Right-Wing Trolling Didn't Start with TrumpRoundup
tags: right wing, conservatism, political history, William F. Buckley, trolling, Young Americans for Freedom
Rick Perlstein is the author of multiple books on American conservatism, most recently Reaganland: America's Right Turn, 1976-1980.
David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter and current never-Trump conservative, recently wrote, “The post-Trump right has a style as distinctive as its authoritarian substance: trolling, ironic, evasive.” But that ain’t so. On the right, trolling has been part of the story from the beginning.
The first instances of the right-wing practice we now call “trolling” that I can positively identify come from the madcap four-way presidential election in 1948 won by Democrat Harry Truman. In 1947, a rally in New Haven for Henry Wallace of the left-wing Progressive Party was visited by a 21-year-old William F. Buckley and several associates, who dressed up in fake bohemian kit — the girls wore mannish slacks, the boys greased down their hair — and carried signs reading “Let’s Prove We Want Peace/Give Russia the Atom Bomb.” Their plan to release a covey of doves was foiled at the last minute.
The next year, the fourth candidate in the race, South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, whose States’ Rights (or “Dixiecrat”) Party was formed after the Democratic convention adopted a civil-rights plank, staged a “campaign visit” to New York. (He wasn’t on the ballot in New York.) Federal civil-rights legislation would turn America into a police state, he said — then trolled, “If you people in New York want no segregation, then abolish it and do away with your Harlem. Personally, I think it would be a mistake.”
Thirteen years later, racists played out Thurmond’s snark to the utmost. Civil-rights activists were testing the enforcement of the desegregation of interstate transportation by riding Greyhound buses throughout the South in a series of “freedom rides.” A spokesman for the White Citizens’ Council of Shreveport, Louisiana, announced that, since northern liberals were “sending down busloads of people here with the express purpose of violating our laws, fomenting confusion, trying to destroy 100 years of workable tradition and good relations between the races,” the white South would respond in kind with “reverse freedom rides.” Citizens’ Councils advertised an offer to pay Black people to settle up North — specifically recruiting welfare recipients and prisoners. “We’re going to find out if … the Kennedys, all of them, really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for the Negro,” one of the organizers crowed.
Some desperately poor people took them seriously, including one Arkansas mother of nine who accepted a bus ticket to Hyannis, Massachusetts, site of the famous summer compound of the extended family of the president of the United States, where, naturally, neither the job nor the presidential welcome she’d been promised materialized. The trolls claimed victory: “They want to ‘free’ the Negro in the South,” said a Mississippi congressman, “but want to shun responsibility for him once he has been ‘freed.’” The Democratic governor of Illinois said it reminded him of the Nazi deportation of Jews. A racist retorted, “Is it a crime to help people who come to you and say, ‘Boss man, I want to go to the North?’” The libs had been owned.