A Short History of Conservative Trolling

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter and current never-Trump conservative, recently wrote, “The post-Trump right has a style as distinctive as its authoritarian substance: trolling, ironic, evasive.” But that ain’t so. On the right, trolling has been part of the story from the beginning.

The first instances of the right-wing practice we now call “trolling” that I can positively identify come from the madcap four-way presidential election in 1948 won by Democrat Harry Truman. In 1947, a rally in New Haven for Henry Wallace of the left-wing Progressive Party was visited by a 21-year-old William F. Buckley and several associates, who dressed up in fake bohemian kit — the girls wore mannish slacks, the boys greased down their hair — and carried signs reading “Let’s Prove We Want Peace/Give Russia the Atom Bomb.” Their plan to release a covey of doves was foiled at the last minute.

The next year, the fourth candidate in the race, South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, whose States’ Rights (or “Dixiecrat”) Party was formed after the Democratic convention adopted a civil-rights plank, staged a “campaign visit” to New York. (He wasn’t on the ballot in New York.) Federal civil-rights legislation would turn America into a police state, he said — then trolled, “If you people in New York want no segregation, then abolish it and do away with your Harlem. Personally, I think it would be a mistake.”

Thirteen years later, racists played out Thurmond’s snark to the utmost. Civil-rights activists were testing the enforcement of the desegregation of interstate transportation by riding Greyhound buses throughout the South in a series of “freedom rides.” A spokesman for the White Citizens’ Council of Shreveport, Louisiana, announced that, since northern liberals were “sending down busloads of people here with the express purpose of violating our laws, fomenting confusion, trying to destroy 100 years of workable tradition and good relations between the races,” the white South would respond in kind with “reverse freedom rides.” Citizens’ Councils advertised an offer to pay Black people to settle up North — specifically recruiting welfare recipients and prisoners. “We’re going to find out if … the Kennedys, all of them, really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for the Negro,” one of the organizers crowed.

Some desperately poor people took them seriously, including one Arkansas mother of nine who accepted a bus ticket to Hyannis, Massachusetts, site of the famous summer compound of the extended family of the president of the United States, where, naturally, neither the job nor the presidential welcome she’d been promised materialized. The trolls claimed victory: “They want to ‘free’ the Negro in the South,” said a Mississippi congressman, “but want to shun responsibility for him once he has been ‘freed.’” The Democratic governor of Illinois said it reminded him of the Nazi deportation of Jews. A racist retorted, “Is it a crime to help people who come to you and say, ‘Boss man, I want to go to the North?’” The libs had been owned.

“But you were the ones who said you want …” is the troll’s most beloved trope, precisely because of the defensive befuddlement — “That’s not what we meant!” — it inspires. I saw a smart-ass red-headed teenager play the game well on Chicago’s first sunny day this past spring. He placed himself at a busy node on Chicago’s Riverwalk and held up a protest sign reading “Ginger Lives Matter”; I saw a smart-ass grown-up do the same last year. Representative Matt Gaetz tweeted a photo of himself on the House floor wearing a World War I–style gas mask, captioned, “Reviewing the coronavirus supplemental appropriation and preparing to go vote.” He got 10,000 likes. You say want us to wear masks … You say you want peace … You say you want no segregation … You say you want to free the Negro in the South and then you call us Nazis when we actually do what you say. Nyah nyah nyah!

Another favorite troll trope is “The next thing you know …” One finds it (this stuff really is in the right’s DNA) in modern conservatism’s Ur-text, Edmond Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), when Burke wonders what it would be like to be a soldier under France’s new revolutionary constitution. “The right of man, he is told, is to be his own governor.” So how long before armies in the field start insisting on “the direct choice of their officers”?

Here’s how the shtick played out during the nascent gay-rights movement: In the early 1970s, Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams sought to solemnize their four-year partnership in holy matrimony, not least to keep Sullivan, an Australian national, from being deported under laws declaring gays “undesirable aliens.” In 1975, a Colorado county clerk granted them a marriage license. So a smart-ass approached the same clerk demanding to marry his horse: “If a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman,” he asked, “why can’t a tired old cowboy marry his best friend Dolly?” After Johnny Carson joked about it, the troll achieved a life of its own as a supposedly argument-stopping “The next thing you know …” in legislative debates on the Equal Rights Amendment. In an afterlife, a young speechwriter named Ben Domenech wrote in a speech for his boss, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, “It does not affect your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle. But that does not mean it is right.”

