“Let’s play a lightning round game,” begins Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in her most recent viral moment, lambasting the lack of campaign finance regulations at a House Oversight Committee hearing.
It’s an intentional provocation, and she’s relishing it. Ocasio-Cortez is trolling us all — and it’s good.
To understand, first take a step back: What is a troll? Formerly understood to be the creature that lives under bridges and eats goats (or, somewhat later, a children’s toy with a bejeweled belly button and brightly colored hair), in the Internet era the word has taken on new meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, which officially updated its definition in 2014 and again in 2017, a troll is someone who “intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.” Trolling can also happen offline, via public statements or acts.
Usually, trolls are trying to normalize tangential discourse or force an emotional reaction. By stretching the boundaries of normal conversation, they shift the “Overton window” — widening the range of ideas and policy considered acceptable in public discourse.
Ocasio-Cortez has done exactly that.
When she was running for her House seat as a Bronx upstart, part of her platform was to “Abolish ICE” — a rallying cry that had previously been the province of far-left Twitter socialists. It was an absurd suggestion, commentators sniffed then. Now it’s mainstream enough that President Trump felt the need to refute it in his State of the Union address.
Once she was sworn in, Ocasio-Cortez immediately suggested a 70 percent marginal tax rate on the ultra-rich. Offended, Davos billionaires clutched their pearls in between spasms of dismissive laughter. Seventy percent? You can’t be serious. It was deadly serious, as it turns out: Today, at least two 2020 presidential contenders are pitching extreme wealth taxes as a key campaign promise.
And this week, just when things seemed on the verge of calming down, Ocasio-Cortez (along with Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts) released a 14-page resolution outlining plans for the progressive “Green New Deal.” The much-heralded proposal would “totally overhaul transportation,” environmentally upgrade “all existing buildings in the United States” and even guarantee economic security for all.
Much of the response so far has echoed that of Post columnist Megan McArdle: “it’s lunatic.”
Well, we’ll see.
The thing is, trolling works. Consider that Trump is the first troll president, having risen to prominence on the strength of birther conspiracies and Russian memes (all aboard the Trump Train!). Right-wing trolls have shifted our national dialogue such that it’s now up for debate whether literal anti-fascists are worse than swastika-toting white supremacists. And more benign (but just as stupid), an Instagram photo of an egg, created to mock a reality TV star, has become one of the hottest advertising properties of 2019.
Usually, madcap provocation isn’t something to celebrate. But at this point in our nation’s history, we may need to go to the edges to face the challenges ahead.
Climate change has stopped being theoretical: 2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record and polar ice melt is clearly contributing to sea-level rise and extreme weather. Scientists suggest that we’re 12 years away from catastrophe.
There’s rampant inequality, such that the richest 400 Americans now own more of our nation’s wealth than the bottom 150 million. It’s a concentration of wealth not seen since the Roaring Twenties, and we know where that got us.
And there’s the total absurdity (indeed, trollery — is a see-through steel-slat wall anything but a joke?) taking place on our southern border. Almost eight months after Trump supposedly ended the family separation policy, thousands of children have still not been returned to their parents, and the Department of Health and Human Services now bizarrely suggests that reuniting them would somehow cause further harm.
The normal modes of dialogue have ceased to be enough. And though Ocasio-Cortez often seems to be at the extremes of our discourse, she’s also speeding the movement toward change.
Whether we like it or not, provocation is how we conduct business today. Maybe we should be happy that someone is finally trolling for good.