Listen Up, Progressives: Here’s How to Deal with a 4Chan (“Alt-Right”) Troll

Seth Abramson
May 2, 2017 · 26 min read
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Needless to say, when an “alt-right” troll pops up in your social media feed, the best thing to do is ignore them. But sometimes — by dint of impatience, angst, or pique — you can’t help yourself and you engage the troll directly. It can be a cathartic experience, provided you indulge it sparingly. Indeed, the problem with trolling alt-right goons is that if you get really good at it, you’ll probably get addicted to it, too. So: don’t get too attached to the processes described below, but have them in your arsenal in the event you need to deal with an alt-right troll online.

One other note about “alt-right” trolls, before I get to the “Q&A” portion of this how-to article: if you’re a progressive accustomed to feeling empathy for those who are vulnerable and hurting, you’ll find yourself developing some real sympathy for this particular brand of troll over time. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially as many of the alt-right trolls I discuss in this article are (a) relatively young, (b) sincerely confused about how to make their way in the world (which is why they use awkwardly transparent trolling and pathological online socialization as a crutch), (c) are not hard-right traditionalists so much as lapsed progressives rebelling ineffectually against what they see as the excesses of the “New Left”, (d) can be quite lovely, authentic, and caring people in person, at least when they’re not engaged in “IRL shit-posting” (see below), and (e) may actually be responding to social and political stimuli which, in the grand scheme of things, are genuinely bewildering to a young person growing up in the digital age.

My point here is, alt-right trolls do everything within their power to appear to be neo-Nazis online — and there’s a reasonable argument to be made that, when you inhabit a role perpetually, you in practical terms become what you pretend to be. But in the final accounting, the alt-right troll is a much more complicated entity than a run-of-the-mill neo-Nazi. Moreover, nearly all of these alt-right trolls will one day grow out of the esoteric, neo-Dadaist vortex of bullshit they’ve immersed themselves in online. So there’s some reason to feel sympathetic for these young people, even if we progressives can’t afford at this point in American history to indulge their thoroughly toxic tantrums.

Okay, so with all that said, let’s begin.

Q: Where do alt-right trolls come from?

A: “Alt-right” trolls come from one of three high-volume troll-distribution centers online: the /pol/ board on Reddit; 4chan (confusingly, the “/pol/” board there); or 8chan. Some trolls are “cross-posters,” which means they participate in all three boards. Cross-posters are particularly pathetic online creatures, as it means they spend even more time staring at a screen rather than going outside than their peers do. Note that alt-right trolls will publicly deny any association with, or knowledge of, any of the troll-distribution centers listed above. A common tactic, indeed, is to make some vague reference to “Reddit” (e.g., “I saw your article on Reddit and wanted to comment on it”) or, even more specifically, “the /pol/ board on Reddit,” when one is actually from the “/pol/” (“Politically Incorrect”) board on 4chan. This misdirection signals to other trolls who one really is, and/or allows one to make oneself appear to be a “normie” (that’s alt-right code for anyone whose social life doesn’t revolve around anonymous web-posting on boards like Reddit, 4chan, or 8chan).

The simple fact is that most alt-right trolls come from 4chan’s “/pol/” board.

Q: What are these distribution centers like? Can I participate in or observe them? Who would waste their time hanging out on these sites?

A: All three of the alt-right troll-distribution centers listed above are public and use anonymous posting. What this means is that you can frequent them as much as you like as either a user or an observer. I recommend at least spending an hour or two on each site, as that’s all you’ll need to see how devastatingly pathetic the entire enterprise is.

I use the word “pathetic” advisedly here — these are really sad places, full of really sad people, and you’ll need to parcel out your time there carefully.

