What Trump Teaches Us About Online Trolls

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Like most casual observers of the early stages of the 2016 presidential race, I was confused at first by Donald Trump’s strong showing in the polls. Then I heard Jon Stewart compare him to an internet troll, and it all started to make sense. 

After all, Trump spouts tired racist and sexist tropes, yet fancies himself a bold real-talker who dares to say what others won’t. He doesn’t have a big vocabulary or employ nuanced arguments, yet is endlessly self-aggrandizing. His remarks cause “political firestorms,” but rather than engage with the responses they engender, he quickly adopts the posture of a victim. If you point out that he might be wrong, or unnecessarily mean, he claims that you’re attacking and trying to silence him. He only gets stronger if you decide to take him on directly, yet not calling him out means he’s free to keep spraying his hatred all over everyone. 

On this last point, Trump is particularly vexing. He presents us with the same dilemma that an online troll does: Do you ignore him, and allow him to proceed unchecked as if his behavior is acceptable? Or do you challenge him, knowing full well that contentious exchanges are what feed him?

The uncertainty over just how seriously to take Trump mirrors our collective lack of clarity about how to shut down bullying and hateful internet speech. We often applaud when someone takes on a troll directly, while remaining reluctant to jump in ourselves. Megyn Kelly lifted many hearts when she directly addressed Trump’s history of unrepentant sexism and misogynist one-liners during the Republican presidential debate, but she was met with silence from those in the room with her. “Though Kelly called Trump out on his history of misogynistic insults, none of his nine opponents onstage took exception to his crude attack on Rosie O’Donnell or to the laughter and cheers it aroused from the audience,” Frank Rich points out. Social media lit up with support, but in the room, at that moment, she was alone. (On the Dem side, Bernie Sanders applauded Kelly on Twitter, though it took a reporter pressing Hillary Clinton on the question for her to call Trump’s remarks offensive.)

When asked about the Kelly question later, Trump took the opportunity to double down on misogyny, implying that Kelly was just on her period. Even then, Fox News did not marshal its considerable PR resources in Kelly’s defense, choosing instead to step lightly. Like the comments-section cranks, Trump translates to traffic — as he’ll be the first to remind you — and therefore media companies don’t stand to gain much by alienating him. Left unchecked, trolls encourage more trolls — which is exactly what happened to Kelly. She got a tsunami once Trump identified her as a target. Some of his GOP opponents took the opportunity to call him out. "If no one stands up to a bully, a bully will keep doing what he's doing," Rand Paul said. And Carly Fiorina spoke in solidarity with Kelly: “I’ve had lots of men imply that I was unfit for decision-making because maybe I was having my period.” Yet it seems that Trump has only grown stronger. “He lives for this kind of trash talk,” observed a reporter.

Perhaps this is why people who find Trump odious are more likely to just ignore him and hope he’ll go away. Trolls feed on attention, after all. This is generally how I feel about the anonymous haters who pepper my Twitter replies with slurs and taunts. I simply don’t have time for them, so I mute them swiftly. If we all spent our time addressing the Trumps of the internet — and the world — we'd have no energy left for what actually matters to us. Worse, we'd be letting them dictate the agenda. However, ignoring Trump, as many observers have pointed out, won’t make him go away.

“What the fuck is wrong with him?!” Stewart asked about Trump, vocalizing a question that I’ve long had about the men who send me hate-filled emails. But as many women who have engaged with their internet tormentors have discovered, there’s not always something wrong with trolls. When writer Lindy West confronted a man who had cruelly harassed her online — he went so far as to create a Twitter parody account mocking her dead father — the man wrote her to apologize. Later, he explained to her that trolling was his private hobby, not something he told his girlfriend about: “Here's the thing. I work with women all day, and I don't have an issue with anyone.” He seemed to be implying that most trolls are regular guys who, in their offline lives, are kept in check by social mores. Online, unchecked, they can let their darker impulses run wild. At least Trump is doing all of this under his own name.

What Trump really has in common with anonymous trolls is an uncanny ability to channel the very worst human impulses and articulate them plainly and publicly. Ignoring such hate speech is a great strategy for preserving your sanity in the short term, but it won’t go away as long as it’s validated by other people, be they message-board allies or major media outlets. Hateful comments are a “system failure.” I don’t relish the things that online commenters are able to say under a cloak of anonymity, but I prefer a scenario in which they’re ashamed to own up to their comments than a world in which they can run a presidential campaign on them.

Which is why I admire women like Megyn Kelly and Lindy West. Their confrontations make clear that they do not want to live in a world where trollish behavior is widely accepted. And they issue a challenge to the rest of us to speak up, too. Trump and trolls may seem inexhaustible, but together we are certainly more powerful. Kelly announced yesterday that she is taking a much-needed vacation. Maybe she’s just resting up so she’ll be fresh and on her game when the campaign ramps up this fall. Kelly, at least, seems to understand that there is no “block” button for presidential candidates. And the sooner the rest of us get that, the better.