Steve's Blog

Donald Trump and His Trolls

Author: Stephen J. Turnbull
Organization: Faculty of Engineering, Information, and Systems at the University of Tsukuba
Contact: Stephen J. Turnbull <>
Date: 2016/11/23
Copyright: 2016, Stephen J. Turnbull

Donald Trump and His Trolls

For precision's sake, let me define several meanings of the word "troll".

troll, n.

  1. a social process in which a provocative statement elicits disproportionately outraged responses.
  2. the statement which initiates a troll(1).
  3. a provocative statement made with the intention of initiating a troll(1).
  4. an individual who utters a troll(3)s.
  5. an individual who habitually (but often inadvertantly) initiates a troll(1).
  6. an individual who habitually utters troll(3)s.

troll, vt.

  1. to utter a troll(2)
  2. to utter a troll(3)

You should learn something from that. Probably not the definition of troll: if you're in my audience, you probably already know what it means, and can adeptly distinguish and use all 8 definitions. Rather, you learn that I care about precision. It matters to me, and I'm writing today because I believe that in the matter of the next President of the United States of America, it matters to you, too.

Trolling is characteristic of "post-truth" politics. I suppose the etymology of "post-truth" starts with the student movements of the 1960s, as we came to understand that politicians and bureaucrats were systematically lying and concealing important information from us, and we demanded that we be given correct and full information ("the truth") about their activities. Today, the "Alt-Right" has adopted the view that their agenda is more important than the truth, and they will say anything that advances their agenda. Thus, post-truth and Alt-Right trolling. But "post-truth" is not a technique that we can use successfully.

If we shouldn't troll, nor allow ourselves to be trolled, what can we say, then?

For one thing, @realDonaldTrump is a troll(6), and I believe that Twitter handle is owned and used by the President-elect. (I haven't actually verified by subscribing to his feed, so take this with that much salt.) He says provocative things that correspond to his world-view, whether they are true or not, because they will provoke an outraged and disproportionate response. That's part of the plan: the response proves that the "elites" (presumptively a small minority) don't care about "real people" (the vast majority). We know he doesn't care about truth, because he deletes tweets and then denies he ever made them.

On the other hand, to be precise, there are some things he is not. He is not a fascist. Fascists believe in and advocate government-planned production and expropriation of private property to produce a strong state, and at least in Mussolini's time, that was more or less synonymous with a strong military. Yes, Trump wants a strong military, but that's not synonymous with "Make America Great Again", nor does he generally advocate government economic planning (beyond that implied by budgeting government expenditures) -- he believes that business left to itself will "Make America Great Again".

Nor is he the second coming of Hitler, nor yet a Nazi. "Nazi" is more or less a subspecies of fascist, and the same facts show Trump is not a Nazi. He hasn't tried a putsch, been imprisoned, or written a "Mein Kampf" to provide philosophical underpinning for his extreme policies, so parallels to Hitler must be discussed with care. I believe they are best avoided altogether because they confuse us, and will be outright rejected and ignored by Trump fans (your mileage may vary).

I do find George Lakoff very persuasive. Trump does have some things in common with those bogeymen: he is an extreme authoritarian. Isn't that scary enough for us? And I believe that, put bluntly and concisely in those terms, it will scare many "in the middle" who see Hillary as representative of an elite that doesn't understand their values or the plight of the middle class the way Trump does, yet aren't fans of many of Trump's right-wing extremist positions.

P.S. I don't know what to "do about" the tens of millions who are fans of Trump's authoritarianism, but I do believe we need to do something for them: give them hope that their lives will be better in the future, and that their children's lives will be much better, in terms they understand and accept. We all deserve that, don't we?

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