Donald Trump’s town hall debate was a leaning, meaning, inner-city bashing, Muslim-spying dumpster fire, and Twitter knew it

Published: Salon (October 10, 2016)

The second presidential debate between Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump wasn’t just thoroughly unpleasant to watch. It was one of the ugliest political moments in recent memory.

We knew things were going to get nasty when Trump held a pre-debate press conference flanked by three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct (Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones). In a normal election, that act alone would have dominated the news cycle, regardless of what followed. In the 90-minute exchange between Clinton and Trump, however, Trump repeatedly lied, bullied and fearmongered his way across the stage.

Thankfully, Twitter noticed.

Trump’s body language was downright creepy

Before the debate even ended, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway felt the need to send out a tweet preemptively claiming the media would “spin” Trump’s lurking behind Clinton into a major story. Unfortunately for her, the denizens of Twitter didn’t need the media to draw attention to this fact. Whether pointing out its abusive undertones or just ridiculing the creepiness of it all, Twitter users were correct in identifying Trump’s body language and nervous pacing as highly problematic. At a time when the Republican desperately needed to project strength and confidence, he instead came across as restless and aggressive. The optics were terrible for him, particularly when contrasted with Clinton’s comparative poise.

How you know @realDonaldTrump won the debate:

1) you watched it
2) Hillary (and media) spin will be about him standing behind her

why is trump standing right behind her like that, his body language reminds me of every abuser i’ve ever encountered.

Trump’s body language is the kind that usually triggers a “go home, get some sleep” from the bartender.

he’s like a caged animal pacing behind her.

Within just a few minutes Trump managed to say offensive things about African-Americans, Latinos and Muslims

This is pretty much a perfect symbol for Trump’s campaign as a whole. The debate wasn’t the first time that Trump referred to racial minorities with a definite article — such as when he says things along the lines of having “a great relationship with the blacks.” That said, it was particularly conspicuous, and Twitter repeatedly noticed the demeaning subtext in Trump’s constant use of “the” before talking about African-Americans and Latinos.

He also repeated a well-worn Islamophobic lie about the San Bernardino attack (namely, that many people saw bombs in the attackers’ household) and then blamed Muslims for not reporting more on each other.

While Trump has repeatedly claimed that we should focus on his actions rather this words, demeaning racial minorities and perpetuating pernicious stereotypes is a form of action. If the mainstream media doesn’t follow Twitter’s lead and make an issue out of this in the upcoming news cycle, it will be grossly derelict in its duties.

The African Americans
The Latinos HIspanics


“I’m going to help the African-Americans, I’m going to help the Latinos,” Trump says, describing exotic species on a distant planet.

That is just a lie that many people saw the bombs in San Bernadino. It’s slander against Muslims.

Trump AGAIN says without ANY evidence that “many people” saw bombs all over the San Bernardino shooters’ apartment floor. No proof.

Trump just responded to a question about Islamophobia by accusing Muslims of not reporting on other Muslims.

Trump lied again about his past positions on the Iraq War

It’s the lie that will not die. No matter how decisively it has been debunked — even with audio recordings from 2002 (before we invaded Iraq) in which Trump clearly tells radio host Howard Stern that he supported the war — the GOP candidate refuses to abandon his bogus claim.

Yet even as he praised Twitter during the debate as an effective tool for communicating, the Twittersphere was heaping opprobrium on Trump for once more trying to convince voters that he had opposed the Iraq War from the very beginning. The bad news is that, if repeatedly being caught in this lie hasn’t hurt him so far, chances are it won’t be considered newsworthy now.

Nevertheless, the truth still matters for its own sake, even when it doesn’t shift the course of elections as it should. It’s refreshing to know that while Trump may be fooling some Americans with his dissembling, many others aren’t falling for it.

Trump blames HRC & BHO for w/drawing troops from Iraq. But he called for that in 2006, even if violence increased. 

Photo published for In 2006 interview, Trump demanded US troops leave Iraq—even if chaos and ISIS-like violence occurred

In 2006 interview, Trump demanded US troops leave Iraq—even if chaos and ISIS-like violence occurred

Now he blames Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Sad!

“I was against the war in Iraq.” Yes, after the war became unpopular, Trump became against it from the beginning.

i think Trump drifts off to sleep every night telling himself he always opposed the Iraq War

Some of the nastiest rhetoric came over Trump’s so-called “locker room talk”

I’m not sure there was a way for Trump to salvage his campaign after video leaked of his braggadocious remarks about sexual assault. That said, it certainly was not appropriate for him to dismiss those comments as “locker room talk” … or, for that matter, to avoid even denying that he’d committed sexual assault until he was asked three different times. All these things not only made Trump look callous, but gave the appearance that there may indeed be more lurking beneath the surface of this story. The only person who came out of this exchange looking good was moderator Anderson Cooper, who tenaciously held Trump’s feet to the fire even when the candidate tried to change the subject (most bizarrely, by engaging in a little anti-ISIS tough talk).

Took 3 questions for Trump to deny that he sexually assaulted anyone.

YES ANDERSON YESSSSSSSS. “That is sexual assault… Do you understand that?”

Did Trump really just throw his own running mate under the bus?

Yes, he did. When moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC observed that Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence wants to attack Syria, whereas Trump wants to work with Russia in Syria, Trump replied, “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.” This open break with his running mate is plenty disrespectful in its own right, but it also comes at a time when Pence is being discussed as a possible replacement for Trump as the GOP’s presidential candidate and when Trump has, according to sources, expressed jealousy of Pence’s superior debate performance.

In short, Trump’s casual humiliation of his would-be vice president reeks of bitterness and resentment, and Twitter reacted with predictable shock and dismay. Pence may be publicly congratulating Trump, but one has to wonder how he’s feeling in private right now.

