By Tav Nyong’o
Once upon a time, I began to write a blog post about the satirical “Twinks4Trump” troll that had started appearing in my Twitter feed. Finding much-needed gallows humor in the idea of a twink for Trump, I began to follow the account. Eventually, I drafted an explanation for the appearance of this latest little monster, and I even dabbled in the wishful thinking that Twinks4Trump might successfully bait Donald Trump’s official Twitter account into responding, thus exposing him to deserved mockery and scorn.
Back in March of 2016 (that more innocent age!) it was still possible to believe that parody might still hold the power to expose the inherent incongruity of a Trump candidacy, much less a Trump presidency, and bring the hot air balloon crashing back to earth before it could land in the White House.
“Alt-right” is a fancy, internet-themed name, but the phenomena of right-wing, race-baiting gays is not new (just ask Roy Cohn)! Back in 2002, Village Voice editor Richard Goldstein wrote an entire book critiquing the media prominence given to a group of figures he dubbed “The Attack Queers” — professedly liberal Democrats (Andrew Sullivan, Norah Vincent, and Camille Paglia came under particular fire at the time) who nonetheless appealed to the conservative right by skewering “political correctness” and “liberal groupthink.” The alt-right is sort of a funhouse exaggeration and dangerous extrapolation of this kind of trolling behavior, with intelligence-free hate and fear now seen as viable career options for the nihilistic and attention-craved (one of the most frequent Google searches for Yiannopolous is “net worth”).
Actual white supremacy and Islamophobia sort of spoiled the fun of Twinks4Trump for me, and brought me to question my long-held belief in the transgressive power of queer satire and invective. I even grew uncertain of my initial assumption that Twinks4Trump was a parody, and I wrote to the account holder, Cody Permenter, to be sure. To my relief, he confirmed his parodic intent, and we pondered a little where all this would go. Although he created the account to troll Trump and his followers, Permenter told me over email that:
“When I created the account, if I’m being honest, I didn’t have a clear goal in mind. It was more for humor and because I was bored. But I think I tapped into something, a kind of cultural critique that I can use for some good. And if not…well, at least it’s still funny, which also has value. This election is volatile and draining, and humor shouldn’t be lost no matter how ugly it gets.”
I agreed then and still do, although I increasingly wonder whether humor is enough any longer. In our email exchange, I had compared Twinks for Trump to earlier feminist and queer agitprop groups such as Ladies Against Women and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and we discussed what might happen if someone actually tried to troll the Trump campaign as “Twinks for Trump.” I think we both thought at the time that such a troll would have a disruptive impact on the Trump campaign, that it was possible to, in Permenter’s words, “troll America’s greatest troll.” As it turns out, the joke was on us: now self-avowed gay Republicans are claiming the hashtag, Permenter has been obliged to tweet out “We’re parody. And he’s…serious…oh god.”
I know that sinking feeling. Things turned out a little differently than either of us expected. Internet lore states that no position, however outrageous, will fail to be mistaken for a sincere conviction unless clearly marked as satire. The subsequent takeover of Twinks4Trump by actual alt-right operatives and attention-mongers suggest that the obverse is also true: there is no online parody so obvious that someone will not try to make malevolently serious use of it. As Whitney Phillips notes (see below), the thing about Trump’s trolling statements, for example, is that “millions of people believe in what Trump is saying.” And, unfortunately for us, there may be no real operative distinction between “serious” and “parody” anymore: we can no longer afford to think of either seriousness or parodic intent as having any automatic political valence or implication: both can be used (and in conjunction) for evil.
For me, Twinks4Trump stopped being funny for me the day actual gay conservative politicians like Geert Wilders began to embrace it. A least it was fun while it lasted.
But why didn’t it last? Why was it possible for the Trump juggernaut to incorporate “the young, dumb, and full of cum” among the constituencies that Trump now claims he will be a voice for? The Pulse tragedy was one obvious reason (see Eng Beng Lim’s excellent Orlando Syllabus and previous Bully Blog posts by Quiroga, Lim and Halberstam). It enabled Trump to fold “LGBTQ” into his rhetoric in a way that shouldn’t have been that surprising in retrospect. Why did anyone assume that just because Trump was racist, sexist, and a bully, that he was also homophobic? He is a lifelong cosmopolitan New Yorker who works in the entertainment industry, and he is not religious. He is also a narcissist enraptured by his own self-professed sexual charisma and endowment: why on earth would a creature like this be upset at being called “Daddy”?
In Slate, Whitney Phillips even makes the compelling argument that it is counterproductive to call Trump a troll, however satisfying the resultant image of the Republican presidential candidate as an orange-skinned, fright-haired creature. Pointing out the origins of trolling activity on early internet newsgroups, Phillips argues that calling Trump a troll minimizes the harm he does by comparing it to online activity that, however infuriating, we can simply walk away from. While trolling has now spread beyond its online origins (and bullying and violence are hardly less real because digitally mediated) her point is well taken: the left cannot afford to encapsulate Trumpism as trolling, when that is just a part of what is going on.
Phillip’s argument suggests to me that the conventional (if oft ignored) wisdom — “Don’t Feed the Trolls” — does not fully apply in the case of Trump’s bullying, baiting, and chaos-mongering. “Trump deserves so much worse than troll.” Phillips concludes, “He deserves the harshest fate of all: to be described accurately.” But if feeding the troll is a mistake, is there any hope of trolling him? Twinks4Trump didn’t seem to work: is there another little monster waiting in the wings? Perhaps there is: queer irreverence and invective hasn’t yet exhausted itself, and there is nothing like the shock of the present catastrophe to stir up the creative juices. Stay tuned!