Donald Trump is a lot of terrible things: xenophobic, self-aggrandizing, a thin-skinned bigot. Since announcing his presidential campaign in June 2015, the reptilian nature of Trump’s beliefs hasn’t been his main headline, however. Instead, journalists have often framed Trump as a troll, perhaps the greatest troll in American history. Articles published by Salon, the New York Post, the Daily Dot, the Daily Beast, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, the Daily Mail, the Washington Post, GQ, and Politico have explicitly framed Trump’s behaviors as “trolling” in the headline or lede. Many other articles, like those published by Gawker, Jezebel, Time, and even far-right shouting arenas like Breitbart casually employ the adjective trolling when describing Trump. (And yes, Slate has done it, too.)
As the 2015 publication of my book on trolls more or less coincided with Trump’s political rise, I’ve also fielded a number of interview requests on the apparent trolling connection. Journalists from Time, the New York Post, and the New York Times, among others, have all asked variations of the same basic question: Was Donald Trump the ultimate troll, or what?
I understand this impulse. Trump’s presidential announcement, for example, certainly looked like an awful lot like trolling, which is broadly defined as the attempt to provoke a strong negative reaction in one’s audience. It was just so needlessly belligerent, so out there, so offensive—like a walking, talking internet comments section. In his rambling speech, Trump described Mexicans as criminals and rapists. (“And some, I assume, are good people,” he halfheartedly conceded, suggesting that if there are any good Mexicans out there, Donald J. Trump hasn’t personally encountered any.) He promised to build a wall on the Mexican border (“nobody builds walls better than me”), and through the strength of his leadership, to Make America Great Again™ (line courtesy of Ronald Reagan). But Trump wasn’t focused solely on nativist fearmongering. He also emphasized how wonderful and rich and well-connected he was (“I think I’m actually a very nice person”; “I’ve done an amazing job”; “I have so many websites”). He even managed to plug his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal.
It was easy to dismiss Trump back then, on the left and mainstream right. There was no way he’d win the nomination. As a result, for many, Trump was funny. And for those in the news media, great for business. Because again, it was all so outrageous. A trainwreck. Why Twitter was invented. Insert Michael Jackson popcorn gif.
Thus it went for the next 12 months. When he wasn’t tweeting monosyllabic insults or defending the size of his penis on live television, Trump was engaging in the kind of speech and behavior—toward Mexicans, black people, Muslims, and women—that wasn’t just unpresidential, wasn’t just offensive, but was masterfully tailored for the click-based web economy. It was too absurd and too cynical to be real. He had to be trolling. Right?
My answer to this question hasn’t changed: Donald Trump should never be described as a troll. That assertion is, in fact, dangerous.
This position doesn’t hinge on some hardline definition of what does and does not qualify as trolling. The term has been in flux since it was embraced by online communities in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Uncritical use of the term contributes to its overall nebulousness and makes it increasingly difficult to know what somebody means when they talk about trolling. That certainly complicates critical analyses. But that’s not why I rankle at the suggestion that Donald Trump, or anyone operating within the so-called alt-right, is a troll.
The problem—which I describe in greater detail here and here—is that the troll frame mitigates harm and privileges the antagonist. If something is trolling, the online logic goes, then it’s not really real; it’s a game being played on the internet. If you take offense to that game, well, you’re just being oversensitive. You can always log off. Thus articulating the problem in terms of how someone reacts to harmful behavior, not the specifics of the harm itself.
Furthermore, the notion that someone is just trolling establishes political, rhetorical, and affective distance between an individual and the things they do and say. The distance necessitated by the troll frame functions as an ethical escape hatch, looping one back to the rationale that if someone takes offense to an offensive statement, that’s on them. When pressed, the so-called troll can always point towards self-reflexive performativity (“I’m not a real racist, I just play one on the internet”), and away from personal responsibility for the impact their behaviors have, regardless of what their true motivations might have been.
Of course, more often than not online, true motivations are unknowable. This in turn conjures Poe’s law, an internet axiom foregrounded by participatory media scholar Ryan Milner in his analysis of the memes people share, remix, and re-appropriate. As Milner argues, the unknowability of true motivations—particularly when posters are anonymous or pseudonymous—emphasizes the need to focus on the content of a particular message and the impact it has on its audience. Particularly when assumptions about what a poster is really doing essentially amounts to audience victim-blaming.
In the specific case of Donald Trump, the troll frame creates additional problems. First, it flattens his offensive statements under the same basic descriptor. Under this rubric, self-congratulatory assertions about his physical robustness and petty attempts to undermine his critics is the same thing as suggesting that an entire religious group should be denied entry into the United States or that Mexicans are criminals and rapists. As a troll, everything Trump says becomes an equally outrageous and equally forgettable image in a flip-book—just another day on the campaign trail, just another statement that will soon be replaced by his next affront to human decency.
Second, the troll frame prevents thoughtful contextualization of Trump’s statements. Political analyst Rachel Maddow argues that lack of context is, ultimately, the problem with most news coverage of Trump’s candidacy. Unlike the troll frame, which reduces Trump to a cynical caricature while amplifying his hateful message, placing Trump in context forces one to consider the fact, often overlooked in squabbles over whether the news media helped secure Trump’s presidential bid, that millions of people believe in what Trump is saying.
Properly contextualizing Trump’s bigotry might be disturbing, but it highlights truths central to the contemporary cultural landscape. How and why Trump’s xenophobic message is so resonant with his supporters, for example. How and why someone like Trump would be the perfect person with the perfect message at this moment in American history. And as part—but certainly not the entirety—of this puzzle, how and why sensationalist news coverage has incentivized Trump’s twisted brand of “bark something racist first, fire synapses later” theater of toxicity. All of which we need to know, and need to try hard to understand, if we have any hope of making things better for those on the left and on the right.
President Obama highlighted the astronomically high political stakes of these issues in his fiery denouncement of Trump’s sloppy, bigoted response to the Orlando shootings. Responding to the 49 lives lost, Trump “appreciated the congrats” for being “right on Islam,” attacked Obama for not using the phrase “radical Islam,” and even suggested that Obama knew more about the attack than he was saying. (When pressed to elaborate, Trump refused, saying that people can figure it out for themselves.)
If the troll frame was a problem before, it is even more so after Orlando, in which Trump’s blithe disregard for anyone but himself and disinterest in anything but his own racist agenda was on full, nauseating display. “Troll” has never been an appropriate descriptor for Trump, but it’s even less so now. Trump deserves so much worse than troll. He deserves the harshest fate of all: to be described accurately.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.