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Opinion

Trollishness pervades American politics in 2016

Trolls are everywhere online and in our political discourse.
Top of the Ticket cartoon
(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

Once upon a time, only billy goats and hobbits had to worry about trolls. Now, they are a problem for all of us.

Narrowly defined, trolls are the anonymous, nasty-spirited provocateurs who roam the Internet dropping incendiary messages into the middle of online discussions, getting their kicks from malicious disruption. I’m thinking more broadly, though, about the troll attitude that has spread widely and turned political discourse in this country into a harsh, sharply polarized affair.

Donald Trump is the tweeting, insult-spewing high king of trolls. He cannot resist a chance to belittle anyone who crosses his line of fire or use language that makes headline writers giddy and Republican campaign donors shy away. Much of the traction he got in his drive to win the GOP presidential nomination has been powered by his trollishness. Trump fans admire his willingness to be what they call “politically incorrect” (the behavior that those less enamored of Trump simply call boorishness and bigotry). These are, more often than not, people who are already steeped in trollism, thanks to years of indoctrinating themselves with right-wing talk radio, a medium that has turned the troll spirit into gold.

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But trolls are not to be found only among people on the right side of the political spectrum. The fierce Democratic primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has provided abundant proof that lefties, liberals and pretty much anyone can become a troll if they are sufficiently antagonized. For months, Facebook pages have been jammed with overwrought Bernie and Hillary partisans exchanging insults and fierce accusations that have led to countless de-friendings among people once thought to be allies.

To be fair, it can be argued that political cartoonists are the original trolls, trafficking in wild exaggeration, provocation, oversimplification and gleeful slander. But we cartoonists try to do it with humor and artfulness in the hope that we will nudge people engaged in politics toward taking themselves less seriously.

Trolls, though, are nothing if not serious. They are consumed with certainty that they are right and those on the opposing side are not only wrong, but idiots, nincompoops, reprobates, stooges, shysters, deviants — or, to borrow a few epithets from Shakespeare, knotty-pated fools, bolting-hutches of beastliness, swollen parcels of dropsies, stuffed cloak-bags of guts, eel-skinned bull’s-pizzles and poisonous bunch-backed toads.

Sadly, most trolls do not have the Bard’s flair for words. Even more sadly, trolls are not a declining share of the electorate. On the contrary, there seem to be more each day as the most contentious campaign in a very long time revs into high gear. As Pogo might put it, we have met the trolls and they are us.

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David.Horsey@latimes.com

Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter

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