Keep in mind that most alt-right trolls are males under the age of 25, so what you’re seeing is a motley reenactment of what would’ve been the most achingly awkward fraternity at whatever college or university you attended. All of these sites are a compendium of stupid in-jokes, viral memes, multimedia from “nerd culture” — a shame, given how awesome that subculture is — and a persistent exploration of what young men can get away with online when they have the opportunity to act anonymously. So: you’ll see a lot of posts (and some images) that are misogynistic, homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, and so on. The posters posting this content are in a few cases actually committed misogynists, homophobes, racists, and anti-Semites; much more commonly, they’re relatively unsophisticated “kids” — using that term here to denote emotional immaturity rather than chronological age — who are exploring complicated anxieties, angers, and associations they don’t really know how to process yet in any way but the anti-social.

Mind you, they don’t see themselves that way. You will stagger at the arrogance of all these young people who haven’t done anything yet.

Interactions between alt-right trolls on these distribution-center websites are bewildering to the uninitiated, every bit as much as meetings of Scientologists would be to non-Scientologists. Because online alt-right communities are essentially Lord of the Flies-like cults developed by young men, they include all the features you might expect from that sort of ecosystem. So, expect not just obscure in-jokes, but byzantine labyrinths of buzzwords; not just preening, but an odd sort of “virtue-signaling” in which what a given troll seeks to signal is that he is less “politically correct” than everyone else and therefore more (as he will see it) “courageously subversive”; not just references to pop culture, but citations of those obscure sub-dungeons of pop culture which only an initiate into the most esoteric cubbyholes of the digital age could ever grok.

While it’s true that most users on these sites are male, and that most are white, and that most are (importantly, secular) Christians, it’d be wrong to think that the alt-right is categorically hostile to non-whites, homosexuals, women, or Jews. While I discuss this much more below, alt-right trolls — as opposed to politically committed white supremacists, for whom the internet is merely a tool rather than a lifestyle — do not actually self-identify on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. In fact, when they’re not virtue-signalling to other trolls but rather being “serious” about their political commitments, they categorically oppose anyone self-identifying themselves via demographics. Rather, the glue of their online (un)civil society is, quite simply, hatred of what they call “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs). (An SJW, in alt-right trolls’ telling of it, is simply a far-left political activist who is aggressively evangelical — and even aggressive — about their views online, and is, therefore, unwilling to brook any public dissent against those views.)

In other words, if you are, for instance, Asian-American, female, Jewish, transgendered, or gay, and if you (a) detest Social Justice Warriors, and (b) are willing to listen to a lot of hate speech (allegedly) designed to upset Social Justice Warriors rather than signal actual animus toward any vulnerable U.S. population or minority, you can be a member of the alt-right troll community.

(But don’t do that.)

Some of the current “celebrities” of the alt-right community — accepting, for a moment, that the brand of celebrity we’re discussing here is very sad indeed — are not white Christian males with normative “alpha-male” traits (this latter fact being one I mention due to the alt-right community’s obsession with “alpha-male” behavior and signaling). Some of the currently beloved — but, not surprisingly, offensively nicknamed — darlings of the alt-right community include: “Jackie 4Chan” (an Asian-American male); “Uncle Chang” (an Asian-American male); “Brittany Venti” (a multi-racial female); “Jesus” (a dark-skinned, self-described “Bedouin” from Saudi Arabia); and “/Pol/ Blart” (a morbidly obese, middle-aged man). All of these folks became “famous” while appearing on Shia LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” live-stream in Queens earlier this year; alt-right trolls treat “#HWNDU” as a sitcom rather than performance art, and consider themselves to have been at once “actors” and “themselves” whenever they appeared on the HWNDU feed. There’s even a multi-part “HWNDU documentary” on YouTube in which all of the “S-tier” (top-tier) “celebrities” from LaBeouf’s art project are interviewed on various topics.

(It’s confusing, I know. It’d take a whole article to explain it.)

All of the above said, let’s not kid ourselves: alt-right trolls are overwhelmingly white Christian males of a certain age. Still, the exceptions to this general rule are extremely telling, as they underscore that there’s a wide gulf between alt-right trolls and politically committed white supremacists. And while that distinction will in many instances seem — and be — more or less academic, I’ll explain below why it’s actually critical to resisting the “alt-right” online.

Q: What do these people want, when they scurry out from their online distribution centers and onto my social media feed?

