This spring, Microsoft came up with a brilliant idea: Create an entirely artificial personality, structured more or less wholly by the Internet. The bot, “Tay,” would learn by conversing with users on Twitter; it would repeat what it was told, and repeat it more often if it heard the same thing from several users. Finally, we would see what a person might be like if she were structured totally and entirely by social media.
It took less than 24 hours for Tay to become a white supremacist. Microsoft shut the bot down for good after it went on a lengthy racist tear, calling for genocide of Mexicans, proclaiming its desire to put all black people in concentration camps (word to the wise: Tay did not say “black people”) and Tweeting “Hitler was right I hate the jews.” Before things reached that point, Tay had also developed some interesting ideas about gender politics, such as “I fucking hate feminists and they should all die and burn in hell”; for Twitter users, being propositioned by Tay with lines like “FUCK MY ROBOT PUSSY” was, apparently, not uncommon.
The lesson: A hollow vessel, when dipped into the toxic, sludgy river of the Internet, will quickly fill up with the worst and most destructive sentiments humanity has to offer. But then, this should be no surprise. We’ve all seen the same thing happen, in real life, and with infinitely worse consequences, very recently. We’ve entered a world in which the Republican nominee for President is Donald Trump.
Trump, too, is an empty vessel; willing to repeat anything that gets him traction, regardless of how true it is, or who he stands to hurt. And, like Tay, his descent into horrific extremes of right-wing discourse was facilitated, every step of the way, by Twitter.
In 2011, the “birther” movement — people who believed President Barack Obama was secretly a foreign citizen — was driven by conspiracy theorists and Internet weirdos like 9⁄11 truther Philip Berg. Trump — at the time, a reality-TV star and lifelong, registered Democrat who had claimed that “the economy does better under Democrats” as recently as 2004 — seized on the movement and made it a regular, recurring part of his Twitter presence, issuing tweets challenging the president to release his long-form birth certificate.
More than this — and more significantly — Trump also explicitly extended those conspiracists the promise of mainstream validation. “I think the word ‘birther’ is a derogatory term, created by a certain group in the media,” he claimed, telling Politico that “I think there’s a large group of people that wants to hear about this. Obviously it’s a very important issue.”
Obviously, it wasn’t. Nor was it remotely in touch with reality. Nevertheless, Trump was right about one thing: There was a large group of people who wanted to hear a celebrity make these kinds of statements. Trump made headlines. His right-wing fan base ballooned. His political profile soared. This is how a registered Democrat became the face of the extreme right wing — not due to any accomplishment, not even due to any particular set of beliefs, but because he was savvy enough to treat large Internet fringe groups as a potential audience demographic. He was willing to lend them his platform, when no-one else was, in exchange for what he could get. And “what he could get” turned out to be a presidential nomination, and potentially the nation itself.
That Trump is a white supremacist, and very possibly a fascist, is old news by this point. This is a guy who began his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants rapists. He’s proposed a total ban on Muslim immigration in the United States. He’s a lifelong and virulent misogynist; his ex-wife has accused him of rape and domestic battery; he’s said openly that women who have abortions ought to be “punished;” he’s currently trying to court sexists by claiming, “the men, we’re petrified to speak to women any more. The women, they get it better than we do folks.” He has unironically re-tweeted segments of Mussolini’s speeches. You know the drill.
And, yes, you should care: Just as he gave the birthers mainstream legitimacy, Trump is giving white nationalism a substantial boost. In fact, Trump’s candidacy caused such a flood of traffic to Stormfront’s chat board that they had to upgrade their servers, and the site’s founder, Don Black, credits him with a new “insurgency,” presumably of American neo-Nazism: “Demoralization has been the biggest enemy and Trump is changing all that… He’s certainly creating a movement that will continue independently of him even if he does fold at some point.”
It’s not just dangerous for Trump to win the presidency. It is dangerous for him to be in the spotlight at all. It won’t be enough to beat him; we will also need to beat back the waves of newly confident or newly inspired white nationalists that he has created. And it will only get worse. Precisely because Trump does operate by the logic of celebrity, not politics — identifying potential audience demographics and doing what gets a response, not arguing for any coherent set of principles or beliefs — he is profoundly and terrifyingly uncontrolled in terms of exactly how far he will go. The only thing controlling him is the crowd. And now that he’s an actual presidential nominee, the media is now required to cover him and thus further legitimize him for at least the next six months, making that crowd bigger every day, and giving the movement he’s created a chance to root itself ever more firmly in the mainstream of our political life.
