To simply label Trump a racist is to provide inattentional blindness to why the racists think they are right.
It is easy to criticise Donald Trump, isolated as we are from American politics in Singapore. Singaporean politics may be right-wing in orientation, but we take notions of social justice and political correctness as sacrosanct, especially when it comes to religion and race. We choose to preclude race and religion, or any form of disability for that matter, from our public discourse. We deem them too sensitive for the public sphere and send teenagers to jail for it.
Donald Trump’s campaign, more than anything, is a rejection by a large swathe of Americans of notions of political correctness. Multiculturalism in the form of immigration, within their imaginations, bring in people with cultural values contradicting that of democracy. Muslims, in their view, are part of a totalitarian religion which commands its believers to kill apostates and infidels, and agents of a plot to establish a world caliphate. Mexicans, too, are bringing crime and evil to America as murderers, drug dealers, and rapists.
It is easy to deride these characterisations as simply racist and conspiracy theories. But doing so blinds us to the most insidious problems within the worldview championed by Mr Trump and his supporters. Simply calling them “racists” and irrational blinds us to the psychology of hate and ignorance.
Have you heard of Breitbart?
Although I get my news mainly from high-end news magazines, I find myself reading Breitbart and The Drudge Report more frequently than I care to admit in recent weeks. They are, in all the implications of the word, bigoted news outlets with article categories like “black on black crime”. They openly publish conspiracy theories, writing articles, for example, claiming that none of President Obama’s classmates saw him at any classes during his tenure as an undergraduate at Harvard Law School. Breitbart and Drudge are only the surfaces; below them is a closed ecosystem of news outlets which views mainstream news outlets as part of an active conspiracy to deceive the American public. In this shadow news ecosystem, Breitbart and Drudge are merely the most public and well-circulated outlets. For anyone looking to find out more about what they read, they could attend talks held by “experts” on Islam who travel from town to town claiming that Muslims are commanded by god to spread Sharia. Amongst the many claims is that of “Muslims” being an inherited label; that President Obama is a Muslim simply because his father was one. President Obama’s father, for the record, was indeed born a Muslim but converted to Anglicanism during his time at a Christian mission school. Later in his life he identified as an atheist.
People believe in the lies that Trump paddles not because they are bigoted, but because they have decided that the surface news outlets, politicians, and academics are tainted and should never be trusted. The New York Times, for example, has an agenda against Donald Trump because “it’s owned by Mexico” in the form of Carlos Slim, a Mexican businessman. Judge Gonzalo Curiel will not be an impartial member of the judiciary simply because he is “Mexican” (he is an American citizen with Mexican heritage), and because Trump wants to build a wall against his homeland.
The people who form the “alt-right”, as they call themselves, are not merely misinformed – they are informed and capable of being discerning when it comes to news outlets. They are just immersed in a closed news ecosystem which validates their views, much like how we would use the New York Times to validate our constructed world views. While the mainstream media fact checks Mr Trump during the debate, Breitbart runs its own real-time fact check to combat against what is perceived to be the mainstream media paddling it’s agenda under the monocle of “facts”.
These peoples are not part of an “imagined community”, the internet has allowed them to create their own very literal community, with their discourse and debates. Breitbart, for example, has been shunned by large portions of the alt-right because Breitbart News’ chairman Steve Bannon is currently serving as Mr Trump’s campaign manager. Mr Bannon is currently actively serving both jobs, and Breitbart continues to claim it is an objective news outlet. Many in the alt-right, however, decry Brietbart as pro-Trump propaganda.
A leading star of the alt-right is Milo Yiannopoulous, a tech-savvy self-described “Dangerous Faggot”. He believes in a homosexual conspiracy even though he describes himself as gay. More recently, he cried oppression after Twitter banned him for leading an internet harassment campaign against Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. He, too, was one of the early supporters who gave the Gamergate movement media validation. He gave perhaps the best description of why the alt-right is rising in an 2012 op-ed deriding the very space he occupies today:
“Glibness and superficial charm. Manipulation of others. A grandiose sense of self. Pathological lying. A lack of remorse, shame or guilt. Shallow emotions. An incapacity to feel genuine love. A need for stimulation. Frequent verbal outbursts. Poor behavioural controls. These are just some of the things that social media are encouraging in all of us. They’re also a pretty comprehensive diagnostic checklist for sociopathy – in fact, that’s where I got the list….
