Amanda Hess (ahem) writes on “How the Trolls Stole Washington”:
Over the course of Donald Trump’s staggering political rise, observers tried to make sense of him by borrowing a metaphor from the internet: Trump, they said, was a troll. He was described as turning presidential aspirants into “Twitter trolls” (by a primary challenger, Marco Rubio), as “the world’s greatest troll” (by the data whiz Nate Silver) and, after his inauguration, as “our Troll-in-Chief” (by the liberal pundit Touré). Each was meant as a dig: The troll is the bottom-feeder of internet culture, not a hero. But Trump himself gladly owned the slur. When a Twitter user called him “the most superior troll” on the platform back in 2013, Trump replied, “A great compliment!”
Trolling isn’t just about manning an unhinged Twitter account. It describes an ethos. The troll is a figure who skips across the web, saying whatever it takes to rile up unsuspecting targets, relishing the chaos in his wake and feasting on attention, good or bad. For Trump, that means inciting political panic with glib news conferences, all-caps tweets and made-up terrorist attacks, shifting his beliefs to suit his whims. During the campaign, the ambiguity of this spectacle worked to his advantage, freeing his supporters from their own responsibilities: When he called for a 2,000-mile-long wall or suggested banning an entire religion from entering the country, the sheer extremity of these ideas let voters view them as goading performances instead of real plans. And with every political shrug, the web’s most antisocial sensibility rose further into the heights of American public life.
Alrighty, then! Hess argues that trolling reached a critical mass of sorts with #GamerGate:
To outsiders, #GamerGate looked like a cesspool of angry, entitled young men nobody else wanted to talk to. But some right-wing figures spied an opportunity. Mike Cernovich, author of a hypermasculine self-help blog called “Danger and Play,” joined the cause. (“I use trolling tactics to build my brand,” he later told The New Yorker.) So did Milo Yiannopoulos, then writing for the website Breitbart News, which helped midwife the controversy from a fringe freakout to a right-wing political perspective. (“I hurt people for a reason,” he said recently. “I like to think of myself as a virtuous troll.”) Donald Trump saw political promise in this world, too: As his White House bid seemed on the brink of collapse last summer, he found a new campaign manager in the Breitbart executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon, a sincere nationalist with trolling tendencies of his own.
Now, Bannon sits on the National Security Council, and many Trump supporters are fusing the trolling ethos with old culture-war tropes, amusing themselves by calling liberals delicate “snowflakes” and delighting at being “in” on Trump’s “joke.” As the right-wing columnist John Feehery put it after Trump’s Feb. 16 news conference: “Performance art can be so hard for normal people to understand.” People like Cernovich — who jumped easily from #GamerGate to the Trump train — have taken to calling their political posture “antifragile,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s word for systems that thrive on volatility and stress. Trump, Taleb has said, is “heavily vaccinated because of his checkered history” — nothing new can shame him. Nothing matters.
Does Hess eventually get to the inevitable Nazi allusion? You betcha! She does so through a bizarre argument (suprise!) that 1940s-era anti-Semitism was a form of… trolling:
The troll figure feels as new as the smartphones in our hands, but his trail of destruction stretches deep into history. Toward the end of World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre looked at the anti-Semites of Europe and saw something that still sounds familiar. “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” he wrote in the 1944 essay “Anti-Semite and Jew.” They “are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.” Anti-Semites “delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”
Recently we’ve witnessed a resurgence of this winking Nazi type. PewDiePie, a wildly popular YouTube video-game star, filmed a “prank” in which he hired two men to hold up a sign that said “Death to All Jews.” Pepe the Frog, an online cartoon that morphed into a 4chan meme, has been co-opted by plugged-in fascists who redraw him with swastikas for eyes. And after the white nationalist Richard Spencer, a man who has voiced support for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” yelled “Hail Trump” at a Washington conference and received Nazi salutes from crowd members, he claimed it was all “ironic.” These days even David Duke, a sincere and straightforward white supremacist, is sharing racist memes and getting called a “troll.” But when Spencer showed up in Washington for the inauguration, explaining his Pepe lapel pin to the press, a masked protester ran up and collapsed all that ironic distance by punching him in the face.
One can almost smell the smug satisfaction with which she wrote that last sentence.
Nonetheless, the more that the NYT mentions Pepe the Frog, the more I smile.