Understanding Trump’s Troll Army

What distinguishes Trump’s “alt-right” supporters from the anger of other generations?

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Mar 13 2016, 2:00pm

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With Donald Trump continuing to win primaries and peddling his all-encompassing personal brand, the explanations for his success have begun to compound. Some say Trump speaks to dispossessed blue-collar workers. Others claim that Trump's apparent authenticity resonates with cynical voters who have grown tired of stage-managed political campaigns.

These reasons are nothing new, though. "People are angry and always have been," said Brent Boyea, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. "Trump isn't the first politician to exploit voter anger or unrest, or to challenge the so-called 'establishment,' and he won't be the last."

What is new about Trump, however, is that he has made this challenge in a thoroughly modern way: He is a troll, someone who scores rhetorical points with outrageous or controversial comments, consequences be damned.

Trump's rise has been abetted in part by a loose configuration of social media users often collectively termed the "alt-right," for lack of a better term. These individuals, many of whom proudly identify as trolls themselves, have developed a strong affinity for Trump, whom they characterize as one of the most skillful trolls in existence.

The alt-right's success with hashtag wars on Twitter is well-documented. They savaged the right-leaning National Review with #NRORevolt and ridiculed establishment Republicans such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio by saddling them with the #cuckservative hashtag ("cuckservative" being a portmanteau of cuckold and conservative and meant to underscore the perceived fecklessness of these candidates).

"Through the power of Trump, a bunch of people with anime avatars have attained far more influence."

Less well-documented are the actual alt-right participants. Dialogues between the mainstream media and Trump backers are often little better than The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's recent condescending dialogue with an imagined supporter of the candidate. Even when Vox's Matthew Yglesias profiled the alt-right movement, he outlined their concerns yet gave no indication he had spoken with them at any length.

Yglesias' reluctance to engage with the alt-right is understandable: they are, after all, trolls. More than that, many of the policy positions they favor, ranging from white nationalism to strident Islamophobia, shock the consciences of individuals who believe these issues are not open for public debate. As such, they are usually mocked or ignored.

This is standard practice when dealing with trolls. However, Trump has hesitated when disavowing support from controversial circles, and his own inflammatory rhetoric has apparently begun to have an effect on school-age children. As such, it was possible that the influence of his online supporters might continue to expand alongside his own electoral successes.

With that in mind, I reached out to members of the alt-right. Such a process is fraught with pitfalls: many post on Twitter under pseudonyms, and it is entirely possible that the extent of their impact, like the impact of the 4chan community, is exaggerated. Furthermore, although I succeeded in engaging two dozen users, I was muted or ignored by half again as many.

My aim was twofold: I wanted to learn how this movement evolved, as described by its participants, and I also hoped to better understand why they had cast their lot with Trump.

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Many people on the alt-right, such as @JaredTSwift, started on the /pol/ politics board on 4Chan. Swift, whose pseudonym references both Gulliver's Travels author Jonathan Swift and White Identity race theorist Jared Taylor, gravitated toward /pol/ during the 2012 election, as did many other users with whom I spoke. "The Trayvon Martin shooting happened pretty early on while I was there," he said. "I remember that was the first thing that really woke me up to the anti-white agenda."

Swift, like fellow /pol/ users, came to better grasp the merits of the board with each subsequent terrorist attack or instance of urban unrest ("/pol/ is always right" is itself a meme, usually deployed after one of these events). Like many /pol/ users, he began to view "Social Justice Warriors" and "toxic leftism" as powerful forces that could be combated only with extremist rhetoric, which led him to create a Twitter account to aggressively attack his opponents.

"The less connected you are, the less you have to lose, which makes it far easier to say shocking or hurtful things."

Then came Trump. "Trump was meme-able and entertaining, and something like a ban on Muslim immigration would never have been considered before him," Swift said. "We've had intellectuals like Jared Taylor around for years, but through the power of Trump, a bunch of people with anime avatars have attained far more influence than [Taylor]."

