Analysis

All the President’s Trolls

Donald Trump is gathering his favorite meme-makers and trolls for a White House summit.

U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the driver's seat of a semi-truck as he welcomes truckers and CEOs to the White House to discuss health care on March 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the driver's seat of a semi-truck as he welcomes truckers and CEOs to the White House to discuss health care on March 23, 2017. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

When the dust settles on Donald Trump’s presidency, will the Twitter user @CarpeDonktum be remembered as his most effective online surrogate?

In recent months, the stay-at-home dad from Kansas who is behind the account has created some of the most memorable online moments of the nascent 2020 U.S. presidential campaign—think former Vice President Joe Biden massaging himself as he apologizes for being too handsy with women—and has in the process turned himself into a formidable weapon for Trump’s digital operation.

And on Thursday, @CarpeDonktum will be formally embraced by the Trump administration, when he will attend a White House social media summit along with a coterie of right-wing cranks and trolls. That meeting will serve as a who’s who of the right-wing online ecosystem and allow the president to embrace his most ardent supporters and perhaps most effective media operatives.

What this amounts to is an effort by the Trump 2020 campaign to regain the initiative online, especially amid lingering fears that Russia will mount a repeat of its 2016 campaign to sow discord online, boost Trump, and pour gasoline on the combustible, often hateful online communities working on his behalf.

That reality has in recent years led the major internet platforms to crack down on foreign interference and curb hateful speech online by banning some of the web’s most egregious pro-Trump demagogues, such as the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the incendiary pundit Milo Yiannopoulos. Those moves have led to cries on the right of censorship, but there is little evidence that conservative voices are being systematically silenced, as Trump himself has argued.

With Thursday’s event, Trump will provide some of these fringe voices and meme-makers the imprimatur of the White House stage, daring Silicon Valley to punish his allies and potentially further alienate conservative users.

Perhaps more importantly, Thursday’s summit will give the famously media-savvy president a chance to meet some of his favorite personalities.

Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, whose undercover entrapment schemes have made him a far-right darling, will be there, as will Bill Mitchell, a booster of the QAnon conspiracy theory, a line of thinking too convoluted to explain entirely but holds basically that Trump is on a complex quest to root out a massive number of pedophiles and that he has enlisted the help of special counsel Robert Mueller to do so. Ali Alexander, the activist who achieved Twitter infamy by suggesting the Sen. Kamala Harris isn’t really black, will be there as well.

Ben Garrison, the right-wing cartoonist, had been slated to attend until the White House announced Wednesday that he would no longer be coming after a firestorm of criticism over a blatantly anti-Semitic cartoon drawn by Garrison.

White House spokesman Judd Deere has described the summit as an opportunity for “a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” but the more likely outcome will be a pity party for the far-right, which has complained that the major platforms are silencing conservatives, and a celebration of the provocateurs who are testing the boundaries of online platforms in pursuit of “owning the libs.” (The companies that own those platforms—Facebook, Google, and Twitter—won’t be in attendance.)

That online culture has turned into a major tool in Trump’s quest for reelection. Amid the chaos of his first term and his fervent insistence that a second term in office will “Keep America Great,” Trump has looked to his online followers to provide a repeat of their 2016 performance, when they produced copious memes to boost the real estate mogul’s campaign.

A few months into the 2020 campaign, @CarpeDonktum, who has so far managed to stay anonymous and has said he hopes to stay that way to avoid threats to his family, has emerged as this election cycle’s most influential meme-maker. (@CarpeDonktum did not respond to an interview request from Foreign Policy.)

It was @CarpeDonktum who was behind the edited video of Biden, the front-runner to win the Democratic presidential nomination, in which he apologized for being too handsy with women while a grainy version of Biden feels up the presidential candidate. Trump—or probably his social media guru Dan Scavino—spotted the video and tweeted it to his more than 60 million followers:

And when MSNBC’s production of the first Democratic presidential debate suffered technical difficulties, @CarpeDonktum turned the moment into a theatrical entrance for Trump, set to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” Again, Trump picked up the video and blasted it to his followers:

Most recently, Trump picked up a @CarpeDonktum video that shows a line of Trump presidential campaign lawn signs stretching into perpetuity:

For the Trump campaign, videos such as these are political gold. They offer the instantly memorable images that define their candidate, shape perceptions of their opponents, and spread online like wildfire.

At the same time that the right has turned content such as this into a formidable weapon—and done so far more effectively than the left—it has also bitterly complained that the platforms that made right-wing social media stardom possible in the first place are also censoring conservatives. There is no real evidence to back that up, but expect Thursday’s summit to provide a listing of all the ways in which Silicon Valley has wronged right-wing social media.

Cries of conservative censorship have been accompanied in Washington by calls for greater regulation of the platforms, and it is likely that Thursday’s event will serve as something of a warning to Silicon Valley not to crack down on any of the attendees for engaging in hateful speech.

If there were any doubt of @CarpeDonktum’s importance to Trump, the president appears to be an outright fan. On July 3, @CarpeDonktum entered the Oval Office for a meeting with the president, and according to a Washington Post account of the meeting, Trump exclaimed: “Where is the genius? I want to meet the genius.”

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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