Explaining the Drama at the Internet’s Largest Donald Trump Community

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Ever since it became clear that Donald Trump was a serious threat to win the Republican presidential nomination, people have pointed out that the man doesn’t seem to hold solid, ideologically grounded positions in the way most politicians do. Many politicians flip-flop and present a massaged version of themselves in national elections, of course, but in Trump’s case there doesn’t appear to be much there there. He speaks in the language of resentment — his platform is simply Screw you, elites and Screw you, immigrants, screamed over and over at a deafening volume.

Much the same can be said about his most dedicated online followers. They are obsessed with fighting social-justice warriors, with breaking what they see as the chafing constrictions of “political correctness.” It’s a formula that works: People can’t get enough of arguments about who is offending whom, whether people are too outraged, whether people are too outraged over other people’s outrage, and so on.

For these and other reasons, the Donald Trump subreddit, r/The_Donald, has become one of the largest, most active and most influential places for Trump fans to gather, to the point where it has garnered major media attention, hosted AMAs with alt-right heroes like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, and, naturally, pissed off hordes of progressives with its denizens’ over-the-top antics.

But all is not well at r/The_Donald. Earlier this week, the moderator most responsible for launching the subreddit to its current lofty perch, CisWhiteMaelstrom (known more recently as Dylan-W), was removed from his position by the subreddit’s own mods, according to a post from those mods that went up late Tuesday. His story offers a tidy online microcosm of the Trump phenomenon itself, of the question of what it means to perform outrage online and how the act of doing so can be used for selfish and manipulative purposes.

To explain why Cis, as he is known (few people know who he is in real life), was ousted from r/The_Donald, let’s just kick it to the mod who posted the announcement, TehDonald. As he wrote in his post, two things in particular “forced” the decision:

1. On Saturday [Cis] stickied a link where he said he could get away with raping illegal aliens and has banned a lot of people who have a problem with that post. I don’t personally think he’s raped anybody and I do not believe that he is in any way in favor of rape. The rape comments from him are part of a “character” he has played as one of reddit’s most prolific trolls. The higher level moderators here knew about the comments Cis posted in the past and had thought that, with him looking to make a career out of this stuff, he would enjoy the deniability that comes with his old account having been deleted. Banning people for objecting to rape is something that the other full permissions mods do not agree with.

2. Later on Saturday night Dylan-W/CisWhiteMaelstrom privately told me about this plan of his to create an alt right subreddit, to hand it over to white nationalist celebrities Jared Taylor, Walt Bismarck, and Richard Spencer, and to promote it on /r/the_donald using /u/Dylan-W. Having a moderator of the largest pro-Trump subreddit promote people that Trump himself would disavow does nothing to help Trump. It does, however, give credibility to the left wing narrative that Trump’s campaign is built on racism. Back in February Cis was helping us to keep white nationalists out of /r/the_donald, now he’s looking into promoting them and recruiting some of their leaders to run things. I do not support white nationalists and I don’t have reason to believe that Cis personally holds the views of these people. That said, this is not about what any one person on the moderator list believes in. This is about doing what is best for Donald Trump. The people who Cis said he would hand control of an alt right subreddit to are people who promote the idea of creating a white ethnostate in the United States. They are people that Trump would want nothing to do with. Just as Trump would, we disavow them.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff to unpack here, some of which dovetails with problems the real-life Trump campaign has, but it’s worth quickly introducing Cis and explaining why he’s important.

Cis became a larger-than-life figure on this corner of Reddit thanks to his role in lifting r/The_Donald to its current status as a popular, influential subreddit that, much to the chagrin of a large chunk of Reddit, has regularly gotten its Donald-centric content onto the front page of the main site. MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin explained how Cis pulled this off in a solid rundown of The_Donald from April. As Sarlin reported, the whole thing started early this year, when Cis emailed the site’s mods with a “master plan” to boost its growth and visibility. That plan, it turned out, mostly involved pissing off progressives by putting a premium on dumb, offensive content (though not too offensive — Cis “banned white supremacist and neo-Nazi users from r/The_Donald early on”).

It turned out that this was a fairly brilliant way to exploit Reddit’s thirst for outrage content: “A favorite tactic was to direct Trump fans to push deliberately dumb or offensive posts to the front page of Reddit and then laugh at the backlash when users took them seriously,” wrote Sarlin. “Sanders, and his legion of earnest Reddit fans, became one favorite target as r/The_Donald relentlessly promoted posts mocking the senator’s debate comment that white voters ‘don’t know what it’s like to be poor,’ to name one of Cis’ favorite examples.”

On the one hand, the constant outrage of earnest progressives helped promote r/The_Donald’s content; on the other, it attracted new subscribers to the subreddit because they saw it as a place where they could stick it to SJWs while embracing their memeiest selfs. Much like the Trump campaign itself, in other words, The_Donald, under Cis’s influence, was more about “Telling it like it is” — whatever that means — and offending liberal sensibilities than about forwarding an actual agenda. (I tried repeatedly to get in touch with Cis. Midday yesterday he left me a voice-mail from a “restricted” number, but, since then, multiple attempts to contact him through TehDonald and by messaging him at his alternate Reddit account have failed.)

