Amanda Marcotte, Troll Nation: How the Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters. New York, 2018.
Hot Books is an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, a newish and ambitious independent firm located in New York. Its goal is to provide a forum for short, in-your-face political opinion, generally, but not always, tilted left. The print is large; the page count is usually under 200. Amanda Marcotte, a senior political analyst with the on-line site Slate, specializes in tracking the political right.
In keeping with the publisher’s desire for books that are “packed with provocative information and points of view,” Marcotte uses language more gentile publishers would avoid. She also is shy on documentation, citations and sometimes specific names. However, she does provide a perspective that we might want to consider: a significant proportion (indeed, the loudest segment) of President Trump’s support falls into the category of “trolls.”
I first encountered the term “trolling” as a child fishing in Chesapeake Bay. My father’s second tour of duty at Langley Air Force Base coincided with his boat phase; our family’s recreation increasingly centered on a small cabin cruiser and the delights of a military yacht club. Trolling was simply one way to seek fish. The noun (troll) then referenced a small, rather ugly little critter found in Scandinavia.
Not so today. Trolling is an online sport, in which one posts offensive comments in an effort to make someone as angry as possible. Or to embarrass them. Or to scare them. A troll is a person typing away on a keyboard, anonymously spreading lies or salacious gossip. Trolls are not nice people. The very point of trolling is to be the opposite of civil. And that’s not a playful opposite, but a mean-spirited, cruel and bullying opposite.
Probably the most public troll operating in the United States today is Donald Trump. However, unlike many of his fellow typists, he does his work in full view of the public on his twitter feed. The man is a master of the Troll Tweak. Marcotte, however, is not so much interested in Trump trolling as she is in the brigades of mostly young men who line up behind him and operate primarily in the dark.
Marcotte traces their rise to the development of a game culture online. Mostly male, mostly young, and mostly excited by vicarious violence, players were “bigoted, sexist, and mean.” They didn’t “try to dress these destructive impulses in the garb of tradition or religion.” They didn’t want to build anything; they wanted to destroy people they targeted as enemies – women; people of color; academics; people who studied, played by the rules and got ahead. Their first flirtation with fame was Gamergate, in which females who dared to enter their world were attacked. The goal was their silence, in much the same way that the goal of Trump trolls is a muted press and fearful political opponents. Their practice was not unlike working the refs in a basketball or football game, but the objective was far more significant than a point total.
Most of us are accustomed to reading about the rise of the religious right and the undue influence that conservative pastors have over their congregations. We, or let least this part of “we,” didn’t think much about the effects of online trolling until I started reading this book.
Gamesmanship, and it is almost entirely “man-ship,” is craft knowledge; the player gets better the longer the game is played. There are tricks of the trade, passed along as the game continues. For example, some words and phrases are more certain to bring a response than others might, and there are ways to arrange those words to maximize the effect. People have built lucrative careers on saying inflammatory things and they are abetted by both social and mass media outlets that profit from their outspokenness.
If the game is played well, one can get rich being obnoxious. Look at the success of Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones or Milo Yiannopoulos. Talk radio paved the way for Fox News, which provided a potential audience for Breitbart News and Steve Bannon. And, as most of us can’t forget, Mr. Bannon occupied an office in the White House for several months and continues to talk regularly with our President by phone.
Marcotte works through these layers of verbal slime, showing how they use charges of political correctness and multicultural excess against a group they label libtards to provoke their supporters to fear “the other” and their opponents to confused, sometimes defensive and often ineffective responses. These provocateurs know words matter and they use them with skill and without conscience.
And, as their presence and venom online grow, so, too, do alliances with deep pocketed Republicans who appreciate the diversions they create and the space they provide for continuing economic and social policies that benefit the rich and disadvantage the poor. If, in the process, they also contribute to the end of democracy as we know it, well, that’s an unfortunate casualty. They can always retreat to their islands of plenty and hunker down until the pot quits simmering.
I found Troll Nation flat out frightening. It is populated with deplorables, in almost every sense of that word. These are people absent a superego, without any brake on their passions. They like killing and maiming in their video games and, increasingly, in their political lives. Time will tell if that affection will break out into the streets, but armed men recently roaming the legislative halls in Michigan suggest it will. It’s little wonder that there is a political gender gap and that it’s growing.
The good news is that are more of us than them. The bad news is that they are armed, lack any shred of empathy, and are very, very angry. Somehow the United States got itself into a schoolyard fight with bullies and the teachers are out of sight. Our institutions are frayed. Our economy is possibly in shambles. Our allies have become distrustful of our intentions. Makes the election of 2020 even more important, don’t you think?