A video of white supremacist Richard Spencer getting punched by an Inauguration Day protestor went viral on social media this weekend, prompting a dozen overlapping conversations about the act’s value, as well as the value of celebrating it.
Spencer was attacked while in the middle of explaining the pin he was wearing — a Pepe frog that has been used so persistently as an anti-Semitic meme that certain usages of Pepe have been labeled a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. He is one of the public faces of the internet’s “alt-right” community (a term he coined), which takes its power from memes and has built its rhetoric around them. He’s probably best known for arguing in favor of “ethnic cleansing” and leading a Nazi salute in our nation’s capital. Shortly after the punch, Spencer said on Periscope “I am worried about going out to dinner on an average Tuesday because these people are roaming around” and “I’m afraid this is going to become the meme to end all memes. That I’m going to hate watching this.”
Regardless of whatever thrill a person can choose to take or deny themselves while watching a white supremacist get punched in the face, there’s an ironic twist in the fact that Spencer is being subjected to the same force that he has tried to wield against entire populations of people he considers less human than himself. Spencer and the rest of the alt-right have spent their lives, and particularly the past few years, relishing the power to troll and to attack other people with hateful and bigoted memes, and now it’s coming back to bite them. If Spencer thought he was the only person who could make powerful use of the medium, this moment at the very least proves him clearly wrong. The only universal rule of memes, after all, is that they know no master.
the only universal rule of memes is that they know no master
Now a progressive faction of the internet is racing to make Spencer’s fear of being memed come true. A Twitter account called Alt-Right Getting (with the handle @PunchedtoMusic) has already retweeted and reposted over 50 remixes of the video accompanied by music both goofy and profound — Aaron Carter’s “That’s How I Beat Shaq,” Beyoncé's “Freedom,” the Yuri on Ice theme song, Kanye West’s spinoff of the Civil Rights anthem “Blood on the Leaves.” Many of these videos have hundreds to thousands of retweets and favorites and the account has netted 5,900 followers in 24 hours.
This morning, Spencer has been trying to change the conversation by trolling Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson and tweeting quotes from Nelson Mandela, but the first response to everything he says is a taunt or another embed of the video. A subreddit called r/RichardSpencerPunched sprung up overnight and hosts even more memes, including Spencer getting punched to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” a link to a website called canipunchnazis.com, and a spinoff of the popular Bee Movie meme titled “Bee Movie but every time they say ‘bee’ Richard Spencer gets punched in the face.”
On Tumblr, one user mashes up a popular clip of Rick and Morty characters beating up a neo-Nazi with the clip of Spencer. That clip was already a meme, often intercut with videos of other unsavory people getting laid out. Another writes a poem inspired by Dr. Seuss: “punch a nazi by a moat / punch a nazi in the throat / kick a nazi by a tree / kick a nazi in the knee.” Tim and Eric’s Tim Heidecker wrote a song for Spencer with the chorus “You can’t wish anyone dead / even if their baseball cap is red / But if you see Richard Spencer / Why don’t you punch him in the head?” Many on Tumblr and Twitter have placed the image of Spencer getting punched alongside Indiana Jones punching a Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark or Captain America punching Hitler.
Memes may be masterless, but they have an interesting way of cycling back around to where they started. Matt Furie, who created Pepe the Frog as a “chill” and “good-natured” meme with no political connotations, was interviewed by The Atlantic in September and said that he didn’t feel much of anything about Pepe’s new meaning: “I think that’s it’s just a phase, and come November, it’s just gonna go on to the next phase, obviously that political agenda is exactly the opposite of my own personal feelings, but in terms of meme culture, it’s people reapproppriating things for their own agenda. That’s just a product of the internet.”
Yesterday he was asked on Tumblr how he felt about Richard Spencer getting “decked mid-sentence describing Pepe.” He responded: “Once is never enough.”