Troll Model: Trump Takeaways For the Hard Art of Naming and Taming Total Jerks

The going will get much more unstable in coming decades. We must prepare for the cults that will emerge for whatever cause.

Fat internet troll using a laptop. Vector clip art illustration with simple gradients. All in a single layer.
Photo Credit: Memo Angeles

Watch him go, this psychopathic, gaslighting, brat, preening, pious-posing, egomaniac idiot of a president. Some of us watch in awe, plenty of us in disgust.

He can’t be cornered. Never backing down; he always doubles down. If he’s caught lying he tells a bigger lie. If he’s called on hypocrisy he’ll outmaneuver through more audacious hypocrisy. If he’s attacked, he counter-attacks tenfold. He’s a douchebot, a stable genius at only one thing, a one-trick phony.  Any novice software engineer could program his predictable know-it-all responses with a few lines of code.

What is that one trick?

He gets away with it every time. His gloating cult is titilated. We patriots have yet to figure out how to stop him, so we just watch and fume, cataloging his infractions. Impotent, we pray that there’s enough of us to outmaneuver him someday or that maybe soon a decisive faction of his cult will fraction off, defecting back to sanity.

We should have ignored him long ago. Now it’s too late. Since we’re riveted, we should make good use of him for confronting the two most fundamental moral questions ever – not how should people behave, but how to identify and thwart assholes.

In a free society, live and let live.  Don’t try to tell people how they have to live. Look around. Apparently, there are lots of viable ways of life. 

Still, we have to put a leash on total jerks (assholes, buttheads, trolls, know-it-alls – whatever you want to call them) or it won’t remain a free society.

This framing corners us with morality’s two core questions:

1. What defines an asshole objectively? In other words, how can you tell who’s a total jerk since it can’t just be anyone who jerks you around? What is a butthead since it can’t just be anyone you butt heads with? What is the one-trick phony’s one trick?


2: How can we override total jerks without becoming one?

Answering these without prejudice would provide an alternative to two common, unworkable approaches:

1. Deadlocks, with each party confident that the other is the asshole.

2. People, disdainful of such negativity, pretending they’re above the fray, thereby putting free society at risk.  Are you offended that I’d label anyone an asshole? If so this unworkable approach might be yours.

I’m an origins of life, decision theory and poltiical psychology researcher. I’m interested in how life deals with dilemmas from its cradle at the origin of life to our grave situation today. 

I’m also a psycho-proctologist. For two decades, I’ve probed carefully for answers to these two questions: How to name and tame assholes.  Here are my best answers so far:

1. What defines a total jerk since it can’t just be anyone who jerks you around?

Total jerks can not be distinguished by their histories or motivations, their tactics or their ideological objectives but rather by the personal advantage they gain by being total jerks. They get to play God. They enjoy a false sense of godlike eternal invincibility, unassailability and, above all, infallibility.  Assholes are self-satisfying gloataholics. In a word, they are infallibilists. That is their one trick.

One can be a total jerk for any cause. There are left-wing, right-wing, spiritual, atheistic, new-age, religious, philosophical and non-ideological assholes.  It’s not what assholes stand for but how they strut it. Assholes will stop at nothing to feign infallibility. Trump is useful this way. It’s hard to tell what he stands for other than his own fake-infallibility.

Now who among us wouldn’t like to be infallible? Life is stressful, uncertain. Doubt is annoying, paralyzing, self-deflating. We’d all welcome guarantees that we’re on the right track, making the right moves, bound for glory. We all dream of being able to finesse the stress once and for all. You can see it in the way we embrace pat answers, the way we get defensive, dismissing challenges, deflecting criticism. You can see it in the way we identify with heros and superheros, revel in our team’s victories, fantasize about becoming famous, wealthy, wise, adored and free enough that we can do no wrong.

We all fantisize about infallibility and that’s the point. Assholes aren’t playing. They take their dreams of infallibility out into the real world.

Life has been stressful since its origins. Adaptive traits are evolved guesses at what it takes to survive, guesswork that could fail. The difficult takeaway from Darwin was not a diminished role for God or that we descended from apes but that life is live-or-die guesswork. There are no infallible, sure-fire solutions.

With language, we humans gained the power to lay down fake infallible self-serving last words. We alone among organisms can feign infallibility. Uunder the influence of language and all that follows from it – culture, technology, travel, communications, migration, economics, politics, the uncertainty has only grown. The dream of infallibility dies hard. The more uncertain life becomes the more we crave last-word infallibility. 

Adults recognize that life is guesswork. They become fallibilist. No matter how confident fallibilist are about a bet, they’re still more certain that it is a bet. They don’t take permanent refuge in pious fake infallibility.

Don’t want to be an asshole? Expect some self-doubt.

In a pinch, we all use the same tricks that assholes use, so forget about defining assholes by their lying, hypocritical, egomaniacal, greedy, selfish or delusional behaviors. We all indulge in such behaviors from time to time, even appropriately – lying to be tactful, being delusional to remain hopeful, looking out for number one because somebody has to do it.

In a pinch, any of us might reach for an infallibility gesture. Under pressure, we rely on rhetorical power-grabs to gain advantage through feigned infallibility.

We often hear that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the original quote it was power tends to corrupt. “Tends to” makes a difference and not just with power, but with every rhetorical power-grab technique that generates it. Hypocrisy, lying, projection, feigned infallible authority – such traits only tend to corrupt. They don’t always. Sometimes they’re exactly what a situation demands. Assholes like Trump use them absolutely. Their feigned infallibility knows no bounds. They are proud dedicated infallibilists. That is the one-trick phony’s one trick.

2: How can we constrain total jerks without becoming one?

