Trolling the Public Mind

Sometimes extremes can be a useful prod for one’s thinking. That has been the case with the troll I came across earlier this month. I can’t help but wonder what motivates such people. I could just dismiss them, not that it is likely once my curiosity gets going.

The question that comes to mind is: Does this troll actually believe in the position he promotes? I don’t have any reason to doubt it. He seems like a true believer who has become a committed activist to his cause, whether or not there is some kind of financial incentive behind that commitment. I doubt he is stupid and uneducated. In fact, he seems clever enough and that indicates some intelligence.

My suspicion is that he is like many people. He is probably a divided person, knowing and not knowing all kinds of things. Dissociation is a survival strategy in the complex modern world. It sometimes can be clear when someone goes to great effort to not know something that they are capable of knowing. Psychologists have studied this and shown how people can purposely not look at what they don’t want to see, while looking all around it.

The conflict isn’t between two sides of a debate, not fundamentally. The divide exists first and foremost within the human psyche. In trying to shut down debate and obfuscate the issue, the troll (or denialist or reactionary, whatever one wishes to call them) is trying to purge the feared content from their own mind. In order to undermine the science itself, these people have to understand the science, at least at a basic level. Their rhetoric is fairly often carefully structured in response to the known data. People know much of what they pretend to not know—as Cass R. Sunstein explained:

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe. […]

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

I definitely got the sense from that troll that he saw it as a game, a team sports competition. He was simply focused on getting his team to win. Still, I’m sure there is more going on than that. The competitiveness interpretation feels a bit superficial, even if it is an important factor.

This isn’t just about social behavior. It goes deep into human nature and collective reality. I had a bit of a strange thought, along these lines. What if there is something about public debate and social competition that easily elicits areas of non-rational thought that we would otherwise dismiss? I was specifically wondering about sympathetic magic. Let me explain.

Some people act like winning a debate and defeating an opponent, by fair means or not, is to prove they are right. Of course, for this mindset, defeating an opponent is winning a debate. In the ancient henotheistic worldview, when two societies went to war, it was perceived as a fight between the two ruling deities of those societies. So, it wasn’t just a people who won but a worldview that won, and it defined an entire reality. That worldview was reality, the reality of a particular culture and social order.

Those who deny the climatology science do so because they see the worldview it represents as a threat. It must be defeated, at any cost, because it isn’t just a threat but an existential threat. Naomi Klein understands this, and she argues that the denialists understand it as well. They realize that it goes way beyond mere science. If the climatologists are right, this very well may be the end of the world as we know it, collapse at worst and revolution at best. Either way, that means the end of the status quo and many people are heavily invested in the status quo.

Even most people on the political left feel wary about the challenge this forces upon us, and that is why so few on the political left put up much of a fight. Fighting for the reality of climate change is hardly inspiring. No one wants it to be true. Denial and dissociation is a normal human response to something so immense and overwhelming, something that is terrifying in its proportions and possibilities. We argue about it so that we won’t have to face the stark reality. This is a problem that our clever monkey minds can’t deal with. There is no positive outcome, no solution. No matter what we do, the world will change.

That is an uncomfortable truth for all of us, but it is most challenging to the political right. It simply doesn’t matter that they deny climate change, for it won’t stop climate change.

This got me thinking about Trump, the greatest troll America has ever produced. He is the king of trolls. He doesn’t even need the anonymity of the internet. He is pure arrogant bullying. It isn’t exactly anything new, just brought to its most extreme form. As Josh Marshall explained:

This is why Trump has so shaken up and so dominated the GOP primary cycle, at least thus far. As I’ve said, this kind of dominance symbolism is pervasive in GOP politics. It’s not new with Trump at all. Most successful Republican politicians speak this language

Trump will control, not be controlled. He will mock others ruthlessly. And he will destroy his enemies. One almost expects him to start thumping his chest.

