Conservative warns that 'own-the-libs trolling' can 'radicalize' violent extremists
Neo-Nazis at Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville (Rodney Dunning/Flickr)

Right-wing trolling of liberals and progressives didn’t start in the Donald Trump era; the late radio host Rush Limbaugh, in 2010, infamously described then-President Barack Obama as “uppity” (a word with a very racist history) in the hope of offending the left as much as possible. But own-the-liberals trolling greatly accelerated thanks to former President Trump’s MAGA movement. Defenders of such trolling will argue that it’s done in an “ironic” way, but conservative Daily Beast opinion writer Matt Lewis — in a May 17 column — argues that it is by no means harmless.

Lewis’ column was published three days after a May 14 mass shooting at a supermarket in a heavily African-American area of Buffalo, New York. Ten people were killed, and law enforcement officials believe that the 18-year-old suspect — who, they say, embraces White nationalist views and embraces the Great Replacement conspiracy theory — targeted the victims simply because they were Black.

This frightening incident, according to Never Trump conservative Lewis, serves as an example of why own-the-liberals trolling is not harmless fun as its defenders claim.

“In a purported manifesto published online,” Lewis writes, “the alleged shooter says he was radicalized on the anonymous web bulletin board 4chan, which he sought out as a result of pandemic-generated boredom. And what is the content like on these forums?”

Lewis answers his question by quoting the New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore, who described that content as “openly racist” and “anti-Semitic” but “done with irony and humor.”

“One way to suck people into radical ideas is to make the water warm,” Lewis explains. “You can do this by giving people plausible deniability to tell others, and themselves, that the evil they are dabbling in is merely irreverent satire. In other words, it’s about being rebellious and revolutionary and outrageous. It’s all a game. It’s all about freaking out the normies.”

Own-the-libs trolls, Lewis observes, typically say buffoonish things like, “You’re triggered, snowflake! The right’s just getting better at comedy, and you can’t handle it.” But when violent, deadly attacks inspired by racist ideas occur, the Never Trumper warns, there is nothing “ironic” about their actions.

“This same sort of ‘owning the libs’ trope that can be casually confused as internet humor often serves as a pathway to radicalization,” Lewis warns. “That appears to be what happened with the alleged Buffalo shooter. Troll culture should not be used as an excuse to forgive or forget the political rhetoric now occurring in more mainstream places, such as cable TV, podcasts, or tweets from some Republican politicians.”

Lewis cites Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and journalist David French as two examples of conservatives who should be “commended” for calling out MAGA Republicans who “promote racist conspiracy theories.”

“Cable news is merely laundering these pernicious ideas,” Lewis argues. “I’m more concerned about the so-called jokes and ironic message board memes that even I — someone who is fairly internet-literate — cannot always suss out.”

Lewis continues, “Cable news is for old people. If you want to stop the next generation from being radicalized into violence, keep your eye on the breeding ground and fever swamps of the internet forums.”