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.