Opinion

The right needs to get over its pointless obsession with trolling liberals

If the most important thing to you is how many people you've ticked off, you probably haven't accomplished much at all

How far would you go to make the people you don't like mad? Over the weekend, we found out how the Conservative Political Action Conference, the premier gathering of conservative activists, answers that question. The conference invited semi-famous internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos to be a keynote speaker at this year's confab, then disinvited him after videos emerged of him condoning sex between 13-year-olds and adults. The misogyny and racism Yiannopoulos traffics in were apparently not a problem, but pedophilia was just a bit too far.

Yiannopoulos is, in the end, not a particularly interesting figure on his own terms (see here if you want to know what he's all about). He's a troll, a provocateur, someone whose schtick is to say outrageous things and then goad liberals into objecting to him or even trying to keep him from speaking on college campuses, and they often eagerly oblige. Indeed, before cancelling Yiannopoulos' appearance, the head of the American Conservative Union, which mounts CPAC, defended the invite — to a conference that will feature speeches by President Trump, Vice President Pence, Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, and a lengthy list of political and media luminaries from the right — on the grounds that it was good to hear Yiannopoulos' "important perspective" on fighting political correctness on campus.

But eventually, the line of unacceptability was located. Yiannopoulos might object that Republicans just elected a guy who bragged about sexually assaulting women, intentionally walked in on underage girls getting undressed, and had a habit of meeting girls as young as 10 and imagining himself dating them. But the question is not whether Yiannopoulos was cast aside, but why he became such a celebrity on the right in the first place.

The reason is that conservatives are obsessed with the idea of making liberals mad, and that's something Yiannopoulos is really good at.

One of the pillars of Donald Trump's presidential campaign was this idea that he would free his supporters from the straightjacket of political correctness and let them tell those bastards exactly what they think. As one popular T-shirt at Trump rallies during the campaign read, "Trump 2016: F--k your feelings." This antagonizing impulse is behind things like "rolling coal," in which owners of diesel trucks trick them out to expel as much black smoke as possible; they take particular delight in enveloping a Prius in a cloud of fumes, then posting the video to YouTube or Instagram. Take that, enviro-hippie! It's why Sarah Palin showed up at her CPAC speech a few years ago with a Big Gulp, just to tell Michael Bloomberg where he could shove his soda tax — to the lusty cheers of the crowd.

This is a kind of public performance of negative partisanship, the increasing tendency of Americans on both sides of the aisle to define their political identities less by their affection for their own party and more by their dislike of the other party. If what's important is that the other side is wrong, what could be better than figuring out what really gets their goat, then doing exactly that thing, as loudly as possible?

There's a problem, though: Exasperating your opponents may feel good, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything.

This is a question all political action has to confront: What good does this do? There will always be some distance between any kind of political engagement and the changes one would like to see, but if you find yourself saying, "Man, this is really going to tick them off! Hah!" then you might want to do some thinking about whether you're achieving something or just having fun.

Let's take as a counterexample the left's most visible political action of the moment, in which Democrats turn up in large numbers at the town hall meetings of their Republican representatives, making a lot of noise in opposition to Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. There's no doubt that forcing your representative (particularly if he's from the other party) to squirm and even make a dash for his car to escape the wrath of his constituents is exciting. But the protest also increases pressure on that representative, making it clear to him that there will be a political cost to repeal — and perhaps making him more likely to seek a more humane solution to the health care system's problems. The attendant news coverage can have a similar effect on other members of Congress, who are governed by fear of the voters' displeasure. It might also encourage other citizens to get involved.

That public performance is driven by a logic focused on the location of power and the processes of policy change. Trolling, on the other hand, is almost always focused on the feeling of power it gives the troll, the power to enrage and outrage.

But frankly, that's the easy part. Anybody can make somebody else mad, especially if you're using a pose of rebelliousness and transgression to punch downward on behalf of those at the top. That doesn't mean it can't serve a purpose — Trump's brave stance in defense of jerkishness was a key part of his appeal, so it probably brought out a significant number of people to vote who might not have otherwise. But in the end, if the most important thing to you is how many people you've ticked off, you probably haven't accomplished much at all.

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