THE TROLL VOTE: WHAT TIPPED TRUMP TO VICTORY?

by Sunetra Senior

In a socio-political climate where rape jokes and racism are very much in the mainstream, let’s not be afraid to call a troll a troll. The left is falling into the tendency to self-chastise after election defeats, even as a sinister phenomenon rises outside of our camp, and now more than ever requires our passionate standing. Over the past couple of months, the “Alt-Right” movement – a storm of right-wing publications primarily driven by Neo-fascist groups that use the web to circulate hate gossip and headlines to forward the far right’s agenda – has been confirmed to be a significant factor in the dissented zeitgeist of the US elections.  The Guardian’ s Jason Wilson said of the self-professed ‘platform for the Alt-right’– Breitbart News – that ‘the ideal Breitbart headline is provocative and designed to offend progressive sensibilities’, and that ‘they went with the stuff that got them the most hits and the most attention using the most extreme clickbait they could come up with’. For me, a further examination of this extremist social runaway train signals an alarming topple over an ideological precipice: the end to free-thinking and western democracy as we know it.

You see, it’s one thing to give someone a voice, but quite another to incite, cajole, and in this new chapter of chilling history, anaesthetise your electorate into it.  When we think of the US voter story it’s similar to what happened in the UK following Brexit. We see the rural v city divide, the disenfranchised white working class v the privileged, and the local v the cosmopolitan, but this is just one half of the sociology. Consider the unprecedented surge in right-wing trolling as the big Election Day grew ever closer. Hate forums exploded, and YouTube videos of the presidential debates, uploaded by the most neutral of users, were dominated by inflammatory slurs, such as ‘Hilary is a bitch’, ‘kill her crooked ass etc’. These also received the most likes and attention, while the more balanced comments – which weighed up both Hillary and Trump – and showed support for Hillary herself trailed in scoring. These people hadn’t come here to learn, much less refine or modify their arguments: they were there to intimidate and bully, having already made up their minds.

This was not just a product of traditional right-propaganda such as Fox News, but sources that were systemic and far more interactive and involved. Wilson’s Guardian report also states: “according to ComScore web analytics; the site’s (“Alt-Right” flagship Breitbart News) monthly unique visitors have jumped around between 13 and 18 million in the last year. And the page views have increased 89% in a year – meaning people are engaging with more content while they are there (…) data from Crowd Tangle, a Facebook analytics service, shows that compared with an average of Facebook pages like those of BuzzFeed, NYT, WaPo and HuffPost, Breitbart’s fans interact at a six times higher rate (…) Breitbart’s Facebook fans aren’t just reading along the way. They are liking, commenting and sharing those posts far and wide – and building a huge community of social-connected, like-minded individuals.” There is no doubt then that there was a significant overlay between the thousands of Breitbart commenters here, the hate messages on more mainstream digital platforms – and the clincher – the many people who cast their votes on that fated Election Day, including of course the big swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. As if pressing the like button on their computers, a multitude of engaged “Alt-right” voters marked their support for Donald Trump on the ballot papers.

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Viewing him as if some kind of Star Wars-style resistance hero who was there to bring down the establishment, voters were made to feel as if they were playing their own part in an epic narrative

Essentially, more people had been invested in national politics, but through the most superficial, lowest common denominator. And another important distinction to make is that this wasn’t a primarily angry, emotion-based vector either.  People weren’t just responding to racist and sexist clickbait, but to part of an organised movement that was working on some place deeper: paradoxically existential even. Trump marketed himself as if he came straight out of a film. Unlike UK right-wing leaders such as Farage, he didn’t just flirt with celebrity, he was celebrity. Plugged into Twitter as if it was his oxygen, looming behind Clinton like some lesser Godfather, and retorting to serious bureaucratic issues with lines best consigned to bad daytime TV – ‘because you’d be in jail’ – he appealed to people through their own desire to self-aggrandise; their right to self-obsession, and an excessive life.  Viewing him as if some Star Wars-style resistance hero, who was there to bring down the establishment, voters were made to feel as if they were playing their own part in an epic narrative, at the same time they were being mobilised to actually galvanise a global ecosystem. This is one possible explanation for the unexpectedly high ethnic minority turn out, and Trump’s throughway into commercial rap culture. What other force could have united otherwise divided groups than that of basic human self-interest? There’s actually a shot in a promotional ‘Hood for Trump’ video – where a guy wearing a KKK T-shirt has gone unnoticed (1.13 *KKK endorses Trump*), and indeed the white male nationalists and neo-fascists who typically make up the core Alt-right demographic, affirm themselves through the idea of a subjugated female and/or foreign other.

