Internet trolls What happens when you talk, and really listen, to a right-wing 'hater'

Our most passionate commenter on Facebook has repeatedly slammed us for being “fake news.” One of our editors decided to hear him out in person. The lesson: Don’t judge a book by its cover. And also: Stand up for what you believe in.
Quelle: Christoph Schmid
Trolls gonna troll.
(Source: Christoph Schmid)

“There is no such thing as 'Hate Speech'. There is only hate. Hate is an emotion and it is NOT illegal. To quell 'Hate' speech is to quell 'Free Speech.' I have a natural born right to say what I please as long as no one is harmed or called on to be violent.”

These are the words of Tom D. Porter, a German-American who has lived about half his life in each of his countries. A life-long Democrat, Tom’s gone through a slow but severe shift in his thinking. He jumped on the bandwagon of former US congressman Ron Paul in 2004. These days he supports Donald Trump in the United States and the Alternative for Germany, known as the AfD, in Germany.

He describes his political beliefs as libertarian. Hence the unwavering belief in free speech. But in many ways, Tom D. Porter is also motivated by fear – a fear that Germany is changing for the worse, its democracy eroding. Having had his comments blocked by Facebook, he’s afraid that he no longer has a right to speak the truth as he sees it.

That truth is simple: Muslim immigrants are “raping and pillaging” their way across Europe, assaulting women and committing crimes “almost on a daily basis,” he posted recently. The German government, by letting in more than 1 million refugees in 2015, has sown the seeds of disaster and ignored the safety of the “indigenous” population, he thinks.

It’s hard not to take some of what Tom says as hyperbole. But while he admits that he can exaggerate and be “abrasive” in his posts (particularly on immigration), the emotions behind his comments are genuine. “I believe that in the next five years you will see armed running battles in the cities of Germany. I truly believe that,” he told me during one conversation. “I’m scared. I really am.”

In fact, his paranoia about the state of Germany is so great that he’s leaving the country. Together with his wife, son and daughter, he is moving back to the United States (Prescott, Arizona) in July. He says he feels safer and freer there to express his opinions.

Some of Tom’s language will, no doubt, be offensive to many of our readers. If you’re a progressive, centrist, or a moderate conservative, you may not have much sympathy or patience for a man like Tom. You may also find it easy to dismiss what he has to say as the words of a simple-minded racist or xenophobe – perhaps even to question our intentions in giving him a platform in a serious news publication (one that he, of course, regularly describes as “fake news”).

I don’t think we have that luxury, especially as journalists. Tom’s viewpoint is one that we need to understand – and challenge, where appropriate – if we’re going to have any hope of maintaining our credibility.

And so, when Tom one day wrote in a post that he would give "ANYTHING to spend two hours with an HBG editor,” I volunteered to call his bluff (to the horror of some of my colleagues). Tom was surprised to hear from me (he said he had made the comment “in jest”). But he got over his shock and agreed to a meeting.

Of multiculturalists and anti-globalists

Given that Handelsblatt Global is a “German” publication in English, the comments on our Facebook and Twitter pages can make for some pretty unique reading. Some followers offer corny and offensive stereotypes, usually Nazi-related (a picture of Merkel doing a Hitler salute, for example). Others hew closer to the news. We had a torrent of angry Greek readers slamming Germany’s approach to the euro zone’s debt crisis, and more than a few discussions about Brexit and German-American relations in the age of Donald Trump.

There’s also a small but dedicated group who comment regularly on our Facebook page. The biggest topic by far is Germany’s approach to immigration.

One of our regulars, who goes by the pen-name Albrecht-Thietmar Schweidnitz-Schäßburg (amazing, I know), summed up the two main camps: “Those who tend to think that Germany is a force for the betterment of the world, and those who think that Germany is about to be overwhelmed by the Muslim/non-white tidal wave and that it would behoove Germans to refuse the siren song of globalism and multiculturalism.”