This notion of "bringing attention to yourself" is critically important to understanding the alt-right movement. Even as Trump trolls to attract attention, so too do his alt-right supporters. Much of their spleen is directed at Republicans, people ostensibly on their own side who have either betrayed their interests or never spoken for them at all. They are alone together, mutually anonymous, and furious over how, in the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, they have found themselves "without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power."

California-based psychologist Sandy Peace, who emphasizes the value of connectedness in her practice, attributes much of this anger to alienation and anomie. "The roots of trolling behavior, particularly among young men, are complicated, but I lay much of the blame on the internet and how it stymies interaction with real people and prevents the development of real feelings," she said. "The less connected you are, the less you have to lose, which makes it far easier to say shocking or hurtful things. Just like Trump: he doesn't care about whose feelings he hurts so long as he makes his point."

Twitter user @Ricky_Vaughn99, who is among the most vitriolic and impactful of the alt-righters (at least in terms of retweets and mentions), exhibited a shrewd understanding of the fury that is powering insurgencies on the left and right. "There is definitely anger among the youth," he told me in a Twitter direct message. "The Bernie people are angry. The #BlackLivesMatter people are angry."

But what distinguishes this from the anger of other generations, the fact that "people are always angry," in Brent Boyea's terms?

At least in part, it comes down to the way that this anger can be showcased. "We are past being a literate culture and are now a visual culture," said @Ricky_Vaughn99. "Obama understood this, and so does Trump."

For Vaughn and other trolls, a meme-able moment is worth millions of words. Most of the alt-rigthers with whom I spoke cited Trump's immigration rhetoric as opening the "Overton Window"—the range of discourse about which public conversation is permissible—to more extreme points of view. This, in fact, is what many perceive to be Trump's lasting legacy: even if he doesn't prevail in the general election, he opens the possibility of heretofore unspeakable ideas being entertained by future politicians.

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Trump has already revolutionized presidential debate, turning formerly staid contests interrupted by occasional wisecracks into wild no-holds-barred arguments not entirely dissimilar to professional wrestling interviews or Mike Tyson press conferences (Tyson, incidentally, has endorsed Trump, as has Hulk Hogan).

"In the early 19th century, the antics we are now witnessing among presidential candidates would have been inconceivable," explained Stephen Maizlish, an antebellum US historian whose recent research has examined the Compromise of 1850 and the ideological foundations of the American Civil War. "Presidential candidates from that era never even campaigned. It was considered unseemly to want a position of authority and such positions could only be accepted as the wish of the people, never actually sought."

But dirty politics, consisting of scurrilous rumor-mongering about opponents' illegitimate children and other lewd charges, did characterize the efforts of people campaigning on behalf of presidential candidates as well as those individuals seeking election to state and local offices. "Perhaps a quarter of the debating time in Congress was spent hurling insults and then withdrawing them to avoid direct conflict in the form of fisticuffs or worse," said Maizlish. "Thanks in part to Trump, we might conclude that a style of campaigning that was common among supporters of presidential candidates and in contests for lower offices has now risen to the presidential level."

Once upon a time, fistfights or honor duels might have restrained elites from openly and endlessly assailing each other. Even lower-class males would have found their braggadocio and effrontery checked by rough-and-tumble combat or other forms of violent retaliation. But today, in an age when most honor-imposed limitations have long since passed away, brutal insults can be hurled by Trump and his alt-right supporters from high atop a media perch or behind pseudonymous social accounts.

Without careful checks on this type of behavior, it can easily drive more restrained forms of argument from the marketplace of ideas. "The effectiveness of the single insult is that it costs far less to assert than to disprove," said Ben Labe, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Many of the best techniques of sophistry rely on apparently confusing one's interlocutor by showering him with nonsense. The key is to keep your opponent so busy trying to refute what you are saying that he never has time to assert anything himself."

The alt-right understands the inexpensive power of this kind of discourse, given that they have been honing their skills in internet flame wars for most of their lives. Those seeking to contest and defeat such hateful rhetoric should, too. However, such a victory over the nascent political trolling culture may entail more face to face meetings and civil conversations with angry, disenfranchised individuals who harbor some beliefs we find abhorrent.

"Only connect," exhorted the author E.M. Forster, and as challenging as that exhortation might seem, there is surely something to it.