Birth of a "Troll Nation": Amanda Marcotte on how and why conservatives embraced the dark side

Amanda Marcotte's new book is about a problem bigger than Trump: The turn toward hate that made him possible

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 9, 2018 4:59AM (EDT)

Amanda Marcotte (Peter Cooper)
Amanda Marcotte (Peter Cooper)

I had no role in editing Amanda Marcotte's new book, which bears the amusing and highly appropriate title, "Troll Nation: How the Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set on Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." None of it previously appeared in Salon, to be clear; this isn't one of those volumes by journalists that repurposes old stuff from the bottom of the birdcage. But as I told Amanda during our recent "Salon Talks" conversation, I feel like I lived through the creation of the book anyway: I have been fortunate enough to be her editor here while she covered the stories that shaped her argument over the last two years.

There have been some formative experiences over that time, although we've both been busy doing our jobs and have rarely, or never, talked about them. We sat together directly behind Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland while he gave his memorable acceptance speech, beginning to reckon with the mathematical possibility that he might become president. (I wrote notes I would never look at again; Amanda chewed gum so hard I wondered whether she might dislocate her jaw.) Later that year, Amanda was at the Javits Center in New York, expecting to cover the victory celebration of the first female president in American history, on a night that went in quite a different direction.

But "Troll Nation" is not about the election of Donald Trump. Amanda and I have certain areas of cheerfully-expressed political disagreement, but I think we share the view that Trump was the culmination of a long process, or is the most visible symptom of a widespread infection. Amanda's analysis is, as always, calm, sharp-witted and clearly focused on available evidence. American conservatives, she says, used to make rational arguments and used to present a positive social vision. Did those arguments make sense, in the end? Did that "Morning in America" vision of the Reagan years conceal a vibrant undercurrent of bigotry?

The answers to those questions -- "no" and "yes," respectively -- led us to the current situation, when conservative politics has become almost entirely negative. Sure, there are a handful of "principled" and/or pathetic exceptions. But as John McCain plans his own funeral, Bob Corker books time on the golf course and Paul Ryan designs his Ayn Rand cosplay outfits, most Republicans gleefully embrace incoherent or self-destructive policies designed to punish or horrify people they dislike, whether that means feminists, immigrants, black people, campus "snowflakes," members of the "liberal elite" or (above all) Hillary Clinton. I am not the world's biggest fan of Hillary Clinton, as Amanda knows! But what the hell she ever did to all those people to make them despise her so much is entirely unclear.

How we got from the supercilious, upper-crust conservatism of William F. Buckley Jr., the dictionary definition of an elitist -- the dude could read and write Latin, for God's sake -- to the delusional ignorance of Alex Jones and #Pizzagate, the small-minded hatred of Charlottesville and the unquenchable thirst for "liberal tears" is one of the darkest mysteries of our time. It's also the story of "Troll Nation." Amanda joined me recently in New York for a wide-ranging conversation and, trust me, we could have gone on a lot longer. These excerpts have been trimmed down and edited for clarity; you can watch our entire conversation partway down the page.

So the premise of "Troll Nation" is not just about the last couple of years or the election of Donald Trump, although that's certainly part of the story. It's more about a much larger question: What happened to American politics?

Because I’m doing a bunch of contemporary journalism, I end up focusing quite a bit on recent politics. But the larger premise of the book is that Trump is not an anomaly. Trump is actually the logical conclusion of a movement in conservatism that’s been going on for decades -- fueled by talk radio, Fox News and other such things -- that has really kind of reconstructed American conservatism into this ideology, I’d say, of hate and bigotry more than actual political opinions or ideas.

That’s an important point. You say early on that even if American conservatives were enabling and empowering racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry, they wanted to present themselves as the guardians of order and decency.

Yeah, and the traditional family and business friendliness. To be clear, I’m not denying that those aspects don’t exist in the Republican Party or their policies. Absolutely. But I think that arguably, as a political ideology that has collapsed as an argument. Rallying voters around those sorts of arguments has failed, so what they have is this brewing culture of resentment and hatred towards liberals, and also other cultural resentments.

Right. It seems to me like two different strains of the conservative movement have collapsed. One goes all the way back to Edmund Burke or whatever, the idea that you’re going to return to the old order. You’re going to restore some decency and order in society that has been lost -- the traditional family, the virtuous life and so on. And the other one is the libertarian economic argument: Everything’s going to be great if we can just get rid of all these taxes and regulations. Both of those currents have essentially collapsed.

Yeah, and both have collapsed into what people, I guess, call Trumpism now. But I really want to emphasize that Donald Trump, I think, is an opportunist who saw himself in what conservatism has become. Because interestingly, as a person -- I don’t get into this too deeply in the book because I want it to be about the voters and not just Trump himself. But as a person, decades ago, he wasn’t somebody who saw himself as a Republican. What changed? Well, he’s a bully and an asshole, and that the party came to him.