Mr. Schweidnitz-Schäßburg is in the first camp. In an email, he said he sees his role as “in my own small way to influence the uninformed and the undecided, and nudge them down the path of liberalism.” In the second camp, Tom D. Porter is undoubtedly the most passionate voice. He also stands above both camps as our most prolific commentator, sparking repeated clashes with our social-media editor over the past year.

Many on our site have dismissed Mr. Porter as a “troll,” but that doesn’t feel exactly right. While there’s no single definition of a troll, it’s typically seen as someone who offends or bullies others online for the sake of it. The Huffington Post defined it as someone “posting messages that are particularly controversial or inflammatory with the sole intent of provoking an emotional (read: angry) response from other users.”

Tom’s feelings – his outrage, his fears, and his beliefs – seem genuine. Nor does he seem uninformed, as Mr. Leigner-Guarin would charge. In one message to us, Tom listed various websites that he reads and enjoys. They included left-leaning sites like Democracy Now, and serious publications like Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Switzerland, which he considers unbiased and one of the best publications around.

His goal in meeting me: “I am fairly certain that when you have spoken with me and heard what I have to say, you will have heard what most of the modern-day freedom-loving ‘populists’ have to say,” he wrote me, adding that he was a little perplexed as to why I would want to meet with him.

My own goal in meeting him: I’m a journalist who likes to hear all sides of the story. While all of us inevitably bring some personal bias into the job, I think most journalists are trying their best to seek the truth. I added that I would listen, without judgment, but not hesitate to challenge his perceptions. “Well I must admit that in the meantime I am looking forward to meeting you,” he responded. “Call me Tom.”

That doesn’t seem like your average troll, I thought.

He's the lead singer, and the one in the middle.

In the home of Barbarossa

We met at his home base, the beautifully historic town of Gelnhausen. Founded in 1170 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, it also goes by the nickname “Barbarossa’s City.” Some other pub quiz knowledge for you: From 2007-2013, a wheat field outside of town marked the geographical center of the European Union.

In one of his emails, Tom described it as “a town that has been severely hit by the migrant invasion.” When I was walking around town (admittedly not a scientific survey), I didn’t get the impression that it has been overrun. It’s really quiet and picturesque.

There is, however, a former army barracks in the nearby town of Büdingen where some 1,500 refugees have been housed. In that same area, the NPD, a party widely considered to be neo-Nazi, won 20 percent in the most recent election. It turns out that Büdingen is the NPD’s biggest stronghold in Germany.

I also found a tasty Afghan restaurant in the city center – a rarity in such a rural German setting. I spoke at length with Kais Aseckzai, one of the brothers of the family running the place. He came to Germany at the age of seven and for all intents and purposes “feels” German. He told me he’s “never” felt afraid here, or suffered any serious discrimination (beyond having to grit his teeth at guests who say “My, what terrific German you speak!”).

But back to Tom. We met outside a hotel restaurant near the city center. I arrived first, to find the restaurant closed and the hotel eerily quiet, bar a receptionist. I told her I was meeting someone and she let me use one of the tables out front. I was, I have to admit, nervous. I kept thinking of a few friends who had suggested that I bring pepper spray.

Any such fears were put to rest when Tom arrived. He was wearing black, yes, but he shook my hand with a disarming grin on his face. He was charming and seemed genuinely happy to see me. In person, he sounded far more reasonable and eloquent than the abrasive comments I had become accustomed to online.

Tom also introduced me to his son, saying that Porter junior was “really a very intelligent young man” who enjoys writing and wanted to listen in. But, as teenagers are wont, the son kept his head down during our entire conversation, playing on his cell phone and saying he’d heard all his dad’s stories and views before.

The sign "Welcome to the middle of the European Union" used to sit right outside Gelnhausen.

A love for Germany – and hatred of Nazis

We started by talking about his family history. Tom and I have a common distinction: We both have one grandfather who fought for the Americans in World War II and one who fought for the Germans (in my case, an Austrian grandfather). Tom talked passionately about the close relationship he had with both grandparents. His German grandfather in particular would speak often about the horrors of the war.