HOLY [BLEEP] Trump just publicly disagreed with his runningmate!! At a debate!!!

“He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree,” Trump on Pence.

Mike Pence is currently gluing on a fake beard and buying plane tickets to Costa Rica.

While I may not be able to moderate a debate, sounds like Mike Pence and Donald Trump might need to come on my show to talk things out.

Trump admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, and when he threatened to send Clinton to prison, he sounded like a despot himself

Trump’s bullying body language may have been creepy, but his vow to throw Clinton in prison if elected president was downright sinister. There is no precedent in American presidential politics for a major party’s candidate threatening his chief rival with incarceration. There is a crucial difference between ordinary citizens saying that Clinton should be jailed for her use of a private email server and hearing those same words from the politician who stands to gain the most from that happening.

Just to recap: One candidate is threatening to throw the other candidate in jail if he wins. This is happening in the United States.

First time in modern history that a candidate for president vows to prosecute his or her foe.

This isn’t a joke. It’s scary. It is really concerning.

Trump says to Clinton, if he was in charge, “you’d be in jail.”

This is an overt subversion of democracy. It is very hard to overstate this

Well, there we go. Trump has said he will jail his political opponent. Welcome to Russia.

Hillary: So good someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of law enforcement in this country.
Trump: You’d be in jail.

If Twitter, common sense and basic human decency are any indication, Trump decisively lost the second presidential debate. Clinton’s performance wasn’t particularly memorable — she was competent but did not say or do anything that really stood out — but she didn’t need to make a grand play in order to win. All she had to do was hold her own and let her opponent push the self-destruct button and demonstrate why he shouldn’t be entrusted with power. She did that in spades on Sunday night.

#ThatMexicanThing: The vice presidential debate delivered some key moments for Twitter

Published: Salon (October 5, 2016)

Toward the end of the otherwise boring debate between Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, as Kaine was speaking about things that Donald Trump has said during his candidacy, Pence interrupted him, saying out loud, “Senator, you whipped out that Mexican thing again.”

is is not a “thing at all” they are my family and friends.

just got off working a night shift keeping a library open so the next generation of students can succeed

Trump List of
African Americans
Mexican Americans
Muslim Americans
The Disabled
Poor Americans

Look at me, I’m that has served in the military and graduated college.

where immigrants harvest all our food, a job white Americans considers beneath them.

was my neighbor who works 100 hrs a week to send his kids to a decent private school.

is my abuelita who moved to San Antonio without speaking English & slept in a barn while picking lettuce every summer.

Before the comment, the debate between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine was destined to be dull.

And make no mistake about it, the internet noticed. Let’s go to the Twitter roundup.

Everyone knew this was going to hurt.

How do you prepare for a boring debate? By making cheeky jokes, such as these.

Is it bad if every time I see the little symbol after I first think it’s a martini and get thirsty?

The co-chairs of the Presidential Debate Commission looks, sounds, and act exactly how I have always imagined they would be.

Debate Fact: Tonight’s debate is expected to be watched by over 30 million Clinton staffers

Mike Pence committed the biggest gaffe, at first.

Early on, it seemed that Pence delivered one of the most inaccurate opening statements in history, referring to the host venue, Longwood University, as “Norwood University.” Fact-check? Absolutely false! Should this be held against him? Probably not, but these kinds of faux pas are catnip to the comically inclined.

Definitely heard Norwood instead of Longwood. Oopsie.

“Longwood will finally be put on the map because of this debate!”
Norwood University is one of the top Twitter trends.

Pence may or may not have “won,” but Kaine definitely lost.

More than any other single theme, Twitter’s discussion of this debate brought up one thing over and over again: Kaine’s constant interruptions were awful, and as a result he came across as shrill and insecure when contrasted with his poised counterpart. The “Donald Kaine” tweet stings the most, considering that part of the reason Democratic presidential nominee Clinton was determined to have won the presidential debate last week was that she interrupted far less often than her Republican rival, Donald Trump. It’s shocking that Kaine didn’t make a mental note of this while preparing earlier in the week.

Kaine keeps interrupting. Who does he think he is, Lester Holt?

.@timkaine is interrupting more than @mike_pence, which I don’t think is serving him well. Scoring more on positives.

Kaine is coming off as petty and hot headed. Not at all a good look for a ticket that struggles with likability.

Elaine Quijano, the debate moderator, was the real winner.

Twitter was effusive with praise for moderator Elaine Quijano, who at times sternly took command of the two wayward participants. Her growing frustration was evident as the night continued, but she was rightly praised for maintaining a firm grip on the proceedings even when Kaine and Pence couldn’t stop talking over each other.

Great job @Elaine_Quijano for pushing back on Pence after he clearly dodged the taxes question on Trump.


This moderator getting them together better than Lester Holt last week

There was a whole lotta mansplaining going on.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of watching Tuesday’s debate was the brazen disrespect of Quijano, particularly from Kaine. While both candidates talked over her words as if she wasn’t there, Kaine brought thing to a low point when he patronizingly violated the rules by chiding her, “This is important, Elaine.” The image of two wealthy white men ignoring and being condescending to a Hispanic female moderator was nothing short of disgraceful. She deserved better, and so did we.

Neither candidate is listening to moderator. Talking over each other. “We need to move on.” Awkward.

So fun to listen to two old white dudes talk over a woman of color.

Gotta say… really not loving the image of two white guys talking over the woman charged with running the show. Jussayin’.

Vladimir Putin was the big star of the night — in absentia!

