Friday, August 11, 2017

Hail to the Troll

One of thousands of Trump Troll images I Googled.

It took just over six months for President Trump to fulfill the destiny foretold for him by generations of necromancers, seers, and pundits: utterly ignoring his printed talking points (which were about opioid addiction), in total disregard for the criticisms he had levied against his predecessor for drawing lines in the sand and then not acting on them, Trump promised to exercise the literal nuclear option if North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un makes any more threats of his own. Within hours, Kim called Trump's bluff, threatening to attack Guam, the American territory closest to North Korea's missile launchers.

Thus begins the Trumpocalypse.

All through the campaign, we joked about it. Slate Magazine summarized the speculations in its "Trump Apocalypse Watch," issuing a daily estimate on a scale of one to four horsemen of "how likely it is that Donald Trump will be elected president, thus triggering an apocalypse in which we all die." The day after the election, this was the graphic that accompanied its final edition:
161108_SLATEST_TAW_4-Horsemen
We didn't think it could happen, but it did. We told ourselves the generals Trump was surrounding himself with would keep him in check, and yet his knee has now jerked dangerously close to the nuclear button, and for all the hemming and hawing and qualifying statements by his figurehead secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Trump is clinging stubbornly to the righteousness of his threat of "fire and fury."

This scares me. I was born at the end of the Baby Boom. By the time I got to middle school, preparedness for nuclear war had become a standard part of the health curriculum: brush your teeth, don't do drugs, in the event of a nuclear attack find the nearest fall out shelter. We watched filmstrips and movies that were packed with lurid images of mushroom clouds, learned terrifying statistics about blast zones, half-lives, and megatonnage. By the time I got to college, the debates about nuclear weapons were about accuracy: how many feet closer to the target could that MIRV get? These seemed irrelevant to me because, in my mind, a hole is a hole, and the precise placement of a mile-wide crater shouldn't matter that much when we're talking about vaporizing millions of people in an instant.

That threat hung over my head until that magical moment when the Berlin Wall came down. As much as Republicans want to give St. Reagan the credit for the end of the Cold War, I think it really belongs to his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, who single-handedly dismantled his own regime. It was simple common sense: the arms race was bankrupting his country, and authoritarian socialism had failed to create prosperity for the people. It was time for a different approach, one without the constant threat of annihilation hanging over the heads of every human being in existence.

Watching protesters chip away at the wall, I remember feeling that the human race had been holding its collective breath for forty years, and that all of us were simultaneously exhaling. Perhaps our lives would not, after all, end either as radioactive ash or as corpsicles in a nuclear winter.

For almost three decades, I rested easy in the knowledge that if any of these weapons was ever to be used, it would be because a terrorist organization got its hands on one. It would be a horrible thing, but it would be an isolated incident, a single bomb going off to be instantly followed by a global crackdown that would make the response to 9/11 look like a picnic. Common sense was ruling the global nuclear scene, disarmament was the guiding principle, and never again would nation lift bomb against nation.

Then we elected a monster who "improvises" (the New York Times's word, not mine) a nuclear threat that has, to my knowledge, never been explicitly delivered by any sitting President. During the Cold War, it was always a subtext, but the official language between Washington and Moscow was always diplomatic. It would've been uncivilized, barbaric even, to actually speak of raining nuclear fire on an enemy. These weapons were a last-ditch, worst-case alternative, devices so horrible they would almost certainly never be used. Having them was insurance: destroy us, and we destroy you. This is apart from the simple environmental reality that a devastating attack on any nation would have lethal long-term effects on every other nation from the radioactive debris and the alteration to the world climate brought on by the delivery of so much ash to the atmosphere. When Soviet and American leaders did talk about the possibility of attacking each other, it was in summits and on hot lines, and the main theme was always "how do we avoid doing this to each other?"

To put it bluntly, this was not a threat to be idly made, definitely not as an off-the-cuff remark.

More frightening than the remark itself is the perception that Trump might just do it: open up the "football," call in the codes, launch a nuclear strike, Guam be damned, it's worth it to teach North Korea (and, by extension, any other nation that might not be scared enough of the Fearless Leader) a lesson. This is a President who casually launched a strike on a Syrian air base over dessert at a resort restaurant he owns, with casual diners looking on. Making up policy as he goes is his bread and butter. Thinking things through first is for losers.

All right, so our fears are well-founded, despite anything Rex Tillerson might try to do to soothe them.

But what if this isn't a real threat? Trump's made empty threats before. He hasn't been particularly conscientious about keeping his promises, either. He throws out diktats and executive orders like confetti. Sometimes they stick; more often, White House aides, Pentagon officials, and members of Congress scramble to explain how he didn't really mean it, or how of course that can't happen without first being properly vetted through normal channels.

Let me rephrase that: what if the whole purpose of the threat is to scare us and keep our attention? Or, to put it differently: what if he's trolling?

