Like legions of other Hillary Clinton supporters, I awoke on November 9, 2016, in a state of despair. I was also in a state of self-imposed incarceration: locked in a public hospital’s psych ward.
Hours before, I stood inside a much more enviable location. Having raised $187,000 for Clinton’s campaign, I boasted “Hillblazer” status and a white-hot ticket to the VIP election-night party at the glass-ceilinged Javits Center in Manhattan. I sailed into the November 8 fête on such a righteous high — only to flee during the 10pm hour, so defeated by Trump’s impending victory that I voluntarily committed myself to institutionalized psychiatric care as a means of protection against the suicidal ideations that had overtaken me.
So defeated by Trump’s impending victory... I voluntarily committed myself to institutionalized psychiatric care...
Pressing my face and hands against the cross-hatched bars of a ward window, I saw a world outside that was untenably crazier than the actual cuckoo’s nest.
After my discharge, I published in HuffPost what became a widely-read essay about my own post-election nightmare. For that, I was excoriated by the right-wing troll-o-sphere. A parade of conservative news and pseudo-news outlets, Reddit chains, tweets and Facebook posts, and even the Wall Street Journal threw back their collective heads and howled with laughter over my apparent folly. Charging behind them came an army of Trump-loving online trolls, reveling in their schadenfreude over Clinton’s defeat, clamoring for their own pound of flesh from one of her hapless followers.
In her new book, “What Happened,” Clinton confesses that it does indeed hurt to know that so many people just don’t like her. During this past winter of our liberal discontent, I got a taste of the hate she’s put up with for a quarter century. And yes, the small fraction of the online vitriol directed at me that I consumed took a toll and made my efforts to cope with the nascent Trump era more of an uphill climb.
But as the election’s anniversary drew closer, I resolved to look my trolls in the eyes and read every spiteful word they had written about me. This wasn’t self-flagellation; it was a search for answers about the spirit of Trumpism and the nature of trolling itself.
Within the remarkably consistent rhetorical patterns of their online enmity, I saw the ugly id of the president’s base.
Within the remarkably consistent rhetorical patterns of their online enmity, I saw the ugly id of the president’s base. But if I squinted, I could also see the same bedrock of fear and anxiety for the nation’s future that I, as a Clintonian center-leftist, maintain. Where we differ is in our opposite conclusions about the root of our rotten state.
My critics spun me into a cartoon of the dreaded blubbering “libtard.” Often referencing Michael Savage’s “Liberalism Is A Mental Disorder,” they dismissed my suicidal response to Clinton’s loss as the attention-seeking temper tantrum of a drama queen, a cry-baby Millennial who falls to pieces and runs to mommy whenever he doesn’t get what he wants. (A point of correction: I’m actually a late Gen-Xer, pushing 40; but it’s always nice to be mistaken for younger.) Among the epithets I received were “limp dish rag,” “fruit loop,” “diaper boy,” “cupcake” and “piece of human garbage.” A pair of conservative AM radio talking heads dubbed me one of the “biggest snowflakes of all time.”
Homophobia and dismay over my failure to adhere to traditional gender boundaries guided many of the responses, such as one blogger’s conclusion that I looked “so insanely metro even gays would call [me] a faggot.” (He is correct: I am a gay man who shamelessly fusses with his hair.) Another guy conjectured that I had raised all that money for Clinton by “being a rent boy and servicing older perverts.”
Flat-out eugenics drove the darkest comments, in which the trolls declared that society would have been better off if I had finished the job (“Next time kill yourself, you waste of flesh.”); in that vein, they routinely prayed I would be castrated or sterilized (“Please, please, do not breed.”), as well as lobotomized and given shock treatment for good measure. In some cases, their words drifted toward visions of genocide against liberals and gays alike, all for the sake of #MAGA.
It’s a sad state of affairs when we’ve come to a point where a personal essay about suicide is treated with ritualistic shaming and mockery. (“Funnier than Blazing Saddles!”) And then for the angry mob to take it a step further, to so depersonalize their political opponent as to wish for his death—that’s how soldiers are programmed to process lethal combat. Is our nation really so fractured that each side of the political divide openly hopes for the extinction of the other?
Looking for answers about what motivates trolls, I read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, where I found clues to my haters’ humanity. Online mobs who participate in ritualistic take-downs, Ronson argues, actually often have beneficent meta-intentions: By taking shots at someone who (supposedly) deserves it, they are participating in a system of vigilante justice that is both personally empowering to the otherwise voiceless masses and (supposedly) benefits society overall.
