- To fish for by trolling
- a: to antagonize (others) online by deliverately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content
b: to act as a troll
— Merriam-Webster.com, 2017
The national tragedy that was the election of 2016, in which a conspiracy theory-minded half-literate racist demagogue named Donald Trump managed to defeat the eminently qualified Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, created its own mini media industry asking the question why? How had this human troll, with his mugging face, orange coloring, and p**sy-grabbing ways, managed to beat someone who had a long career in public service and had clearly done her homework?
This story originally was published at Salon.
A number of theories were floated, including claims that white working class America was reacting to poor economic circumstances, even though the economy was far more stable than it had been when Barack Obama won in 2008 and job numbers were largely looking good. Some imagined it must have had something to do with Clinton herself, that she had somehow run a uniquely terrible campaign and was solely to blame for the loss. But the evidence for this is lean on the ground.
The sad truth is that Trump owes his victory to a very dark turn in American conservatism. Unlike right wing ideologues of old, who at least tried to portray themselves as stabilizing and constructive, the right in the era of Trump is a movement of annihilation. They are bigoted, sexist, and mean, and often don’t even try to dress these destructive impulses up in the garb of tradition or religion.
They delight in cruelty for its own sake. Building something positive has no real value in this new right wing. Pissing off perceived enemies, such as feminists and liberals, is the only real political goal worth fighting for.
They are, in other words, a nation of trolls.
Trolling is a term that started on the internet, to describe people whose main purpose online was irritating other people. It’s the sort of thing that people of all political stripes used to engage in, a casual bullying for its own sake that was low stakes. But as the boundaries between real life and internet life have broken down, and as the internet has become the primary form of political communication, trolling morphed into something of a right wing philosophy.
No longer do those on the right feel any need to offer a particularly positive vision of America. Even Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was rarely backed up with an articulated vision of what, exactly, that greatness entailed. Instead, it was an angry yelp, aimed at liberal America. It’s about tearing apart a new America that was becoming more feminist and racially diverse. When social progress cannot be argued against, its opponents instead turn to trolling. And Trump — ignorant, thoughtless, mean, barely literate — would be their leader.
It’s hard to believe it now, but in 2014, a storm of controversy raged for months in the online world of video gamers and became the template for what has been deemed “Trumpism.” Before there was Trump, there was “Gamergate,” where the smaller but equally American community of video game players was torn apart as the same bitter white guys (and their sad suck-up female supporters) lost their minds because some women had opinions about video games.
To most people who witnessed it at the time, Gamergate seemed like one of those incomprehensible internet wars that fades as quickly as it erupts, but in retrospect, it was an alarming portend of the rise of Trump, the alt-right and an America that now has torch-wielding white supremacists starting street fights in the name of fascism. It foretold a country where the American right has devolved into a nihilistic movement, prepared to tear down the country rather than share it fairly with women, LGBT people and people of color.
Like many historical calamities, Gamergate began because a young man did not accept it when a woman told him no.
In August 2014, a man named Eron Gjoni wrote a nearly 10,000 word essay about his ex-girlfriend, a video game developer named Zoë Quinn. The piece, which he posted online, was an incoherent train wreck of thwarted male entitlement, in which Gjoni obsessed about Quinn’s sex life. Calling a girl a slut online is often enough to get the internet hoards to attack her, but Gjoni’s real stroke of genius was in claiming Quinn’s professional success was not a result of her talent, but due to her trading sexual favors for good press coverage.
The accusation, and this cannot be stated clearly enough, was flat-out false. (Quinn did date a journalist, but he never wrote about her work.) But it played off the resentment so many men feel when they see a woman who has more professional success than they do. The lie gave these men a comforting fiction to cling to, which is that women who excel aren’t really talented or interesting, but instead must be cheating — using sex or liberal guilt or anything but their actual talents to get ahead
It’s the same myth that millions would later use to convince themselves that Trump was somehow more worthy of their vote than Clinton.
Gjoni shared his post on internet forums where a lot of young men had already gathered to complain about women who were gaining a foothold in the video game industry. The result was the stalker’s dream: Hundreds, possibly thousands of young men (and some women!) became lieutenants in Gjoni’s quest to punish Quinn for dumping him. They harassed and threatened Quinn until she was forced to leave her home.
The campaign continued to spiral even further out of control, as the online mob expanded the circle of harassment. The targets of the Gamergate are familiar to anyone who watched the rise of Trump. While women who were viewed as uppity were the main hate objects, accusations also flew against journalists, deemed corrupt and out of touch by the Gamergaters. People who advocated for gender and racial equality were sneeringly dismissed as “SJWs,” short for “social justice warriors.” The vitriol was always justified by a hazy nostalgia for the good old days, when video games were supposedly simple and didn’t bother players with all this political correctness.