A: This one’s simple: they want to “trigger” you. Period, full-stop.

Q: What does it mean to be “triggered”? And why would someone get so much pleasure, over such a long period of time, from “triggering” people they’ve never met and will never meet?

A: Obviously, the real answer to this question is, “Who knows?” (Spending your day being an asshole to strangers is literally the worst way to blow your time on Earth, kids. You’ll literally never look back at the time you spent on this when you’re, for instance, 63, and say to yourself, “Yeah, that was a good use of my twenties.”)

But if we absolutely must take a deep dive into alt-right trolls’ superficial, self-aggrandizing answer to this question — and we must — we can note that the central theorem of the alt-right troll is this: “political correctness” is the number-one problem in America. This is no exaggeration; alt-right trolls believe that the politically correct discourse often associated with the “New Left” is destroying everything fun, interesting, and (most of all) free about America.

For instance, alt-right “nationalism” isn’t usually (at least when found on /pol/, 4chan, or 8chan ) “ethno-nationalism,” but rather a far stranger brew which has it that political correctness is eroding the very foundations of America — most notably, the First Amendment. All-right trolls do believe in American exceptionalism, but (consistent with them being equal parts politically savvy and politically naive) not because of anything having to do with race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability status. They’re even “fine with” any immigrant, of any nationality or hue, who thoroughly assimilates upon entry into the United States. So the reason they detest certain western European nations, for instance, is not because they’re heterogeneous but because alt-right trolls think of Europe as being less oriented toward personal freedom and less encouraging of “melting pot” assimilation than America is. An alt-right troll will be obsessed with the Second Amendment even if they’ve never held a gun; to an alt-righter, gun-toting Americans are metaphors for America’s commitment to a unique, frontier-like society in which personal freedoms are religiously prized.

(Of course, were these trolls more sophisticated, they’d see that retaining one’s sense of heritage is an exercise of personal freedom, but for the alt-right the far more pressing issue surrounding having a “heritage” is that it encourages what they call “identity politics” — in their estimation, a risible fragmentation of “American” political will and identity.)

Given the above, we can see that alt-right trolls are most threatened by the idea that far-left “Social Justice Warriors” will so police Americans’ thoughts, words, and behaviors — through the application of “political correctness” as a doctrine — that they will pose an existential threat to the fundamental character of the nation. (Many alt-right trolls believe we’re already at that point, actually.) And, because they believe that the Achilles’ heel of all SJWs is an over-sensitivity to thoughts, words, and behaviors that they cannot control and that displease them, they spend their days trying to “trigger” these persons by upsetting them publicly.

This, then, is the fulcrum of alt-right trolls’ pseudo-political agenda. They believe that if SJWs can, in large numbers, be publicly and repeatedly triggered, it will make those persons look so ridiculous in the eyes of the “average” (read as “centrist” or “center-right”) American voter that the “New Left” will collapse — politically, if not in social discourse. In short, alt-right trolls believe they can literally save America by making you angry in public.

A: So what methods do these trolls use to force progressives into public anger and (therefore, in their view) a self-defeating over-dramatization of personal trauma?

Q: Because these trolls view themselves as foot-soldiers in the battle for American values, they’re willing to do anything to make progressives publicly flip their lids. They desperately need us progressives to sound shrill, weak, self-righteous, and petulant, so their methods are both aggressive and — by any common standards of decency — enormously provocative and offensive.

In describing these methods below, I do not defend them whatsoever. But progressives must understand not only what these methods are but how and why they are being deployed by alt-right trolls against progressives on a daily basis.

Slurs. Because alt-right trolls are, from a certain angle, radical ideologues, they’re willing to act anti-socially, including aggressively, in order to secure any advance for their cause. Their favorite tactic is to use racial, ethnic, religious, anti-Semitic, ableist, and misogynistic slurs without (in their view) actual animus. What this means is that they — again, in their own view — are protesting the policing of public speech by casually using hate speech online even though they harbor no actual ill will toward any of the groups they’re slandering. If you go onto /pol/, 4chan, or 8chan right now, you will see more usage of the f-word, n-word, k-word (“kike”), and c-word than you’ve seen in your last decade of polite public or private conversation — not to mention deliberate misusage of terms like “autism” and many references to outrageous conspiracy theories.