And Cis took the politics-without-politics ethos pretty seriously. As Sarlin reported, he “deliberately avoids turning the subreddit into a hub for volunteers, out of fear that nuts-and-bolts discussions of phone banking would water down its appeal as an Internet funhouse. There is some information for users on how to register to vote in primary contests, but much like Trump’s campaign, the operation was designed to grab people’s attention first and then hope that energy translates to on-the-ground results.” This strategy worked, at least for a while. As of April, when Sarlin’s article came out, the site had put up some pretty gaudy numbers. They appear to have slipped of late:

Photo: Reddit
Photo: Reddit

Whatever the story of the site’s traffic, Cis ended up being a case study in the difficulty of defining the difference between “just messing around with” alt-right ideas and actually being seen as embracing them. What does it mean, for example, when TehDonald says that even though Cis is trying to set up an alt-right subreddit and hand it over to white nationalists, he has no “reason to believe that Cis personally holds the views of these people”? I put the question to TehDonald directly. “The distinction is that I believe he was only planning to do it either in the name of free speech or in order to trigger the SJWers and get attention,” he responded.

Cis’s more domineering, authoritarian tendencies appear to have ruffled some feathers. One The_Donald user with close knowledge of the situation sent me a meaty email with a series of damning accusations against Cis (sic throughout this excerpt and the one that follows):

[Cis] was hated by a majority of people, for a number of reasons, but on the surface, it appeared that all of the mods/subscribers of The_Donald were behind him 100%. When he spoke of The_Donald, he referred to it as “*MY*” sub, and since nobody challenged him, others would see this and accept this as reality. He maintained “control” by banning/demodding *anyone* who dared question any of his unilateral actions. (How he got to the point where he had “free reign” over the_donald is another story entirely, but basically he’d strong armed his way into the sub, twice.) Once someone was banned, they were labeled as “concern trolls”, which served to dismiss any and all legitimate criticisms they would have had.

This user also claimed to me that Cis had faked the rumored doxxing threat from a progressive subreddit that had ostensibly caused him to delete his original CisWhiteMaelstrom account recently, only to come back as Dylan-W (that account is now dead as well), at the invitation of TehDonald, during a period of subreddit tumult. (“Cis was brought back during peak drama because of his talent of rallying the sub around a cause; the drama had fractured the community,” said TehDonald. “He did a good job at that, but he started making it about him and dragged things into the subreddit that Trump himself would disavow.”) My correspondent pointed me to this thread as proof. They also contended that Cis and GayLubeOil, who was also removed as a mod Tuesday night and who, like Cis, has roots in “Redpill” men’s rights/pickup artist communities, are writing a book together, and have been manipulating The_Donald for their own personal gain. (“I removed GayLubeOil because he is close personal friends with Cis,” said TehDonald when I asked him about this other user. “It’s not personal, we just had to do it.”)

The correspondent:

Gaylubeoil was the other mod removed from the_donald [Tuesday night] with CWM, he didn’t do anything except tell people how redpilled he and CWM are. In a nutshell– “I’m so muscular, I’m dominant over everybody. Buy our RedPill merch, you cucks”. GLO didn’t do anything at the_Donald, in fact, he was pretty open about it– http://archive.is/unFtA – they thought of themselves as “Redpill celebrities”, whatever that means. CWM and “GayLubeOil” are writing a book together, and it’s my opinion that they made a lot of the assinign posts/decisions like going to war with the admins and /r/politics and /r/sweden because they wanted to make something interesting happen for their next chapter.

They way they attacked /r/politics, the admins, or /r/sweden “on behalf of the sub” was entirely unilateral, and they knew that once they stickied an unhinged tirade on the_donald, that they’d motivate the sub to go out and create havoc, not because the sub wanted to, but because it was worded in a way that made everyone feel like “The_Donald is being persecuted! We are victims! Quick, everyone, go stand up for yourselves!” CWM used “identity politics” to get people to do what he wants. He created problems so that he could get his name out there– not the sub, but his name.

Every article has been a wasted opportunity, because that nincompoop has gone into the “interview” under the premise that it’s all about him, not the community.

What’s striking here, of course, is the way the rise and fall of Cis mirrors the way Trump the candidate has done business. As is the case with Trump, it’s hard to tell where opinions Cis is professing for the sake of ginning up outrage and raising his profile end, and where his “real” opinions begin. The veil of anonymity only heightens these questions — in Trump’s case, you can look back at stuff he said 10 or 20 years ago and compare it to what he’s saying now. Since CisWhiteMaelstrom has existed only as a Reddit troll/provocateur, it’s much more difficult to know what the concept of him “really” believing something even means. Despite having just removed him as a moderator, TehDonald was very complimentary toward Cis, and denied that he holds any hateful views. “Cis is an enormously talented individual and he’s very smart,” he said. Citing Cis’s role in helping to purge r/The_Donald of white nationalists and Nazis, TehDonald continued, “I do not believe that he is a white nationalist (he’s Jewish); the persona you see on the internet is a ‘character’ that he plays.”

Whatever the truth is about Cis, it doesn’t appear, based on many of the most upvoted comments responding to Tuesday’s announcement, that rank-and-file members of The_Donald were all that sad about saying good-bye to this character — though many do appear to appreciate the role he played in boosting the subreddit to where it is today. “Sometimes you have to pivot to the general,” one user philosophized. “He was our Lewandowski and now we need a Manafort. Thanks for growing this dom, Cis, but we’ve got to look to the general.”