“Illegal Runes, Illegal Memes”: What can fringe memes tell us about the far-right?
This blog post is based on a book chapter I wrote that appears in Digital Hate: The Global Conjuncture of Extreme Speech edited by Sahana Udupa, Iginio Gagliardone, and Peter Hervik.
Since the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the use of memes as vehicles for ideological dissemination, recruitment, and radicalization has become a focus for far-right studies scholars and public commentators alike. Conversations around memes, such as the popular “Pepe the Frog” meme, were picked up by anti-hate groups like the SPLC and ADL, and major news outlets like NPR, the Economist, and the CBC. Such conversations evince a public willingness to take seriously viral memes as a vehicle for cultural and political mobilization. Interestingly, not all memes attain the level of virality or public attention of Pepe. However, narrowly circulated memes are still important sites of inquiry as they reveal the heterogenous and contradictory nature of the far-right. They also point to spaces of radicalization that are obscured by hegemonic meme practices.
I want to focus here on the meme-sharing practices of the “folk-right,” which is a subgroup within the broader far-right movement. While the folk-right shares many of the same values such as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments, they diverge strongly on the subject of Christianity. Where the far-right is often intertwined with Christian nationalist movements that promote violence against Muslims and Jewish communities, the folk-right is vocal in their disdain for all Abrahamic religions including Christianity. These religions are referred to as “sand religions” that strive for “universalism” and are therefore antithetical to a European spirit, which is grounded in the land and ethnic heritage of Europe (“anti-ethnos”).
Like many other ethno-nationalist movements (see the Identitarian movement), the folk-right believes that Europe belongs exclusively to those with European heritage. As a result, they call for a “retribalization” of European people based on ancestral heritage as a means of correcting what they see as “demographic replacement” through immigration. Retribalization, they argue, is about re-establishing boundaries of belonging and exclusion along racial, cultural, and ethnic lines. In essence, people of Germanic ethnic heritage would return to Germany, those with Celtic heritage would return to the British Isles, and so on. The other side of this process would include the expulsion of those who do not have ethnic ties to the land. This, of course, is somewhat difficult for the folk-right in the former colonies of Europe, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, where those with “ethnic ties” to the land are the Indigenous peoples. However, the folk-right argues these lands now belong to those with European heritage via conquest and genocide. As “pan-European” colonies, anyone of European ethnic origin can claim belonging in the colonized world.
Image: Folk-right meme from Gab on tradition as the path for a "greater future"
Retribalization, however, cannot occur within a Christian context as Christianity promotes a “universal” religion to which all people can belong. This religiously derived belonging is seen as trumping ethnic and racial conceptualizations of both belonging and exclusion. As a result, if countries like Canada or Germany remain predominantly Christian in their spiritual orientation, the folk-right cannot leverage religion as a tool for exclusion, namely the expulsion of non-white residents and citizens.
Image: Folk-Right meme from Gab claiming Christianity "tricked" European pagans and that Europeans should return to "our Origin"
This exclusion was frequently couched in ideas of “love for our own people” as a means of deflecting accusations of racism. This was a “return” or a “reclamation” of the true European spirit amongst white people, which, they argued has been stifled. Moreover, they argue that this retribalization process is permitted to non-white groups and countries. This perspective of white victimhood is, of course, a longstanding trope within white supremacist and far-right movements.
I don’t hate anyone no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc. however, I do believe a right to their own culture/own country. I do NOT approve of the outright discrimination against European peoples! #EuropeanPride #ItsOkToBeWhite #folkish #loveyourfolk #heathen
This idea of a Europe (and its former colonies) that could, and indeed should, be divided up into ethno-religiously demarcated spaces was reflected in their memes as well.
