We all have our cultural blind spots. We can’t pay attention to everything and there are many things we simply don’t want to pay attention to because they don’t really interest us. There are a lot of progressive bloggers who really immerse themselves in right-wing media in order to understand, critique, and combat it. I really value their commitment and their work, but I just can’t do that kind of work myself.
Someone sent me this interminably long essay on 4chan written by Dale Beran. I actually read it and found it provocative and interesting, although I suspect it’s more contentious than it lets on.
For whatever reasons, I didn’t allow myself to become more than dimly aware of the whole Gamergate controversy, and I didn’t know what people were referring to when they made derogatory comments about 4chan during the campaign. When people first starting talking about Milo Yiannopoulos, I didn’t know the name and mistook him for someone else.
These aren’t my battles and I have no scars to prove it.
But I can’t dispute that someone needed to be paying attention to this stuff, nor that not paying attention to it contributed to more surprise about the election result than was necessary.
For my part, I’ve been focused on the other side of what is probably the same elephant. I’ve been looking at the opioid problem as a symptom of economic stagnation and hopelessness. I’ve been look at sagging entrepreneurialism among millennials as a product of decades of lax antitrust enforcement. I’ve been looking at a generation of folks the same age as my step kids who can’t afford an apartment on the entry-level wages they’re being offered. I’ve been looking at the explosion of college costs and the lack of corresponding bang for the buck in earning potential.
But the flip side is how the “losers” are responding from the protective cocoons of their parents’ basements. And if that is what 4chan really amounts to (and I’m not sure Mr. Beran fully demonstrates this), then maybe it’s more fruitful to look at solutions for their economic plight than to argue with them about whatever has them ginned up on any given day.
The most intriguing part of this essay, for me, is the idea that many of Trump’s supporters don’t expect him to deliver on his promises and that that was never the rationale for supporting him. Rather, the point was to give the middle finger to a system that was going to screw them either way.
I’ll share an excerpt on this point so you can judge it for yourself. The context is a story told in Charles Bukowski’s novel Factotum in which two factory workers devise a plan to collect their coworkers money for bets on horse races. But they never place the bets and keep the money for themselves. Their rationale is basically that their coworkers are such natural losers that they would never actually place a winning bet. The proof of their loserdom is that they work in the factory in the first place. Since their coworkers can never win, there is no risk that they’ll ever get caught for failing to bet their money. Furthermore, by knowing who their coworkers are betting on, they can improve their odds of winning their own bets. They’ll just bet on other horses.
How has that image of a 1950s business man who owns his own home in the suburbs changed after decades of declines in wages, middle classdom, and home ownership?
To younger generations who never had such jobs, who had only the mythology of such jobs (rather a whimsical snapshot of the 1950s frozen in time by America’s ideology) this part of the narrative is clear. America, and perhaps existence itself is a cascade of empty promises and advertisements — that is to say, fantasy worlds, expectations that will never be realized “IRL”, but perhaps consumed briefly in small snatches of commodified pleasure.
Thus these Trump supporters hold a different sort of ideology, not one of “when will my horse come in”, but a trolling self-effacing, “I know my horse will never come in”. That is to say, younger Trump supporters know they are handing their money to someone who will never place their bets — only his own — because, after all, it’s plain as day there was never any other option.
In this sense, Trump’s incompetent, variable, and ridiculous behavior is the central pillar upon which his younger support rests.
This idea of people voting for a guy who they know will never place their bets is compelling for me. It speaks to a the same kind of despair that David Brooks (of all people) is referring to when he notes that “a survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates.”
Still, I’ve discovered that the opioid problem is a story about more than economic stagnation. It is reaching into even the most affluent communities and school districts in the country. I suspect that it’s a gross simplification to see Trumpism as based primarily on economic problems, too. So, whatever pathologies we see coming out of 4chan probably aren’t reducible to the plight of white male ‘losers’ who can’t find a way to attract a mate.