It’s been said that leftist ideology is based on classic maternal principles—the state as warm, forgiving and nurturing, or, derisively, as the babying nanny. Republicans, the reasoning goes, prefer a nation run by a father figure: a strict, Old Testament-style authority who expects citizens to wipe their tears and show a frontiersman’s self-reliance—or else. (As for me, my 19th century agrarian hero was never Davey Crockett; it’s Anne Shirley forever.)
I can see how the Trump supporters may have felt the need to effect a father’s belting of my backside to send a message to other lefty snowflakes to man up, not only for their own good but for the good of society. Many of my trolls expressed sincere anxiety about a rising generation of, as they see it, spineless weaklings who cower in safe spaces and demand trigger warnings. “I seriously worry about our future,” one of my critics wrote, “not because of Donald Trump, because of the amount of weak people that are dependent on the system.” As my critics were keen to point out, they didn’t react to Obama’s electoral wins with tears and hysteria; they took it like a man, simply pulling up their bootstraps and soldiering on.
The practice of shaming-with-a-purpose was arguably what put Trump in the presidency in the first place. At least that’s what I gleaned from the cheekily macabre viral YouTube video “The World’s Greatest Troll,” which has one of my own trolls as a fan. Published by an anonymous account two weeks before the election, the eye-opening video extolls Donald Trump as the pre-eminent guru of trolling. Why did this neophyte politician hurl all that schoolyard invective at his opponents during the campaign? Simple, the booming, horrorshow narrator explains: “The establishment had become too full of themselves. They needed to be humiliated. They needed to be trolled.
“The world has never witnessed before an individual as crass and offensive as Donald Trump,” the narrator allows. “But then again, we have never seen a world so stuck up and full of pussies that at any second could have a meltdown because someone said something mean. [A clip of Yale’s infamous, safe-space-seeking “Shrieking Girl” flashes on the screen.] America doesn’t need a hero; it needs a troll. And it has been blessed with the world’s greatest.”
I managed to get one of my online critics, Tonie Tellander, a Mexican-American living in Laredo, Texas, on the phone for a what became a 70-minute conversation. She told me I was a drama queen and reminded her of her town’s most flamboyant gay. I asked about her thoughts on the man she voted for. The devout Catholic senior citizen replied, “I like Trump. I really do. Because we [conservatives] have been bashed for so long that I don’t think anybody other than Trump could take the bashing. When you have the media bullying you, that’s very powerful. It takes somebody as brash as Trump to bully them back.”
And so the bully won. For me, this searing realization provided the greatest fuel to my election-night suicidal impulses: At that time, I would rather have died than accept what I saw as the total breakdown of the most fundamental principles of justice that we learn as children.
Indeed, my fear of Trump was deeply rooted in my earliest experiences and most primal anxieties. During the presidential campaign, I did, as it happens, see the left-wing Clinton as a maternal figure. In my heart, she was the political embodiment of my late mother: a fundamentally honest (hat tip: Jill Abramson) source of reason, comfort and protection from harm. Trump, the boorish right-wing male, became the symbol of the bully under whose reign of terror I suffered throughout my childhood.
With a fox’s crafty mind and a serpent’s tongue, my bully waged a relentless campaign to convince me that I worthless, that everything I said was wrong, that the world would be better off I remained forever silent. This boy sought to gaslight me into believing that I was crazy to have any faith in myself, that all I added up to at the end of the day was 2 + 2 = 5.
The intolerable realization that a bombastic man had campaigned for president through such similar means—and then won—nearly defeated my spirit that night of November 8. The voice of my childhood tormentor that maintains a permanent residence in my head, the one that’s always there to taunt me that I can’t do anything right—that voice would now speak from the greatest bully pulpit of them all. And his legions of angry followers, it turned out, were more than eager to rise up and join the fray, sneering that I was crazy to feel crazy on election night.
But just as I fought throughout my childhood to build a fortress around my self-esteem in the face of relentless attack, I have forbidden the campaign of hate I received in response to my election-aftermath essay to chip away at my sense of self. After all, as Clinton writes, “Attempting to define reality is a core feature of authoritarianism.” I will define my own reality as a defense of my most fundamental freedoms.
I will not be silenced. And so, on the anniversary of the election, I speak out. I say that public shaming is itself a shameful practice. I say that I do not moralize my own emotions or stigmatize mental illness like my critics.
I am not ashamed.
Benjamin Ryan is an editor at large at POZ magazine, where he covers the science of HIV. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, New York, The New York Observer, The Nation, The Atlantic, and The Marshall Project. A native of Seattle, he graduated cum laude from Columbia University. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.