The first week of Donald Trump’s presidency has been met with an outpouring of frustration. Large protests and demonstrations took place across the country following the presidential inauguration. Notably, 3.4 million took part in a Women’s March, including an estimated 11,000 person crowd in Ann Arbor this past weekend.
More symbolic protests took place as well: in a performance art project co-created by actor Shia Labeouf, a 24/7 livestream recording passerby in New York City chanting the phrase “He Will Not Divide Us.” According to the project’s website (hewillnotdivide.us), the repeated mantra represents a “show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.”
The livestream takes place in an enclosure attached to NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image, and is open to the general public. The project’s creators intend to continue the stream for the entirety of Donald Trump’s presidency. However, the first few weeks since the project’s unveiling have been tumultuous, to say the least. Contrary to the project’s intentions and intended subjects, the livestream has featured a large number of Trump supporters, white supremacists, and representatives of 4chan’s /pol/ “politically incorrect” image board.
These members of the Internet’s anti-left sphere have gleefully and effectively disrupted “he will not divide us” using the guerrilla tactics of online trolling. A now-viral clip from the stream shows a young man (reportedly 16 years of age) interrupting a crowd of “He Will Not Divide Us” (HWNDU) chanters, including Shia Labeouf, and yelling white nationalist slogans such as “1488.” Enraged, Labeouf began verbally assaulting the young man and chased him down the street. The exchange led to Labeouf’s arrest live-streamed a few days later, and a subsequent flurry of memes highlighted the absurdity and hilarity of the incident. Though this white nationalist appeared to be sincere, he aptly demonstrated the fundamental trolling technique of baiting – in other words, saying something inflammatory with the primary intention of provoking a negative reaction in others.
Other, more playful forms of trolling take place constantly. Counter-protestors carry signs displaying /pol/ memes such as Pepe the frog and chicken tenders. On one occasion, counter-protesters wearing “Make America Great Again” hats began chanting “Trump,” drowning out the anti-Trump demonstrators gathered. Later, a man managed to convince a crowd of HWNDU chanters to sing a rendition of Happy Birthday addressed to Sam Hyde, comedian and icon of the anti-left Internet. Popular threads on 4chan and Reddit document the derailment of the project, venerating the more clever trolls who appear on camera with affectionate nicknames and memes.
Overall, “He Will Not Divide Us” has undoubtedly devolved into chaos. Despite the project’s goal of 24/7 livestreaming, organizers have fenced off the enclosure several times due to conflicts between protesters and counter-protesters. Even aggressive policing of the area (by organizers and actual police) has failed to prevent more covert trolls who use subtle symbols and gestures to convey politically incorrect sentiments.
Why did “He Will Not Divide Us” attract such a widespread and persistent trolling campaign? The answer speaks to two important characteristics of contemporary political spheres: the stagnant vapidity of mainstream leftism and the reactionary chaos of the online right wing.
For the former category, “He Will Not Divide Us” epitomizes the superficiality of celebrity activism and virtue signaling. The chant itself rephrases our complex political climate into an easily digestible, feel-good sentiment: Donald Trump is trying to pull apart our multicultural society, so we need to stick together. Painting Trump as an intentional detractor of societal unity is highly questionable; if anything the left has been hell-bent on destroying a sense of national solidarity post-election (We Will Not Divide Us?). Beyond the message itself, HWNDU comes across as a rather tone-deaf, masturbatory exercise. The endless repetition of one chant is both highly annoying and suggestive of brainwashing. Moreover, chanters carefully dress up to get in front of the livestream camera, taking selfies while looking as indignant as possible. It seems as if this particular brand of protest is intertwined with a desire for social approval.
To the anti-left Internet, these off-putting characteristics of HWNDU make it a target. Perhaps the defining characteristic of the underground-internet right is disillusionment with mainstream leftism. Secondly, this sense of disdain is bolstered by a sense of loyalty towards Trump, a disposition widely shared in the online right community. Indeed members of the alt-right diligently troll “never trump” neo-conservatives on Twitter such as Rick Wilson.
The final piece of the HWNDU puzzle is 4chan’s ideology of chaos. Though the anonymous image board has no formal creed, it holds a proud legacy of large-scale trolling attacks; for example, in 2009 users successfully rigged Time magazine’s “World’s Most Influential Person” online poll to award the title to Christopher Poole, 4chan’s founder. In general these concentrated efforts have been motivated by little other than schadenfreude and a nihilistic pleasure in seeing the world burn.
Intrinsically counter-culture, 4chan’s ethos found its most potent political match in Donald Trump. Interestingly, 4chan’s political board (/pol/) held a mix of largely left-wing and libertarian views during the Bush years. However after 8 years of an Obama backed by an increasingly zealous left-wing media establishment, /pol/ rallied around Donald Trump’s inflammatory tweets and anti-establishment rhetoric. As the election progressed, /pol/ culture spread beyond 4chan to a wider range of online political communities, such as the pro-Trump subreddit /r/the_donald. Though considerably watered down, these cultural outposts retained much of /pol/’s slang, memes, and rhetoric.
Taking into account the online right-wing’s influences, the He Will Not Divide Us fiasco thus appears as an explosive intersection between two contemporary political forces. On the one hand, a passionate left-wing vanguard struggling to find a revolutionary foothold; on the other, a nihilistic force of destruction, only loosely bound by Trump and anti-Leftism.
Though the HWNDU battle will likely fade into obscurity, it may hold great significance for the future of political discourse. The two parties on display are relatively young, both in age and political relevancy; they are active and growing forces in the increasingly-important political world of the Internet. As a result, their incompatibilities and tensions will only grow in relevance as the nature of the modern left-right political spectrum evolves. It is crucial, then, to trace their developments and understand their dangerous incompatibilities – these factors will undoubtedly help define American politics in the Trump era as well as the Internet era.