Trump’s best known base is the white, working-class, non-college base. This is 41% of the US population that polls show approve of Donald Trump. This poll has held steady at 41% for almost all of Trumps Presidency. You can keep track of the poll in Nate Silvers 538 website. But this is not Trump’s only base. Trump’s other base, the alt-right, looks to me to be much more dangerous. And then there is a third Trump base, what might be called his social media base.
Of course all of these bases overlap, and if you add them all up, they might end up being identical to the 41% approval base. But I also suspect they could end up being considerably more.
The alt-right is often conflated with the neo-fascist movement, or the skin heads, or the neo-nazis, or the white-supremacists. All of these are pretty much the same thing these days.
The alt-right is also a name for those trolls who have learned how to game the internet by creating viral posts that end up with hundreds of thousands of followers cheering them on. Trolling has become a new word in the last ten years. It basically means the creation of viral internet events that make the most outrageous, vulgar and violent claims imaginable. Of course these claims are never true, or in the best case maybe 2% true. But they can be highly successful in creating enormous viral internet events that in turn can create unimaginable political power.
No one would pay much attention to the alt-right if not for the fact the chief troller of the alt-right is Donald Trump. And I suspect that Trump would have never become president if not for the techniques of the online alt-right. It’s not so much that the alt-right’s support of Trump is important. It’s more how Trump has used the viral internet techniques of the alt-right. And it’s also about the fascist atmosphere that pervades both the alt right and Trump’s Presidency.
Trump uses every tool of the alt-right. If there is one thing that made Trump President it is his ability to make such absolutely outrageous statements that it is impossible not to pay attention to him. This made it possible for him to win the presidency without spending millions on paid advertisements. And the attention he gained by being so outrageous, by telling so many absolutely insane lies, by being so completely vulgar was far better than anything he could have bought via paid commercials. It sounded so real and so far outside the normal insider political loop that millions had learned to despise that it won Trump the election.
And then there is Trump’s neo-fascism. This has great appeal to all of the white supremacists and neo-nazis who are no longer lurking behind masks or behind the scenes but working social media as hard as they can to convert followers.
And Trump truly is the chief troll. It made him President, more than anything else.
There is still another closely related Trump base. This is the base created by social media: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Of course the alt-right also uses social media heavily, but it is a much more specialized case than the billions who daily follow Facebook and the rest. And Facebook is not a minor player. Facebook now has a global following of 2.41 billion, and that’s pretty close to 1/3 of all the people in the world. Google’s Utube probably reaches and persuades even more people.
Around 2010 or so, digital social media began to take power away from the old centralized media. Through most of the second half of the twentieth century there were three main broadcasting companies, a dozen or so major newspapers, a few dominant news magazines and half a dozen major movie companies. These media giants basically created the story of who Americans were and what they believed in. They created the American narrative that most Americans once believed in.
But the digital revolution and most particularly social media have changed the American narrative is now created.
The digital revolution splintered the old central narrative, until now everyone can believe anything they want to believe, rational or irrational, brilliant or stupid, sane or insane. No matter what “truth” or what narrative you decide is true, you can find a group of true believers online to support you. Facebook or Twitter or U Tube are perfectly willing to filter out a perfect in-group for you to belong to, with no one to disagree.
All the social media have built in algorithms that tend to create what are called filter bubbles. All social media tend to give people what they like, what they want to hear; this keeps them as loyal followers of their social media. If you are a liberal Democrat you are shown articles from the New York Times and the Atlantic. If you are a loyal Republican you see the only Fox News and the Washington Post. Social media filter “news,” “facts,” and opinions to give you what you already believe. Social media never gives anyone information that questions what they believe in. So filter bubbles of strong beliefs that are never questioned are created by all social media.
And don’t forget what social media is really about. It is not out there to educate or inform or entertain people. All social media has one and only one reason for existing: to mine and steal massive amounts of information about everyone, everywhere and then sell that information to the highest bidder. Sometimes that highest bidder is a business trying to increase their profits. But more and more it is political entities that want your vote.
There is an old saying in the digital media business, “If you are getting it for free, you are not the customer, you are the product.” It’s not a bad idea to think about that the next time you are offered a wonderful free gizmo and then have to agree to fifty pages of a fine print contract that no one ever reads
It is a least partially the new social media which has created the alt-right, the current explosion of white supremacists, neo-fascists, and the Presidency of Donald Trump. And it is this new social media that is beginning to dominate the internet, to dominate the splintering of opinion and knowledge and truth and entertainment into smaller and smaller fragments that is now leading to the undoing of America.
Andrew Marantz has been writing about all of this for quite some time. He writes mostly for The New Yorker. A google search for “alt-right, trolling, New Yorker” will net you a bonanza of articles on the new danger that is suddenly surfacing in America. It will lead you not only to Marantz and New Yorker articles but to many stories in many magazines like the Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington post, the Guardian, the Nation and many more.
I first discovered all of this three years ago when I read a 2016 Andrew Marantz article in The New Yorker called “Trolls for Trump: Meet Mike Cernovich, the meme mastermind of the alt-right.” This is an early article on trolling and the alt-right, but I guarantee that it will get your attention.
Last week, in October of 2019 Andrew Marantz published a new book called ANTISOCIAL: ONLINE EXTREMISTS, TECHNO-UTOPIANS, AND THE HIJACKING OF THE AMERICAN CONVERSATION.
I have just begun this book, but it looks to me like this book is a great summary of the entire disaster that is overtaking America and American Democracy as we speak.
Trolling, the alt-right, the rise of social media, all feeding into the election of Donald Trump is something no one who values American Democracy can ignore.
Below are just a few of the many, many articles and books describing the alt-right and the dangers of social media to our Democracy.
Alt-right articles in New Yorker – Google Search (Click the link at the bottom of the page to see a treasure trove of articles about the alt-right in many US magazines).
Antisocial: Online extremists, Techno-utopians and the hijacking of the American conversation, a new book by Andrew Marantz
Like War, The weaponization of social media, A new book by PW Singer
Antisocial Media: How Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy, A new book by Siva Vaidhyanathan