This story is adapted from Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America, by Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, and Brian Friedberg.
“This incredible journey we’re on together has only just begun,” former president Donald Trump told a rally in Ohio on September 17. In response, the crowd saluted him with a gesture unfamiliar to most Americans: their right hands raised with an index pointed up. As he went on, they kept their fingers up, nodding along with him. When photos of the throngs of people with their fingers aimed high hit the web, the Twitterati reacted with predictable outrage and confusion; was this a QAnon symbol? Some white supremacist code sign, like the OK hand gesture? No, it wasn’t. It was a symbol for the America First movement. This midterm election season, “America First” candidates represent a powerful new block of far-right contenders, among them GOP Senate candidate J. D. Vance, who Trump was in Ohio to stump for, along with the likes of former QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Green, “Big Lie” proponent Paul Gossar, and Peter Thiel mentee Blake Masters.
Joan Donovan is the research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center and one of the foremost experts on media and disinformation in the world.
Emily Dreyfuss is a journalist who covers the intersection of society and technology for publications such as WIRED, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, among others, and the co-lead of the Harvard Shorenstein Center News Leaders summit.
Brian Friedberg is an ethnographer at Harvard Kennedy School researching fringe political communities online and has published definitive QAnon explainers in WIRED and The Hill. Together, the authors work on Harvard Kennedy School's Technology and Social Change Research project.