How angry men's rights activists online helped propel Trump to victory

New academic research reveals the ‘Red Pill’ effect and how a men’s rights forum radicalised its members to back Trump in the 2016 US election.

Sian Norris Camille Mijola
29 April 2019, 7.58am
Trump supporters outside a Milo Yiannopoulos show in Melbourne, Australia 2017.
STEFAN POSTLES/AAP/PA Images. All rights reserved.

New research by US academics reveals how a controversial online forum for ‘men’s rights activists’ radicalised its members to back Trump in the 2016 US election.

Pierce Dignam and Deana Rohlinger at Florida State University analysed 1,762 posts left on the anti-feminist Reddit forum the Red Pill. In a new paper published this month, they describe how the forum abandoned its original apolitical stance in the run-up to the election and instead radicalised its members to support Trump’s candidacy.

The Red Pill forum was set up in 2012 by a Reddit user named “pk_atheist” – later revealed to be former Republican lawmaker Robert Fisher. Since then it has become one of the more notorious spaces in the “manosphere” – a loose online coalition of men’s rights activists (MRAs), ‘pick-up artists’ and other male supremacists.

Taking the ‘Red Pill’ refers to the 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix where the main character takes a red pill and is awakened to the reality of the world around him. For the ‘manosphere’, this “awakening” is recognising how society is supposedly rigged against men.

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According to the academics’ research, the Red Pill forum adopts a position of “patriarchal resistance which forcefully denies that feminist issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault and gendered wage gaps are structural issues that (re)produce women’s oppression.”

They describe how its users “bond through the shared dehumanisation of women” and the “oppressive othering of women as a group”. Red-pillers – as people from this community identify themselves – want to wage war against feminism to defend men’s place in the world. They share a belief that women are “socialised as parasites of society”.

References to experiencing a “Red Pill moment”, or being “red-pilled” are also common among alt-right groups, who believe they’ve been awakened to a “white genocide” being covered up by feminists, liberals and communists.

An “abrupt shift” from individual improvement to political engagement

Between 2013 and 2015, Red Pill forum members “distanced the forum from traditional men’s rights groups which were regarded as ... too focused on political action”, explicitly taking an apolitical stance, according to the academics’ research.

Instead, members focused on developing a “sexual strategy that would conquer feminism” through degrading women in day-to-day interactions and encouraging “men’s personal transformation from ‘betas’ to ‘alphas’” via “personal empowerment”, including physical fitness and sexual conquest.

This all changed when Trump was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate in 2016. Dignam and Rohlinger say Trump’s candidacy triggered an “abrupt shift” in the forum’s focus from individual improvement to political engagement, as Red Pill’s elite users, moderators and forum leaders started to promote the importance of supporting Trump.

Dignam and Rohlinger write in their paper how the Red Pillers’ “sexual strategy was merged with the gendered political action of voting for an aggressively misogynistic and traditionally masculine candidate”.

Speaking to openDemocracy 50.50, Dignam explained that “their talk about gender was informing their ability to support Trump”. In the research, they write how Red Pillers portrayed Hillary Clinton as waging a “war on men”, and Trump as “an alpha-male who would fight for men’s political fortune”.

The attraction of Trump lay in his financial and sexual success which made him “emblematic of Red Pill manhood” – “the kind of alpha who could whip America into shape”

For the forum’s users, the attraction of Trump lay in his financial and sexual success which Dignam and Rohlinger suggest made him “emblematic of Red Pill manhood” – the “embodiment of everything masculine” and “the kind of alpha who could whip America into shape”.

Trump was presented as the best chance to end the perceived feminisation of American politics that would be entrenched by a Clinton victory. His boasts of sexual assault galvanised Red Pill support, reflecting their own “sexual strategy”.

At the same time, other actors were pushing anti-feminist ideas into mainstream politics.

The 2016 Kickstarter campaign to fund Cassie Jaye’s controversial documentary ‘The Red Pill’ raised $211,000 – more than double its target – after alt-right figurehead, Milo Yiannopoulos made an urgent appeal for donations on the conservative website Breitbart.

While the film attracted protests from Canada to Australia that got it banned from some cinemas, it was subsequently available on popular streaming platforms such as Amazon and Google Play, from where it can still be downloaded or watched online.

Red Pill film promotional materials.
Jaye Bird Productions.

Yiannopoulos was also a key political influencer and Trump advocate during the 2016 presidential elections who helped push Red Pill rhetoric into the mainstream electoral discourse.

He encouraged Trump fans to support the Red Pill film by claiming its ideas were anti-establishment and at risk of censorship – a key concern for Trump supporters who claimed they were being silenced by political correctness and the ‘feminisation’ of US politics.

Red Pill rhetoric goes mainstream

Since then, Red Pill rhetoric has become increasingly mainstream Dignam told us that it “has infiltrated several high profile celebrities, with Kanye West and Pewdiepie tweeting links to YouTubers who are also Red Pillers”.

In March 2019, Donald Trump Jr also praised the Red Pill forum as providing a space for conservatives to “express themselves”.

Dignam and Rohlinger are clear that we cannot attribute Trump’s 2016 election victory solely to his support from Red Pillers.

However, they argue that the fast and effective politicisation of the forum’s users shows how “extreme online enclaves” can help “candidates holding distasteful views to get elected”. It also “indicates that extreme misogynistic discourse can successfully create political action in the modern age”, they say.

With the next US election only a year away, will this politicisation of alt-right, anti-feminist Red Pillers be repeated?

In the run-up to the 2016 elections, some pundits predicted that Trump’s brand of misogynistic discourse would cost him the presidency. In contrast, the academics’ research shows that it may have actually helped him get into the White House.

The existence of people who can – and now have experience of – rallying “organised political opposition based on misogyny” is, said Dignam, “definitely something that [Democratic] activists should be taking into account in 2020”.

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