Without question, the high point for Kaine was his tense exchange with Pence over Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who has a distressingly cozy relationship with the Trump campaign. Folks on Twitter noticed the prevalence of Putin’s name, of course, and were quick to call out Pence when he lied about praising Putin’s leadership. Kaine was shrewd in not letting this go. While that definitely didn’t redeem his temperamental performance, at least he guaranteed that Trump’s connection to a foreign totalitarian regime will remain in the news cycle.

Kaine, not surprisingly, hits back at Pence on Russia, with Trump’s Putinphilia.

Mike Pence must have a short memory. Here he is praising Vladimir Putin less than a month ago: 

Photo published for Mike Pence says it’s ‘inarguable’ that Putin is a stronger leader than Obama

Mike Pence says it’s ‘inarguable’ that Putin is a stronger leader than Obama

Pence defended his running mate’s praise of Putin.

Trump actually said that Putin is “far more” of a leader than Obama 

Photo published for Mike Pence defends Donald Trump comments on Vladimir Putin: 'inarguable'

Mike Pence defends Donald Trump comments on Vladimir Putin: ‘inarguable’

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on Thursday defended his running mate’s statement that Vladimir Putin is a stronger leader than President Barack Obama, calling it…

Pence winning debate on style, but repeatedly lying about a quote networks can run 24/7: 

Photo published for Mike Pence: "Inarguable That Vladimir Putin Is A Stronger Leader" Than Obama

Mike Pence: “Inarguable That Vladimir Putin Is A Stronger Leader” Than Obama

GOP vice presidential candidate Mike Pence speaks with CNN’s Dana Bash about Donald Trump’s statement that Vladimir Putin is a much stronger leader than President Obama. Pence doubled down, saying:…

Bravo to Kaine for demanding accountability for praise of Vladimir Putin. One of the most undercovered aspects of this election.

Both candidates clung to former president Ronald Reagan’s name as if it were a security blanket.

Why did the 40th president of the United States start trending on Twitter during the debate? Because both Kaine and Pence tried to use Reagan’s name as a staff with which to beat their rival, that’s why. Presumably politicians do this to impress voters by a reference to a popular past president, but when the references feel shoehorned in instead of natural, liberals and conservatives can unite behind the transparent phoniness of it all.

I love how the left hates Ronald Reagan unless they are debating a Republican.

How has this debate become: who can quote Ronald Reagan best?

Heads up: who will decide this election don’t care.

One final tweet: This tweet best captures the spirit of the whole evening. It was prompted by Kaine’s and Pence’s talking about the importance of their Christian beliefs.

It’s cathartic to joke about travesties like this debate, but let’s not kid ourselves about what happened tonight. The Republican and Democratic presidential nominees are the most unpopular in recorded history. And even though Kaine and Pence were unlikely to change that in one night, they could have at least set a better example.

By failing to do even that, they not only guaranteed that this debate will be as unimportant as the vast majority of other vice presidential debates. Worse yet, they also deprived the American public of something it desperately needs right now: the ability to believe in its politicians again.



Twitter goes bananas: From Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit to Donald Trump’s snorting, the social-media hits and misses

Published: Salon (September 27, 2016)

Monday night’s presidential debate between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was almost certainly a smashing success in terms of TV ratings. If the social-media response is any indication, both candidates had more than their fair share of memorable moments.

Let’s go to the Twitter roundup!

Before the debate:

Ok I’ve decided I’m live tweeting the debates!! I will not know what the fuck I’m looking at but hell its got to be fun!!

did she really just announce no phones during ? how will people tweet?

These two observations were brought to us prior to the debate by comedians Leslie Jones and Franchesca Ramsey. The latter’s quip is particularly well-taken, considering that social media was set afire with debate talk long before the event itself actually started.

Clinton’s controversial fashion choice:

I hope clinton’s outfit is made out of donald trump’s red ties that she ordered from his factories in China

Let’s be honest: The first thing most of us noticed when Clinton and Trump took the stage was Clinton’s red pantsuit. It was a visually arresting choice that you could either love or hate, but was impossible to ignore.

Trump has the sniffles:

When is the first hashtag out of the debates, you know something is going very wrong for the sniffer.

By contrast, no one seemed thrilled with Trump’s sniffling. Indeed, “sniffles” began trending on Twitter shortly after Trump’s first snort. And in light of the ongoing hubbub over Clinton’s health concerns, the timing couldn’t have been worse for the Republican nominee. As one of the above tweeters correctly pointed out, if you’re a presidential candidate, it isn’t a good sign when the first hashtag out of a presidential debate involves one of your physical tics.

Trumped-up trickle-down economics:

“Trumped-up Trickle Down economy…” first catch phrase of the night

“Trumped Up Trickle Down” didn’t work the first time I said, but maybe I’ll try one more time. – Hillary

On the other hand, Clinton’s attempt to make “Trumped-up trickle-down” economics into a catchphrase met with mixed success. Certainly the quip left a strong impression, but the consensus seems to be that it felt forced. Notice how FunnyOrDie tweeted about the comment 20 minutes after the other two tweets; it was still in the ether and still proved to be at best partially effective.

NAFTA, not good:

Trump takes over – your husband signed NAFTA — the worst trade deal maybe signed anywhere.

The economists are shrieking right now, but Trump forcing Hillary to defend NAFTA is a bad look for her and good for him.

Trump scores on “you haven’t done it in 30 years” and NAFTA and TPP. She’s losing right now.

There seemed to be a broad consensus that Trump had Clinton on the ropes when he brought up the North American Free Trade Agreement. Even the normally leftist Cenk Uygur (of “The Young Turks” fame) pointed out that “she’s losing right now” when Trump held her feet to the fire on this issue. If you were a Clinton supporter, this was a wince-inducing moment and Twitter definitely picked up on that.