He is just a variant of someone like Karl Rove. It’s a dominance mindset. These are powerful men who know they are powerful and aren’t afraid to use it. They have no shame because they consider no one else to be in a position to judge them. They are above it all. Take what Rove supposedly said back in the bad ol’ days of the Bush regime:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Power determines reality. Not the other way around. This is the attitude of someone who is used to getting their way and punishing those who get in their way. It is win at all costs. It matters not if this is an expression of Rove’s imperialism or Trump’s egotism—six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Rove’s comment connects back to my earlier point. There is something akin to sympathetic magic in this mindset. It is an almost magical belief in willpower. It is an assertion of one’s mastery.

This is seen in how religion relates to the political right. The rhetoric of dominance connects the tactics of apologetics to the behavior of reactionary trolls, bullies, egotists, and demagogues. To willfully assert one’s belief is to believe in the power of one’s will or simply in Will itself. Whether or not religion is directly involved, there is a god-like attitude in this.

It’s why apologists are so interested in history. And that is related to why right-wingers are so concerned about controlling what students are taught in history classes. Who controls the history books and textbooks will control the world. And, of course, it is the victors who get to write the history books, to determine what is taught.

The traditional Western worldview is built on a God of history. It doesn’t matter what the facts say but how the story is told and sold.

Reactionaries project their own mindset onto all of the world. They assume everyone is like them. As such, they can’t understand climatology as anything other than as a conspiracy of power and propaganda. In this worldview, there isn’t a clear distinction between the climate science and climate scientists. Reality has no independent existence and facts no objective validity. It makes one think of the relationship between postmodernism and fascism.

The sympathetic magic angle led me back to my ongoing thoughts about symbolic conflation. There is great power in this, and it continually amazes me.

Symbolic conflation requires issues that are visceral and emotional, socially relevant and politically potent, imaginatively compelling and symbolically multivalent. Simply put, what is needed is something that can’t be easily pinned down. This is the dark side of the mercurial spirit. The Trickster knows how to manipulate and con others, but he just as easily ends up fooling himself. The mercurial is about change, both transformation and destruction. But there are those who attempt to use this dark power for their own gain. Symbolic conflation is how this power gets bottled up. The con man gets taken in by his own con.

In this sense, I doubt the troll understands his own motivations. The greatest con of all is convincing yourself that you are more powerful than you are. But when one worships naked power, one becomes its servant, not its master. All attempts at social control are traps of the mind.

This isn’t about mere rhetoric. It touches deep into our psyche, far below the conscious mind. The stories we tell we eventually come to take as reality itself. And there is no more powerful force behind a story than that of fear.

I wonder if that is the Gordian knot of symbolic conflation, the cancerous lump on the collective imagination. It may seem like a lynch pin that could be easily removed, but what is interesting is that few people dare to tug at it to see if it will budge. Just because you can point to it doesn’t mean much. Fear of its undoing even makes the most radical of left-wingers reluctant to touch that raw nerve.

Whether climate change or war or abortion, such contentious issues open us up to a primal sense of fear. These are stark existential issues of life and death, of self and other. It’s not the ‘reality’ of these issues that matters. Sure, we can rationally discuss them, at least to some extent. Yet they remain political footballs thrown at the voter’s gut. They aren’t problems to be solved. They are psychological terrorism, their purpose being to enrage and divide… and ultimately to distract.

This is why Trump is no more interested in fair debate than is the internet troll and denialist. It is all spectacle, be it on the stage of mainstream media or the battleground of social media. It is ritualized drama, an emotional purging of our collective fears.

18 thoughts on “Trolling the Public Mind

  1. I’ve had a bit of an epiphany tonight, a coming together of a lot of lines of thought all around my obsession, the punishment stuff. I can’t wait to write it, but if my present excitement/delusion about it stays this high,I’ll be hoping to sell it to Psychology Today or something. Not for money, just to reach anybody with it, you know?

    Hey I’m glad you found my other blog. There’s some rubbish, but some good stuff too, I think the Crocodile Bite, the Bill Maher/Sam Harris stuff, Church sponsored atheism, all worth a glance, maybe. You know Barbara Theiring and the Pesher Technique?

