4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump
Dale Beran
7.1K428

This is a good read that eerily reflects my own thoughts, and it seems this is because your trajectory was similar to mine. I wonder how many other dudes veer near these ideologies at some low point but never get sucked in to the spiral? These sorts of stories are important, because the general media still really doesn’t get internet culture, and can’t seem to do much but act mystified by young men taking trolling to ever-increasing heights, while I can… at least understand where they’re coming from, even if I strongly disagree.

In my mind, the nihilism doesn’t just come from not attaining societal goals, but from recognizing how little these goals, or any goals, are related to their actual lives. What I mean is: I don’t think it’s just that people feel powerless, as much as they feel a total disconnect between themselves and the world. The economy is run by chance; the quickest way to get rich is uploading a viral video or having your $1 joke iPhone app take off. Politics is covered at the national level, so there’s no sense that those decisions affect their lives. All news is biased, and anyone who claims to know the truth is is lying or duped. Almost every discussion of morality or philosophy seems like a list of buzzwords that can be deligitimized with a few Google searches. The very idea that actions have real consequences is laughable; that’s only ever propaganda from one side or another!

Many of them may feel powerless, but more importantly, feel like the concept of power, of someone having real, tangible control over your surroundings, doesn’t exist at all. In previous eras, a large group of people feeling powerless would have organized into a movement to fight for a better future. On imageboards, the idea of fighting for a moral cause is for suckers, and the concept of people being oppressed is just another meme you shouldn’t take too seriously. The only power you can have is abstract: power over ideas, the ability to not be offended, to catch someone else in a logical trap and watch them get frustrated, to tear down someone else’s hypocrisy. You can at least know more than other people, and that’s what supporting Trump is about. Everyone’s a con man, the Presidency doesn’t really matter, nothing is true and everyone’s delusional; but at least you know this, and can laugh as other people’s delusions blow up in their faces.

In the end, any level of connection to reality acts as a vaccine to this (the best way to learn that racism really exists is to, y’know, actually know a black person.) I don’t mean this as a criticism of internet culture in a “kids spend too much damn time online” way; I love the internet, and am pretty sure it’s made me a better person. But without a link between political arguments and the real world, it doesn’t matter if you don’t live in the proverbial mother’s basement (and I don’t think most do!) or if you end up acquiring money and status; unless there’s some connection between your life and someone else’s, all you can do is embrace the nothingness.

(hey fellas, if you’ve read Dorothy Thompson’s excellent “Who Goes Nazi?” essay from 1941, this pattern is already familiar. It’s her “Mr. C”:

He is the product of a democracy hypocritically preaching social equality and practising a carelessly brutal snobbery. He is a sensitive, gifted man who has been humiliated into nihilism. He would laugh to see heads roll.

Sound familiar? What about:

Pity he has utterly erased from his nature, and joy he has never known. He has an ambition, bitter and burning. It is to rise to such an eminence that no one can ever again humiliate him. Not to rule but to be the secret ruler, pulling the strings of puppets created by his brains. Already some of them are talking his language — though they have never met him.

Sure, she writes dramatically, but what better way to summarize the alt-right? Just as Trump cared more about winning than ruling, kids untethered from reality care more about how easy and fun it is to control the memetic atmosphere than what happens to the future. There is no path to success, but there is a path to causing others to fail, and laughing at them.

also now that people are reading, lemme clarify real quick: I do think the stereotype of 4channers et al living in their moms’ basements is overblown. I also think if you’re looking for a single skeleton key, you’d go with fox news. and I think the reason nihilism is so popular on the internet is that most of its claims are true; the news really is biased, people really are largely delusional about how power works, and the well-meaning attempts of schools etc to teach anti-racism really are propaganda. the problem is that the internet allows endless access to counter-arguments for any point of view, and the forces of criticism are always stronger; any “-ism,” any way of seeing the world, is incomplete, and you can read five hundred demonstrations of how communists, capitalists, feminists, atheists, christians, muslims, libertarians, gamers, or any group you could possibly name are hypocritical, locked in cycles of self-referential bias, and can’t be trusted. so people either have their worldview punctured and embrace white nationalism/neoreactionary weirdness with the zeal of the convert, or slip into being machines of pure vindictive criticism of everything around them. we can psychoanalyze why certain kids are more likely to do this, but I think the structural problem is more interesting. when all you have are arguments divorced from reality and access to endless critique, they can all be criticized on abstract grounds, while in the real world, people recognize that of course a movement like feminism is filled with peer pressure, irrationality, and poorly-grounded arguments; we persist with it because it’s useful for actually addressing a real problem.)

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