Let me acknowledge what most readers are thinking at this moment: what’s the difference between using a slur to make a political point, and actually being (as the case may be) racist, anti-Semitic, ableist, or misogynistic? And of course from the progressive view, which is the perspective I’m writing from here, the answer is none. If I can’t distinguish you online from an anti-Semite, and if you’re never going to “drop the act” and explain your use of the word “kike” to me, and if I’m never going to meet you in person to see that you’re a decent sort actually, it doesn’t matter to me whether you’re an “actual” anti-Semite or an alt-right troll because I’ll never find out which you are.

This is why so many alt-right trolls are, without fully realizing it, in danger of slipping into politically committed white supremacy: they’re so committed to their “act” that, for anyone except their closest friends, they might as well be exactly what they’re pretending to be. This also explains why politically committed white supremacists use /pol/, 4chan, and 8chan to recruit new members: they have a captive (because internet-addicted) audience of confused young people who really just want to belong to something, and that’s fertile soil for “actual” neo-Nazi and KKK recruiters. And they know it.

So why don’t the disaffected (generally) young people on /pol/, 4chan, and 8chan care that they’re projecting themselves “erroneously” into the public sphere? Several reasons: (a) they sincerely believe they’re saving America from losing its unique sociocultural and jurisprudential elements; (b) they are so socially isolated that /pol/, 4chan, and 8chan become their “real” homes, where their “real” friends are, and therefore as long as those people know that any slur used in those three environments or elsewhere is political theater, it’s okay (and remember here that David Bowie engaged in a similar performance, which he later awkwardly apologized for, as the “Thin White Duke”); (c) in a certain sense they consider these slurs authentically “self-expressive,” as it allows them to self-define themselves rather than being defined from without as a result of their race, gender, age, and so on. In their — thoroughly confused — minds, using the f-word or n-word publicly is not a statement of animus but a bizarre statement of “self-confidence”: you can’t police my thoughts or words, progressives, they appear to be saying, as I’m the “sort of person” (a key concept in juvenile self-realization) who would never be cowed by the demands of strangers. From this standpoint, these slurs are like self-harm, underage drug use, truancy, bullying, or running away from home: anti-social behavior that doubles as an oppositional identity-formation device.

It’s all very boring — and I don’t condone any of it — but there it is.

Shit-posting. “Shit-posting” (sometimes non-hyphenated) simply refers to being a disruptive asshole for the sake of being a disruptive asshole. It’s a pre-teen/teenage “acting out” ritual that, in alt-right troll-distribution centers, is socially acceptable and therefore carries a negligible social cost. One “shit-posts” by deliberately derailing others’ conversations, undermining others’ real or perceived authority, confusing readers of a given “thread,” or “triggering” peers — something that’s exponentially more difficult to do in a community of trolls, which is why /pol/, 4chan, and 8chan naturally exhibit “race-to-the-bottom” social phenomena slur- and shitposting-wise.

A newer phenomenon is “IRL [‘in real life’] shit-posting,” which means trying to bring the disruption of message-board threads into real time. This usually takes the form of directly provoking the anger of, or attempting to engender confusion in, left-wing protesters and their allies in whatever real-life fora these individuals appear. Increasingly, “IRL shit-posting” creates dangerous situations because of — ironically — the “fighting words” doctrine enshrined in the nation’s Constitution. Essentially, alt-right trolls are too dim (thus far) to realize that shit-posting “IRL” may actually get them arrested or beaten up, and that in certain instances the Constitution actually condones their arrest and/or their attackers. For instance, calling an African-American the n-word on /pol/ may be held to be a sort of political statement, but in real life it will sometimes get you punched — and the courts may well allow that sort of response, as utterance of the n-word is seen by courts as a verbal signal that you wish to fight someone and, indeed, already consider yourself in the midst of a fight.