Yet, if he’s a monster, he’s not a terribly original monster. His statements aren’t new or unique. They are quite familiar to anyone who’s been on the Internet for longer than about 15 seconds. The idea that “women get it better than [men] do” isn’t just some random bit of crudeness or idiocy; it’s the foundational philosophy of the Men’s Rights Activists, a thriving and violent anti-feminist movement that exists largely on Internet blogs and forums. White supremacy isn’t something Trump came up with; in order for Donald Trump to crash white nationalist message boards, the white nationalist message boards had to exist in the first place.
Trump is a creature of the Internet, plugged in and crowd-sourced, seemingly willing to do or say anything that gets him validation — and he has gotten more extreme, over time, simply because he is being increasingly validated for his extremism.
It is hard to wrap your head around what the evidence actually says about Donald Trump’s personal morality, simply because there is no evidence that he has any. Most of us, no matter what part of the political spectrum we occupy, have something resembling a conscience; we believe that there is a difference between right and wrong, and we try to do good things and avoid doing bad ones, even if we screw up occasionally, and even if our definition of “good” differs from the definitions of our neighbors. Yet you could dig and dig without ever uncovering what Donald Trump “really” believes — except, of course, that Donald Trump deserves to be famous. I don’t think Trump is a progressive, but I do think that, if socialism or social justice got Trump the same number of Twitter likes that bigotry does, Donald Trump would currently be running to the left of Bernie Sanders.
Even Trump’s wildest statements are pulled as often from the tinfoil-hat fringe of left wing discourse — he’s a 9⁄11 truther, for one thing — as they are from deep-web outposts of right-wing hatred like Stormfront. And Trump has actually promised to plagiarize some of Sanders’ speeches. “I’m going to be taking a lot of things Bernie said and using them,” he told Joe Scarborough. Fitting democratic socialism and Black Lives Matter into a white nationalist campaign might seem difficult, not to mention nonsensical, but this is how Trump functions. He repeats things. Not because he believes them, or agrees with them, or even understands them, but because, well, a lot of people like Bernie Sanders, particularly on social media. Trump wants those people to like him, too, so repeating Bernie Sanders might work.
So, here we are. With Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. With a guy who will repeat 9⁄11 truthers, repeat birthers, repeat left-wing #BernieorBust partisans — “the books are cooked against Bernie!” he chipperly Tweeted recently, in between his calls for Sanders to run as an independent — or repeat right-wing Stormfront posters, not because these things are right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, left wing or right wing, but simply and entirely because they are things people are saying. Like Tay, Donald Trump is a “content-neutral algorithm” that sucks in whatever the Internet is typing at the moment and regurgitates it with greater or lesser frequency depending on its relative popularity. And, as with Tay, that essential hollowness and lack of discrimination — the inability to tell a good statement from a bad one, or to avoid repeating information because it’s false — is exactly what makes him a threat.
But it also points to a deeper threat than Trump: The crowd controlling him. He’s made himself the face of terror, by making his message out of terrifying movements, but Trump bears the same relationship to racism and misogyny as Ronald McDonald does to hamburgers: He didn’t make them, he didn’t invent them. He’s just the mascot that pitches them to the millions. He may be a bigot, or a demagogue. But he’s also not the one who’s most responsible for his bigotry or demagoguery; he is, in some sense, too indiscriminately terrible to even be trusted to know what he’s saying or why. Trump was only ever a mirror; only ever a creature of the crowd, repeating whatever the crowd wanted to hear. Trump didn’t make Trump a monster. We did. We let these currents of thought grow unopposed. We treated them like jokes, or shameful secrets. We let it all fester, because it was just loose talk on the Internet, not real life. Now it’s as real as it gets; now, it’s real enough to run the country in 2017. We shaped him; we rewarded him; we made him a reflection of our sins, until he stood to make the country his own reflection. Trump isn’t our enemy. He’s us. And whether or not he wins, it’s each other we’ll be fighting for many years to come.