Trump was against global warming before he was for it (or something):

When Clinton called on social media posters to fact-check her opponent, they rose to the occasion, starting with multiple well-placed sources responding to Trump’s denial that he once claimed global warming was a hoax created by the Chinese.

Oh, and about crime in New York City: 

Murder rates in NYC have declined. @Salon

Photo published for New York City Murder Rate Drops To Historic Low

New York City Murder Rate Drops To Historic Low

The city’s overall low crime statistics were recorded during a period of historically few stop-and-frisks.

Salon’s CEO (full disclosure!) offered this information about Trump’s apocalyptic pronouncements regarding New York crime rates, which have trended broadly downward for 25 years, across the tenures of multiple mayors and various policing strategies.

Lester Holt, not so much:

I’m so old I remember when this debate had a moderator.

If a debate happens, and no one is there to moderate, did it ever happen at all?

Lester Holt’s performance as debate moderator did not receive glowing reviews on social media — to put it mildly! The bulk of the tweets that mentioned Holt seemed disappointed at his hands-off approach, implying that he was barely there at all to maintain order amid the interrupting and shouting. It brings to mind similar criticisms made of Jim Lehrer after he hosted the first Barack Obama-Mitt Romney debate in 2012.

Maybe Trump paid taxes! Who knows?

An audit doesn’t stop you for releasing your tax returns

Under audit for 15 years??? Means you’re not doing something right.

Is getting audited every year something to be proud of?

This was not the first time Trump has cited his current IRS audit as a defense for not releasing his tax returns, and naturally people jumped all over this on Twitter. That said, Trump also gave them something novel on which to focus — namely, his offhand reference to having been under audit for 15 years. Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest thing for him to brag about.

Forget the tax returns! What about your emails?

Tax returns for deleted emails draws reaction. @LesterHoltNBChas to remind crowd not to do that.

hi I’m Hilliary Clinton and I’m going to talk about trump hiding his tax returns when I hid 33,000 emails huhhhhhhhh

“I’ll release my tax returns when you release your 33,000 deleted emails”

Trump’s best moment, at least for his fans, might have come when he called out Clinton for allegedly deleting 33,000 emails, and the seismic response certainly registered on Twitter. One may agree or disagree with the soundness of his analogy, but it certainly underscored the fact that both candidates have serious issues with their trustworthiness. Clinton did not benefit when Trump reminded the American people of this.

So there were bills that didn’t get paid — sue me!

Trump not denying stiffing contractors and paying zero income taxes is going to leave a mark.

Trump offers effectively no response to indictment that he stiffed contractors

Trump: sure I screwed contractors and I pay no taxes but I recently built this nice building.

To paraphrase Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this was the proverbial dog that didn’t bark. For most other presidential candidates (particularly self-proclaimed billionaires), it would be toxic to admit that you refused to pay working-class Americans who served in your employ. Trump, on the other hand, breezed right through the question, a fact that didn’t elude some of Twitter’s more perceptive observers.

Born in the USA, at last:

This is the best Trump could do on a totally predictable birther question? that’s just bad prep. but also, not much to work with

Dear America, Secretary Hillary is the mother of the birtherism. Even her mouth piece MSNBC admits it

Naturally, it’s most fitting to close on the topic that burned through Twitter during the final portion of the debate — namely, Trump’s past role in spreading birther conspiracy theories about Barack Obama (who was born in Honolulu in 1961, just for the record). While the tweeters’ stance on the subject was pretty much predetermined by whether they already supported Trump, they all seemed to agree that it dominated discussion as soon as it came up.

What’s the overall verdict? On a first reading of social media, it seems that more of the focus was on Trump’s bugaboos (notably his long history of wild allegations and looseness with the facts) and his respiratory difficulties than on Clinton’s baggage, although the latter hardly escaped attention. It remains to be seen whether this will work for or against Trump, but once again this debate kept the spotlight shining directly on him rather than his opponent.

Why we need trolls: Even offensive clowns like Milo Yiannopoulos can be good for the left

Published: Salon (September 22, 2016)

Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos is perhaps the most famous troll in the world right now, in large part because he was banned from Twitter last month and because the head of Breitbart News is now the CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This, of course, makes it all the more disappointing that Yiannopoulos repeatedly flaked on me when I tried to interview him for this article. (He did, however, participate in a video shoot for Salon and Out magazine featuring my colleague Amanda Marcotte, which produced memorable results you can watch below.)

If we’d had a chance to talk, I would have told Yiannopoulos that I believe 2016 has proved to be the Year of the Troll and asked him how he views his role in this unique moment of American and world history. Indeed, assuming that the term “troll” is defined as someone who deliberately uses inflammatory and offensive language to create controversy (which will be the working definition used for this article), I’d even go so far as to say that trolls are healthy for politics in general and the political left in particular, albeit unintentionally so and often at a real cost to innocent people.

First, though, a primer on the type of political troll we’ve encountered this election season. Although there have been trolls for as long as the Internet itself has existed, 2016 has been something of a heyday for a very specific use of trolling to make political statements. “Trolling has become a byword for everything the left disagrees with, particularly if it’s boisterous, mischievous and provocative,” Yiannopoulosexplained in a column titled “Trolls Will Save the World” in August.

“Even straightforward political disagreement, not intended to provoke,” he wrote, “is sometimes described as ‘trolling’ by leftists who can’t tell the difference between someone who doesn’t believe as they do and an ‘abuser’ or ‘harasser.’ A real troll, of course, does aim to provoke. They do aim to cause mild rage. They aim to prank, to goad, to wind people up. Their opinions are designed to be outrageous.”

