Trump's frightening Internet trolls: Online harassment has become a disturbing tool for many of his supporters

Trump has not only failed to condemn his supporters who engage in online harassment, he has tacitly encouraged them

Published March 14, 2016 11:57AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Carlos Barria)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

As Donald Trump cruised to victory in the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 24, Huffington Post politics reporter Julia Craven sent out a string of tweets expressing the fear she felt at the extremist support Trump has attracted. The responses she received were shocking:

This is just a small sampling of the disturbing hatred directed at Craven. In the hours following her initial tweets, she received hundreds more racist and aggressive messages from Trump supporters. I encourage you to read her full account at Huffington Post.

Craven says she'd experienced online harassment before, but not at this scale. "It’s never been as hateful or continued on for as long," she told Salon via email.

Though Craven says such abuse doesn't affect her self-esteem, being subjected to sustained and personal harassment raises the possibility — however remote — of online threats turning into real-life violence. "I’d like to believe that people are just talking and, in a lot of cases, I’m sure they are," says Craven. "But I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t people who would harm a young black woman simply because she reports on race."

Unsettling as it is, Craven's story is not unique. Look in the Twitter mentions of almost any prominent critic of Trump and you'll find similarly disgusting comments.

This animosity isn't reserved just for liberal mainstream media types. As the Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove writes, Republicans who speak out against the GOP frontrunner often feel the wrath of Trump's online hordes as well. Grove's piece details how conservative pundits like Erick Erickson and John Podhoretz have suffered attacks from Breitbart acolytes ranging from inane name calling to outright attempts at intimidation. Anti-Trump political consultant Rick Wilson and his wife say they were subjected to "deliveries of unordered pizzas, packing boxes, Qurans and various religious tracts, incessant prank phone calls and, last month, a bogus Craigslist ad for a yard sale at their home."

This isn't a new phenomenon. For some perspective, just take a look at Megyn Kelly's Twitter mentions immediately after she asked Trump about his history of misogynist comments at the Fox News presidential debate in August:

That vertical line on the right shows how sexist slurs used against Kelly skyrocketed on Twitter after her exchange with Trump. As you'll recall, Trump criticized Kelly heavily after the debate, making his infamous "blood coming out of her wherever" comment and retweeting a follower who called her a "bimbo." In a development that shocked no one, vitriol against Kelly flooded Twitter again after Trump announced he would boycott a January Fox News debate because Kelly was scheduled to moderate.

The online behavior of Trump supporters is uncomfortably reminiscent of Gamergate, the group of online bullies who have subjected women in the video game industry to relentless and malicious harassment. Izzy Galvez, the Twitter user who posted the graph above, experienced harassment of a similar stripe from Gamergate trolls, who attempted to call a SWAT team to Galvez's house after he criticized the movement.

While Trump supporters prone to online harassment are certainly a minority, this doesn't make their hatred any less real. It only takes one asshole to call a SWAT team to your house.

Obviously, Trump supporters do not hold a monopoly on aggressive online behavior. The social media conversation around any candidate is bound to contain a certain percentage of putrid nonsense. Trolls infested the Web long before Trump infected our politics.

In January, sexist harassment of Hillary Clinton supporters on Twitter by so-called "Bernie Bros" became such a problem that the Sanders campaign, to its credit, publicly pleaded for its supporters to be more civil. The behavior of Sanders supporters is certainly a problem, but compare Sanders' response to that of Trump, who has not only failed to condemn his supporters who engage in online harassment, but has tacitly encouraged them by coyly retweeting noxious opinions and then claiming innocence when called on it:

"That's a retweet. That's different," Trump explained. He offers similar excuses for his retweets of white supremacist accounts or Mussolini quotes. It's an infantile defense that wouldn't slip past the laziest elementary school vice principal, but Trump has managed to make it acceptable for a presidential candidate.

By now it should be abundantly clear that the transgressions of Trump's most loathsome supporters extend beyond the digital sphere. Slate's running list of violent incidents at Trump events stood at 10 as of Friday morning. Later that afternoon, thirty-two people were arrested at a Trump event in St. Louis. On Friday evening, Trump supporters and protesters clashed before a scheduled rally in Chicago, leading the Trump campaign to postpone the event "for the safety of all." Protests and fights spilled into the streets. Trump blamed organized "thugs" for the violence on Twitter.

"I certainly don't incite violence. I don't condone violence," Trump told CNN after the chaos in Chicago. But Trump's speeches have done nothing but encourage violent and aggressive behavior. His language toward protesters is revealing:"I'd like to punch him in the face." "Maybe he should have been roughed up." "Get him out, try not to hurt him. If you do I'll defend you in court."

Trump can claim that he didn't mean for his words to be taken literally, but the statements above are precisely what make his worst supporters think that something like this is OK:

The consequences of Trump's racially charged politics are real, whether he wins the White House or not. Take the example of the two third graders in a Virginia classroom who saw fit to "point out the ‘immigrants’ in the class who would be sent ‘home’ when Trump becomes president." Or the two Boston brothers who allegedly assaulted a homeless, sleeping Mexican immigrant, urinating on the man and beating him with a pole. One of the brothers explained the motive: "Donald Trump was right; all these illegals need to be deported."

Witness Trump's initial reaction to the Boston attack: "I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate." Later, he elaborated on Twitter:

It's the same playbook used by Trump supporter David Duke, who claims that he has "always condemned violence" despite unapologetically spewing racist and anti-Semitic hatred for decades.

Trump may not believe everything he says, but by now it's beside the point. Whether he means it or not, he knows that he's feeding his most extreme supporters exactly what they want to hear, and he's giving dangerous fringe politics an air of legitimacy, at least in the minds of some. It's central to why he's inspired such fervent support. The other Republican candidates recognize this. That's why they're calling for the release of Trump's off-the-record interview with the New York Times in which he allegedly acknowledges that his hardline immigration stance is flexible. At this point, perhaps the only thing that can stop Trump is if his rabid base abandons him because he's shown to be a charlatan.

Until then, the violence surrounding the Trump campaign is unlikely to subside. At a Trump rally in North Carolina on Wednesday, a man named John McGraw was charged with assault and battery for sucker punching a black protesterOn NBC's Meet the Press, Trump denied responsibility for the violence, but said he would look into covering McGraw's legal fees. McGraw said of the protester, "The next time we see him, we might have to kill him."

By Michael Garofalo

MORE FROM Michael Garofalo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bigotry Donald Trump Gamergate Megyn Kelly Online Harassment Racism #trumpontwitter Twitter Trolls