Gamergaters, one could say, wanted to make video gaming “great again.”
While the entire debacle garnered a lot of media attention, mostly from journalists—including myself—who couldn’t believe how angry so many young men were, one enterprising young writer named Milo Yiannopoulos saw an opportunity. He saw that Gamergaters were incoherent and unorganized, but with a little leadership, they could be whipped into a hard-right youth movement. Yiannopoulos got to work injecting himself into the middle of Gamergate, writing apologies for the movement on the far-right site Breitbart and riling up the harassment mobs on Twitter.
Mainstream conservatives tend to lean on arguments of tradition and morality in order to undermine women’s progress. Older conservatives try to spin their sexist views in positive terms, claiming that putting restrictions on women’s reproductive rights and job opportunities is about constructing a happy family life. Traditional conservatism is genteel and condescending to women.
Yiannopoulos, despite — or because — he’s both gay and British, seemed to get why Gamergaters were different. He dispensed with the niceties of the past and embraced a politics of unvarnished resentment. He told angry young men that they were being terrorized by “an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers,” and gave his young followers permission to embrace the politics of destruction.
Milo didn’t pretend to be motivated by sexual morality or family values. Instead, he wallowed in foul language and braggadocio about his sexual exploits. He told his readers that they were justified in their feeling that women had, by striving for equality, stolen something from them. He offered them an anti-feminism stripped of any pretense towards chivalry, instead giving them permission to embrace a politics composed of nothing but resentment and destructive urges. He let them believe that the minor bumps and bruises of young adulthood, such as career struggles or dating struggles, were the direct result of women’s efforts towards equality — and that justified harassment and cruelty towards women in return.
Gamergate faded, but Yiannopoulos’s star continued to rise. Mainstream media sources were fascinated by how he was selling a right wing politics that wasn’t interested in the usual justifications of social order or religious faith. Milo portrayed himself as a rebel, framing destructiveness as subversion. He harnessed an army of young male supporters he cultivated by tapping their resentments towards women, and pointed their ire at targets, such as Muslim immigrants, that fit the larger Breitbart agenda of white nationalism.
It was Yiannopoulos who really grasped, for instance, that the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters, which starred four women instead of four men, created a perfect opportunity to tap into a vein of male outrage. For every man who still can’t believe women are allowed to reject him, for every male college student angry that a girl got better grades, for every sexist still bitter that a woman got promoted over him at work, Milo offered yowling about the supposed injustice of Ghostbusters as an opportunity for revenge.
Yiannopoulos called the movie “an overpriced self-esteem device for women betrayed by the lies of third-wave feminism.” It was a perfect distillation of his immense powers of projection. It’s his audience whose self-esteem is shattered by seeing women in the kind of comedic roles they wish to believe that only men are capable of mastering. And it’s his audience that would rather tear the Ghostbusters franchise down by its ears than have to share it with women.
As with Gamergate, Yiannopoulos was a ringleader in the movement to destroy Ghostbusters through an online harassment campaign, a movement that unsurprisingly focused mostly on the one woman of color on the cast, Leslie Jones, who Yiannopoulos called “barely literate” and “another black dude.”
Even Trump got involved, putting out a 6-minute video where he whined, “And now they’re making Ghostbusters with only women. What’s going on?!”
The harassment of Jones got Yiannopoulos kicked off Twitter, but his banning only seemed to reinforce the view of Yiannopoulos’s fans that they are victims of a “politically correct” culture that supposedly wishes to suppress supposed truths about race and gender through shaming and censoriousness.
To be clear, neither Yiannopoulos nor the modern right writ large invented this idea of trolling the left as a political ideology onto itself. Plenty of right wing personalities laid the pathway for the idea that messing with liberals is a reasonable substitute for having a coherent political philosophy. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, has maintained a multi-decade career as a radio talk show host by focusing his show primarily on the subject of the alleged evils of liberals and why listeners should hate these ominous creatures.
But after decades of that kind of propaganda, trolling liberals is no longer considered just a fun sport, but the ultimate purpose of conservative politics. The idea of making a positive argument in favor of conservative values has atrophied, leaving only the desire to troll in its place.
Ultimately, Yiannopoulos’s most lasting legacy will likely be in his support for the Trump campaign, which in turn helped a generation of resentful young men believe that voting Trump, who Yiannopoulos called “Daddy,” was the ultimate way to troll the feminists and liberals they hate. That Trump had nothing positive to offer doesn’t bother Milo and his fans. If anything, that is seen as a plus: Trump is the politics of destruction, personified.
“I can put up with almost anything from Donald Trump, because of the existential threat he poses to political correctness,” Yiannopoulos told me when I interviewed him in October 2016.
