If there’s one thing trolls know, it’s that there’s power in seeming dumber than you are. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump pretended not to know who David Duke was. More recently, Dinesh D’Souza retweeted trailers to his film that contained hashtags like #bringbackslavery and #burntheJews and claimed afterward that he “didn’t see” them. A tiresome alt-right provocateur got banned from a service for sending a journalist $14.88—a coded Nazi reference—and later claimed it was “a joke.” The thing about this strategy is that it works: It even fooled the FBI. A Gamergate troll who sent women dozens of death threats and bomb threats a) confessed to doing it and b) admitted he knew it was a crime. But he said his threats were “a joke,” so his name was kept confidential by the FBI, and they let him go. Sometimes the mistakes really do seem dumb—Georgia Rep. Drew Ferguson tweeted an image of Nazi soldiers to celebrate D-Day, then corrected it. But the larger mission of claiming stupidity is to blur intentionality so much that it becomes impossible to parse.
Even though this claim to plausible idiocy persists—complete with a bizarre effort by White House staff to replicate Trump’s spelling mistakes when they tweet on his behalf—something curious has changed among the trolls and Pepes of the world since they first took the national stage. Trump won. And the thicket of fake accounts, bots, and genuine supporters has shifted slightly in response. For one thing, there’s been a slow but definite migration toward more respectable ground. As some Pepe trolls have been banned from Twitter since the election, even the more virulent accounts have largely traded in most of their frog avatars (one of which was declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League and semi-banned from Facebook) for American flags.
That’s why the same people who got their jollies with nihilist memes—“We have won the meme war,” alt-right activist Jack Posobiec tweeted on Election Day—are now busy, for example, calling ex-CIA director John Brennan a communist and retweeting protests of the Red Hen restaurant that evicted Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Bill Mitchell is paranoid that Twitter is deleting his “likes” and hiding posts from his followers. Where once a raucous and influential segment of the culture couldn’t stop slaying other people’s sacred cows, now they are angry that people aren’t showing enough respect. They’re paranoid and complain about having to “hide” their love of Trump. People who mocked the suffering of children profess outrage at how their entitled millionaire is being treated. Trump himself can’t stop complaining that everything is “very unfair!” This isn’t really the way trolls are supposed to sound; it’s thin-skinned and petulant.
Here’s what I think is happening: Now that the trolls have put their man in the White House and taken up tone-policing, their formerly exclusive DGAF attitude seems to be hybridizing with the get-off-my-lawn alarmism of Fox News. And it’s going both ways. While onetime edgy figures like Posobiec have taken on the affectations of state-television hackery, complete with never-ending finger-wagging outrage about Hillary Clinton and the Red Hen, more official actors have started to use the methods of the grassroots.
Take the GOP’s Twitter account. The social media voice of a major party tweeted an accusation last week that Democrat Richard Cordray had twice been “caught” comparing Republicans to Nazis. “Completely inappropriate and out of line,” the account righteously concluded—failing to disclose, among many other things, that an actual, self-proclaimed Nazi is the current GOP candidate in an Illinois congressional race. This is trolling—the GOP knows perfectly well that comparisons to Nazis are more than legitimate (Ted Cruz himself, hardly a moderate, urged Illinois voters to choose the Democrat over the GOP Nazi). It’s concern trolling.
The trouble is that this sensibility has infiltrated actual political entities to the point where they don’t even know where the sanctimony ends and the trolling begins. You could read Melania Trump’s jacket during her border visit (“I Really Don’t Care Do U?”) as, among other things, a shoutout to the ethos that put her husband in power—but, coupled with her staff’s denials, it seems just as likely that she wanted only to create messaging anarchy. That makes it hard to form a response; hell, it makes any conversation functionally impossible. When the GOP account tweeted that “Democrats’ calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement would mean abolishing America’s borders—and opening the floodgates to crime, drugs, and terrorism,” thousands of people mocked the party for getting this catastrophically wrong. (ICE has nothing to do with borders—that’s the job of Customs and Border Protection. And the “borders” would still exist without either.) But that’s because some still assume the GOP Twitter account wants to accurately inform its followers. It’s just as likely that whoever runs the GOP account knows perfectly well that ICE and CBP are distinct, but, like the president, prefers to disseminate misinformation to foment panic. Republicans who take the account seriously will repeat this as gospel. And those few Republicans who realize it’s wrong will chalk it up to an honest mistake.
Bizarre as this unlikely marriage between 4chan and Fox News has been, the result is undeniably fractious. These are very different approaches trying to become one, and while there’s still some “own the libs” energy, it feels more beleaguered than fun. It’s incredible, really: Trump supporters who sported “fuck your feelings” T-shirts and mocked their opponents for being “triggered” have developed schizoid Victorian sensibilities. They cheer Trump for calling the press “the enemy of the people” and peacefully protesting black football players “sons of bitches,” but they moan, almost in the same breath, that their friends won’t have them over or that they can’t get dates. They were interrupted at dinner! Smelling salts please!
It turns out the black-tie “DeploraBall” for Trump’s inauguration heralded a turn toward respectability (as much as can be automatically conferred by power) that exceeded what its planners intended. The event was supposed to reclaim the “deplorables” label and celebrate an ironic distance from liberal society’s petit bourgeois values—they didn’t care about being liked. But they got dressed up anyway and, before they knew it, were actually enjoying the feeling of being on the inside for once, with the screaming rabble locked out. That’s how it starts. You can only play dumb for so long.