I guess my point is that these alt-right trolls who so venerate the Constitution don’t actually understand the First Amendment, whether it’s “fighting words” doctrine or the “time, place, and manner” restriction on free speech that could actually get you arrested under circumstances in which you believe you’re protected by the First Amendment. This is why I say that alt-right trolls are simultaneously politically engaged and politically naive. They understand the Constitution just well enough to know that some New Leftists do indeed take a narrower view of the First Amendment than they do, and just poorly enough to get themselves (increasingly) beaten up or arrested in situations in which they think they’re protected by the First Amendment but are not.

Memes. Alt-right trolls on /pol/, 4chan, and 8chan are what we call “metamodernists,” though they’re very different in temperament, ambition, and subculture than most other metamodernists. (In other words, don’t damn metamodernists just because of alt-right trolls, any more than you would damn postmodern scholars at Yale because of violent anti-WTO anarchists in Seattle.) In this case, the term “metamodernism” simply means that alt-right trolls believe the internet has brought about terminal data saturation — a view shared by late postmodernists — but that, rather than leading us to despair, this fact should instead be used as a mechanism for retaining hope.

That sounds a bit confusing, so I’ll simplify it: alt-right trolls think that, because of near-universal internet access in the United States, we’re all awash in too much data, so they’re looking for a way to organize that data so it will still make sense to them. If postmodernism taught us that all truth is contingent — because there are so many different perspectives and angles on the truth, and so much contradictory data out there — metamodernism allows us to return to a belief in metanarrative, thereby staving off the despair often caused by terminal data saturation.

A metanarrative is a narrative that organizes many smaller narratives and thereby operates as a guidance mechanism for humans. “Manifest Destiny” is a particularly insidious metanarrative from history, for instance. Postmodernism (and hard experience) rightly taught us to be suspicious of any totalizing metanarrative, but one result of getting rid of metanarratives altogether is a sense of being unanchored in the world and in your own skin. Metamodernists allow for a conditional return of metanarrative; essentially, they condone metanarrative when it helps you do something generative and productive for yourself, your family, sub-community, community, or nation. But they also insist that you acknowledge, if implicitly, the imperfections — and, more broadly, the illusory nature — of the metanarratives you adopt.

When alt-right trolls talk about “meme magic,” they’re referring to the idea that there are so many internet memes out there right now that, at some point, memes become “real” — that is, they begin to forecast things that will actually happen rather than being meaningless. As we can see, “meme magic” is a useful metanarrative for confused young people because (a) it convinces them that the data they’re awash in isn’t meaningless, and (b) it finds a way to celebrate the volume of memes online by pointing out an obvious fact: if there’s enough data in your local environment, eventually some of it will come to seem significant even when it actually isn’t. To some metamodernists, even something that seems significant (but which you know isn’t) can be a sort of guidance mechanism; you may realize that you’re being misled into seeing significance where there is none, but you’re okay with it because at least you’re being led somewhere. It’s a stopgap measure intended to combat ennui and anomie.

“Pepe the Frog” is a reification of “meme magic” — in other words, a totem representing the principle that all things are connected (even though the alt-right troll knows, in a bit of cognitive dissonance, that they’re not). Another alt-right totem is Kek, the Egyptian God of Darkness. Another is the Bogdanoff twins, a highly unusual-looking duo whose reconstructive facial surgery is endlessly interesting, for some reason, to alt-right trolls. Much like Scientologists and L. Ron Hubbard, alt-right trolls venerate Pepe, Kek, and the Bogdanoffs as quasi-deities. Many alt-right memes use some or all of the iconography associated with these three totems. Do alt-right trolls actually think these symbols are meaningful? No, they don’t. But they do think they’re hilarious — because they trigger SJWs and allow alt-right trolls to signal to one another from a distance.

