I’ve infiltrated the “alt-right twitter universe,” and it’s a strange place. But there are things that we need to learn from it on both sides of the aisle.
Context: Around the inauguration, I felt compelled to setup a “alt-right twitter account” in order to try to get more into the minds of a world of hard-core Trump support. Admittedly, I anticipated some mix of amusement, intrigue, and horror to come along with insight into their thinking. I was not disappointed.
I’ll say right off the bat: this article isn’t going to be as simple as “hey, the alt-right is a bunch of crazy villians out to bring suffering to people and destroy the world.” If you are looking for that, well, just go get some hard-left twitter accounts to follow. But, I’m also not going to draw moral equivalences here: right now the ideas convalescing in the alt-right are more dangerous. This doesn’t exclude the hard-left from coming up with really dumb ideas – indeed they have many, and we’ll touch on that at the end.
With that being said, I went about setting up an account that follows the “who’s who” of Trumpists: Sean Hannity, Breitbart, Newt Gingrich, Bill Mitchell, Ann Coulter, Reince and Kellyanne. This got a good mix of paranoia and anger, but to really get it going I had to follow some everyday individuals who interacted with these feeds, which welcomed folks with “MAGA” or “Deplorable” in their description and more than one person with a “Pepe the frog” emoji in their name including the new account of Richard Spencer – an actual neo-Nazi. Of course, I also found the PizzaGateIsReal account and became one of it’s 5,000 followers.
All this to say: it’s an extreme feed, and an incredibly active one. Despite following only 42 accounts, the feed updates at a fervent pace: roughly twice the speed of my normal feed that follows ~140 accounts.
So what did I learn?
They see a completely different reality…
And to be honest, I have no idea how we reconcile the two. After going through this experiment, my theory on our increasing volatility of information feels like it’s being confirmed.
And it’s just too different to even try to explain, but I’ll try with a quick association exercise:
Left: Democracy in Action!
Right: Good-for-nothing Layabouts
Left: Source of Information
Right: The Real Opposition Party
Left: A source of strength for the U.S.
Right: A threat to the stability of the U.S.
“Speaker Paul Ryan”
Left: Spineless Coward!
Right: (Looks left quizzically) Yes! Spineless Coward!
At least there are some things we can all agree on!
These are some examples, but hopefully you get the idea. It’s not just that some things are flipped in the “alt-right” world, everything is. The trust level of the alt-right toward the media, those on the left, or any idea that comes from them has hit zero.
As such, they live in a world where Trump tells the truth and shadowy forces in the media, in surveillance agencies, and the left are working to destroy the U.S. government:
This reality has become mainstream and has real influence…
The next point to make is that it’s easy to deride and discount these views as fringe rantings. It’s not that simple. While some of these tweets come from fringe accounts, they are all held by people now influential and core to both the modern Republican Party and to the Federal Government. This rhetoric is coming from key voices on the right who reach millions of people such as Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, but are also largely held by those directing the Trump White House, most particularly Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
Consider this profile of Steve Bannon, largely featuring his own words:
At the end of the day, leaving aside the validity of these views, it is clearly untrue to say that they haven’t become mainstream within the modern Republican Party. They have, and as such they have a large influence on our government. Trump himself has espoused the danger of immigrants, shadowy agencies and “leakers” working against him, that the media is the “opposition party,” and mocked protesters.
So what can we do…
If you are on the Right, appeal to reason…
Recent polls on Trump’s approval are still pretty volatile, which isn’t all that surprising. Nonetheless, whether his support is 40% as Gallup has, or 55% as Rasmussen has, or more likely somewhere in between (the RCP average is 44.6%), there’s a sizable chunk of this country that approves of Trump’s job so far.
Now what I want to make abundantly clear is that it’s not anywhere near the entirety of that 45% of Trump approvers who would subscribe entirely to the above. Many are likely to have prioritized other aspects more heavily and/or try to portray a more nuanced view around Trump.
If you are on the right, it needs to be said that the modern Republican Party has been taken over by these forces – that’s inarguable. Your choice is to stand tacitly with that or appeal to reason and take a stand.
That stand doesn’t need to be a view of the left (as we’ll get to), but there are things to stand for that can’t be partisan, and the world of Trump and the alt-right is an affront to many of those things: the existence of facts, the strength of institutions that this country is built upon (independent courts, the electoral process, and an independent and robust media for starters – all of which Trump attacks), a government free from corruption toward both personal financial gain as well as influence from foreign governments. There are many bona fides conservatives you can follow in opposing Trump: Bill Kristol, David Frum, Evan McMullin, and Mindy Flinn are among the best (if you are on my website, you’ll see them retweeted to the right here). But there are strong voices out there that are anything but Democrats. But they need (your) support.
And folks on the Left can help by moderating themselves as well…
So this chain may not have made anyone on the left more likely to engage a Trump supporter. You likely dove in and both laughed and cried at the alt-right world of twitter. But we don’t live in a binary system, and the fact that Trump supporters are unhinged from reality doesn’t mean that you are hinged to it.
Just as the right has been taken over by an extreme, the left has too. These two forces have pushed each other this way: one side’s extremism causes the other side to push itself further out in order to balance things out.
If you want folks on the right to come to the middle and combat extremism, there are similar steps that you can take and need to take if we are to have any hope of meeting in a middle again. Here are a few:
- Recognize cases of hypocrisy especially w.r.t. principles of democracy – look, it’s well established that Obama expanded the use of executive powers in ways that Trump can use and build upon. You may have been okay with that at the time, but now we’re seeing the impacts. Don’t construct nuance around it, just admit that it was a mistake back in the day, because it was.
- Stop the hero worship of politicians you agree with – it doesn’t do anyone any favors to have people holding up Hillary as this ideal human that we should all aspire to. Or Obama for that matter. You can still admire them, but holding them up as flawless makes you seem unreasonable and is also easily falsifiable since they are all human (and politicians). Parallel to this – don’t villainize success for the sake of success – look, Bernie made bashing billionaires a “cool” thing to do, but realize 1) he’s doing that from one of his three homes, and 2) that someone is a billionaire or fiscally successful does not equate to them being a villain. Using aggregation of wealth as an insult or insinuating that it’s somehow amoral or bad offends anyone who views themselves as financially successful – roughly half of the country.
- Take a deep breath or two before you say you are offended by something and/or decide to protest it – there are downsides to complaining about “microaggressions” or to protesters who protest against a speaker at a university or to the protesters who blocked Betsy DeVos from entering a school. These undermine legitimate protests (e.g. women’s march, immigration) and paint the picture that the left are a bunch of cry-baby snowflakes. Any of these “minor” examples get hyped a ton by right-wing sources: e.g. I saw 2-3x more information about the protest against Milo Yiannopoulos than I did about protests against Trump’s immigration executive orders. Same goes with sharing on social media.
- Alongside the last point, don’t deny obvious facts in the name of political correctness – this most prominently comes into play when discussing Islam. It is not bigoted to state that radicalized Islamic terrorists are a threat and that they derive their ideology from religion – albeit a perversion of it. That this is true doesn’t validate the modern Republican approach fear all immigrants or all Muslims, but denying this and other obvious facts make you seem like an ideologue out of touch with reality – e.g. a Trump supporter.
Some Bonus Cuts From The Alt-Right Twitter Universe:
Just because some things don’t fit a story doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be shared:
Also published on Medium.