Another category of troll falls under what blogger Josh Marshall used to describe, in a less enlightened age (the 2010s), as the right’s “bitch-slap theory of American politics.” That’s the one where you get something a little bit wrong on purpose in order to make the libs look like pedantic asses if they correct you, or weaklings if they don’t. Joseph McCarthy was a master of that one, pioneering the tactic of referring to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat” Party — a hallowed troll that continues to this day.

There was a lot of that sort of thing during the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. It’s remembered as a golden age of high-minded conservatism. But it was also the golden age of the troll.

The Iowa chairman for Citizens for Goldwater offered to purchase the assets of President Lyndon Johnson and his family for $4,375,500 on behalf of “a group of businessmen seeking new areas for profitable investment … We would immediately deed back to the Johnson family as a gift so that they might have a place in which to live after the inauguration in January.” The joke was that LBJ had just reported his family assets — which included Austin’s only television station — at an absurdly low $3.5 million. The Associated Press reported the troll straight, either because they didn’t get the gag, appreciated it, or just wanted to be fair to #bothsides.

That same week, Goldwaterites put up a colossal billboard across almost the entire length of the Atlantic City Convention Center, the site of the Democratic National Convention. Underneath a several-stories-high image Goldwater’s face, it read, “In your heart you know he’s right” — Goldwater’s presidential campaign slogan, which in itself was a troll, and one that’s particular useful in grasping the mysteries of the reactionary mind.

Conservatives see politics as a pitiless war of all against all, a zero-sum game where each side ruthlessly seeks advantage in any way they can. A reverse freedom ride organizer, for instance, said liberals’ motive in supporting civil rights was “using the American Negro for a pawn just for their votes.” When they see liberals claiming to be acting to improve the lives of those less fortunate than themselves, they can’t help but arrive at a single conclusion: The libs are working a con, scoring political points by making conservatives look callous and cruel. That’s the meaning of the constant conservative refrain that liberals are “virtue signaling” — instead of, say, being virtuous.

Thus Goldwater’s slogan on that billboard: Sure, walk into that convention hall and cheer for LBJ. Sure, you might have to go along with the liberals’ fine phrases about civil rights and equality and the government’s moral obligation to improve the lot of the poor and all the rest publicly — but in your heart, you know it’s bullshit. When you pull closed the voting booth curtain, pull the lever for yourself. Shh. No one will know.

Goldwater himself wasn’t above a troll or two. On the campaign trail’s home stretch, he called his opponent “Light Bulb Johnson.” This was a nifty double entendre: On the record, he could say he was mocking President Johnson’s economizing insistence of turning off the lights in the White House in rooms that were not in use. Sotto voce, it was a reference to the most embarrassing scandal of his administration, when Johnson’s close White House aide Walter Jenkins was caught in flagrante delicto with a retired soldier in a Washington, D.C., basement restroom. Goldwater underscored the sentiment when he referred to Lyndon Johnson’s “curious crew” — around whom, the audience knew, one must be careful when lights were low.

It was not enough to win the election, but the evasion worked, in a way; in Making of the President 1964, the mandarin campaign chronicler Theodore White singled out Goldwater for praise for not taking political advantage of Walter Jenkins’s misfortune, even while the people at his rallies wore satirical campaign buttons that read, “ALL THE WAY WITH LBJ BUT DON’T GO NEAR THE YMCA.” David Frum gets this part exactly right: Trolling “does not openly declare its intentions, in part because it does not dare to.” That aptly describes the tactics of Donald Segretti, Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era dirty trickster, who, according to one of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s sources, looked into setting up an organization called the “Massachusetts Safe Driving Committee” to award “a medal to Teddy Kennedy — with announcements sent to the press.”

Conservatives, of course, will claim innocence: They’re only “counterpunching” in a fight liberals started — and liberals just don’t fight fair. Not only have they mastered the trick of cynically signaling virtue, they’ve invented a way to keep us from fighting back: political correctness. They have outlawed telling what everyone actually knows is the truth. That’s the soul of the liberals’ cruel cunning. Trolling is the perfect way to fight back. It’s semiotic guerrilla warfare, a battle fought in the shadows, thrusts and feints as hard to counter as quicksilver. Then you can end the fight with a haymaker: Can’t you take a joke?