That “okay” hand symbol you’ve been seeing everywhere (for instance, below)? That too is an alt-right meme intended to trigger progressives. That’s why left-wing nonprofits are both right and wrong to call the symbol “white supremacist”; in practical terms, it absolutely is, as it’s nigh impossible to distinguish the behavior of an alt-right troll online from a “real” (politically committed) white supremacist, but the fact that many who use it online are simply trolling the Left without feeling any actual animus toward non-whites or Jews makes the whole thing devilishly fun for these man-children (and, of course, a few women, too).

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Cassandra Fairbanks and Mike Cernovich troll progressives with the “okay” signal in the White House briefing room.

Alt-right subculture. Closely related to the concept of “meme magic” is the somewhat more banal practice of subcultural formation, a process central to the maintenance and expansion of major alt-right troll-distribution centers. In other words, in order for alt-right trolls — fundamentally lonely and confused, seeking belonging and togetherness in cult-like online spaces — to feel like they’re part of a community, they need music and other cultural artifacts that signify that they’re building something rather than merely tearing things down. The song “Shadilay,” an obscure, 1980s disco-pop song by the Italian band P.E.P.E., serves as “culture” in the world of the alt-right troll. Listening to the song will underscore for you just how pathetic this whole thing is:

It’s catchy — sort of — but the artifact of a vibrant digital subculture it is not.

Needless to say, “Shadilay” became an overnight alt-right “hit” because of “meme magic”: the coincidence of the band that sings the song being called “P.E.P.E.” and a frog being on the cover of the single. (The Crying of Lot 49, anyone? Again, though, whereas the postmodernist Pynchon was underscoring meaninglessness, the metamodernist alt-right troll chooses to see “meaning.”)

A: Given all this, how should I deal with alt-right trolls, if for any reason I find myself unable to ignore them altogether?

Q: There are two things you must do if you hope to troll an alt-right troll: (1) prove to them that you’ve infiltrated their “safe spaces” (/pol/, 4chan, and 8chan), and (2) do not, under any circumstances, no matter what they say, allow them to trigger you — which means you must immediately cease contact with the alt-right troll if you find yourself getting emotionally piqued by the interaction. The moment you get emotional — that is, the moment you assign any substantive weight whatsoever to anything the troll says — you’re toast.

The key to infiltrating an alt-right troll’s “safe spaces” — and make no mistake, /pol/, 4chan, and 8chan are merely safe spaces for people who cannot cope with the pace and dynamism of American social and political discourse — is to know their code.

This means knowing, for instance, that “weaponized autism” is alt right-speak for the ability of an alt-right troll to disrupt American social and political discourse even though they feel themselves unwilling or unable to generatively engage with that discourse. (This form of isolation and difficulty decoding social gestures is one that the alt-right troll identifies with autism.)

It means knowing that alt-right trolls will often talk about drinking milk because of their claim that African-Americans are genetically predisposed to lactose intolerance; they think, therefore, that by drinking milk publicly, or talking about milk, they will trigger anti-fascists.

(Yes, this is all quite strange, I know.)

It means knowing that “Ree!” — a high, prolonged screeching sound — is how alt-right trolls signify their self-described “weaponizing” of “autism.” It means knowing that “Bog-pilling” (a reference to the Bogdanoff twins) and “red-pilling” are merely Matrix-referencing terms for accepting the alt-right metanarrative of American decline and reemergence. This means having no reaction whatsoever, emotional or otherwise, when you’re referred to by the f-word — something alt-right trolls do to everyone — or misogyny-signaling terms like “cuck” (for “cuckold”) or “snowflake” (a “feminized” male).

Again, I want to emphasize that these terms are actually offensive and hurtful and their use is never okay. But failing to distinguish between use of these words to communicate hatred and use of these words to communicate a bullshit brand of political “dissent” is nevertheless vital to combating the so-called “alt-right.” Because postmodern dialectics have, over the years, convinced us that highly charged words can only be used either not at all or to communicate a violent animus, these metamodernist alt-right trolls are deliberately using the words in a third way to confuse and subvert American political discourse. If we can’t see that, we’ll constantly fall into their trap — and to be clear, believing that every alt-right troll is a politically committed white supremacist is a trap. If we want to fight these trolls’ view of American exceptionalism, or combat their weaponization of the divisions “political correctness” sometimes sows, we need to understand what they’re doing. Treating with them as pre-digital age bigots is extremely dangerous because it fits into their counter-dialectical, pro-“free speech” narrative perfectly.