Yes, that's well put. So Trump was in no sense the originator of this movement or the inventor of Troll Nation. He glommed onto it and saw an opportunity. Is that your reading of this situation?

Absolutely, and I think that he is very capable at continuing to garner support amongst conservatives because he is plugged into this way of thinking about things. He’s very good at the politics of culture war. Instead of coming up with ideas or making arguments, he instead has an enemies list and just sets the voters against them. The reason that conservative voters are willing to go along with him is this is just how they’ve been trained to think, I think, for decades now.

I want to emphasize that it’s not that they’re mindless robots, programmed by Fox News. There’s a reason this has happened this way, and I think that's because liberals have won the cultural arguments, especially, and to a large extent the economic arguments as well. It’s been difficult for conservatives to argue for their points within the structures of commonly accepted truths in our culture. So, you know, for instance, I think both conservatives and liberals feel duty-bound now to agree that women are equal. So it becomes difficult to argue for conservative values within that.

Right. Whereas 40 or 50 years ago, that wouldn’t have been so clear on the conservative side. I mean, we still have the exception of the Roy Moore wing of the Republican Party. But in fairness, the vast majority of Republicans can’t quite go there these days.

Yeah. They would look like hypocrites, if nothing else. They’ve mainstreamed women into their own party. They have enough women who have vied for leadership positions so that, for instance, against Hillary Clinton, nobody was willing to use a traditional sexist argument, but nobody was willing to say that. So instead, it was this inchoate rage about her as some kind of enemy. A lot of that was sexist, but it was rarely blatantly so.

You have written about all the nutty conspiracy theories about Clinton over the years, which had to steer around one of the primary motivating factors, which was that many conservatives were uncomfortable with powerful, intelligent women. They had to cherry-pick all these other crazy ideas in order to avoid that.

Exactly. Especially the notion that she was a criminal, right? Which was a way to express the emotional argument that there’s something unnatural or deviant about her.

I think that that’s a very good example of what is driving this larger trend. Conspiracy theories are a huge part of what I’m writing about, because I do think that this kind of rhetoric ends up leading to authoritarianism and fascism, because so much of what is motivating conservatives now is just this sense that liberals deserve punishment and deserve to be attacked as liberals, not just argued with as people who have different opinions.

One key element that you've stressed over and over again in your writing for Salon is that for conservative voters at this point, no tangible benefits will result from the supposed policies of the people they are voting for. There's just the psychological benefit of punishing leftists, women, liberals, people of color, immigrants, LGBT folks and whatever other group they dislike, right?  

Yeah. Let’s be clear: They’re not subtle about this. This was the easiest book in the world to write in that sense. For instance, just the other day when I was covering the Rick Scott campaign [in Florida], I went to his page and the slogan was “Liberals hate Rick Scott.” Not “Rick Scott will do this for you,” not “Rick Scott will fix that problem” but “Liberals hate Rick Scott. Make liberals angry. Vote for Rick Scott.”

It's like the total abandonment of any positive rhetoric or any positive vision. I think you are even more reluctant than I am to do the lament about, "Oh, conservatives used to be sane and normal." Because it’s been a gradual deterioration over many years. But one thing that we can say is that they used to have a positive vision, even if it was crap, right? There’s no Morning in America anymore for these people.

No. There's no positive vision, and there's no actual argument too, right? I think that’s one of the reasons everybody in the D.C. press still swirls around Paul Ryan like he’s a big hero because, you know, at least the man’s got an ethos. But it’s more and more obviously nonsense, and that, I think, has caused this situation we’re in. You know, Reagan made the same arguments [as] Paul Ryan: Trickle-down economics and deregulation, these things will lead to a robust economy.

Unfortunately, what we’ve seen happen over and over again in the past few decades is that it caused economic distress, but more importantly, created income inequality. Because even when the economy rebounds, the spoils are not shared across the board. So yeah, I don’t think people make that argument in any sincerity anymore, or they try to avoid that argument as much as possible because it’s easy to disprove. There’s just overwhelming empirical evidence against it now.

How America turned into "Troll Nation"

Salon Talks: Amanda Marcotte and Andrew O'Hehir on the American conservative movement's downward spiral.

Talk a little bit about Gamergate, which is one of the most fascinating parts of your book. I really didn't pay much attention at the time: It was this tempest in a teapot in the video game world, around 2014. You make a convincing case that seeds were planted then what would later blossom in the political realm. 

I know it seems a little strange, but I see in Gamergate everything that was Trumpism, years before Trumpism. The instigating factor of Gamergate was years and years of young white men feeling like video gaming was their territory and that anybody else who wanted to be in video gaming should cede that young white men were superior people within that space. They wouldn’t say it directly like that, which goes back to a lot of what I’m saying about this issue, but it was clear they felt entitled to this space: entitled to define it and own it, to have the video games to be racist and sexist and all these things.