    I absolutely will look at your symbolic conflation, sounds like you’ve identified a common theme in life. Have a good night, B. Cheers.

    • I’m be curious to read of the results of your epiphany. I like epiphanies.

      When I have some more free time on my hands, I’ll peruse your other blog. My main problem in life is there isn’t enough time. If Trump defeated Chronos the god of time in single combat, I might consider supporting him. Someone really needs to put Chronos in his place.

      I can’t say that I know about Barbara Theiring and the Pesher technique. But I may have come across mentions of her and her work. The Pesher technique sounds vaguely familliar. I have read a fair amount about Biblical studies and such. What made you think of that?

      About symbolic conflation, there are other posts that are somewhat related. If you’re a Star Trek fan, you might like this one:

      • oh, no pressure, no hurry, and yes, I know, things that don’t happen now don’t happen. Just stay alive and online, we’ll keep talking . . . you’ve given me a boost lately – this social science binge has driven everyone else off, you’re my only viewer, but I’m not a pet, I won’t die unattended. Kind of see my own unpopularity as a badge of honour, right?

        . . . uh, the Pesher Technique just because it’s part of the Church Sponsored Atheism posts I mentioned. I’ve bought into her completely. If her story isn’t perfectly true, then the real story is something very, very like it. You can’t read her versions of the NT stories and without knowing you’ve made the move from fiction to reality. Here’s the site: but it’s no quick read . . .

        me too! This would be my second in this train of thought, if it holds up! Epiphany, I mean.

        • I don’t have a strong opinion on Jesus, who he might have been or even whether he ever actually existed. I’m more interested in early Christianity as a social movement and that whole era transitioning out of the ancient world.

          If you’re interested in another take on Jesus and early Christianity, there is Richard Carrier’s recent book which is the first book on historicism and mythicism that is from a peer reviewed university press. Carrier offers a method for raising the level of debate, a way of considering the evidence, no matter which way one wishes to argue.

          On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.
          by Richard Carrier

        • Another Biblical scholar who has seriously considered mythicism made an interesting comment about her. It is from The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (p. 331, footnote 7):

          “Many scholars dismiss Thiering as an eccentric, but while I do not hold with all her judgments, I am not persuaded that her critics are remotely competent to evaluate her work, based as it is on intricacies of ancient calendar lore and exegetical technique of which she seems to possess a unique mastery.”

          That seems like fairly high praise. I do respect Price’s scholarship, although not his right-wing libertarian politics.

          • hmmm . . . mythicism. Meaning where Thiering takes you is a real Jesus that wiped himself out of history in favour of the myth version, right, or that someone else did? (Both, by Thiering.) Yeah, it’s absolutely a side hobby for me, but I gotta say, thinking I have a real story to replace the myth with frees me up from the myth a lot more. “I don’t know what happened, but THAT’S not what happened” isn’t exactly atheism dealing from a position of strength, right? It’s liberating, it really is, I mean, was for me, despite I thought I was secure in my atheism before.

          • There are three basic forms of mythicism.

            • One possibility is that there really was a historical figure or a composite of multiple historical figures. In that case, there might be enough evidence to ascertain who the person/people was and/or maybe some details about their life/lives.
            • Another possibility is that there maybe some indications of a person or evidence that could be interpreted as indicating an actual person, but it can’t be entirely proven or else determined anything about them.
            • The last possibility is that there is absolutely no evidence of any historical figure, individual or composite, or else that no historical figure is required to explain the myths that formed.

            The distinction between the three isn’t always clear and often is a subjective assessment. What seems like good evidence to one person won’t to another. In the end, it might not matter. It is the myth that survives the multiple layers of editing, omissions, rewriting, censorship, etc.

            I’m an agnostic. So, it isn’t a big issue for me. I’m neither a believer nor a non-believer. I’m just curious about what has made the world the way it is.