As for (2) — never being triggered — that’s a much harder sell, as I know from experience. I naturally get triggered when alt-right trolls call me a “kike,” or refer to the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” trope, and to be triggered when addressed in this way is human. This is why, too, some portion of the alt-right generation will be lost to us permanently — that is, they’ll lead dreary, marginalized lives because of a stupid cult they joined when they were teenagers or in their twenties. (Simply put, if you can’t understand that throwing hate speech at people is actually hurtful, and if you privilege your own “political statement” above the quite reasonable sensitivities of others, you’re an asshole now and will die an asshole.) Alt-right trolls’ vaguely understandable reaction to certain iterations of “political correctness” has somehow morphed into something it was never intended to be — the embrace of speech that actually is unreasonably aggressive and cruel no matter what one’s political views are.

If you sense here some empathy for these jerks, this is why: they’re fundamentally unhappy young people whose subtle indoctrination into a cult is explainable by virtue of their juvenile anxiety, confusion, and pathological inability to assimilate into normative human culture. And those very human frailties will nevertheless end up destroying their lives in the long run. What began as a sort of lark — a performance of political resistance by generally entitled young people— will turn into, for many of them, either a lifetime of anti-social behavior and ostracization and/or successful recruitment by hate groups like the KKK. I don’t think any anxious, confused, socially awkward kid deserves that horrid fate, and it’s especially hard to see these young people be so damn arrogant about flushing their social and professional lives down the drain. If you don’t feel any empathy for cultists, you won’t feel any empathy for these alt-right trolls; for better or worse, I do feel empathy for those caught in a cult.

Q: What does all this have to do with Trump?

A: A lot, actually. Alt-right trolls see Trump — and you’ll be very surprised to hear this — as a total and complete loser. To use their own deeply offensive terminology, alt-right trolls consider Trump a “weaponized autist” who is so clearly dysfunctional in every way that his election as president is hilarious. If you’re thinking that it takes a real lack of situational awareness to not see how Trump could endanger the very nation alt-right trolls claim to love, and a real lack of empathy to not see (just because you think Trump couldn’t or wouldn’t ruin your own life) how Trump could ruin real lives, you’re right. That’s why many alt-right trolls come from middle-class or upper-middle-class upbringings — they’re essentially twerpy bourgeois assholes who use a lame brand of political dissent as cover for the fact that in a Marxist revolution they might well be the first ones up against the wall. (I make my point so graphically here only because I think this secret sense of being a fraudulent revolutionary is endemic to alt-right culture; they don’t have anything more important to rebel against, so they betray a “snowflake”-like sensitivity to being triggered by far-left activists. Deep down, though, they know there are real revolutions ongoing out there.)

While most alt-right trolls are, in fact, moderate Republicans, this is almost entirely owing to their distaste for “political correctness.” In terms of economic policy, they’re mostly Leftist populists (think “Berniecrats”). In terms of social policy, a few of them grew up in traditionalist households that were pro-life, pro-gun, pro-school prayer, and pro-death penalty, but many more are libertarians who smoke a lot of weed and think everyone should be able to do privately whatever they like. Some of them are even anarchists, which means they think everyone should be able to do privately and publicly just about whatever they like. Mainstream Republican voters these are not.