Trolling is an internet phenomenon, a product of the instantaneous and anonymous nature of the message board. Trolls comment on posts using language that is engineered to enrage, casually dropping epithets and threats that, if taken seriously, should result in the immediate arrest of the perpetrator. Trolls joke about rape, murder, the Holocaust, then mock the offended reactions of the "snowflakes" who can't keep themselves from responding. The more outrage they generate, the better. It's not about winning arguments or writing perceived wrongs: all they really want is attention, and they don't care that most of it comes from people they've hurt.

We've had world leaders who were trolls before now, some of them predating the internet. I would argue, for instance, that when Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega waved a machete over his head during a 1989 news conference, he had no intention of triggering an invasion by the U.S. military. He was trolling, pushing buttons, seeing what he could get away with. He probably expected an international wrist-slapping, at worst. Instead, he wound up dying in an American prison.

Kim Jung-Un has been trolling for years, and has been able to get away with it. Like Noriega, he's the leader of a small, impoverished nation. While he doesn't control a trade route the disruption of which could decimate the global economy, he is in a position to wreak havoc with two economic powerhouses, South Korea and Japan, so he gets far more attention than a petty dictator usually would. But again, it's a small country he controls, with an economy smaller than that of any US state.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has just taken trolling into a sphere where it has never been.

Until Trump, it was understood that American Presidents had to be careful what they said, even off the record. Ronald Reagan once made a joke during a sound test about "outlawing Russia" and the bombs falling in minutes. It created an international incident. Barack Obama's off-the-cuff "red line" about Syria using chemical weapons haunted his foreign policy for the remainder of his Presidency. Presidential remarks can cause markets to rise and fall, costing ordinary citizens billions of dollars. Much of the work of a functional White House is in teaching the President what not to say, then cleaning up the mess when something unscripted slips out.

Or so it was, until now.

Now we have a President whose motivations and actions are those of a troll. Trump lives for attention. He loves to push buttons. Critical media reviews are furiously brushed off as "fake news." His taunts, jabs, push-backs, vocabulary, thin skin, flash anger, all smell more of the playground than the cloakroom. Promoted as a deal-maker during the election, it turns out he has just one weapon in his negotiating arsenal: threats.

We have elected a troll, and he has seized on the aptly-named bully pulpit to broadcast his venom to any who disagree with or critique his actions. The populist rallies he continues to front spread the content and tenor of his trolling among his most rabid followers. They, in turn, share the hate in their own communities, both virtual and tangible. I don't see a lot of these expressions in the places where I live and work (for which I'm thankful), but on my travels, I haven't been able to avoid them: visiting my kids in Boise; driving through eastern Washington and northern Idaho on vacation last month; and most likely in next week's eclipse-viewing trek to central Oregon, there is no avoiding the bumper stickers, signs, and attitudes. When I do see such things, I find myself responding in kind: my blood pressure may be going up, my blood feels like it's about to boil, and all I want is to rip down that sign and stomp it into the dirt. That I don't is a testimony to my civilized upbringing.

Even so, this is where our world is heading: sneering at the careful, polite, diplomatic etiquette of the past, our leaders now blurt out whatever's on their minds, make no apologies, and then stubbornly insist they meant to say it, and what's more, what they said needs to be taken up another notch. And of course this causes me to worry that the world is coming to an end, perhaps not with a bang, but with a sneer.

Even as Trump and Kim devolve, there are still world leaders who eschew the jerk of the knee, the sling of the mud, the punch to the gut. But even the likes of Angela Merkel cannot deny that the troll-rot is contagious, as nationalist groups throughout Europe try to emulate what Trump accomplished. This may be the direction we're all headed, into a global realm that's more Klingon than Federation. When I consider how much hope there was in the air following the collapse of the Wall, or the election of Obama, it grieves me to see civilization sliding toward anarchy and recrimination.

And then comes a glimmer of hope: perhaps this phenomenon is Hegelian. In the competent governmental model embraced by both the Clinton and Obama administrations, we had a thesis: that government in the service of citizens can improve the well-being of the nation as a whole. In the George W. Bush administration, there was an initial attempt at antithesis, particularly in proposals to privatize Social Security, but it foundered under the far more consistent drum beat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Trump, we are seeing a return to the antithesis, but in spades: the regime is unabashedly devoted to overturning every good thing Trump's predecessors (including Bush) accomplished in Washington, while stomping around the delicate biosphere of the international stage in clodhoppers. 

Those who believe in the cyclical nature of history know that when a thesis meets its antithesis, conflict must ensue, ultimately giving rise to the synthesis that becomes the next thesis. I can picture a future governing ethos that synthesizes competent institutions with a populist concern for the ordinary individual, thus correcting the power imbalance that has made troll presidents like Trump inevitable. Without disempowering the elites, there can be now deescalation of proletarian anger. But I worry about how much crisis it will take for us to arrive at that synthesis, and whether this nation will emerge from it in one piece.

But those are the concerns of another essay. Just please don't troll me in your comments about this one.

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