Consider the college conservatives who formed a mock folk-singing group called the Goldwaters. The juvenile preening of William F. Buckley and his buddies, ca. 1948, had been institutionalized with the formation, at Buckley’s Connecticut estate, of the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom. One of their antics was trolling the most prominent left-wing student movement before the advent of the Vietnam War, “Ban the Bomb.” Young Buckleyites responded by strolling around campus wearing buttons with atomic bombs on them reading “DROP IT.” (Get it?) The Goldwaters’ album, The Goldwaters Sing Folk Songs to Bug the Liberal, was the high- (or low-) water mark for this sort of thing. One song was called “The End of the Monkey.” Between Smothers Brothers–style snickers, the lyrics went like this:

I went to the animal fair, the birds and the bees they were there
And the old raccoon by the light of the moon was combing his auburn hair
The monkey he got drunk, and stepped on the elephant’s trunk
The elephant sneezed and fell to its knees and that was the end of the monkey

It’s just a little children’s ditty about animals. Nothing to do with African Americans being uppity drunks about to be flattened by the Goldwater-led Republican Party. Why do you snowflakes have to make everything about race?

When it comes to understanding the motives of conservatives, never underestimate the pleasure of bugging the liberals. Study well another past master: Phyllis Schlafly loved to refer to her enemies in Illinois’s feminist movement as “sows.” When the libs howled in return, she could claim to merely be referring to what the feminists called themselves: “SOW” was the acronym for her adversaries on Illinois’s Commission on the Status of Women. Lighten up, ladies!

Then it was off to her next speech, which always began thusly: “First of all, I want to thank my husband, Fred, for letting me come — I always like to say that, because it makes the libs so mad!”

They used to be call this sort of thing “baiting”; and in online forums, “baiting” eventually became “trolling,” from the maritime practice of dragging a lure from a moving boat to snag unsuspecting fish, as well as the irritating trolls in folklore who make travelers’ lives difficult. One enterprising Wikipedian found the word used in its modern metaphorical sense in 1972 among Navy fighter pilots, referring to the use of decoys to draw fire away from themselves. That fits: In its political iteration, the decoy is the illusion of sincerity — forcing the enemy to frantically fire away at a threat that actually is not real, while the troller stands far from the line of fire, pointing and laughing.

I don’t know when exactly conservatives started calling what they’d been doing since Edmond Burke’s day “trolling.” I once thought I had stumbled on an answer. I was researching the papers of future Reagan national security adviser Richard V. Allen at the Hoover Institution in Stanford University. Allen was a thoroughly corrupt operator and a kiss-up, kick-down nasty piece of work who reveled in the troll. After the 1968 election, the columnists Robert Novak and Rowland Evans reported that Allen, whom they described as a “far-right pamphleteer,” was being downgraded in his projected duties in Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council. “The gap between Kissinger’s sophisticated adult anticommunism and Allen’s simplistic vision is a chasm … Alone among the president-elect’s high-level appointments, Allen is a member of what more thoughtful conservatives regard as the ‘sandbox right.’” In response, Allen set up a literal sandbox in his NSC office and sent out engraved invitations for its “grand opening.”

By 1978, activities anathema to “more thoughtful conservatives” were surely no impediment to Allen winning the job as chief foreign policy adviser for Ronald Reagan. In his correspondence that year with Reagan confreres, I discovered four vague but tantalizing documents concerning something called the “Societé International de Trolling (International Trolling Society).” Allen pronounced himself “senior troller”; campaign colleague Peter Hannaford was “senior fellow troller”; Nancy Reagan was “chairlady.” Allen would award points for each successful “troll” — an activity, however, that these documents leave frustratingly undefined.

Then I discovered by trolling he meant something entirely different. In an oral-history interview, Allen described explaining to the future First Lady on the eve of a political trip to Asia, “Now, Nancy, the thing is, if in Asia you admire something, they’re likely to give it to you. So what I would suggest is you and I have a ‘trolling contest,’ so you can troll for more good stuff on this trip.” Trolling meant looting; Donald Trump would appreciate that. As it would happen, Allen lasted less than a year as national security adviser before being accused of taking a bribe from a Japanese magazine.

The pre-Trump right, like the post-Trump one, had a style as distinctive as its authoritarian substance: same venality, same cruelty, same infantile nature. You just used to have to look a little harder to find it.

A Short History of Conservative Trolling