ of message boards and meme websites like 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, employing an ‘edgy’, irony-laden discourse, deliberately making it difficult for uninitiated ‘normies’ to decipher what’s a joke and what isn’t.[iv]
Palmer is in the process of relaunching his political career after the failure of the Palmer United Party which was deregistered in 2017. His new political venture, the United Australia Party (UAP) is not to be confused with the original United Australia Party (1931-1945), the precursor of today’s Liberal Party, or Pauline’s United Australia Party (2007-2010) established by One Nation founder Pauline Hanson. It has yet to be registered with the Australian Electoral Commission.
The political return corresponded with a nationwide billboard campaign[v] and matching “Make Australia Great” hats,[vi] mimicking Trump’s well known “Make America Great Again” presidential campaign slogan. Palmer has also secured parliamentary representation for the yet to be registered party, after Senator Brian Burston (NSW) signed on with the UAP following his split from One Nation in June.[vii]
As well as Burston, the UAP have been busy snapping up other One Nation defectors. The party’s North Queensland Secretary, Jen Sackley, is a former One Nation candidate who came close to winning the seat of Cook at the 2017 Queensland state election. Another former candidate, Sue Bertuch, has also been recruited by the party.
Palmer and the UAP certainly are not the first Australian politicians to try their luck with a bit of Trump-esque populism. The Australian Conservatives’ Cory Bernardi was sporting an Australian knock-off of the MAGA hat when he was still with the Liberals[viii] and Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts popped champagne to celebrate Trump’s election.[ix] The now-defunct Party for Freedom (Australia), best known as the first far-right group to interrupt a service at the progressive Gosford Anglican Church[x] ran a “Make Australian Great Again” campaign in the lead up to the 2016 federal election. However, the party failed to garner the 500 signatures necessary to register with the AEC in time for the election.
Campaigning aside, the Alt-Right character of the Palmer meme-sphere came to attention earlier in the year following the establishment of the “Palmy Army” Facebook group. The group, set up and moderated by Palmer’s official Facebook page, was soon flooded with racist, sexist and homophobic context, including Palmer in a Nazi SS uniform and a number of his political opponents (including Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young and former Labor Senator Sam Dastyari) in a gas chamber. Palmer’s verified Facebook account continued to post in the group during this time. In response to a Buzzfeed News[xi] article in March, which described the group as a “racist Alt-Right cesspit,” Palmer’s official Facebook promised to moderate the groups and ban users posting offensive content.
Despite the commitment to moderate the Facebook group, Palmer’s official social media continue to pump out a regular dose of Alt-Right and other far right content every couple of weeks. A number of images include Pepe, the now infamous cartoon frog listed as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League,[xii] or the Australian Shitposter,[xiii] which began as an anti-Semitic comic on the message board 4Chan. Trash Dove[xiv], a Facebook sticker co-opted by the Alt-Right can also be found, along with references to “red-pilling”, a phrase popular in Alt-Right and related subcultures.[xv] ‘Red-pilling’ derives from the iconic scene in the Wachowski Brothers film The Matrix (1999), and is slang for coming to accept the worldview of the Alt-Right and associated sub-cultures. In two particularly crude memes, Palmer is depicted on Hitler’s body, while another appears to rail against “social degeneracy,” including “race mixing”.
Let’s unpack these.
The original images as they appeared on Facebook and Twitter, with an image of Adolf Hitler for reference.
The first, “Hitler Palmer” appeared on both Palmer’s verified Facebook and Twitter accounts on April 1 and is still visible on both platforms at the time of writing. While the Swastika armband and Iron Cross medal have been left out, the Green hands (for Pepe the Frog) and Trash Dove in the background clearly contextualise this as an explicitly far-right meme, specifically drawing on an Alt-Right. In this context, the top text echoes the “Great Meme War” of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, an online culture war predominantly between Trump’s Alt-Right supporters and supporters of the Sanders and Hillary campaigns.
“Bill Shorten’s Stairway to Success” according to Clive Palmer
The second image “Bill Shorten’s Stairway to Success” was only shared on Palmer’s Facebook. It was uploaded September 14 and is still public at the time of writing. The meme itself is an edit of an edit. The original cartoon, drawn by libertarian cartoonist Ben Garrison, was commissioned Mike Cernovich, a Men’s Rights Activist and Alt-Right propagandist best known for his involvement in the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy.[xvi]
An explicitly fascistic edited version later circulated on image boards. The edit replaced Cernovich with the anti-Semitic “happy merchant” cartoon, holding a copy of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an anti-Semitic, fabricated text outlining an alleged plan for Jewish world domination. Race mixing, gay marriage, feminism, drug legalisation and trans rights are positioned steps to Communism, all framed within the archetypical fascist concern over “social degeneracy”.
The version appearing on Clive Palmer’s Facebook replaced the anti-Semitic figure with Bill Shorten, along with a minor change from the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to the “Protocols of the Globalist World Bankers” – another euphemism for Jews in far-right circles. Aside from throwing a number of Australian unions and the head of Greens leader Richard Di Natale into the mix for good measure, the image is otherwise almost identical to the first edit.
Though Palmer has certainly taken a right-ward turn of late – eager to lock his party into a three-way battle with One Nation and Katter’s Australia Party for the right-populist electorate – one might expect this to be a step to far.
In a political climate where politicians are swooped on for poorly thought-out Tweets (who could forget Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Fat Man Scoop/Question Time edit) Palmer’s regular signals to the far-right on social media have gone relatively unnoticed. If the posts did manage to garner controversy, they would probably be dismissed as harmless – though inappropriate – memes. After all, it’s just ‘shit-posting’ on social media, right?
But at a time when public trust and confidence in Australian democracy is at an all-time low[xviii], politicians should be wary of a push by the far-right fringe into the mainstream. Whether this is part of an established social media campaigning strategy, or the (repeated) actions of some rogue social media operators in Palmer’s team, such content helps to normalise the aesthetics, symbolism and ideas of the far right in Australia. Irony-laden memes keep the audience coming back for the ‘edge’ and shock-humour, until some of the ideas don’t seem so bad after all. The far right, and in particular the American Alt-Right are fully aware of this. To put it in Richard Spencer’s own words: “we memed [the] Alt-Right into existence”.[xix]
[i] http://ohpi.org.au/the-antisemitic-meme-of-the-jew/; https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/04/19/day-trope-white-nationalist-memes-thrive-reddits-rthedonald; https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/pepe-the-frog; https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/trash-doves
[ii] See for example: Mudde, C. 2007, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
[iii] Hawley, George. Making Sense of the Alt-right. Columbia University Press, 2017.
[iv] Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the Alt-Right and Trump. Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2017.
[xviii] Evans, M., Halupka, M. & Stoker, G. 2018, How Australians Imagine Their Democracy: The “Power of Us”, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA), University of Canberra; Museum of Australian Democracy. Available at: https://moad-web.s3.amazonaws.com/heracles-production/0a2/ccf/1c8/0a2ccf1c8b9bc2b588d880a788a0c4318be639f516ba279101ebe7025897/408_Democracy100-report-IGPA%20(002).pdf
Jordan McSwiney, is a PhD Candidate at Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney