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Donald Trump has mastered the ancient art of trolling.
Donald Trump’s attention-seeking gimmicks hit a brick wall of consequences this week. NBC Universal, which runs Trump’s two reality shows The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, announced it was cutting all ties to Trump after the Republican presidential candidate doubled down on comments he made about Mexican immigrants.
Trump said in the announcement for his candidacy that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” But the inflammatory (and statistically wrong) comments aren’t shocking given their source.
Trump has long been a real-life version of an Internet troll: Rude, uncaring, ubiquitous, and desperately confusing attention for affection. Much like many Gamergate aficionados, Trump is willing to be offensive and derogatory if it means more people will see him, fostering a cycle that forces attention onto the ugly soul of a hopeless man. His presidential campaign is no different than a 4chan raid—an adolescent struggle for significance. To quote another rich man clinging to narcissism, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
But Trump resembles trolls in more than abstract ways, too. His media campaign for most of his public life has utilized the same methods to grab the attention and, at times, admiration of the American people as bored teenagers online. The Media Literacy Council cites seven “tried-and-tested tactics” of online trolls and, upon examination, it’s as if Trump used the report as a handbook.
“Trolls try to lure others into off-topic conversations,” writes the Council, “and frustrate them with its pointlessness and circularity.” Any Reddit threat could reveal this first trolling skill, known as digression. Godwin’s Law, which maintains that any conversation carried on long enough will evoke a Hitler reference, is an effect that governs much of trolling. Most people are eager to be happy online and share their thoughts on the matter at hand, be it kitten videos or Norm MacDonald’s guest appearance on The Daily Show. In order to infuriate people, a true troll must bring the conversation around to pointless arguments about religion, race, or ethnicity.
Apart from his most recent comments, Trump has a long history of pulling the national conversation into political ephemera. Perhaps the most famous instance is his crusade for President Barack Obama‘s birth certificate, itself predicated on the racist birther movement. For nearly a month in the spring of 2011, Trump appeared on cable and morning news shows calling for the president to release his long-form birth certificate—and the media loved it. In fact, his racist pursuit of a truth everyone already knew put him in the lead of the 2012 GOP field despite the fact he hadn’t officially announced a campaign and wouldn’t until this cycle.
Within his diversionary tactics are several other trolling methods cited by the MLC, including “antipathising,” (the troll takes an unfavorable position and defends it poorly), “aggress” (making an offensive comment without need in order to garner retaliation), and “crossposting” (spreading their off-topic hatred through as many forums and sites as they can). In his battle for the birth certificate, Trump played winking firestarter and touted an unpopular opinion—only one in four Americans supported the conspiracy theory at the time—that was simultaneously a needless act of aggression toward the president. He then spread these tactics through as many media outlets as he could, and diverted all sorts of national attention his way.
One of the most common trolling methods is shock. 4chan’s /b/ board is notoriously under-moderated and is thus filled with any nature of vile content one could think of, be it pictures of murder victims, crush porn, or comments in support of serial incestuous rapist Josef Fritzl. The site’s news forum likewise became a venue for spouting racial epithets and white supremacist conspiracy theories, all in the name of eliciting an appalled response from passersby.
Trump, likewise, spends much of his public credit attempting to defend things he says purely for shock value. Aside from his recent comments about Mexico, Trump has blamed crime in New York City on blacks and Hispanics, said that well-educated blacks have superior opportunities to whites, and theorized that Obama’s only route to Harvard Law School was affirmative action. These are all public statements that are tied together by no ideology other than the racist assumptions of a rich man. They are not a public figure voicing his opinion but sad and desperate attempts at public attention. Like fellow troll Andy Kaufman (who used to spew sexist and hateful remarks explicitly to get a reaction from the crowd), the Donald directly feeds off of retort and will do anything to gain it.
How this will affect his presidential campaign is best surmised by our final trolling tactic, endanger and hypo-criticise. Trolls will often give poor advice to naive questioners under the guise of trying to help them. A common one from the 4chan set tells Windows users to delete the “Win32” folder from their computer in order to make it run faster—this will actually force them to reinstall the operating system. The very existence of Trump’s presidential campaign is evidence of this. He says it’s an attempt to better the Republican Party and the country but his bloviated personality will in fact alter the campaign in a negative way for the latter and might sabotage the chances of the former.
His recent rise in the polls in New Hampshire has the GOP “terrified” that Trump could derail the all-important primary process in the name of serving his ego. His place in the polls means Trump will likely earn himself a place on the debate stage with nine other Republican candidates and edge out several others. One of those candidates who Trump might edge out is Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the field and a key optic the GOP needs to show off its diversity—one GOP strategist called the possibility of an all-male debate “a real tragedy for our side.”
The GOP is also concerned with how Trump treats his fellow Republicans, often taking to hypo-criticism in doing so. Trolls online will often criticize someone while purposefully showing their own lack of skill—attacking someone’s grammar while not using any punctuation, for example. Trump consistently hammers his GOP brethren for their lack of “competency” and business know-how. Of Fiorina, a former CEO for Hewlett-Packard, Trump said she “ran a company and got viciously fired,” citing a supposed rise in HP stock the day she left her position.
While Fiorina’s record at HP is certainly questionable, Trump is not one to be throwing barbs about business life. His real estate company has filed for bankruptcy four times in his life. In 2013, the state of New York sued Trump for supposedly defrauding attendees of his online for-profit business school Trump University. He mostly retains his status as a rich man by keeping his personal funds far away from his businesses, indicative of showing lack of faith in his own professional acumen.
One of the reasons these aren’t typically brought to the front of conversations about Trump is because the man in front of cameras and podiums is not Trump The Business Man, and it’s definitely not Trump The Politician. Who we see is Trump The Troll, a reality TV star with fake hair and no shame. Much like an Internet troll, he cares not for detailed policy debates or a finessed and complex worldview. He only needs to feel observed. A study by linguistic expert Dr. Claire Hardaker found online trolls aren’t vicious or angry—they’re typically just bored. Trump, likewise, is a rich man with seemingly infinite resources who is happy to manipulate our political structure for his own entertainment. It’s yet to be seen, however, if Trump also has the key asset of any good troll—the self-awareness that allows them to stop.
Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III
Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.