Fed up with “political correctness,” Donald Trump’s fans rode a cycle of controversy and outrage to push him all the way to the top of a crowded field. Since then, however, they’ve waged a civil war over extremist rhetoric, fired a longtime supporter to quiet the backlash and now there’s even talk of changing the rules to prevent them from taking over.
No, it’s not Trump’s presidential campaign we’re talking about. It’s his leading fan site.
For months, Trump supporters have been a ubiquitous presence on Reddit, an online message board that’s among the most visited websites in the world. The subreddit r/the_donald, a user-created section of Reddit with no connection to Trump’s actual campaign, became a grassroots sensation during the Republican primaries with more than 50 million monthly page views at its peak in March.
The subreddit, managed by a handful of mostly anonymous fans, is a breakout success. But it’s also plagued by constant infighting among its leaders, infiltration by white supremacists and clashes with the site’s administrators over complaints that its users game the system to make their content more visible.
Reddit’s content is promoted on a competitive basis: The more users “upvote” an individual post, the higher it appears on r/all, a homepage that encompasses the whole site, with certain exceptions. The popularity of r/the_donald meant ordinary users who visited Reddit in recent months faced a regular bombardment of Trump posts, including some that critics found grotesque, racist or just plain obnoxious.
These complaints reached a crescendo in June when Reddit’s founder and CEO Steve Huffman announced that he was changing the algorithm for r/all to ensure more “diverse” posts and prevent users from colluding to force their content to the front page.
“We have seen many communities like r/the_donald over the years — ones that attempt to dominate the conversation on Reddit at the expense of everyone else,” Huffman told NBC News in an email. “This undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it.”
The move came shortly after the Orlando massacre, a period in which r/the_donald users accused other subreddits of suppressing news of the attack and joined together to upvote their own posts en masse in response.
In announcing the change on Reddit, Huffman told users that plans were already in the works to reform the site’s procedures, but that r/the_donald’s behavior “hastened its deployment.”
At the same time that administrators began cracking down on r/the_donald from the outside, however, the subreddit faced increasing turmoil from within.
Last week, its leaders announced they were kicking out moderator CisWhiteMaelstrom, widely credited with popularizing the subreddit, over allegations he planned to join forces with prominent white nationalists like Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer to coordinate support for Trump.
“They are people that Trump would want nothing to do with,” r/the_donald’s founder, JCM267, said in a post announcing the decision. “Just as Trump would, we disavow them.”
CisWhiteMaelstrom, who like all Reddit moderators interviewed for this story asked to be identified by their username to avoid harassment, criticized Reddit’s handling of the Orlando episode in a phone interview last month. He did not respond to e-mails requesting comment after his removal as moderator, however, and his Reddit account has been deleted since the news broke.
The ouster was the latest flare-up in a longstanding battle over how (and whether) to keep far right and racist users from congregating in r/the_donald.
The subreddit rose to prominence by billing itself as a meeting place for Trump supporters and as a haven for Reddit users to bait liberal “social justice warriors” with mocking posts about topics like feminism, religion and immigration. This anti-PC ethos made them popular, but it also made it hard for moderators to draw lines between garden-variety trolling designed to provoke and blatantly white supremacist material designed to attract new followers.
Trump has a devoted following on the “alt right,” a loose online movement in which young anti-establishment conservatives mingle on sites like 4chan alongside hardcore racists and anti-Semites. Their enthusiasm for Trump's candidacy has been an ongoing source of controversy, and Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview last month that he "very, very strongly" rejected extremist support after Hewitt urged him to take a more vocal stance. Some figures in this world see Trump’s candidacy as an opportunity to introduce their fringe views to mainstream conservatives by adopting the language of viral internet culture — the kind familiar to Reddit users.
Initially, CisWhiteMaelstrom took steps to ban users who exhibited signs of extremism. But the standards were inconsistent: During a feud between r/the_donald and Swedish subreddit r/Sweden in April (it’s a long story), he announced he was dropping his policy of blocking racist content so long as it targeted Muslims. What followed was a wave of unprintable Photoshopped images and cartoons depicting sexual violence against Swedes by dark-skinned immigrants and railing against interracial marriage, some of them submitted by users with names that referenced neo-Nazi terms.
CisWhiteMaelstrom quit the groupshortly afterward after complaining a rival was threatening to leak his true identity. Under new leadership, the subreddit swung the other direction as moderators tried to more aggressively ban content that was offensive or unrelated to Trump. That sparked a backlash of its own, with some users forming a breakaway subreddit r/Mr_Trump that promised a more lax censorship policy.
White supremacists, however, discovered that the censorship debate was a perfect chance to slip their propaganda into the mix again. One popular post on r/Mr_Trump actively promoted by one of the subreddit’s moderators was a video parodying the song “Make A Man Out Of You” from Disney’s "Mulan," which a user retitled “Troll The Cuck Out Of You” and paired with white nationalist lyrics. A sample from one (surprisingly well-sung) verse: “Look at demographics / they’re not on our side / Vote your racial interests / or we won’t survive.”
More recently, the subreddit’s moderators invited white nationalist publisher Jared Taylor to join the subreddit for a chat with users, but cancelled the event after concerns Taylor’s views went too far.
Viking83, a moderator for r/Mr_Trump told NBC News in an email that Taylor was dropped because “we do not endorse racist views.” Still, Viking83 seemed to acknowledge that the distinction could get blurry in their corner of conservatism.
“While some racists may associate themselves with the alt-right, the movement is about being tired of the same cookie-cutter Obama/Clinton/Bush politicians, bought and paid for, pushing the same agenda under a different flag,” he said.
Over at the r/the_donald, moderators relaxed the more rigid censorship rules and reconciled with critics. But the extremism issue heated up again in the lead-up to CisWhiteMaelstrom's ouster, who had since returned to the fold and continued his old provocative ways. One of the final straws for moderators came when he reposted an old comment he had made musing that he “could definitely get away with raping the illegals near me.”
At the same time that r/the_donald users fought among themselves, their actions started to generate a visible backlash from other parts of Reddit. A new group r/EnoughTrumpSpam popped up and garnered attention mocking r/the_donald’s politics as well as its penchant for annoying Reddit users by clogging the front page.
“These guys don't seem to understand that nobody wants them taking over other subreddits and turning tragedies into white nationalist recruitment fodder,” RedCanada, a moderator at r/EnoughTrumpSpam, told NBC News in an email.
For now at least, it seems there may be some room for peace between the two communities, both of which are affected by the recent rule changes. JCM267, told NBC News on Tuesday that he considered Huffman’s decision to rejigger the front page’s formula “fair” based on recent events.
“You could look at /r/all at any time and more than half of the top 25 posts would be from /r/the_donald,” JCM267 said in an e-mail. “The administrators had to do something.”
Reaction to the changes among r/the_donald users has been mixed, but many followers indicated they were supportive of removing CisWhiteMaelstrom in order to avoid distracting fights over racism and misogyny.
“Sometimes you have to pivot to the general,” user Nimble_Nav_Fan wrote in a comment thread on the decision. “He was our [Corey] Lewandowski and now we need a [Paul] Manafort.”