When somebody accuses a powerful or famous figure like Trump of “sexual
assault,” I don’t look the other way. I don’t denounce them or their behavior.
Instead I run towards them, because there is no truer signal which side somebody is on, than when they’re given a bogus accusation by the establishment. This is our beacon to find allies in the war. —redpillschool, moderator, 2016 post titled “‘Sexual Assault’Is Why I’m Endorsing Donald Trump for President of the United States.”
On November 8th, 2012, just a few days after Barack Obama was elected to his second Presidential term, the Reddit.com user “pk_atheist” posted a new thread to a small, recently established subreddit. The subreddit in question was The Red Pill, created by pk_atheist only a few weeks earlier, and whose descriptor was once “Discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.” The post was titled “Almost a hundred subscribers! Welcome, newcomers”, and within it, pk_atheist outlines the “mission” of the subreddit and why he believes they have become so popular:
“Why have we grown so quickly? Because there’s truth in the red pill. Because men are realizing that the sexual marketplace has shifted away from what we’ve been taught… they’re (men) starting to realize that what their parents taught them, what television and chick flicks taught them, what church and Sunday school taught them… it’s all wrong.” (pk_atheist 2012, emphasis original)
Pk_atheist goes on to claim that modern American society has become a place in which “we [men] no longer run the show” and suggests that this is due to the growth of feminism, which he describes as a “sexual strategy” that gives women the ability to “select mates, to switch mates, to locate the best DNA possible, and to garner the most resources they can individual achieve.” (pk_atheist, 2012). Sex is defined as a resource that few can access, and through this framework, the goal of all men is to have as much access to sex as they can, which is limited by the efforts of feminist women serving as sexual gatekeepers and enforcers of the “matriarchy.” The philosophy of “The Red Pill” is thus offered as “men’s sexual strategy”, one which gives men the tools they apparently need to oppose feminism and create their own happiness through the goal of becoming an “alpha male.”
Much has changed since then. The forum that once had 100 subscribers now has over 200,000, and the United States of America elected Donald Trump, who in the eyes of many Red Pill subscribers is perhaps the most “alpha male” president in modern history. What started as a small, explicitly apolitical gathering of angry men on an internet forum quickly grew into a “lifestyle,” one that allowed this coalition to blossom into one of the strongest pro-Trump collectives in the digital landscape, and one of the Alt-Right’s most infamous movements.
It was the growth of this movement, so well-timed with Trump’s ascendance, that sparked Dr. Deana Rohlinger and I’s investigation of the forum. We wanted to examine how organized misogyny could blossom into such a fascinating social movement, specifically, how dynamics of collective identity, boundary maintenance, and political engagement changed for this extremist forum in the context of Trump’s political rise. We investigated over 1700 comments across the two most popular posts for each year from 2013-2017, and analyzed these conversations to chart the development of the forum over time.
Importantly, we wished to decode the alt-right’s new-found propagation within digital spaces, and what consequences this could have for feminist movements. In doing so, we engaged with existing movement literature on online spaces and their political potential. Such literature had essentially concluded that semi-anonymous online spaces were not ideal for political engagement, as true anonymity was the tool needed for individuals to easily accept group norms and act based on collective ideals rather than personal convictions. We challenge this assumption by showing that certain aspects of semi-anonymous online communities can be quite helpful in creating politicized identities, especially when said identities can be tied to a highly visible public figure.
First, when oppositional consciousness is created via “empowering mental states,” such as that of the Red Pill identity, adherents to an identity can utilize this oppositional consciousness to build coalitions among various types of movement actors, even when said consciousness is not politically oriented. For The Red Pill, forum leaders utilized their magnetism and breadth of ideas on masculinity to unite disaffected men under the banner of “alpha men.” The forum became dominated by the ideas and conversations of these elite users, who led conversations on what truly constituted the alpha identity. This was key in the process of converting the forum from an apolitical space to a pro-Trump environment, as users who disagreed with these elites were cast out from the forum permanently.
Second, the oppressive “othering” utilized by forum participants to denigrate and demean women was significant in their political ascendance. By tying feminism to the idea of sexual strategy (and of individual women, specifically), Red Pill leaders were able to make organized misogyny core to their socialization, and blaming feminism for their problems allowed users to clearly identify political enemies within institutional arenas (such as Hillary Clinton).
Finally, the rise of Trump within the Republican party gave Red Pill men a clear political opportunity to connect their messaging to an important public figure. For users, Trump’s sexist rhetoric, hyper-masculine leadership style, and brash public persona promised to not only make America great again, but to make it “manly” again as well. Forum leaders seized this opportunity to affect change, and made a strong appeal to their userbase: support Trump, or feel the full wrath of the matriarchy in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s victory. This appeal was extremely effective, as most users agreed that Trump was the savior the movement had been waiting for.
In closing, it is important to consider how forums such as this are key in organizing support for extremist candidates across geographic boundaries. We are not suggesting that The Red Pill forum was the group that fully paved the way for Trump’s victory. Rather, we seek to illustrate generic processes of digital recruitment and radicalization in the digital age. In an age of networked politics and increasingly interconnected social movements, enclaves of Alt-Right extremism such as this will serve as rallying points for future candidates, and feminists must be ready to oppose such extremism with great force.
Pierce Dignam is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology.