The First Troll President

How Donald Trump pioneered the never-ending fireside rant, and made sure nobody could ever look away.

The First Troll President

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who intentionally upsets people by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing unrelated discussions, either for the troll's amusement or a specific gain.

Urban Dictionary (2020)

On the 8th November 2016 I was in a professional training session when the news starting coming in. It was about 11:00 in the morning here in Australia when they called Florida, provoking some anxiety, followed by panic as North Carolina went down and finally sheer disbelief as the Blue Wall collapsed and the reality of a Donald Trump presidency crashed through. I don’t remember a single word of the workshop but I'll never forget that awful, hollow feeling in my stomach as I sat hunched in a cheap plastic chair, thumbing uselessly at my phone screen and thinking over and over again “this is going to be a long four years.”

It has been a long four years, longer than any of us could ever have imagined. Four exhausting years of shithole countries and bleach injections, love letters to dictators and very fine people on both sides. Four years of children in cages, ILLEGAL VOTES, pornstars, tear gas photo-ops, missing tax returns and big, beautiful walls. Through it all the constant refrain, impossible to escape, Trump, Trump, Trump, the champion of the downtrodden, the artist of grievance, the unmasker of the elites, the denouncer, the insulter, the despoiler of idols.

Now that it's over the relief is palpable. Even as he clings on the curse is lifting, and if that’s true for someone overseas I can’t imagine what it's like if you’re one of the 75 million Americans that kicked out the country's worst ever president. No mincing words here. He’s the first US president to serve only one term, be impeached and lose the popular vote twice. That's an embarrassing trifecta. History will not be kind to Donald Trump and as the shock of all the lying fades we’ll be left with his chief legacy - the death of more than 300,000 Americans by the time Joe Biden is inaugurated.

As the dust settles it looks like most of the country’s institutions have held up pretty well. Despite all the handwringing the legislative and judicial branches have retained their independence from the executive. Trump was too lazy to be an authoritarian. His signature achievements, a tax cut and the appointment of hundreds of conservative judges, would have been exactly the same under any other Republican president. Plenty of norms were trampled sure, but in that sense he may even have done the country a favour by exposing the ugliness that always lay beneath Washington's thin veneer of civility. Yes, he coarsened public discourse, hollowed out the federal service, damaged America's international reputation and further entrenched partisan divides, but that's a pretty light sentence for a country to get away with during a populist moment.

One institution however has been irrevocably damaged. The free press, one of liberal democracy's most important bulwarks, tasked with providing citizens with a full and clear view of public affairs, utterly failed at their job. Instead of informing the public they warped perceptions by making sure Trump was always front and center, from early-morning tweetstorms to the monologues of late-night comics. Perhaps nobody in history has better proven the maxim that there's no such thing as bad publicity; the cycle of outrage and the eager selling of that outrage, made Trump president and then kept him there. America's journalists should take a long hard look in the mirror because they were willing accomplices every step of the way.

Each time a taboo was broken or a lie was uttered, a parade of well-groomed anchors and university-educated journalists fell over themselves to condemn him, but what they never grasped – and still don't – was that Trump didn’t deal in the currencies they were used to, money and influence. He dealt in a new currency, attention. In a world of news hyperinflation, with journalists wandering around with wheelbarrows full of worthless stories because it now costs one million news to buy a loaf of bread, Trump's Twitter feed wasn't the ravings of a madman. It was a work of art by the first great genius of the attention economy.

From the day he rode down that golden escalator he made sure the cameras were focused on him and he never let them waver. He quickly learned he could suck the oxygen out the room with political incorrectness: calling Mexicans rapists, mocking a disabled reporter, pledging to ban Muslim immigration. In November 2016 America was enjoying solid growth, low unemployment, record-high graduation rates and record-low uninsured rates and crime rates, but thanks to the press Trump successfully portrayed the country as a dystopian hellscape that he alone could fix. By the end of his campaign news companies had given him $2 billion in free advertising, a win-win for both sides as profits soared and Trump rode the headlines all the way into the White House.

Once there he wasn't the first president to prioritize rhetoric over substance, but he did take it to a new extreme, using the power of the office to amplify the signal. Trump was to social media what Roosevelt was to radio and Kennedy was to television, only more sinister, the pioneer of the never-ending fireside rant. He made it clear he could do and say whatever he wanted, which felt daring and thrilling to people who'd been told for years that their prejudices were no longer welcome in polite society. In the process he harnessed the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican party – xenophobia, anti intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward black and brown people  – and weaponized them into a political strategy that the National Review's Rich Lowry calls "middle-finger politics."

The more shocking and outrageous the lies, the more furious the elites became, bolstering his authenticity and making his supporters love him even more. If the public's attention flagged for even a second, he'd crack the whip with another 280 characters of vitriol, forcing himself back onto the frontpages. The media seemed utterly unaware of why he was so difficult to defeat: having learnt nothing from their mistake in enabling his election, they kept delivering him the most valuable of contemporary commodities—eyeballs. His strategy worked perfectly. Trump wasn’t just the first White President. He was the first Troll President, willing to say anything to get our attention, and once you understand that you understand why he seemed immune to any scandal.

What finally made him vulnerable to defeat wasn't his tax returns, or special investigators digging up campaign ties with Russia, or even an impeachment. It was his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. After three successful years of smoke and mirrors, middle-finger politics ran into the cold hard reality of bio-politics. His disdain for scientific and medical expertise and refusal to endorse even the most rudimentary preventive measures was according to medical experts, directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. The crisis required the US government to perform its most basic duty of protecting the public. Instead, everything broke, because you can’t rally or spin your way out of a pandemic.

For Trump, the biggest problem wasn't that Covid-19 killed Americans. It was that it took attention away from him. No matter how hard he trolled he was always upstaged by the virus, with its terrifying death counts and unprecedented hammer blow to the economy. That's why he continued to insist it would go away, because to admit otherwise would mean he was no longer the most important story in America. "Covid, Covid Covid, all they want to talk about is Covid" he complained at a rally in Pennsylvania seven days before the election. "We are rounding the turn, and we have the vaccines coming out very soon, years ahead of schedule."

America though, wasn't rounding the turn. The country is setting global records for daily cases and death tolls now exceed 2,000 people a day. If you're still in any doubt about what this presidency was always about consider the fact that right now, in the middle of America's worst Covid-19 wave yet, Trump has stopped any pretense of of governing and is now concentrating entirely on his effort to overturn the result of the election. As the reins of power slip at last from his grasp, he’s making one last desperate attempt to remain relevant because this is a man that deals in only one currency - attention - and he's willing to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of people, including those who most avidly support him, in order to keep it.

At noon on Jan. 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. His share of the popular vote is likely to exceed 52%, the highest percentage for a challenger since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. He will face a Republican party determined to keep their base in a constant state of anger and crazed denial. Right-wing media will fan the flames; right-wing social media groups will pour gasoline on the fire. Trump will almost certainly not concede and is unlikely to invite Biden to the White House or attend his inauguration. Everything he and his MAGA sycophants do over the next few weeks will be about staying in the headlines and the media will obediently play along. Will he or won't he? What will he do next? Every time his name is uttered in public it’ll keep his malignant spell in place a little longer.  

After almost six years though, I'm no longer willing to play the game. I've been rubbernecking the car crash since Trump first announced his candidacy in 2015, marinating in the toxic emotions that he inspired and perpetuated: outrage and fear, helplessness and grief. I tried to stop many times. I quit reading the news, deleted Twitter and installed internet timers. Sometimes I managed to stay away for weeks at a time. Inevitably though the screen would flicker back on and I’d get sucked in again. Even though I knew I was being manipulated I kept refreshing my feed, listening to the political podcasts, waking up each morning and wondering what had happened in the latest episode of the most toxic reality show ever created.

Last week as I watched the 2020 election results roll in, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many hours of my life I'd spent reading and thinking about Donald Trump. I was horrified. If I'd dedicated that time to anything else - picking up a musical instrument, learning a foreign language or writing a book - I'd be an expert now. Every time I've paid him attention, I've been paying with all the other things I could have attended to but didn’t. The heart-to-heart talk I could have had with my father on the phone, the afternoon walk I could have taken with my daughter, the fresh feeling I didn't have the next morning. The resource Donald Trump depleted wasn't just my attention. The resource he depleted was my life.

Online communities learned a long time ago to stop feeding the trolls. You don't defeat a troll by arguing with them or reasoning with them. You certainly don't defeat them by writing about them. The only way to defeat a troll is to ignore them and not give them what they so desperately crave. They're not looking for your approval, they don't care whether you hate them either. All they want is your attention. That's why this is the first and the last ever article I will write about Donald Trump. I very much look forward to never having to waste another minute of my life thinking about him again.

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