For this reason, Trump’s incoherence on policy, inability to engage in any normative social and political discourse, and obviously “meme-worthy” persona (think his fake-looking hair, orange skin, absurdly long ties, obvious fraudulence as a businessman, birth into wealth, conspicuously fake marriage, and so on) are all deeply, deeply attractive to alt-right trolls. Do they think Trump can “Make America Great Again”? Of course not — they think he’s a dolt. But they do believe that America needs to be made great again through the evisceration of political correctness as a guiding principle. And they do believe that America needs politicians who disrupt conventional political discourse every bit as much as they themselves hope to do in their social discourse online. And they do think American politics should be as entertaining as a videogame, addictive as viral video content, and readily reducible to meme as all other indicia of postmodern meaninglessness. And, because these faux rebels are all mostly well-off financially, they’re reasonably certain nothing Trump does will hurt them, so you’re damn right they’ll vote for him (again) in 2020. If Bernie Sanders ran they’d consider voting for him instead, but only if it seemed that him winning would usher in a new brand of hilarity in D.C. politics. After all, the alt-right troll votes — does just about everything — “for the lulz,” which roughly translates into, “for the laughs.”

Q: Why should we fight these trolls rather than ignore them?

A: Because they’ll make us better progressives.

As a longtime public defender, I learned long ago that we most readily come to the truth when we put our ideas through a trial by fire. I think the worst thing for progressives is to avoid vigorous debate, disagreement, and dissent; I’ve seen firsthand how those within any system who are rarely challenged — for instance, police officers, judges, and prosecutors — soon become smug, self-satisfied, and, most importantly, far worse at what they do. If we want to be mean, lean, progressive fighting machines, we need to be able to wade into the arena of public discourse wearing the invisible armor of self-confidence and purpose; and because right now the adversaries most likely to test our self-confidence and purpose are alt-right trolls, I’m committed to the idea that, quite inadvertently, they’re doing us all a tremendous favor. They are drawing us out into a form of engagement the internet doesn’t often enough afford us: real-time interaction with people we strongly disagree with. Our social media feeds have become echo chambers, and so the introduction of absurd, puerile, faux-rebellious “alt-rightists” forces us out of our complacency and back to the sort of charismatically evangelical mindset that wins hearts and minds, elections, and changes in policy. America continues to be, in its policy preferences, center-left, but right now the Left is losing these battles because we appear to be brittle, humorless, and unable to engage in ideological combat without overreaction and aggressive “silencing” tactics. We need to be able to troll as well as the alt-right does when necessary, and be immune to any trolling when that’s necessary. I’m not above shit-posting alt-right trolls or referencing their stupid-ass tweener memes if doing so shows the resilience of progressivism.

I’m not suggesting we should all be fighting alt-right trolls regularly — that’d make us all as miserable as these trolls secretly are — but that we should all understand alt-right trolls well enough to be able to clean their damn clocks online whenever we feel like it.

Q: But what’s the endgame, here?

A: To me, this is the interesting part. As a metamodernist myself — though certainly not of the “alt-right” variety — I believe in seeking out win-win scenarios whenever possible, even (perhaps especially) when it seems that such a scenario should be impossible. (“Generative paradox” is a byword for metamodernists of every stripe; while for alt-right trolls this means using hate speech to, in their benighted view, “fight for freedom,” for most other metamodernists it means finding a way to collide and fuse opposing forces.)

In this case, progressives’ fight with alt-right trolls is the most bizarre sort of “win-win” situation. If we progressives become rarely triggered advocates for social justice, we’ll be more successful in all our activist endeavors — as I know from years of experience as a left-wing activist. Meanwhile, if we become less fragile in public discourse, it’ll start to alleviate alt-right trolls’ fundamental complaint and therefore, incredibly, both make these trolls happier and less likely to subscribe to an “alt-right” brand of politics.

In other words, we progressives have a chance to simultaneously (a) fight alt-right trolls in a way that’s immensely pleasurable for us, (b) become more effective advocates for our progressive causes in the balance, and (c) eliminate the motive engine of the “alt-right,” thereby freeing these dead-enders from a lifetime of misery and pointless political posturing. It is (in fact) a “win-win-win” that would — but this time for real, and in a way progressives could appreciate — make America better than it ever has been.

(In fact, if 4channers were smart, they’d put out as many primers of the sort you’ve just read as they possibly could. Doing so would encourage — but in a more direct and effective way than anything alt-right trolls are doing now — those on the left to cease most of the behaviors that alt-right trolls claim to be anguished and unduly put upon by.)

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