Then a number of women and people of color started to speak out, mainly against the sexism of video games, but also the racism, and there was this surge of anger that turned into this humongous online battle. It’s funny, but it’s also terrible, what happened. A number of women were doxxed. Their addresses and identities were revealed online. They were targeted for being feminist. But what was funny was this excuse that it wasn’t about sex [and] gender, it was about "ethics" in gaming journalism. That was the official excuse.

It’s incredibly complicated and I won’t bore you with why that was the official excuse, but I think within this we see all the pieces, like the inability to admit what this is all really about, and this desire to boil down culture that’s all about dominance and power. There was the realization that they had lost the argument, so they were going to punish the winners of the actual argument by just inflicting pain, harassment and abuse and just maybe even driving them out of the community, which often happened.

I wasn’t the only person who perceived this, you know. Milo Yiannopoulos, who was a big supporter of the male gamers' cause, latched onto Gamergate. Breitbart latched onto Gamergate, because their editors understood that this was the new political movement that they could lead, and they turned out to be right about that.

Those guys became the funnel through which this new movement of intolerance and bigotry and hatred was channeled into conservative politics.

Yeah. Gamergate is a youth movement, to be clear. And I think the "alt-right" in general is seen as somewhat of a youth movement, though that underestimates how many older people are in it. But it’s interesting to me how much the older traditional Republicans were willing to get onboard with it without even blinking. I suspect that has a lot to do with the fact that the groundwork has been laid by the Rush Limbaughs and Fox Newses of the world. Watch Fox News any day of the week, and most of what they cover is a bunch of segments about how liberals are hypocrites or liberals are the worst. Everything is just reinforcing the stereotype of liberals as these hate objects you can just feel justified in trying to punish.

Ever since the election of Trump, we’ve had this debate in liberal or progressive media about what the right response is. Some people argue that you have to try to address those Trump voters and speak their language, whatever that may be. Other people basically argue, “No, they’re lost to nihilism and racism and misogyny. There's a certain segment of the electorate that we’re never going to win, so we just have to let it go.” Where do you come down on that in terms of the path forward?

Well, I think you know the answer: No!

OK, it's a softball question.

Yeah, I know. I’m giving you a hard time. No, I mean, I’m definitely in the camp of "They might be lost." I don’t say this to be mean or to be hateful. The opposite, actually. I think sometimes the, like, “Let’s reach out” kinds of arguments are condescending, and they treat conservatives like mindless people that have fallen into this rabid hate spiral because they are being manipulated, as opposed to saying that they chose to be manipulated, because there was something about that kind of media that speaks to them, that they like.

I want to convey in this book, and I hope in this interview, that conservative audiences respond to this kind of media because they want to. I think we underestimate how much people are going to do what they want to do and believe what they want to believe.

What we have to do in response is accept that and organize around them. You can’t go through them, so you've got to go around them. I think the good news is that the past year, and even the past few months since I started writing the book, have made me feel good about that possibility. Not only have the Democrats been winning elections, but I’ve been seeing organizing based on the "Let’s go around them" strategy.

The Parkland kids would be a really good example of "we go around them," you know?  They don’t try to engage these hateful arguments. They just throw them the finger and keep doing what they’re going to do and continue to organize their base. I think that that’s how you win. We've got to give up hope that you can talk people out of deeply-held beliefs. Instead what you do is you turn to the people that agree with you, or are somewhat on your side, and fire them up. 

I wish we could convince people. I do. But I think that’s literally the only way.

I've long suspected that a degree of cynicism has set in, across the whole country, but particularly among the population that supports Trump. They don’t believe the government can ever make anything better or work to the benefit of the general population. So they just want to use it as a tool to punish people they don’t like. That's one way of interpreting what happened, right?

I think it depends on how you’re looking at it. I mean, I think a lot of people really want to believe that, especially in some rural areas, and I understand this to a large extent. Income inequality has dramatically affected people, and it has gotten worse with both Democrats and Republicans in the White House. I would point out that Republicans have held Congress pretty much all that time, so that’s probably why that happened.

But I don’t think, though, that that is necessarily true. I think there is a lot of political science that shows that people recognize that they’re getting benefits from the government, and they will actually throw that out the window if their cultural resentments push them in that direction. You see that a lot with Obamacare. A lot of people started to acknowledge that Obamacare made their lives better, but they're willing to get rid of it if they can punish black people. I wish that wasn’t true. I don’t know how to get around that problem.

I think a lot of people who make these economic arguments are underestimating how important culture is to people -- how much self-esteem men get from male dominance or white people get from white dominance. We go, “That’s not real,” not in the way that money is real or health care is real. But actually, people feel it’s very real to them. I think we would be in error if we didn’t think about that and take that seriously.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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