          • Thanks for the definition (mythicism) – but the Pesher Technique makes all that stuff meaningless. She doesn’t really come right out and say it, but she definitely leaves it for us to figure out: Jesus himself and the early church probably very carefully erased every bit of evidence of Jesus’ life because real evidence would hurt their fictional story. The atheists like to say how the Romans kept records and how the lack of one for Jesus proves he didn’t exist, but the point of his “disappearance” is to remove evidence of his mere humanness.

            That’s fun, right?

          • “The atheists like to say how the Romans kept records and how the lack of one for Jesus proves he didn’t exist, but the point of his “disappearance” is to remove evidence of his mere humanness.”

            If you’re interested in that issue, Carrier discusses it in his recent book. He thoroughly considers all the evidence and lack of evidence and he considers all of the possible interpretations. He clearly points out that lack of evidence doesn’t prove lack of a historical figure. It is simply a lack which can be interpreted in various ways.

            It is interesting to discuss, but it is an endless topic. I must admit it isn’t where my mind is most focused on at the moment. I did read some of Carrier’s recent book, but it was only mild curiosity.

            One thing that did get me thinking was his pointing out that Christianity perfectly fits the description of a mystery religion found in ancient accounts. Christianity was a fairly normal religion for its time, one of many syncretistic solar godman salvific cults inspired by Hellenism and melded to some local culture.

            What originally inspired it all is a tough nut to crack.

            If my mind turns back in the direction of Biblical studies, I’ll look more into the Pesher technique. But I have too many things on my plate at the moment. I really need to be doing one thing in particular that I keep putting off and it will be months of work.


          It is a time for searching reexamination of the Scrolls and their implications for early Christianity and the life of Jesus. We can only be grateful to Barbara Thiering for her ingenuity. Though many will feel they cannot accept most of her suggestions, one must not consign them all to a premature grave. For instance, the notion that the Samaritan woman is meant as a cipher for the Simonian Helena ought not to be dismissed out of hand, given the Christian-Samaritan polemical context in which scholars have long placed the passage.

          Certainly the surprising proposal that the Teacher of Righteousness was John the Baptist (already the suggestion of Robert Eisler, The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist, who made the link on the basis of the single Scroll available to him, the Cairo Genizah copy of the Damascus Covenant) should be taken as seriously as one is willing to take Eisenman’s identification of the Teacher with James the Just. We have for a long time taken for granted that John had some Qumran affinity and that Jesus had broken with John’s sect’s penitential strictness, even that the two sects continued side by side for some time. How far does Dr. Thiering’s proposal go beyond these tenets of the critical consensus?

          Finally, though the very boldness of Thiering’s reconstruction will cause some to dismiss it at once without further consideration such as we have sought to supply here, it ought instead to be recognized as a sign of a fresh vigor in the field of New Testament criticism. Thiering is willing to put cherished paradigms on the shelf and try something altogether new. As Paul Feyerabend has said, “The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: ‘anything goes.'”

        • By the way, there is an even more interesting writer, Tom Harpur. He is a Christian who has embraced mythicism.

          I’ve heard that ministers/preachers/priests have higher rates of agnosticism and atheism than do congregants. Literalism has never been necessary for faith. Many early Christians weren’t literalist about various aspects of their religion, as Neoplatonism was a major influence at the time.

  2. My parents have been feeling dispirited and uncertain. They are lifelong Republicans and both hate Trump. Like me, they are going to the Iowa caucuses, although we’ll be going for different parties. I’m not sure who my parents will end up caucusing for.

    They were complaining about the negativity and spectacle of it all. But I don’t think they understand how it got to be this way. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. He is the inevitable end result of where the GOP has been heading for at least a half century. A ton of money has been spent over the years to turn politics into a manipulated spectacle. It just turns out that Trump is better at that game than are the GOP insiders, think tank masterminds, and the corporate media tools.

