Did Donald Trump troll his way to the presidency? It depends on who you ask. Certainly 2016 gave us the first true internet election, driven primarily by information—and misinformation—spread through Facebook shares and Twitter attacks. This election gave voice to the “alt-right,” a 4chan-spawned, Breitbart-fed group of trolls turned political force, one that now has an actual White House representative in Steve Bannon. Its chosen weapons of GIFs and cartoon frogs prompted revelers at last week’s “Deploraball,” as described on This American Life, to brag that they “memed him into the presidency.” Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum laid out a compelling case for the way all those viral jokes, packaged in 140 characters and dank memes, blurred the line between fact and fiction to the point where objective reality no longer exists.
To what extent memes, Reddit, and Facebook’s enabling of fake news actually contributed to Trump’s victory is fairly nebulous. In-fighting among Democrats, populist discontent with the political status quo, and racist fear-mongering all had a hand in propelling a fascist into office. But we know that Trump is a Twitter president. He’s made it clear that he plans to set policies through tweets. He chastises, devalues, and flat-out ignores actual journalists in favor of issuing his own statements, 140 characters at a time. His Twitter obsession gives @-ing the president a much different weight than it did when Barack Obama was in office. Yes, we take to the streets to organize, protest, dissent, and shut it down. We look to the past for lessons on how civil disobedience and grassroots movements toppled corrupt governments. But Trump spends half his day on Twitter. So we troll him there, too.
Trump doesn’t care that 3 million people protested him the day after his inauguration, except for the reports that crowd sizes dwarfed his own. He doesn’t care—or believe—that he lost the popular vote. He shows zero signs of giving a fuck about what the majority of Americans actually want (with the Affordable Care Act and access to abortions being just two areas where his views run counter to more than half the country). He cares about being liked. He cares about being made fun of. He cares about how many Twitter followers he has. So we meet him on his level. And already, the early days of his presidency has seen the birth of a cottage industry for tools designed to troll Trump online, in a way that’s far more effective than just shooting off the occasional “fuck you.”
There’s the Twitter account for half of a raw onion in a bag that’s seeking to get more followers than Trump—something that would, sadly, actually matter to him. There’s also a Chrome extension that automatically replies to any Trump tweet, either from his personal or official presidential account, with the Big Lebowski-inspired message “Delete your account #ShutUpDonny.” Yes, these are silly things—but does that matter? Trump is a base, puffed-up narcissist. The usual rules don’t apply.
Elsewhere on the internet, people have taken to Amazon to leave derisive reviews of Trump products. In November, the review section for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” Christmas ornament (a bargain at just $100!) exploded with reviews like this one:
Elsewhere, the Yelp pages for Trump’s various properties are likewise flooded with negative reviews. After Trump went to war with Vanity Fair over a derisive review of his Trump Grill (“Trump Grill Could Be The Worst Restaurant In America”), users swarmed the site to drop its rating to a meager two stars and left so many scathing assessments that Yelp had to issue a “cleanup” detail to monitor the page and remove anything that was more a comment on Trump than the business that bears his name.
But of course, those remain one and the same, and so long as Trump himself refuses to do so, it’s impossible to separate his politics from his hotels and golf courses. So the Yelp war continues, as seen in this review of the Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan.
As Trump is still only nominally divested from his many properties—and nominally invested in a dialogue with the people he’s leading, what with the White House shutting down its official comment line—WhiteHouseInc.org offers one solution. It connects people with Trump’s various businesses and encourages them to leave feedback for the president with whomever picks up the phone. “Don’t be fooled,” the site reads. “They’ll ask you to make a reservation or a tee time, but remember, you’re talking to the White House, so use the opportunity to discuss important issues.”
Comedian Michael Ian Black recently took advantage of another direct line Trump hasn’t shut down (yet), drafting a White House petition demanding the president “explain to the American people why President Donald J. Trump is such a needy little bitch.” While Trump could conceivably (though not likely) ignore all your tweets, raw onion jokes, and, you know, worldwide protests, if a White House petition gets 100,000 signatures, the administration is still obligated to release a response. (Of course, more than 24 hours after Black launched the petition, the site shows only one recorded vote—a pretty suspicious “glitch.”)
Trolling the president is easier than ever—not to mention justified in a way it’s never been before. Trolling may or may not have won Trump the election, but it’s already helped to define his administration. So we meet him on his level, and we troll back. Like the trolls who got him here, we do it to vent one tiny part of our anger and desperation. We troll him because his fragile ego wants so desperately to hear that he’s the greatest, smartest president there ever was, and self-esteem is the troll’s most effective target. We take to the streets but troll when we get home, because he’s not looking at the millions in the streets. He’s too busy looking at Twitter.
Obviously, trolling’s no substitute for real-life activism. Trolling will never replace protests, advocacy, or work within your community. But in between that stuff, while we’re all trapped in our cubicles, troll away. Trolling the president can be the 2017 version of FarmVille. Instead of dicking around on Instagram or rating cute dogs, we shoot off a tweet to Trump, follow an onion just because we think it might make him mad, and harness our technology just to annoy him. It’s low-impact and ultimately kind of silly, sure. But somehow, amazingly, it’s not nothing.