To the list of valuable things destroyed by the internet — privacy, childhood innocence, newspapers — the 2016 presidential campaign has added another victim: civil society. Donald Trump can claim much of the credit for this, along with other dubious trophies such as ushering uninvited vagina-grabbing into the pantheon of campaign quotes. Trump has drawn his techniques from the encyclopedia of Reddit and 4chan and Twitter, following a political program that has no greater goal than maximizing exposure. Those techniques have gotten him within steps of the presidency. And when the campaign is over, he’ll likely cash in on them, adding Trump-branded cable-TV vitriol to his portfolio of suits, steaks, and hotels.
Trolling is as old as the internet itself, tracing its origins to the earliest Usenet groups of the Eighties and Nineties. It’s become a mainstream phenomenon with the cultural ascendancy of communities like 4chan. If the original trolls started with a playfulness drawn from the counterculture, twenty years of practice has honed the techniques of the trolls and simplified their message. “Trolls,” says Whitney Phillips, digital media folklorist and scholar of internet history, who has become the go-to authority on trolling, “are, very simply, a group of people who deliberately harness media sensationalism and outrage to fuck with people.” They are not new. It’s just that it’s the first time one of their own is running for president.
From the start, the Trump campaign has offered a tsunami of trolling, waves of provocative tweets and soundbites — from “build the wall” to “lock her up” — designed to provoke maximum outrage, followed, when the resulting heat felt a bit too hot, by the classic schoolyard bully’s excuse: that it was merely “sarcasm” or a “joke.” In a way, it is. It’s just a joke with victims and consequences.
The aim of the internet troll is publicity for publicity’s sake. By that standard, Trump has succeeded expertly. Before the second debate, in St. Louis, Trump trolled the media by seating alleged victims of President Bill Clinton’s sexual aggressiveness in the audience, where they were dutifully shown on camera. A week later, at debate three, in Las Vegas, he promised to keep the country in suspense over whether he would accept the election results or…well, what? It was the political equivalent of an Xbox rage-quit — a middle finger to anybody with the humorlessness to actually believe in 240 years of American civic virtue.
Trump is a masterful troll, and America is falling for his joke. The media and Washington establishment, used to their norms of civility and self-congratulatory humility, have found themselves baffled and distraught. Often the press has turned to breathless coverage of the racists and xenophobes who have flocked to Trump’s rhetoric, a surprisingly small coterie thrilled with the attention. Trump’s campaign slogan might as well be the online troll refrain: U mad?
Online trolling culture has infected offline political behavior since at least 2008. Phillips points to the Obama/Joker “socialism” meme, an ugly, racist image that originated as a 4chan joke before becoming a fixture of right-wing media. And Trump, helped along by right-wing news site Breitbart.com, has prodded white nationalists and misogynists to ooze out of the shadows. Many of these acolytes have themselves been trolled, falling for the provocations of Trump and his long train of hangers-on like Milo Yiannopoulos, unaware that the joke is on them, too.
At this point, Trump can’t win the election. What he can do is keep the publicity going with his all-but-announced media venture. Trolling is a concerted political strategy now, a for-profit mantra. Consider his campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, who built an entire media empire at Breitbart out of perpetuating fear and conspiracy theories in the far-right’s fever swamps. The provocations are more subtle now — read Breitbart‘s coverage of inner-city crime and you can almost hear the dog whistle — but it’s still racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic “content” designed solely to translate the latent anxieties of the masses into ad dollars.
What Fox News did to cable news in the 1990s, Breitbart has done to digital news in the era of social media: exploited the twin engines of sensationalism and ideology to build a profitable Pravda for Trump Nation. It’s no wonder rumors of Trump TV intensified after Bannon joined the campaign: The Breitbart boss, as much as Trump, has succeeded in monetizing — and weaponizing — trolling.
A Clinton victory in November seems unlikely to recork the bottle; Trump’s behavior has normalized trolling as an accepted staple of daily political discourse. “When you have the presidential candidate boasting about committing sexual assault and then saying, ‘Oh, it’s just locker room banter’…it sets such an insidious, sexually violent tone for the election, and the result of that is fearfulness,” notes Phillips. “People are being made to feel like shit.”
That is what troll culture does: It makes people feel like shit, while a legion of trolls and lurkers (all those who get a kick out of the trolls without actively participating) laughs at them. The anonymity of the internet made trolling possible. The Trump campaign lured the trolls out into the open, bringing them to rallies by the thousands in their matching caps. Now the post-election will turn the trolls into a market, consumers ready to pay for their lulz with monthly subscription fees.
Don’t miss the rest of our 2016 election coverage on Trump’s America:
Lynching’s Long Shadow: Texas, Trump, and the GOP
Bombing Us Back to the Drone Age
Peering Into the Souls of White Folk
Why Aren’t There Any Polling Stations in NYC Mosques?