If this sounds like an apt description of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, that isn’t a coincidence. Like Trump, online trolls seem to generate attention and support less by having a coherent ideology than by repeatedly flouting the taboos of polite political discourse. In early-21st century America, that quite often means beingbrazenly racist or sexist, whether that entails embracing white supremacist ideology or simply working in concert with the unashamed bigots.

For Trump’s presidential campaign, this has mainly taken the form ofcomments that have been widely regarded as offensive to Mexicans, Muslims and women. For online trolls, it has involved everything from harassing women who work in the video-game industry to targeting the actresses who starred in “Ghostbusters” with explicitly racist and sexist language. Either way, the collectively anti-feminist, anti-PC and anti-antiracist ideals that bind these trolls together (in practice if not in overt philosophy) have been branded with the term “alt-right,” which is relatively useful as far as nomenclature goes.


Make no mistake about it: Alt-right trolling is a highly toxic trend. As of 2014, nearly three-quarters of internet users had either witnessed or directly experienced online harassment, with women being the most likely to experience it in its most severe forms. I’ve personally been subjected to quite a bit of anti-Semitic trolling whenever I write articles critical of Trump for his alt-right sensibilities.

While many of us who are targeted by these trolls are able to laugh them off or simply ignore them, others find it more difficult to do so. Indeed, when the trolling stops being simply mean and evolves into outright harassment, the targets shouldn’t have to learn to simply let it go.

At the same time, these alt-right trolls perform two valuable services for the left.

First, they force us to examine our own weaknesses when it comes to respecting the basic rights and freedoms of those who disagree with us. Yiannopoulos demonstrated this when he embarked on a speaking tour of college campuses last year, one that led to frequent incidents when he was shouted down, de-platformedand even physically bullied by progressive students who opposed his views.

Because some campus leftists support suppressing opinions they personally dislike, the actions of these protesters perfectly illustrate the point any professional provocateur wants to make: Their enemies’ lack of respect for dissenting opinions is precisely the reason why they need to be exposed to them. Not only can this serve to shake progressives out of the intellectual complacency that comes from hearing only amenable views; it also presents us with an important test regarding our willingness to behave honorably toward those whose opinions offend us. Whenever we try to silence them, we fail that test; whenever we respond by encouraging debate and reasoned argument, we rise to the challenge.

Just as important, trolls reinforce why we have established certain boundaries in the first place. Take the reports that Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric has caused an increase of bigoted bullying among children. While this doesn’t mean that Trump should be censored, it illustrates why the claims that he’s simply “telling it like it is” ring so hollow.

Adults may be able to delude themselves into thinking that accusing Mexico of sending rapists into this country or supporting an outright ban on Muslim immigration aren’t inherently hateful actions. Children see right through that baloney and reflect in a more pure form the prejudices being promoted all around them. While Trump, Yiannopoulos and individuals like them may denounce criticisms of their language as “politically correct,” it’s impossible to touch the raw nerves of racism and sexism without eventually causing real-world harm. It is valuable to have people out there who remind us of that.

Trust me, I’m not writing any of this out of affection or respect for Yiannopoulos. His flakiness about being interviewed — both our scheduled phone calls were arranged days in advance and then cancelled by his representative less than an hour before they were supposed to happen — was at best unprofessional and at worst deliberately insulting. That said, even as the left justifiably opposes the right-wing values he espouses, we ought to acknowledge that the act of trolling for which he has become notorious is not without its social function. In an ideal world there would be no prejudice and bullying at all. Barring that, we’re better off having provocateurs who regularly challenge us to live up to our principles.

A deep dive into the alt-right’s greatest YouTube hits

Published: The Daily Dot (September 7, 2016)

When Hillary Clinton pointed out the connection between Donald Trump and the alt-right, she wasn’t talking about an ordinary political movement.

As the Daily Dot’s Amrita Khalid notes, the alt-right is a “younger, ballsier rejection of the GOP establishment and political correctness as a whole—think the Tea Party meets Pepe the Frog.” But it’s also perennially attacked as a hub for white nationalism. “For the alt-right, ‘Make America White Again’ is not an ironic dismissal of Trump’s campaign slogan,” she concludes.

In order to better understand this movement, I spent a night diving into the world of YouTube videos that either outright support or are in notable ways sympathetic to alt-right causes. While there, I learned about the distinctive style that allows them to flourish online.

We can start with Richard Spencer, the prominent white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right.” In a December 2015video about his reasons for doing this, Spencer traced the lineage of mainstream conservatism from the Barry Goldwater campaign to the presidency of George W. Bush. The alt-right, he argued, exists outside of that continuum. They’re comprised of “people who have liberated themselves from the left-right dialectic” and “grasp the utter uselessness of mainstream conservatives, particularly in this hyper-racialized world in which we live.” They admire Donald Trump because “he has attacked and humiliated a lot of the same things that I used to hate and still hate.”

This mainly means establishment conservatives, whom Spencer tellingly dismisses with the epithet “cuckservative.” (This is aporn-sourced term for conservatives who are allowing themselves to be metaphorically cuckolded for not being conservative enough.) Most importantly, Spencer closes by insisting that the left has become the establishment and that the alt-right is, in fact, the truly rebellious movement at this time.

Then there is Paul Joseph Watson, whose popular YouTube channel is perhaps best known for disseminating debunked conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health. That said, Watson’s videos also cover a broad range of topics embraced by the alt-right, denouncing Islam, Black Lives Matter, transgendered rights activists, and feminists with gleefully inflammatory language. Like Spencer, Watson attempts to legitimize the alt-right’s brand of conservatism by arguing that it is in fact the “new counter-culture.” While Spencer attempts to give off a scholarly air, however, Watson strives to persuade through sheer entertainment value.

