n. Acts of violence by random extremists, triggered by political demagoguery.
When President Trump tweeted a video of himself body-slamming the CNN logo in 2017, most people took it as a stupid joke. For Cesar Sayoc, it may have been a call to arms: Last October the avowed Trump fan allegedly mailed a pipe bomb to CNN headquarters.
No one told Sayoc to do it, but the fact that it happened was really no surprise. In 2011, after the shooting of US representative Gabby Giffords, a Daily Kos blog warned of a new threat the writer called stochastic terrorism: the use of mass media to incite attacks by random nut jobs—acts that are “statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” The writer had in mind right-wing radio and TV agitators, but in 2016, Rolling Stone accused then-candidate Trump of using the same playbook when he joked that “Second Amendment people” might “do” something if Hillary Clinton won the election.
Of course, Trump’s people later said he meant they might … “vote.” That’s how it works: Stochastic terrorism lets bullies operate in the open with full deniability, since the random element erases any provable causation.
Tellingly, the word stochastic comes from the Greek stochastikos, meaning “proceeding by guesswork” and “skillful in aiming.” Both are apt here. It takes a master demagogue to weaponize unstable individuals and aim them at political enemies.
Trump is effectively a master demagogue, not through his intellect or rhetorical skills, but through his unchecked power and command of the airwaves he has. His rallies are vile.
The results are deadly.
Hours before the shooting on Saturday at the Chabad of Poway synagogue outside San Diego, an 8chan user identifying himself by the same name as the suspect in the attack posted a link to a white nationalist manifesto on that far-right message board.
“What I’ve learned here is priceless,” the user wrote, adding, "a livestream will begin shortly."
Saturday’s message is strikingly similar to the 8chan post left by the man accused of shooting up a mosque in New Zealand before he killed 49 worshipers in March. Both included detailed manifestoes and links to Facebook pages.
As in New Zealand, the suspected Poway shooter appeared eager to win approval for his act of violence. In his post, the synagogue shooter cites the 8chan message board for indoctrinating him, urging others to take similar action. His manifesto not only refers to the online postings of the New Zealand shooting and of the man who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, but seems almost cribbed from past white nationalist rants.
The pattern is eerie: it starts with a crude genealogy of the shooter’s ethnic roots, then a self-aggrandizing Q. and A. with himself, followed by a litany of toxic in-jokes meant to confuse the media and those less savvy in far-right online culture. (Like the New Zealand shooter, the Poway shooter facetiously mentioned the YouTube star PewDiePie as an influence.)
The Poway attack seems to be another horrifying entry in a lineage of hate crimes carried out for a captive audience of digital onlookers. Worse yet, these online communities appear to be incentivizing the darkest impulses of their worst users. Like the Christchurch massacre, the Poway shooting is not only tailored for the internet but also sickeningly standardized. The digital footprint and manifestoes of these white nationalist terrorists follow a familiar template — one that each shooter fills in with their own hideous details. Indeed, it seems real-world murderous hate crimes have become a message board meme of sorts. And like any online meme, the creation cycle only seems to be accelerating, refining itself and, horrifyingly, increasing in frequency. Online, it plays out like some game, but its effects are morphing into the real world and spreading violence.
Trump lays out the road map: you can get famous by taking out these folks because they are bad.
And he names more and more targets every day.