    I’m not sure that the political elite even really cares. It is all just distraction as far as they’re concerned. Presidents have mostly become figureheads at this point. Trump, even if elected, couldn’t change the real power of Washington politics. The real power is found in non-elected officials running the parties, the generals in the military, the heads of alphabet soup agencies and corporate-captured regulatory agencies, etc.

    The game is rigged. And the spectacle is just entertainment. Trump simply shows the system for what it is, for anyone who is paying attention.

    Anyway, I wanted to throw out a few other items.

    “Pundits and political obsessives tend to get distracted by process and policy literalism. But politics generally and especially intra-Republican political battles are really about demonstrating dominance – not policy mastery or polling leads but a series of symbols and actions that mark the dominating from the dominated.”

    Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253):

    “It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.”

    Click to access Political%20Ideology__Its%20structure,%20functions,%20and%20elective%20a.pdf

    “Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

    “Unlike the reclusive Ford, Trump has mastered the entertainment aspects of politics. Such mastery has never been confined to political “ists” on the so-called extremes. This point needs emphasis because Americans have long been convinced that no mode of communication really mattered before the latest invention–Twitter at the moment. But rallies, newspapers, magazines, radio, movies, and television all had their day.

    “FDR joked with Orson Welles that there were two great actors in the United States–and Welles was the other one. McCarthy often growled but (as a British journalist pointed out to me a few years ago), some of his Red Scare riffs sound almost musical. According to one fan who screamed in ecstasy at John Kennedy’s motorcade in 1960, JFK was better than Elvis Presley. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson compared George Wallace rallies to Janis Joplin concerts.

    “Successful political leaders adapt to changes in the favored forms of entertainment. Trump resembles the stand-up comedians who since the 1950s have specialized in insults. Mort Sahl, a creator of this genre, liked to ask, “Is there anyone out there I haven’t offended?” Many of these “insult comics” have built their careers in New York City. Sometimes they half withdraw their barbs with a version of “I’m only kidding.” Trump often plays this game. Moreover, as his riffs roll on and on, his New York accent thickens by accident or intent. Trump’s performances call to mind Don Rickles rather than Orson Welles, Elvis Presley, or Janis Joplin.

    “A tough guy act has been part of the political show–and for many in the audience, part of the appeal–for a long time. In 1936 Father Coughlin tore off his clerical collar while denouncing “Franklin Double Crossing Roosevelt.” Coughlin’s ally Gerald L. K. Smith vowed to “drive that cripple” from the White House. McCarthy, a former amateur boxer and self-proclaimed alley fighter, proudly defined McCarthyism as “Americanism with the gloves off.” In 1950 he kneed syndicated columnist Drew Pearson in the groin and the resulting fight had to be broken up by Senator Richard Nixon.

    “The care, feeding and (especially for tough guys) baiting of the press are invariably part of the show. McCarthy’s physical assault on Pearson was atypical, but he was probably the first major political figure to bait the press incessantly. Critics from the Milwaukee Journal and New York Times wrote as if their employers were Pravda and the Daily Worker. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew later used this tactic from time to time. Intimidation of the press frequently works.

    “Donald Trump recognizes the political value of media baiting even though, in his obnoxious treatment of Megyn Kelley of Fox and Jorge Ramos of Univision, he hasn’t used it very skillfully. But in private he has tried to charm reporters, much as Gerald Smith joked with them, McCarthy drank with them, and Wallace called them “good fellows.” In the long run schmoozing is probably more effective than intimidation. Reporters love a “good story” from a prominent source. Moreover, they typically suffer from personal versions of journalism’s man-bites-dog syndrome: Imagine that, even blowhards and bigots can be good company behind closed doors!”

  3. haven’t got past the start yet, but I’m hoping it’s not Trump. Weirdly, I have this idea that Trump couldn’t possibly beat anyone for president – except maybe Bernie Sanders. I don’t want to be around when America gets that ultimatum! I want Sanders, but not against Trump, it’s too damn scary, my heart won’t survive the election.

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