His videos flaunt their lack of political correctness with humor and their host’s defiant tone, both intended to make them more convincing to viewers who mistake shock value for truth-telling. This is best exemplified in “I Love My White Male Privilege,”during which Watson sarcastically contrasts the notion of “white male privilege” with a series of “facts” on subjects ranging from the slave trade and colonialism to Islam, rape culture, and men’s rights issues. It’s hard to look away during this screed, whatever else you may say about it.

Finally we have Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad), a YouTuber who rose to prominence during Gamergate, an antifeminist backlash among a segment of video game fans. Although he doesn’t consider himself part of the alt-right, Benjamin’s videos also focus on attacking favorite alt-right targets like (again) feminism, Islam, Black Lives Matter, and the overall notion of straight white male privilege.

All of this is done in the deliberately provocative, anti-PC tone that is generally characteristic of alt-right rhetoric. Because Benjamin has talked with many of the alt-rightists who constitute his fan base, his video “An Honest Look at the Alt Right” is particularly illuminating. Although he criticizes the alt-right for collectivist and authoritarian thinking, he argues that they’re reacting to a comparable amount of racism from the left.

“By framing the argument as the progressive left advocating for minorities against whites, they [the social justice left] have set the stage for a group to become the antagonist for this position—which is precisely what the alt-right is,” Benjamin argues, later adding that “the progressive left have used liberal guilt to advance an agenda that is focused largely around racism and advocacy against whites.”

This brings us to the two reasons why there is an audience for pundits who identify with or are sympathetic to the alt-right.

The first, of course, is the straightforward political explanation. As heterosexual white men lose the privileged position from which they’ve benefited for most of Western history, far-right movements inevitably pop up to feed off of their grievances. Similarly, because we’ve become more sensitive to the concerns of women and minorities, it is less culturally acceptable to express views that marginalize these groups. That’s why the alt-right pundits think of themselves as representing a culture that fights against the liberal status quo. From the point of view of those invested in maintaining certain privileges, a cultural consensus which strives toward diversity is a hostile status quo.

While it remains to be seen whether the alt-right will help elect Trump, I suspect the provocateurs themselves will always have an audience online. So long as there are people who embrace the Internet’s potential for uninhibited self-expression, we will have performers who entertain us by transgressing against our most sacred political taboos. It’s always an interesting show, regardless of whether you agree with its message—and that’s the key to its persistence.

It’s why Spencer, Watson, and Benjamin never tiptoe around the fact that they’re slaying sacred cows. They revel in what they’re doing because they know that’s what their fans want to see. Sometimes the provocateurs of the world happen to be right, and sometimes they’re dead wrong, but either way they’re a perfect match for YouTube.

About my positive review for “Suicide Squad”

Published: The Daily Dot (August 16, 2016)

It’s a strange feeling, having written one of the few positive articles about Suicide Squad.

If the Internet community can learn anything from “Suicide Squad,” it is that online culture breeds a specific kind of overly-informed and excessively quantifying approach to the art of criticism. This has become apparent in several ways just with the Internet’s response to “Suicide Squad,” although it can also be traced to our own creative tendencies as writers and our access to unprecedented quantities of information about the filmmaking process itself. While this allows for a richer discussion about popular entertainment like movies, it can also result in a form of mass groupthink. When we start to view something inherently subjective and personal, like artistic taste, through a mindset that instinctively defers to so-called experts, we risk forfeiting our own judgment as independent individuals.

This is where the implicit logic behind RottenTomatoes is, for lack of a better word, problematic. By compiling a sampling of movie critics’ opinions and reducing them to a single numeric rating–as well as applying definitive labels of judgment like “fresh” or “rotten”–the website makes art seem like a science. Not only are the movies themselves quantified, but the nuances of each individual criticism are similarly stifled. There is no room for ambiguity, for breaking down a movie by its elements and describing which ones work and which ones don’t. Every criticism is summed up as either “fresh” or “rotten” and the movie is valued accordingly.

The critics themselves aren’t blameless here. One is reminded of the wise words from Anton Ego, a food critic from the 2007 film Ratoutille, who observed “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” It’s hard to avoid the sense that many critics, when devoting their best and most caustic prose for an unpopular film, sense an opportunity to sharpen their claws and go for the jugular.

“Got me a sewer to crawl back into,” writes Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, quoting one the movie’s antiheroes before adding: “[H]e’s got nothing on the movie, which was in the sewer all along.” Christopher Orr of The Atlantic harps on the popular claim that the story is a mess, describing it as “lazy to the point of professional negligence.” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane was only a little kinder: “The worst of the worst? Maybe not. But it’s a dead end for kids.” The Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw wrote that “[t]hey should have just stuck with a team of Navy SEALs and an emergency line to Batman.”

Did these critics see the same movie that I did? The story was hardly a masterpiece, but neither were the cluttered narratives in The Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America: Civil War, both of which fared much better with critics. Suicide Squad had fun and interesting characters, a punk tone that worked for its material, and a story which cleverly subverted our understanding of the roles of heroes and antiheroes (including, appropriately enough, authority figures like the government). It wasn’t perfect, or even the best superhero film of the year (a distinction that belongs with Deadpool), but it packs thorough entertainment. The film’s tremendous social media buzz and two-week box office dominance likewise suggests that it has resonated with American audiences.

The internet does more than provide critics with a forum encouraging our inner Anton Egos. We don’t just critique our popular culture products online; we actively investigate their behind-the-scenes details, with an avidity that sometime shames our coverage of more substantive issues. Thanks to outstanding reporting like that at the Hollywood Reporter and Midnight’s Edge, we know that the production behind Suicide Squad was immensely troubled. Producers who were concerned that the film would underperform–and knew that the fate of the DC Cinematic Universe largely depended on that not happening–made drastic cuts before it was released. Humorous moments were added, scenes were reorganized, and an overall air of desperation began to permeate the project.