We have to fight infallibility with fallibility. When they go god, you go human.

Stop trying to beat them at their own game. You can’t out-estallate an infallibilist. When they go high and you go higher they’ll pretend to go higher still. When they go high and you go low, they’ll go bottomless.

They do so through what’s known as a double bind. It’s not just that they think their ends justify their means. They think their ends justify their means and their means justify their ends, that their right makes might makes right makes might…

They saint/brats. They say “because I’m a saint, I can sin all I want in order to win.” Then they flip it saying, “My winning proves that I’m a saint.

They’re punk prudes. They alternate between playing bratty child or high-minded parent, whatever stance serves their gloataholic vindication. They never act like adults, fallibly trying to guess what’s the best approach to the tough judgment calls we face together. And they won’t allow you to play adult either. You’re either a child they lecture or an annoying parent. It’s a war and they’ll win by any means possible.

They’ve discovered the standard set of trumped-up trump-cards used by all infallibilist movements, all cults of whatever size. We all use those fake trump cards in a pinch. 

Assholes have got nothing but those cards. Infallibilist have made a game of playing these trump cards to beat all challenges. They’re excited by their new-found power. They think its based on their ideology. It’s not it’s based on their unfettered use of trumped-up trump cards, the same ones used by all assholes throughout history, the same ones adults use in a pinch, but not as the basis for a know-it-all lifestyle.

In their glee, they’re like exhibitionists. They sidle up as if for adult conversation and when they’ve got your attention, open their trenchcoats to show off their stiff little infallibility. Respond in predictable ways and they’re vindicated. If you scorn them, they play bratty kid and call you a prude. If you walk away, they call you a surrendering loser. If you sputter they’ll preach parentally to you about growing a pair. If you get angry they’ll counsel you pedantically on maturity. If you call them names they’ll fine you for cursing.

They’re self-winding. No matter how you shake them, they get wound up on their infallibility. But only so long as you respond in predictable ways.

I recommend two overarching strategies.

1. Inescapable accusations: Accuse them of stopping at nothing to feign infallibility. They will defend themselves with further infallible fake trump cards that confirm the accusation. You can’t out-infallible an infallibilist, but you can out them as infallibilists. When they go low or feign to go high, you expose their overarching infallibilist conceit. Since they’re one trick phonies they only have one way to respond, nail them on it again and again. Be dogged. Never take the bait. Do not let them lead you by the nose into particulars. The particulars are never the point with them. Don’t go infallibly highminded. That’s a losing strategy. Don’t get on a higher horse. Go high to an overview by focusing on their overall strategy. 

Total Jerk: I’m right about this!

You: There he goes again. He likes to pretend he’s right about everything.

TJ: That’s not my strategy.

You: Always defensive.

TJ: I am not!

You: Proves my point every time.

TJ: You’re the one who thinks he’s always right.

You: He’s only got one trick. Just lots of ways of saying “I know you are but what am I?”

TJ: No, it’s you who does that.

You: Like I said “I know you are but what am I?” That’s all he ever says. He’s a know-it-all. He likes to pretend he’s infallible.

TJ: No you do!

You: There he goes again.

2. Fight infallibilism with fallibilism: Total jerks will retaliate with accusations that you’re a jerk. Rather than denying it, embrace it. The question is not whether but when to use rhetorical tricks. When they go infallible god, you go fallible human, further exposing their stop-at-nothing absolute infallibilsm.

You: You’re an infallibilist asshole. You like to pretend that you’re infallible.

TJ: Well, you’re a name-caller!

You: Of course I am, like you like everyone. You just called me a name-caller! I don’t want to just name call . I want to call names with precision. I try to name-call carefully.

TJ: See you’re a hypocrite.

You: Of course I am, like you, like everyone. I’m a hypocrite sometimes. I try to keep an eye on it, when it helps and when it hurts. The difference between you and me is that you’re an absolute hypocrite. You’re even a hypocrite about your hypocrisy… You’re a know-it-all asshole. Assholes avoid introspection by drowning out the sound of their own doubts with the din of their criticism of others.

 You may find such tactics distasteful. It could be a temperement thing. Some people are non-confrontational by nature. That’s OK. What’s not OK is tying word-soldier’s hands by pretending your temperement is the right way to live. If it were, don’t count on society staying free for long.

George Bernard Shaw said “Never fight with a pig. You’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it.” Fine advice when you can follow it, but you can’t always. There will be pigs that somebody better fight. The fighters will get dirty. The pig will like it. Still, it’s essential work. Perhaps the most essential of all, finding a way to curb the excesses of last-word infallibilists.

In more civilized times, we can be tolerant and honest. But as civilization breaks down, something’s got to give. There were Nazi sympathizers but also Nazi empathizers, folks who tried to stay tolerant as an asshole cult took over.

Trump’s cult may strengthen America’s free society if it doesn’t end it first. It may spur us to our patriotic duty to undermine all asshole cults attacking from every corner. Our experience dealing with Trump’s exquisitely exemplary cult will help us build antibodies to all cults, but only if we generalize from it to the essentials of infallibilism. We must grease our turrets. Rather than focusing our guns on whatever beachhead infalliblists landed on last we must be prepared to undermine infalliblists from any corner.

When the going gets unstable, the unstable join cults, reaching up with one hand for some absolute infallible ideology that justifies reaching down with the other to grab anything they can.

The going will get much more unstable in coming decades. We must prepare for the cults that will emerge for whatever cause. That is our role as citizens. It’s our top civil defense priority.

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Jeremy Sherman Ph.D. researches how the living interpret, from their cradle at the origin of life to our current grave situation.
 

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