Book Review: “It Came from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office” (by Dale Beran)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing a free copy of this book for review.

Sometimes, you read a book that shines on a light on some of the most unpleasant parts of our culture and society, and you suddenly feel as if you have fallen into an utterly unfamiliar world. It Came from Something Awful is just such a book.

Dale Beran takes us deep into the dark, sinister, bleakly cynical parts of the internet that many of us would probably never explore on our own. Here we find the truly toxic, nihilistic folk who inhabited spaces such as 4chan, primarily young men dissatisfied with their lot in life and determined to take it out on whomever got in their way. He draws fascinating (though not always sustainable) connections between the counterculture of 1960s and the present, showing how the relentless ability of capitalism to commercialize resistance has generated precisely the feeling of nihilism that has become so toxic and that has left a generation of young men feeling powerless, angry, and dangerous.

Beran’s book succeeds the most when he is detailing the complex history and terrifying personalities that inhabit this online world. While some of the names are familiar, others are less so, and it is clear that he has a very close inside knowledge of this strange new world that most of us have probably never encountered. He doesn’t let himself get too bogged down in the technical aspects of it, either. His is very much a story of a generation of young men who, confronted with profound inequality and the growing power of various social movements, found solace in the ability to take nothing seriously.

Until, of course, they did. As Beran explains, as the 2000s wore on, the bleak cynicism expressed by these young men became ever more vitriolic and dangerous, until at last it burst into the open with the murderous rampages that became so much an unfortunate part of the American landscape. And then, of course, there was the greatest troll of them all, Donald J. Trump, who was the apotheosis of those mens’ desires, the cure (it seemed) for everything that ailed them.

At times, Beran’s argument seems to mistakes his premise for his conclusion, i.e. he goes in with the conclusion that Trump was brought into power by these men, and that is what he proves. However, I think that the title (and the book’s big argument) may be overstating the case that a bit. There’s no question that a very visible part of Trump’s support came from just the sort of young men that Beran profiles, but I was left wondering just how many of these people actually voted, and how many of them just amplified Trump’s brand and normalized him for those who actually did vote for him.

Relatedly, it sometimes felt as if Beran’s political leanings were encouraging him to deflect the blame for the rise of the alt-right everywhere but on the men themselves: neoliberalism, capitalism, Hillary Clinton (because of course), and the advent of the internet and the anonymity that it provides. In my view, there is a very distinct difference between providing an excuse for someone’s behavior and explaining it. The former implies an abrogation of guilt, while the latter is an attempt to aid in understanding. Certainly, Beran wants to accomplish the latter, if for no other reason than that we must continue to address the societal forces that rendered the alt-right possible. However, he is not always as successful as I think he should be in blaming these men for their own horrible impulses.

Overall, however, I found Beran’s book to be compulsively readable, mostly because it confirmed so many of the things I already suspected to be true. From GamerGate to PizzaGate to the march on Charlottesville, the men that he chronicles in It Came from Something Awful are truly a pestilence, and we must continue to fight them. If we don’t, we run the risk of continuing to allow them to control the contours of the debate. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. While that is true in some instances, I do worry that books like this contribute to that unfortunate trend of giving these unsavory people exactly the sort of attention that they crave. It is, unfortunately, the inescapable double-bind of the world that we live in. If it does nothing else, Beran’s book provides us a valuable form of understanding.

It’s up to us to do something with it.

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