This seemed like a movie destined to fail, a fact not lost on some of the more self-aware online critics (even as they panned it themselves).

Even those who didn’t mention the film’s troubled past or tremendous strategic importance, though, were almost certainly aware of it. This is the Catch-22 of film analysis that those who criticize the critics often fail to appreciate: If you go into a movie with a completely fresh perspective, you may lack important information that can help you better understand why that particular finished product is appearing on your screen. Too much information, on the other hand, can also slant one’s perspective, if for no other reason than it becomes difficult to divorce genuine attempts at art from knowledge of the sausage-factory commercialism that produces them.

From the critics who are overly influenced by bloodlust and information oversaturation to sites like RottenTomatoes which reduce all opinions to statistics, the Internet has created a perfect storm of conditions to bury movies like Suicide Squad under an avalanche of negative press.

This brings us back to the RottenTomatoes controversy. Critics aggregated at RottenTomatoes have largely panned the film (its current standing there is 27%), prompting some overzealous fans to demand that the site be shut down. Contrary to their shrill belief in an anti-DC or anti-comic book movie conspiracy (both of which don’t hold up to scrutiny), there is no centralized agenda among the Internet’s intellectual establishment. This is the paranoia that caused online misogynists to see feminist conspiracy behind video game criticism and the Ghostbusters reboot, or call for a boycott of Star Wars: The Force Awakens because it has a black stormtrooper or create a petition to block Ben Affleck from playing the new Batman. That said, while there are no great powers that be which have hidden agendas for beloved pop culture franchises with which fans identify, that doesn’t mean critics can’t succumb to their own flawed human nature. Indeed, they should try to be aware of that possibility.

At the very least, it behooves the critics who roasted the film to keep an open mind about reevaluating their opinions. This shouldn’t just apply to critics and audiences for Suicide Squad, but to all moviegoers and to every film. More and more of us aren’t seeing those movies in a vacuum, but rather while overwhelmed with information that asks us to prejudge a movie or TV show or book or song before experiencing it for ourselves. Total objectivity may not be possible (that’s a debate topic for philosophers), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be aware of these potential biases. The first step toward doing that, though, is recognizing that this tool known as the internet can unduly influence how we think, even as its provides us with unprecedented opportunities for self-expression.

Kevin Smith is right about online bullies

Published: The Good Men Project (August 16, 2016)

Simply put, cyber bullies deserve to be ridiculed because they are cowards.

I suppose I can exclude the rare troll or hater who actually attaches his or her real name to their verbal bile. There are even a handful of individuals who make their careers out of trolling (Perez Hilton and Milo Yiannapoulos come to mind). That said, the vast majority of people who bully or harass online do so anonymously. The reason is obvious: They don’t want to be held accountable for what they say. Even though the very act of harassing another person presumes a position of superiority, the cyber bullies clearly know that they would be shamed for what they say. The only way they can keep the focus on their target instead of themselves is by cowering behind their keyboards. This makes them pathetic… and the more flamboyantly they attack their targets, the more it becomes clear that the joke is actually on them.

This brings us to Kevin Smith’s teenage daughter, actress Harley Quinn Smith, who was recently attacked by an online troll for appearing in his new film “Yoga Hosers.” Smith’s defense of his daughter deserves to be published in full:

“[E]ven though I should be apoplectic about it, my kid thought it was funny. ‘I’d be mad if I had a tiny dick and anonymous voice too,’ she said, bemused by the bitterness. But here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice for folks like this Troll: if you hate me (or my kid) this much, the better use of your time is to make YOUR dreams come true, instead of slamming others for doing the same.”

This may be one of the best-crafted insults against trolls ever penned, and it has nothing to do with the dick joke. The first part was Smith describing how his daughter laughed at the troll’s bitterness, an act that strips the bullies of their power. I’ve had a blast myself poking fun at some of my cyberbullies, in no small part because it’s important to draw attention to the inherent ridiculousness of a troll’s activity. Their power comes in making their victim believe that words written by unnamed sources can possibly be taken seriously; that artifice of authority is obliterated once you point out how ripe their actions are for parody.

That said, it’s not enough to simply put the trolls in their place. If we want to set a better example, we need to show them a level of empathy that they’ve refused to display. As Smith points out, someone who would enjoy trolling a teenage girl clearly doesn’t have any meaningful constructive outlets in their lives. It’s easy to interpret this as a verbose way of saying “Get a life!”, but in truth there are many people whose lives feel empty and without purpose… and not all of them are trolls. The troll’s problem isn’t that he or she feels inadequate, but that they lash out at innocent people because of their insecurities. It’s possible to condemn the action while still seeing the human being responsible for them, and perhaps by offering thoughtful advice as well as sharp rebukes, we can make lemonade out of their lemons.

From Gamergate to “Ghostbusters” to Suicide Squad: The Problem of Fan Entitlement

Published: Salon (August 9, 2016)

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the “Suicide Squad” petition. In case you’ve been lucky enough to miss the news, fans of the new movie “Suicide Squad” have created an online movement to shut down aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes for posting predominantly negative reviews of their beloved film. Cue the inevitable jokes about how nerds need to get a life.

Is it really that simple, though? Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that fans of pop culture properties – whether movies, TV shows, books, video games, or anything else – don’t merely view them as forms of entertainment, or themselves as consumers of said media. From Comic Cons to the nostalgia craze, it is clear that millions of people deeply identify with the culture produced by others, and, as a result of this feeling of ownership, many of them have developed a deep sense of entitlement that at its most innocuous is merely silly, and at its worst manifests itself in ugly bigotries.

