Goldberg: How comment section trolls took over the Republican Party
Is the GOP becoming a dysfunctional chatroom?
In economics, Gresham’s law on currency markets holds that “bad money drives out good.” That same principle also applies to the comment sections on online sites.
In comments sections — including such mega-versions like Twitter — the nastiest commenters post more, and more obnoxiously, than the decent ones until, eventually, the decent folk just decide not to hang out anymore. The only remedy for this is comment moderation, where grown-ups in charge try to thwart the trolls lest they lose their more valuable customers.
In Tim Miller’s book, “Why We Did It,” the former Republican operative has a chapter titled, “Centering the Comments Section.” In it, he explains how, as the communications director of Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, he courted Breitbart News, then run by self-described “Leninist” Steve Bannon. The courtship didn’t work out. But Miller describes how Bannon and other rightwing outlets embraced a strategy of pandering to the comment section warriors to boost traffic and “engagement.”
“It was the commenters,” Miller writes, “the hobbits who had taken charge. And they were the ones dragging us along, no matter how we assured ourselves that we were in control.” And they dragged the party right into Trump’s arms.
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Fast forward to today, and you can see how that process never stopped. Fox’s decision to “respect the audience” amid the post-election tumult — the loudest, most hardcore viewers, before and after the 2020 election — led to huge public relations, legal and financial disasters.
According to texts revealed by the Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News, Chris Stirewalt — then a political editor at Fox and now at The Dispatch — warned that this was folly: “What I see us doing is losing the silent majority of viewers as we chase the nuts off a cliff.” Stirewalt was later fired for his effrontery.
Now, Gresham’s law has come to the GOP. Across the country, state parties are being slowly taken over by Trump-worshippers, conspiracy theory enthusiasts, et al., who think worrying about “electability” is the stuff of losers, cucks, RINOs and globalists.
Michelle Cottle of the New York Times recently reported from Georgia, where the state party has effectively been taken over by the comments section. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who defied Trump’s attempts to destroy him in the primaries, has essentially washed his hands of the state GOP, directing donors to ignore it and give their money to his PAC.
Kemp as well as the Georgia secretary of state, the state attorney general and other top Republican officials aren’t even attending the state GOP convention next month (going would be like the SNL skit where William Shatner appeared at a Star Trek convention). This schism has its roots in the Georgia GOP chairman David Shafer backing Trumpy challengers over some of his own party’s incumbents.
This isn’t merely a story of a Trumpist takeover of the GOP. Both parties, weakened by the primary system and campaign finance laws that cut out the middleman between donors and politicians, have struggled to do the basic things parties are supposed to do: Pick electable candidates and defend their brand. California’s GOP, a stronghold for Republicans until the mid-1990s, was long ago taken over by the talk-radio right.
But Trump accelerated and intensified the dynamic. Pro-impeachment House and Senate members were hunted for sport by state Republican parties in 2020 and 2022, many of them defeated by political goofballs and weirdos with no chance of defeating Democrats in the general election. After the Jan. 6 riots, tens of thousands of Republicans quit the GOP, surrendering even more ground to those untroubled by association with such behavior.
Shortly before the 2022 election, Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for Arizona governor, held a rally with Bannon on stage beside her. “We don’t have any McCain Republicans in here, do we?” she asked from the stage. “Alright, get the hell out,” she declared. “Boy, Arizona has delivered some losers, haven’t they?” she added.
John McCain was arguably Arizona’s most successful Republican politician since Barry Goldwater. Anyone attending her rally was at least open to voting for her. Yet Lake would rather entertain the comment section trolls than win over real voters.
This is the dilemma GOP candidates face if they want to supplant Trump. They have to win the endorsement of a crowd in an echo chamber having a conversation that the rest of the country thinks is too nasty or weird to join.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch.