This is the first installment of Reading Reddit, a Slate pop-up blog about Reddit.
It was Tuesday afternoon and the great God-Emperor Donald Trump was under siege. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had been found guilty on eight federal charges at almost exactly the same time that his erstwhile attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to his own criminal charges and implicated as a co-conspirator an unnamed individual “who at that point had become the President of the United States.” The president’s many detractors were salivating, and even conservatives like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens were discussing the possibility of impeachment. Who would spring to his defense?
Enter r/The_Donald, the internet’s foremost support group for agoraphobic MAGA cosplayers. The_Donald is one of the more active subreddits on Reddit, and its members pride themselves on their readiness to defend the president’s honor even and especially when he doesn’t deserve it. On Tuesday afternoon, the habitués of The_Donald battled the Manafort and Cohen developments by heroically changing the subject. Those A1 stories were relegated to obscurity as users unleashed a barrage of similarly timed posts about the Mexican national who had recently been charged in connection with the death of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts.
Soon, all Manafort and Cohen conversation had effectively vanished from The_Donald as the Tibbetts stories climbed to near the top of The_Donald’s front page and users fulminated about the mainstream media’s relative indifference to the story. “Oh an illegal immigrant, watch this disappear,” wrote one user called WeaponLord. “x2…,” agreed the user Abusivehillary, “conveniently they can just cover it up with the Cohen/Manafort stuff.” “Fuck that,” wrote TrumpTrainJune162015, “WE need to make sure this doesn’t disappear. Call into your local radio and TV shows. Post on social media. This is insane.”
In less than an hour, the jolly trolls at The_Donald had accomplished their mission: reframe the afternoon as one not of shame but of vindication for Trump. An apparently undocumented immigrant (as of this writing, there are conflicting stories as to his immigration status) had allegedly murdered a white American woman, after having presumably crossed a border that does not yet feature a big, beautiful, all-expenses-paid wall. The MSM was trying to hide that news by prioritizing coverage of Manafort and Cohen, thus deflecting attention from the fact that Donald J. Trump had been right all along. But you can’t fool The_Donald, and you cannot silence its great rallying cry:
This was yet another day at The_Donald, the pro-Trump role-playing game for extremely online sociopaths. The_Donald is one of the most active communities on Reddit, which is itself one of the world’s most popular websites. Currently boasting about 643,000 subscribers, The_Donald is described as “a never-ending rally dedicated to the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.” On it, Trump-stanning Redditors perform their allegiance to the president all day every day, cheering and amplifying Trump while working to belittle and discredit his opponents by making them look dumb and hypocritical. It is basically an interactive Fox News for weird racist cord cutters, and it is simultaneously the bane and the apotheosis of Reddit.
Reddit has been around now since 2005, and it has come a long way since its early days as a “social bookmarking” website, where users could share and comment on links to interesting things they had found elsewhere online. Today, the content shared on Reddit is less important than the communities that have popped up around that content: thousands and thousands of specialized interest groups called subreddits. Reddit is a site where relatively marginalized obsessives can find others of their tribe, and most of the time this digital tribalism is basically benign and often empowering. But as everyone who has played the Civilization games knows, certain tribes are filled with raging marauders.
The_Donald began during Trump’s presidential campaign, where it served as a fountainhead of memes meant to exult Trump and demean his rivals—memes that often would filter out onto the wider web. It also found success at spawning and/or accelerating nonsense conspiracy theories, often having to do with nonexistent pedophilia rings operating out of real-world pizza parlors. At times, Reddit’s management has tried to stifle The_Donald. The site has tweaked its front-page algorithm more than once to deprioritize posts from the subreddit. But Reddit’s disciplinary measures haven’t killed the channel, because these disciplinary procedures play out much the same way on Reddit as they do on every other website: Trolls howl about censorship; management backs off; trolling proceeds apace. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Reddit’s The_Donald dilemma is similar to those faced by other popular social networks: In their haste to get people of all sorts to use their services, the platforms’ management neglected to sufficiently consider how to respond when people choose to use them antagonistically. Today, more than 18 months into Trump’s presidency, The_Donald rolls on as a safe space for conservative trolls to praise the president, mock his enemies, malign immigrants, promote conspiracies, and cleverly ignore all contrasting viewpoints and information. It is a testing ground for memes that begin on 4chan and are destined for dissemination on Facebook and Twitter. Trump is often referred to as the God-Emperor of the United States, or GEOTUS, while users call themselves centipedes, a reference to a Knife Party song in which tropical centipedes are described as nimble, venomous predators.
The subreddit’s malicious playfulness is one of its most salient features. It sometimes seems The_Donald’s most avid shitposters are primarily playing “Trigger the Libs.” I’ve found it useful to think of The_Donald as an alternate-reality video game that exists in a liminal space between the web and the real world. Its users construct their own characters and mash the keyboard to complete a series of missions and defeat an endless series of villains—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama—while advancing toward the end goal of rescuing the princess, Donald Trump, held hostage by the “deep state.” Trump’s speeches, rallies, and tweets function as cut scenes that ground the action, explain the plot, and establish new quests for players to complete. Users accumulate points through upvotes, Reddit gold, and other metrics. It’s a more evil Jumanji.
The internet, in a sense, has always been a sort of massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Since the days of bulletin boards and Usenet, participants in online communities have felt free to construct their own (often pseudonymous) identities and collaborate in various quests, accumulating informal reputation and status points by virtue of their participation. Oftentimes these online identities are more extreme versions of the users’ real-world identities, and there is a case to be made for treating the internet as a steam-release valve that lets people vent their frustrations and give voice to their worst selves in a way that they would never do in real life.
That case gets less and less convincing with every year that passes, as more and more ungrammatical internet hell-monsters feel empowered to port their trolling onto terra firma. The Pizzagate dipshits didn’t just content themselves with spouting nonsense online before going outside to mow their lawns and chat with their neighbors; one of them actually brought a gun to a pizza parlor to try to uncover a child-sex ring that didn’t exist. The bad memes popularized on The_Donald don’t exist in a vacuum; they are a constant feature of the body politic. It is an internet game with real-life outcomes, which is what makes it so addictive to its players.
The_Donald’s users still comport themselves as trickster outsiders trying to strike down the system. Even though Donald Trump is the president of the United States, his most faithful online lickspittles remain convinced he is still an underdog, hampered in his goals by elaborate deep-state conspiracies and celebrities who say mean things about him on Twitter. Accepting this fiction—that Trump has not yet reached peak Trump and that he won’t ever get there without your help—is necessary if the game is to continue. And why wouldn’t the players want the game to continue? It’s fun to tweak the libs. It’s fun to wake up every day with new enemies to dispatch and missions to complete. The_Donald has gamified performative MAGA trolling, and every morning, the game begins anew.