The brouhaha over “Suicide Squad” offers a great starting point for tracing this evolution from the absurd to the sinister. While there is a highly unflattering whininess in those “Suicide Squad” fans who assume that critics are compelled to share their views, Rotten Tomatoes hasn’t exactly been victimized by their petition (no one believes it’s going to be effective). The same can be said of Ben Affleck, who three years ago was targeted by a petition to recast him as Batman before critics and audiences had a chance to see that he’d wind up being the best thing about “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Incidents like these can be safely lumped under the “silly” category.

But what about the female film critic who received misogynistic death threats from a comic book fan incensed over her negative review for “Man of Steel”?

The same entitlement that can cause DC Comics fans to complain about unpopular actors or unfavorable movie reviews can also, if they harbor certain prejudices, come across in more harmful ways. Because only 15 percent of major movies star female characters, it was easy for fanboys with a sense of entitlement to denounce the new “Ghostbusters” reboot in viciously misogynistic language for recasting the lead roles with female performers. Similarly, because video games have traditionally targeted white men as their core audience, movements like Gamergate can spring up when reactionary gamers hear feminists call for increased gender diversity in gaming. These sexist attitudes even appear around franchises where you wouldn’t expect it; just ask Anna Gunn, who has endured years of harassment for her role as Skyler White in the TV drama, “Breaking Bad.”

Unfortunately, the problem of nerd entitlement isn’t limited to misogyny. Last year a number of racists made waves with their movement to boycott Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens because it had cast African-American actor John Boyega in one of the starring roles. A similar backlash occurred when it came out that Michael B. Jordan had been cast as The Human Torch in last year’s reboot of The Fantastic Four. Skip over to the realm of literature and things aren’t much better, as evidenced by the considerable number of Twilight fans who harassed indie pop singer FKA Twigs in vile racist language for daring to enter a relationship with the male star of their franchise’s film universe, Robert Pattinson.

These are only a handful of examples (I had to cut more than three-quarters of my research for this article just to save space), but they all underscore a common theme. It isn’t simply that consumers of popular culture often harbor ugly racist and sexist views; it’s that, because they personally identify with the properties in question, their inflated sense of entitlement over these products can make them quick to anger when that identity is challenged. This is why latent racism and sexism so often bubbles to the surface among those members of the community community that think of their identity in terms of being white and male.

The underlying logic is fundamentally irrational: It’s the belief that, because they’ve financially supported these industries their whole lives and received an embarrassing social stigma for doing so, these industries owe them. While being a fan gives you a legitimate emotional connection to a product, the underlying relationship is still that of consumer with product. Any loyalty that you feel is a personal choice you make on how to invest your time and money; any choice made by a producer, from corporations to individuals, is done to promote their own self-interest. Because that involves appealing to as broad an audience as possible, this means ignoring their fans when they insist on exclusivist attitudes.

What can be done about this? More than anything else, we need to change the conversation that we’re having about pop culture in general. For better or worse, the fact that our generation holds pop culture on such a pedestal means that the cultural has become political. As a result, when a disproportionately large number of our movies, TV shows, video games, and books feature white, straight, and male characters at the expense of other groups, this is an inherently political act (deliberately or otherwise) and needs to be confronted. Indeed, when nerds react to calls for diversity with hostility, they are only demonstrating how true this is. There is a poignant symbolic significance to including non-white, non-male, and non-straight voices in cultural roles that were traditionally reserved for members of privileged groups… and, conversely, it is terribly disheartening when the producers of entertainment refuse to recognize the cultural power they wield and utilize it in an inclusive way.

Beyond simply calling for diversity, though, we also must infuse our debate with an awareness that being a fanboy doesn’t entitle you to anything. The common thread linking the “Suicide Squad” petition to other nerd-based racist and misogynist incidents this decade is that, at their core, all of them betray an assumption that producers of popular entertainment are beholden to the nerd community. This misunderstands a basic principle of a free market society – while consumers have the right to invest or not invest their time and money as they see fit, they don’t have the right to demand that producers act as obedient servants to their will. It’s certainly nice when an author or actor or critic or film studio shows deference to the wishes of fans, but they are in no way ethically obligated to do so. Indeed, because many fans (like many people from all walks of life) harbor terrible social views, it is very often necessary for producers to disregard the will of the more vocal segments of their fanbases. Just because a lot of gamers don’t want increased diversity doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen; just because a lot of moviegoers liked “Suicide Squad” (myself included) doesn’t mean the critics on Rotten Tomatoes should feel likewise.

At the same time, it’s also necessary for progressives to maintain an even keel about the greater significance of these cultural properties. The sexist backlash against the “Ghostbusters” reboot was certainly despicable, but that doesn’t justify alleging misogyny in every moviegoer who disliked the film (I personally thought it was good and worth seeing). It’s important to oppose racism, but that doesn’t mean we should start hashtags like #CancelColbert that willfully ignore the difference between satire and bigotry. While it’s important for progressives to stand up to problematic trends and tropes in cultural products, we still need to remember that they are ultimately just that – products. When we lose sight of this, we risk overreacting against those whose opinions and actions are based on an awareness of the fact that we too are acting first and foremost as consumers of entertainment.

I suspect that, years from now, future cultural historians will love to mine incidents like Gamergate and the “Ghostbusters” controversy for deeper meaning. There is a great deal to be said about a society that loves its popular culture so fervently that they will turn them into platforms on which greater social justice causes are fought. For right now, though, it behooves all of us to take a step back and recognize that there is an air of entitlement which makes all of this possible… and none of us look good so long as it remains unaddressed.