Please Advise! Who Is Feeding America's Political Trolls?

Let spin doctor Steve welcome you to the pre-election Absurdity Zone.

By Steve Burgess 26 Nov 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

I assume you are following the U.S. presidential election campaign. The top two Republican candidates are human sewer pipe Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who only comes off better than Trump because he sounds genuinely deranged rather than just monomaniacal.

But here's my real concern. There is so much online ugliness -- trolls in every comment thread and the same nasty, tired spats playing out again and again, sniping matches in which calling someone a "libtard" is considered a valid point. I have comforted myself with the belief that the online world is like a demonic mirror in which society's worst elements are exaggerated. But then I look at the U.S. polls. Every Trump outrage lifts him higher. Are we in fact seeing proof in the U.S. election campaign that the nasty online world is an accurate reflection of the real one?


Say It Ain't So

Dear SIAS,

These are indeed interesting times, as the old curse says.

Which clichéd metaphor to use? The frog-slowly-boiled-in-a-pot-of-water comes to mind. Stubbornly high poll numbers have led media outlets to take leading Republican presidential candidates seriously, and justifiably so.

Taking the candidates seriously leads to taking their ideas seriously. Pretty soon Discovery Channel will be doing a show on Wonders of the Ancient World: Egyptian Farm Buildings. (Someday Mythbusters should do a show about whether a frog in a slowly heated pot of water would really cook before jumping. But I suppose there would be complaints.)

Politics beyond parody

The 2016 Republican candidates have long since crossed a theoretical boundary. We're in the Absurdity Zone. In this alternate dimension a candidate's positions become so bizarre and extreme that parody and scorn are no longer effective. Parodists can't keep up and thus begin to seem trite and obvious. How do you parody a guy who tweets bogus crime statistics that appears to come from a neo-Nazi Twitter user and steadfastly claims to have seen events that never took place?

Or for that matter a guy who gets upset because his claim to have been a young homicidal maniac doesn't hold up? When you have the spectacle of Donald Trump on an Iowa stage arguing that Ben Carson isn't qualified to be president because either, a) His attempt to stab a young man was thwarted by a belt buckle, or b) He lied about trying, you have crossed into another dimension. You're moving into a land of both shadow and very little substance, of hateful bullshit and dumb ideas. You've just crossed over into the Absurdity Zone.

Trump's apparent proposal for a national Muslim database and ID cards for Muslims is a little case study in Campaign 2016. Once the backlash began, Trump blamed the media for twisting his words. And there's a kernel of truth in that. The idea for a registry for Muslims was not something Trump announced from a podium as some sort of policy paper. It came in response to reporters' questions, first from Yahoo News and later NBC News.

Trump clearly didn't think the idea through. Rather, at this point he's just grabbing any bit of hate rhetoric he can find, like a wedding crasher at a free bar. Is that better or worse than having an actual plan? Instead of a grand evil scheme will President Trump start each day by dipping into the Bad Suggestion Box and grabbing a handful? A ban on jalapenos and hummus? No bank withdrawals unless you can hold up your right hand and say "In God I Trust?" A White House Ethnic Joke 'o the Day? Pogroms? Why not?

Another question, while I'm asking: Who is leading and who is following? Is Trump the Grand Marshal of the Hate March? Or did he just find the parade and start running out front with a baton? The anti-Muslim tide is running high out there, with an armed anti-Muslim protest outside a Texas mosque to name just one incident. Meanwhile Texas Senator Ted Cruz says he wants to allow Christian refugees and ban Muslims. Sounds like someone's got baton envy.

Moderate insanity

There's another frog-in-a-pot angle to the current U.S. campaign. The tribal nature of American politics means that opposing President Obama is your duty as a Republican (even when it comes to turkey-pardoning). So as Republican rhetoric becomes more hateful and extreme, rank-and-file Republicans are far more likely to express knee-jerk support for whatever -- internment camps, mosque-closing, comparing Muslims to "rabid dogs." When your candidates are spewing racist bilge, speaking out against racist bilge becomes a partisan activity. You don't want to lend aid and comfort to Hillary, so shut up about Trump, Carson, Cruz et al.

Most of those with a responsibility to speak up are either staying silent or weaseling. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke out against the "Christian refugees only" policy. But Jeb Bush, who called Trump's Muslim registry "abhorrent," also said he agreed that only Christian refugees should be allowed in. When asked about Trump's claim that he saw thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrating after 9/11, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie admitted he didn't remember seeing it, but suggested that may just be evidence of his own faulty memory. If these are the moderates, the U.S. political spectrum has now shifted into the infra-red range.

Ohio's John Kasich is another supposed moderate. Here's how you can tell: While Senator Ted Cruz favours eliminating five government agencies (although he forgot one of them, Rick Perry-style, in a recent debate) Kasich actually wants to create a whole new government agency. The new department would promote Judeo-Christian values.

Nice to see Republicans embracing big government at last. Then again, with the cost savings from abolishing Obamacare a Republican government could hire plenty of priests to give last rites. But Kasich's Department of Judeo-Christian Values would never work. After all the mosques were closed and all the Muslims registered, you just know the Christians would go after the Judeos. Office politics would be vicious.

Kasich, the alleged moderate, also recently said he doesn't want Syrian refugees in Ohio. "I have a big heart," Kasich said, "but I also have a pretty big brain."

He was just one big-dick boast away from a bullshit trifecta there. But the point is, Kasich is supposed to be the Republican moderate. This year you get that tag if you stop short of saying you will grind Muslim bones to make your bread.

Land of the trolls?

And that brings us back to your big question, SIAS. Does this U.S. election campaign reveal that the American electorate is not a smooth Interstate with a handful of obnoxious trolls living under the bridge, but in fact eight lanes of road-raging trolls bumper-to-bumper?

Well, I suppose the general election will decide that issue. At the very least we know there's enough troll traffic for a couple of TOV lanes. And come next November it may well be that America is driving headlong into the Absurdity Zone.  [Tyee]

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