Image: Folk-Right meme from Gab featuring a map of Europe with pagan symbols, which attempts to create connections between land/geography and religion
Here, a folkish approach to paganism is leveraged as a means of saying those who are not ethnically European do not belong in European countries. Scandinavia is for those who can claim an ethnic connection to Norse mythology, while Ireland, Scotland, and England belong to those who can claim Celtic and Anglo-Saxon ties. This, of course, evinces a “blood and soil” approach to belonging that was popularized by the Nazis. Indeed, the icon assigned to Germany is the sonnenrad, or the Black Sun. While the sonnenrad has roots in ancient European spirituality, it was appropriated by the Nazi Party and continues to be used by contemporary neo-Nazi movements.
This was not just about creating feelings of belonging (and exclusion), but of order and superiority. Take for example the following meme, which creates a sense that Christianity is full of infighting whereas ethnically-determined paganism is ordered, disciplined, and united. It creates a sense of pan-European solidarity while acknowledging the specificity of regional and ethnic differences. This doubled down on retribalization as a means of creating and maintaining a racialized order.
Image: Folk-Right meme that claims "Christianity divides" white people while pagan faiths will provide unity against a perceived enemy
While memes focusing on Christianity were often condescending and used to justify a folkish pagan approach to demographics, memes related to Judaism and Islam were often more offensive. Yet, they linked uniquely folk-right ideas about religion to broader far-right ones about cultural Marxism, “globalists,” and demographic replacement.
Image: Folk-Right meme claiming Christianity is cultural Marxism featuring an image of Thor's hammer and a wolf, which are two common images in these memes.
Image: Folk-Right meme with different "gods" from pagan religions and a crucified Jesus implying Christianity makes Europeans weak.
But why should we care about these fringe memes and their rhetoric? Indeed, most of them circulated slowly and narrowly on Gab and received little interaction (in fact much of the interaction came at the hands of Christian trolls). So, why devote time and energy to this area?
Scholars of the far-right have historically been interested in identifying sites of radicalization. For Alexandria Onuoha, social media and educational settings are key sites of inquiry. For Cynthia Miller-Idriss, mundane spaces like college campuses, gyms, clothing stores, and even YouTube cooking channels can be sites of radicalization. For me, I am concerned with the possibility of radicalization within pagan spiritual spaces.
Paganism is on the rise in many parts of the world as Christianity declines. It is one of the fastest-growing religions in Iceland, and it is increasingly popular in Canada and the US. Many pagan groups are explicitly universalist in their orientation, which means that anyone of any racial, ethnic, or cultural background can join (not unlike Christianity). However, some uphold a more folkish orientation that seeks to exclude along ethnic and racial lines. The folk-right evince this perfectly, as does the Asatru Folk Assembly, which has been designated a hate group by the SPLC. Another example is Soldiers of Odin, which remixes Norse spirituality, mythology and aesthetics into its anti-immigrant movement. Not only is this a racist approach to paganism and Norse mythology and history, but it also creates spaces wherein racist and xenophobic discourses are permittable especially when it is couched within a “love for our folk” framework. Of course, the folk-right found today on Gab, Telegram, and Minds are not the first to weaponize paganism in this way. Racist paganism, including Wotanism, Odinism, and folkish Asatru, has been around for decades (see Mattias Gardell’s work for an extensive overview).
This is also an area of concern for practitioners of universalist paganism. When I visited the Asatru Temple in Reykjavik in 2019, I shared with the practitioners the folk-right memes, including those shown here. I wanted to gauge their reaction to this memetic remixing of paganism and ethnic exclusion. Their response was unanimous in their condemnation. For their group, Norse paganism is a universalist religion and the weaponization of it as a means of exclusion was offensive. However, this evinces a need to understand pagan religious spaces in a manner similar to Christian churches, namely as potential spaces of white nationalist radicalization.
While it is easy to dismiss memes that only garner a few upvotes, likes, or laugh emojis, it is vital to understand them as vehicles for deeply held sentiments about the world. When taken in the broader context of the far-right and folkish paganism, these memes should be cause for concern. Moreover, they highlight spaces of radicalization that deserve scholarly attention.