“He’d rather grab a p**sy than be one,” Yiannopoulos said after a tape was released of Trump, apparently unaware of a hot mic, bragging about how he likes to kiss and grab women “by the p**sy” without their consent. Sexual assault is of no concern to this new right. It angers feminists and puts women in their place, after all. What else do you need to know?
Milo and his millions of supporters embody the nihilism that defines the new right under Trump. They don’t particularly care if Trump is a failure or incapable of doing or creating anything positive. He’s just a human sledgehammer to wield against a world that is starting to question whether white men are inherently superior to the rest of us. He’s revenge for every woman who wouldn’t fuck them, every black guy that got better grades, every younger relative who wrinkled their nose at them when they had too many drinks at Thanksgiving and let loose with a racial slur.
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump bragged while campaigning for the Iowa caucus.
It’s a brag that rings true, at least for his most ardent supporters. Depending on whom he shot, they might even cheer.
But imagine if Trump got hit on the head and had a personality change that led him to declare that, in interest of rectifying hundreds of years of white supremacy, he was supporting reparations. Then, after all this time, his base would turn on him.
Both Gamergate and the Yiannopoulos-led campaign against Ghostbusters have much in common with the strategy Trump used to transition out of being a reality TV star and into politics: Birtherism, a widespread conspiracy theory on the right that holds that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president because he was supposedly not born in the United States.
Trump didn’t invent birtherism, which writer Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built.” But Trump did use his fame as a tabloid fixture and the host of The Apprentice to repeatedly inject the conspiracy theory into mainstream media spaces that used to be hostile to the kind of people who breathlessly recite racist urban legends.
Starting in the spring of 2011, Trump appeared on Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN, claiming, falsely, that Obama was hiding his true birth certificate and that a “tape’s going to be produced fairly soon” proving Obama was born in Kenya. Even after Obama, in an effort to shut down the Trump-fueled media chatter, produced the birth certificate, Trump kept at it, declaring on Twitter that the birth certificate is “a fraud” and suggesting Obama was having people murdered to cover up the truth.
Trump also started pushing the idea that Obama hadn’t gotten into Columbia University and Harvard Law School honestly. Trump repeatedly claimed he would pay millions of dollars in a ransom to get copies of Obama’s transcripts, clearly implying that Obama didn’t have the grades and had cheated to get into these prestigious universities.
Trump’s birtherism and Yiannopoulos’s campaigns around Gamergate and “Ghostbusters,” are about saying, without coming right out and saying it, that women and people of color are inferior to white men. The implication of all these movements is that the success enjoyed by women or people of color is unearned and inauthentic, that people like them simply cannot actually be smart or talented or even legitimate enough to get that far. And that everyone else supposedly sees it, too, but are too cowed by the fear of being called “racist” or “sexist” to say so publicly.
This narrative has a special appeal to men like Trump, who aren’t particularly special or intelligent. The idea that the unfit are getting elevated by “affirmative action” or “political correctness” allows such men to believe that they would be the stars and the much-heralded geniuses, if those undeserving inferiors weren’t sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
Yiannopoulos himself was set to ride a narrative of white male victimization to the kind of fame and fortune that continues to elude his female or non-white peers in mediocrity. Even after he got kicked off Twitter, he secured a quarter million dollar advance on a book deal with Simon & Schuster and was starting to book high profile appearances on shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher,” where he received a convivial welcome.
Then a video surfaced in early 2017 showing Milo decrying the “arbitrary and oppressive idea of consent” that legally and morally prevents adult men from having sex with 13-year-old boys, a social more he blamed on “the left.” While celebrating Trump bragging about the sexual abuse of adult women was treated by many in both right wing and mainstream media as a joyous assault on political correctness, celebrating the sexual abuse of boys was a bridge too far. After all, most of the people in power had themselves once been a boy, vulnerable to sexual predation.
Yiannopoulos lost his book deal and most of his mainstream media support after that. Luckily for him, the landings for the oppressed wealthy white man tend, even in 2017, to be feathery soft. Yiannopoulos self-published his book and is getting a heavy promotion schedule at Breitbart. He also has a lucrative speaking career, getting paid the big bucks by conservative groups on college campuses who see booking him as a delightful way to troll the liberals.
Milo’s career demonstrates that, in the 21st century, one doesn’t need interesting ideas or any real talents to sell yourself as a thought leader on the right. All you need is an overweening sense of white male entitlement and a gleeful sadism in defending it. As long as you have both those things, nothing you can say or do, no matter how offensive or terrible, will cause an audience of bitter white men (and some women!) to pry themselves away from you.
Ask Milo’s hero: Donald J. Trump. Or, as people now call him, “Mr. President.”