As a college professor, I teach creative writing to some 50 students a semester at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, a town of 30,000 about an hour north of Savannah. Outside of class, most of my time is spent either chasing tenure or working on my novels. By trade I write fiction, but this past year I’ve begun wading into political writing as a side gig, a practice that finds me, on debate and primary nights, hunkered down at my laptop with a beer and knocking out a few pages of musings and prognostications for Atticus Review, an online literary magazine.
This is how, last Tuesday, I found myself driving five hours to Greensboro, North Carolina, to report on a Donald Trump rally and live-tweet the proceedings to all 1,400 of my followers.
Afterward, having finally escaped the madness, I pulled into a bar-and-grill for some barbecue pork and a much-needed drink. I checked my phone. There were texts from more than a dozen friends letting me know I was trending on Twitter and that my tweets had been liked and retweeted by the hundreds. I’d gained thousands of followers in a matter of hours, and I sat there watching my totals increase.
I’d never expected my coverage to go viral, and the success left me conflicted. The casual racism and not-so-casual misogyny and homophobia I’d witnessed in the Greensboro Coliseum had left me sick in the stomach. After days of mourning with my friends in the LGBTQ community over the massacre in Orlando, it felt sordid to benefit from overhearing a Trump supporter shout, “The gays had it coming!”
My friends reassured me. I was doing good by exposing the ugly side of the Trump phenomenon; I was serving my country. And so I embraced it. Not that I had much choice: by the time I woke up the next morning my coverage had been aggregated by Mother Jones, The Week, Daily Kos, and others. I gave an interview to the Huffington Post, and agreed to write a dispatch for the New Republic, which gave it the headline “American Horror Story.” The story itself went viral, and my Twitter followers climbed into the tens of thousands before the harassment, and ultimately the death threats, began.
Before the New Republic article had even been published, three contingents of critics had emerged online.
There were the True Believers: Trump supporters who have bought into the campaign’s narrative that the media can’t be trusted and is obsessed with smearing their candidate. Convinced I’d fabricated the entire story, they wanted to know How come you don’t have any videos? No photos? Where’s your proof? They demanded to know where I’d stood in the crowd. What I was wearing. Eventually, they wanted to know how much Hillary Clinton and George Soros had paid me to write my account, a question I considered answering with a snapshot of my monthly bank statement.
The self-identified Men’s Rights Advocates just seemed eager to lay into someone they perceived as a liberal “value-signaler.” They targeted my masculinity and sexual orientation, labeling me a “cuck” and a “libfag.” Before I knew it, I was receiving multiple email notices that I’d been signed up for a variety of hardcore gay pornography services.
By Saturday, the new cause online was a concentrated effort to try and cost me my job at Georgia Southern. The trolls planned a deluge of calls and emails to my college’s dean and Georgia’s Board of Regents. Though they were obviously unaware of the protections of academic freedom, and that a few complaints couldn’t strip me of my professorship, they said to “make things up” because “there are no rules with the left.”
Trailing not far behind were the white supremacists.
The first death threat came on Sunday from a Twitter user named “Warrior Queen,” whose handle is @SupaGoy88 and avatar is a meme of a small girl sporting a goat’s head. “National Socialist,” the bio read. “One more cuck for the tree,” this person tweeted, and because I was still trying to learn about these subcultures, I asked SupaGoy88 what “the tree” meant, and received the answer:
Over the next hour there were two more, including an assessment from “Marijan,” a “European culture & heritage enthusiast” who had added me to his list “Traitorous whites (purge).” He wrote that I was “a real oven-worthy faggot.” Minutes later, @Khazer_Soze (whose Twitter page has since been deleted), told me how fun it would be when “we finally get our boots on your neck.”
There were images, too—sloppy Photoshops and crude, Microsoft Paint-like doodles of a smiling Donald Trump throwing a dead Mexican over his infamous wall, a cartoon frog dressed as a member of ISIS beheading a more-than-happy to die liberal, a toothy progressive pointing to an African-American man and saying “meet my wife’s boyfriend.”
All of it, echoes of the hate I’d seen in Greensboro.
There’s only so much you can do about online harassment. You can block them on Twitter and Facebook, and report them in the hopes they’ll get banned. There is no absolute solution, no one thing that keeps you from living with extra vigilance or keeping an eye peeled for suspicious people. Just last night, sitting at my desk and working on a draft of this very essay, I watched an unfamiliar car circle my house a half dozen times, stopping each lap to idle at the edge of my driveway, before u-turning down the street and pulling into neighbors’ driveways and doing it all over again.
I called the police and installed a top-of-the-line security system. A week ago this would’ve seemed absurd.
Undoubtedly women have a much better understanding of this particular brand of grotesquerie than men do. Since last week, I’ve received emails from those who have suffered similar or worse hells, people who have stumbled onto the radar of some of the web’s ugliest customers. They wrote about their experiences, telling me time and again they were sorry, that they knew exactly what I was going through.
One email came from Laila Alawa, who suffered her own abuse earlier this month after the Daily Caller ran a story titled “Syrian immigrant who said 9/11 ‘changed the world for good’ is a homeland security advisor.” The quote in question originated in a 2014 tweet, but misrepresents her use of “for good,” which, in this instance, was intended to mean “forever.” The trolls didn’t care for such semantic distinctions: Alawa told CNN she’d received a message reading “I hope you die slowly in a pool of pig’s blood.”
Bronwen Dickey, an author who committed the great sin of writing a book advocating for pit bulls, sent me a snapshot from Facebook of a man calling her a “stupid fucking bitch” and hoping she’d be “mauled by a bear.” Since that attack, among others, her publisher has requested additional security at her readings.
There were others, most of them women who didn’t want to go on the record for this story, for fear of being in the trolls’ crosshairs yet again.
Make no mistake, the people behind these harassments, particularly the violent and especially ugly ones, are vile. But just as I had gone to Greensboro to empathize with Trump’s base, I attempted to engage my trolls to glean their motivations. To my surprise, some of them abandoned their attacks and met me halfway.
Since then I’ve been trading messages with people who, only days ago, aggressively questioned my motives and my integrity. They tell me about their children, their jobs, their favorite movies. Chances are we’ll never agree politically, but we can at least have a conversation.
Maybe that’s the antidote to all of this anxiety and fear. Seeing past the names on the screen. Staring into the divide and finding the person on the other side of the machine.