When the #gamergate hashtag started taking off a few years ago, I was immediately attracted to it. Not due to any desire to be involved in online harassment, but because that part of the hashtag seemed like such a tiny portion of the conversation into issues I cared about; as an avid gamer, I’d been following the rise of “pay for play” in game reviews, and had been burned a few times when pre-ordering games with glowing reviews, but which were later revealed to have been compensated reviews. The most notable of the scandals involving questionable ethics in gaming journalism was called “Doritosgate“, so when #gamergate burst on the scene, it seemed like a continuation of issues that I actually cared about. I followed the hashtag, made the arguments, and minimized the amount of bullshit happening under the same umbrella.
I was wrong.
Little known to me, earnestly arguing about the topics I cared about in the space, well-coordinated armies of trolls from a few prominent troll sites were driving much of the online conversation so well that they had taken over the conversation, leaving folks like me looking like useful idiots covering for bad behavior. And so we come to the Trump presidency.
Somewhere during the Clinton administration, we started to see the rise of the culture wars. Clinton’s entire impeachment was a Republican-led statement that any breach of their morality code was going to be used as a weapon to enforce Conservative strength, and it established the obstructionist strategy the GOP would go on to perfect with Obama. Combined with dog-whistle messaging straight out of the Southern Strategy, the GOP used the eight years of generally progressive Obama policies to drive the perception of a heightened culture war, one in which White Christian Men were most particularly at risk.
For eight years, we heard about how Obama was coming for our guns, about FEMA death camps, about how our president was secretly a Muslim Atheist (something which I heard unironically stated many, many times). Obama and his totalitarian government were coming for our way of life, and our freedom. All of the major players in the White Men media space stayed true to that message. Talk Radio and Fox News hit all of the major talking points every day: Obama is the black man that you fear, and he’s coming for you.
When Trump became a possible presidential candidate, he brought with him two important things which appealed to many useful idiots: a message that he was going to protect the culture of White (mostly Christian) Men, and most importantly, he was the anti-Obama. Where Obama was a half-black community organizer from Chicago, Trump was the picture of white privilege, blond haired and blue eyed corporate raider of New York City. Where Obama was catering to the ethnic folks and the women, Trump was standing up for the forgotten white Americans, and telling those women folk who was boss. Obama constantly painted a picture of a progressive world where the picture of success only included a few straight white dudes mixed in with all of the ethnics and the women and the queers, and Trump came through and affirmed that if the picture didn’t include mostly white dudes, that it was indicative of the way society had turned against the very folks who had helped to build it up.
In short, the culture war fuse had been primed, and Trump was the spark.
What most of those folks who found Trump’s message appealing didn’t understand was that it was all bullshit. The message had been rigged from the start, and by many of the very same trolls who helped co-opt useful idiots for the #gamergate battle. Sites like 4Chan had tons of practice crafting indignation on the web, and they knew from the start that a Trump candidacy was the perfect opportunity for them to flex their influence on the largest American stage to be had.
The most fundamentally important thing to understand about trolls is that they don’t believe in the shit they spew. In fact, they believe in very little, except for how much damage they can cause in the pursuit of lulz (cheap laughs). The more ruthless someone can be while trolling, the less they can be inhibited by the potential outcome, and the greater the troll it is. Many trolls don’t engage in society in any meaningful way, and as such, they’re less concerned with real world outcomes to the pranks they pull. Because the troll armies found the idea of a Trump presidency to be rife with the potential for lulz, they began engaging in disinformation campaigns to help propel a Trump candidacy, and they found willing accomplices in much of the media.
The trolling was super effective; by the time October 2016 rolled around, conversation was highly partisan, with the biggest victim being truth. Folks who supported Trump had been well trained to reject any media source which painted him in a bad light, including hoax busting sites like Snopes.com, which they had been convinced were purely partisan platforms intentionally lying to attack their worldview. Mainstream conservative news sources were amplifying any rumor which attacked the credibility of a left leaning media platform, and the trolls kept everyday conversation just as muddled by generating trending hashtags and oft-repeated talking points dismissing concerns out of hand.
For folks looking for a great white hope (and who hoped that Trump’s pussy grabbing braggadocio would excuse their own), these talking points were all that was needed to dismiss any concerns, and continue supporting the least qualified presidential candidate in history. Concerns regarding racist organizations and troll groups supporting the same candidate could be dismissed as just “that part” of the conversation, a fringe element you weren’t a part of, and didn’t take responsibility for.
And then Trump won, and proved himself to be the greatest troll of them all. In less than a month after his inauguration, he effectively disposed of every major talking point of his campaign, and promptly went on to install a cabinet full of some of the most establishment Washington insiders and billionaires the White House has ever seen.
When you don’t care about the consequences to individuals or society at large, you make a very effective troll.
So here we are, at the very beginning of four years with our troll-in-chief: a man who bears all the hallmarks of the trolls who helped get him elected:
- A blatant disregard for the real world consequences of his words.
- A tendency towards racism and misogyny.
- A blatant disregard for the facts.
- A tendency for almost gleeful attacks on anyone he considers a target.
To many, this behavior is obvious. But to the useful idiots convinced along the way that he was speaking to their issues, it’s just more liberal propaganda. In the greatest troll of all time, truth itself has been deconstructed.