Thus this wasn’t so much hate-voting as an outbreak of induced indifference. What the President-elect did – the method by which he netted the desperate and impoverished, those less educated and exposed to the real life experience in multicultural cities – was to remove any thoughtful political contemplation and sensitivity to social surroundings and one’s relation to it, and foster an individual focus that was entirely insular, to the point of near masochism. This was his criminality. He didn’t simply trivialise, but effectively wiped out what should have been a conscientious process of deciding government. Everyday people – and those who might not have otherwise have voted – were offered a sense of entitlement, but without any real understanding of what that responsibility meant: for the world and themselves.  ‘But wait!’ you might be saying, ‘what about the popular vote? Hillary won that and this surely disproves your theory. And surely all those who voted weren’t swept up by this nonsense. Furthermore, don’t all politicians lie? Is this really so ‘radical’ a development?’ The answer to all this converges in the latter, because of course it wasn’t a politician who finally won the electoral vote; it was a big businessman. And, despite knowing this, enough people still backed him to legitimise him into power. And it is this human ‘tipping force’ that is the most significant, where to dismiss it as arbitrary would be to behave as blindly as Trump’s silent surplus.

Instantaneous and shiny, social media was borne of the business mind, and was always going to springboard right-wing ideology.

With so much working class dissent and racial tension pervading the decade, including the millions against the 1% and Occupy Wall Street, and the Black Lives Matter campaigning, an overt bigot and corporate mogul still took the pivotal states as well as an unprecedented portion of the black and Latino votes.  This doesn’t just indicate the usual right-wing tactic of distracting the nation from the party’s role in their economic disadvantage, but a time when they were engulfed – almost impenetrably – by it. Instantaneous and shiny, social media was borne of the business mind, and was always going to springboard right-wing ideology. Using the natural oxygen of the seductive online medium, they launched a self-aware and aggressive psychological attack, knowing full well their grip was slipping. It’s no surprise that Stephen Bannon, the then executive chairman of Breitbart News, is now Trump’s chief strategist in the new administration, having had zero prior experience in government. The Republicans made sure there was no room for synaptic connections and lucid rationalisation. They wanted a sizeable enough army of empty votes – real life bots – just enough to claim power for now, and pave the way for complete control in the future. At least before there was physical space to think outside of glowing screens – Britain’s Labour Party came to be because of the working man’s perception of their social inequality and the following grassroots revolt –  but now with the digital colonisation of every inch of personal life, the Orwellian idea of omni-TV has already surreptitiously – strategically – materialised. The American dream on acid, the disillusioned, socially imperilled and afraid weren’t just told everything was going to be OK, but force fed this delusion by their own hands. And who is going to willingly question their defiant self-reflexive ego?

Thus, finally, the right wing exploitation of a sensationalist tech medium reflects  the amoral hunger of a dogma that doesn’t plan to let up soon. In addition to the traditional fascists and the naïve and ego-driven voters across different class backgrounds who were basically created by them, incendiary “Alt-right” articles also influenced regular Republican voters who were sitting on the fence. Wilson’s Guardian piece concludes that the American population will come to its senses after having made an anti-establishment figure the establishment. But with the wider motivation and emotional vulnerabilities in mind, this is unnervingly glib an assessment, and just ensures another complacent liberal disaster. Up until now, no matter how many corporate ties our politicians had, there was still a wall standing between total profit-driven incentives and a warmer humanitarian agenda that genuinely championed the needs of people. With Trump in charge of the world, the former philosophy is set to be entrenched. Double-think is already in motion, from the unlikely election of Emperor Trumpatine himself to the louder, ludicrous claims about immigration from his international sidekick Farage, and the Anti Social Justice Warriors videos being hypocritically sermonised across the web. The liberal side cannot fall to this global disease of engineered short-sightedness. It’s not, after all, the electorate who are raging – it’s the writhing, psychopathic Right. Our principles of compassion, community cohesion, and above all, fearlessness about complex thinking and solutions are as mandatory as better communication and initiatives for social development. Only then will our efforts slice through with the necessary – and urgent – edge.

Featured image credit: Jonathan Bachman/REUTERS

 

 

 

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