What’s disturbing about this new trend, in which commenters are posting what would previously have been left anonymously, is that these trolls seem not to mind that their real names, and sometimes even their occupations, appear clamped to their vile words. It’s as if a psychological norm is being established whereby comments left online are part of a video game and not real life. It’s as if we’ve all forgotten that there’s a real person on the other end, reading and being hurt by our vitriol. That’s as close to the definition of sociopath as one needs to get for an armchair diagnosis, though of course many other typical sociopathic traits are also being encouraged by social media.”
Gamergate, the Manosphere, and the Red Pill
Reddit, the place where all your internet memes originate from, has historically been a refuge for non-mainstream political candidates. In 2012, it was the base of support for libertarian Ron Paul. In 2016, it was the hub for the campaign for Bernie Sanders. However, it has also become the largest online community for Donald Trump, perhaps the anti-thesis of Bernie Sanders’ political platform. /r/The_Donald, which originally started as a satire forum, now has 250,000 followers and is the second most active subreddit on the website. The deep split within Reddit’s user base, even though they are overwhelmingly young white men, is perhaps more symbolic of the greater trends in this US presidential election.
Early last year, after a female indie game developer was accused of using sex to get a good review for her game in a major gaming publication, the internet exploded into a rage about “ethics in games journalism”. Any prominent feminist associated with a video game enthusiast press outlet or game developer was attacked, and in many cases, doxed – having their contact details and physical addresses released to the internet. Amongst the victims was Anita Sarkeesian, who runs a YouTube channel analysing games in a way not out-of-place in a 2000-level sex and gender course here at NUS.
I am not going to make a value judgement on feminism here – but much of the community behind Gamergate is also the community of The_Donald. Perhaps best described as “men who perceive themselves as under siege”, this community is also cross-fertilised with the openly misogynist /r/TheRedPill subreddit, who claims all women “are utterly incapable of loving a man in the way that a man expects to be loved”. The community also ironically catalogues “Anti-Male Shaming Tactics”.
Why am I bringing these communities up in an article about Donald Trump? Because Trump’s platform does have a pseudo-intellectual basis, and is extremely diverse. They are not just white baby boomers. Donald Trump is not the last gasp of white baby boomers. Gay men reading the alt-right news ecosystem could as easily find a place amongst the supporters of Donald Trump as a misogynist; All they have to do is selectively read articles they find resonance with and ignore the rest.
In a very real way, we as consumers of the mainstream media do the same thing. In our lives, we have only so much time to keep up with the news; I, for example, choose to forgo The Straits Times and the Singaporean mainstream media in general for Western news magazines and The Middle Ground/Mothership. As the media proliferates, the collectively imagined community of the nation bifurcates. Understanding Trump is not merely about understanding bigotry, but understanding how people who read completely different media outlets reach completely rational and empirical conclusions from yours. It is to interrogate how the internet’s democratisation divides us in a way often only seen during the midst of revolutions when everything sacred and true is tossed into the air.
The implications of the revolution-esque proliferation of media are far reaching and horrifying. Even if only one people in a million believe in genocide, that is five people in Singapore capable of starting a Facebook group to discuss and affirm their beliefs. That’s scary.
The alt-right, and Donald Trump’s support base is not an echo chamber; there are divisions amongst its members and active debate and discussions on the direction of the movement. To see it merely as the manifestation of bigotry blinds us to how it manifests itself in Singapore’s discourse – Bryan Lim’s comments in the Facebook Group “We are Against Pink Dot in Singapore”, and the rationalisation of the death threat as non-offensive by its members attests to that.
To ridicule the American political process blinds us to the more important truths of the Donald Trump phenomenon, and the dangers it poses to us in Singapore. It is extremely easy for bigots to reject your reality and substitute their own. Their reality, however, can be as internally coherent and true with the epistemological baggage associated with the truth. All you need is to change a few of the truths that we as a society have decided to be self-evident.
About the Author
While not buried under books, you will find Reuben digging the depths of Wikipedia and Reddit for the most obscure of trivia facts. He is majoring in Geography, and has previously written for The Middle Ground.