Two trolls: Limbaugh and Trump (Wikimedia Commons)

Among the many troubling phenomena social media has introduced or amplified in our politics is the troll. Crawling out of the shallow swamps of 4chan or the parts of YouTube not yet dominated by Taylor Swift, internet trolls have managed to rise to surprising heights of notoriety. Trolls like Bronze Age Pervert and L0m3z write best-selling books and big thought pieces for venerable right-wing magazines. A troll disguised as a politician, Vivek Ramaswamy, even ran for the Republican presidential nomination and is now angling to be Donald Trump’s running mate. The term is new, but the reality is not entirely unfamiliar. In Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre described a rhetorical technique that we might call pre-internet trolling: 

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.

How the troll has come to occupy his role (it’s usually a man) in the collective id is the subject of Jason Hannan’s engaging Trolling Ourselves To Death: Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Hannan, an associate professor in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications at the University of Winnipeg, is an eclectic and imaginative thinker writing in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan. He argues that trolls “first emerged as social parasites, digital delinquents who abused the collective trust of an online community. By posting manipulative questions and provocative comments as bait, they lured unsuspecting users into arguments and then relished the ensuing flame wars.” Hannan claims that in their “essence,” early trolls were not much more than “pranksters who got a kick out of sowing discord online.” But things soon got more sinister as many anonymous trolls matured from posting the odd Holocaust-denial joke now and then to actively participating in fascist politics.

One of the most significant factors in the emergence of the troll is, of course, changing technology. Here, Hannan owes a debt to the iconoclastic media theorist Neil Postman, whose Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) inspired Hannan’s title. Postman famously argued that with the advent of television, politics was becoming more one-dimensional and simplistic. During the nineteenth century, when people got their political information from books and newspapers, they found it easier to absorb a high level of complexity and nuance. But TV news boils everything down to five-minute soundbites and makes every story as entertaining and adversarial as possible. Hannan argues that something similar has occurred with the rise of the internet. Social media in particular fosters a “hyperemotional environment of visceral reactions and paranoid instincts” that feeds into the “psychology of reactionary right-wing movements.” It is the manure-rich soil from which figures such as Trump or Boris Johnson can emerge. It rewards anyone who can master the dubious art of the angry three-hundred-character tweet that triggers liberal squares. They and their admirers are “in it for the lols.”

When the troll is not just a provocateur, he is usually a counter-puncher. And this is perhaps one reason so many trolls are right-wingers. As Hannan points out, the contemporary Right is riddled with contradictions: it will defend “limited government” and free markets while also endorsing “government bailouts of private business” and “bloated military budgets”; it will lament the decline of the nuclear family on Sunday and laugh as ICE tears “migrant children away from their parents” and imprisons them in cages the next day. For Hannan, these contradictions make sense if one grasps that the political Right is not so much a principled movement as a reaction against the claims of reason and a blind embrace of hierarchy and prejudice. On this view, the Right is very much a “politics of resentment,” which “does not so much say what it stands for as highlight what it stands against”—anything that undermines the status, wealth, and power of the Right’s constituencies. Grounded in reaction, the Right does better with stylish ridicule than with systematic argument. Distrustful of theory, its natural genre is the one-liner or the tweet.

There is a dark side to Enlightenment that naturally produces reactionary and prejudicial tendencies.


All this might give you the impression that Hannan is one more in a long line of left-wing Enlightenment critics of the Right, with a lineage going back to Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. In some respects, that’s true. But one of the strengths of Hannan’s book is his recognition that there is a dark side to Enlightenment that naturally produces reactionary and prejudicial tendencies. Here, he is very much inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. MacIntyre famously argued that the Enlightenment’s moral project had run into a dead end somewhere around the time of Nietzsche. Constantly seeking a foundation for morality, it ended in emotivism: the conviction that morality is at best a matter of taste, and moral preferences are, in principle, no different from a preference for chocolate ice cream or key-lime pie. As Hannan notes, for MacIntyre, this mapped perfectly with the ideology that has come to govern many developed states: the “culture, values, and ethos of the marketplace.” In this context, people come to treat one another largely as “means” rather than “ends.” Evoking Mad Men, Hannan claims modern subjects are “architects of deception, seeking to persuade, influence, convince, control, shape, mold, deceive, and manipulate each other for the realization of private and individual gain.” 

Dark stuff. It gets darker still when Hannan points out how this eminently modern market morality helps produce not just internet trolls, but conservative mega-influencers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. For Hannan, these figures “fought to inoculate conservatives against guilt and remorse for cruel, obnoxious and antisocial speech. They taught conservatives to enjoy their cruelty and to delight in provocation for its own sake. In short, they turned American conservatism into a vast community of political trolls.”

Donald Trump has presented himself as the Troll in Chief. In The Art of the Deal, he claimed that “people want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” what he called “truthful hyperbole.” In the old days, when he was merely a failing businessman, Trump’s “truthful hyperbole” was just typical business bullshit. In politics, the same casual cynicism has had a much more destructive effect. Plenty of centrist commentators have decried Trump’s habitual mendacity and the reflexive hyperbole of his language, as if these things made him an outlier. They fail to recognize the extent to which Trump is very much a predictable symptom of our culture, a postmodern conservative who plays fast and loose with the truth because he has discovered that his audience is more interested in being entertained than in being informed.

Hannan’s Trolling Ourselves to Death is short but vital. Hannan suggests—but only suggests—that a new kind of politics is necessary to keep us from trolling ourselves to death. What exactly this politics would look like isn’t clear. But it would involve more than a change of tone. Hannan’s analysis implies that the morality of the market is the real source of our current ills. Until we change the material conditions that encourage us to look at other people—and the whole world, for that matter—as mere means to our own ends, the troll will survive and proliferate, delighting in easy mockery, peddling brazen lies, and gleefully echoing Pilate: “What is truth?”

Trolling Ourselves to Death
Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Jason Hannan
Oxford University Press
$24.95 | 184 pp.

Matt McManus is a lecturer in political science at the University of Michigan and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism and The Political Right and Inequality.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.