Tom said that he abhors Nazis. His German grandfather was one of only four men from his home town to survive the war. His great-grandfather was sent to the eastern front at the age of 58 – as punishment for not saying “Heil Hitler” back home. Tom’s grandmother once gave him a box of his grandfather’s belongings, which contained medals and a copy of “Mein Kampf.” “She says, ‘I want you to have this in case some other freak comes along and tries to change history.' She was very worried that something like that might happen again.”

Gelnhausen was in the American sector after the war, and Tom’s American father was stationed at a military base just outside of town. He met Tom’s mother in a local bar. Needless to say his German grandfather wasn’t thrilled with his daughter falling in love with an American.

Tom loves Germany. He described himself as “culturally” closer to Germany and “politically” closer to the United States. After Tom was born in Frankfurt, his family moved back to the United States – he grew up in Iowa, Washington DC, and Scottsdale, Arizona – but his father always promised they would keep close tabs on his German family. Tom, who had a strained relationship with his father, said “that’s one promise he kept.”

Like most Germans, Tom was inculcated with a sense of “collective guilt” for World War II. For Tom, this became quite personal. When he was six, his family moved to Maryland and he wound up in a school of mostly Jewish children. His mother dressed him in socks and sandals – how much more German can you get? – and Tom found himself isolated. He experienced “reverse discrimination.” As he was recollecting this, he got emotional. How can a 6-year-old be held responsible for a Holocaust that another generation committed?

I got the feeling that this experience is why Tom today passionately rejects “collective guilt,” as in his reply to this article. We switched to other subjects, but his comment left me thinking about how many other Germans quietly harbor such resentment and how much that grievance, appropriate or not, might now be contributing to a backlash to the right.

Even while he was living in America, Tom felt rooted in the country of his German mother. With me, he reminisced fondly of being in a new-wave rock band in the 1980s that he called Barbarossa after his hometown. He wrote songs about life in Germany, the Berlin Wall, glasnost and Mikhail Gorbachev. He also partied heavily and, from the way he described it, hit something close to rock-bottom. This in part drove him to move back to Germany in his 30s.

“I had a really strong bond to Germany. I love this country,” he said. Which is also part of why, after more than two decades, he now felt it was time to leave: “It pains me to see what’s happening to this country in the last 10 years, to the point where I almost can’t bear it.” His (American) political half got the upper hand over his (German) cultural half.

Tom Porter is holding the American flag.

A dual nationalist

One of the things that fascinated me about Tom is how somebody of dual nationality could be quite so nationalistic. On the face of it, my own life has been similar. I have an American mother, an Austrian father, and moved often between both continents. In my case, that background has given me a multinational outlook – it’s hard to feel nationalistic when there’s no single place you feel you belong. I consider myself more European than Austrian. That puts me in a rather small minority.

Tom is the opposite. He seems intensely patriotic about both his countries in different ways. He’s no supporter of the European Union – or any alliances, for that matter. “I was very disappointed that Trump didn’t pull out of NATO and very disappointed that he hasn’t asked that the UN building [in New York] be razed and they put a park there,” he told me. How does this square with his own dual nationality? “I think we live in a globalized world, but there’s room in a globalized world for nation states.” Diplomacy and commerce, yes. Alliances, no.

I put it to him that alliances can help a nation state get what it wants. The European Union, for example, allows 28 smaller countries to stand up to one bigger country like the United States. This made him think. “You’re right, this union should be about how we deal with the United States,” he said. There’s an argument for a “loose union,” he conceded, but “I don’t like the dictates coming out of Brussels.”

This is clearly a pet peeve. In his comments on our Facebook page, he regularly calls the EU “fascist” for dictating policy to the EU’s member states. When we met, he highlighted a couple of typical examples – a requirement that burgers be cooked well-done and a standard for vacuum cleaners. “That’s bullshit. That kind of stuff is complete bullshit,” he said, leaning into my recording microphone for added effect.

That got somewhat personal for me, because my father worked 15 years for the European Commission, the EU’s executive, in Brussels. My dad, presumably, would be one of those “fascists” Tom had in mind.

My dad despises the argument that Brussels is “dictating” policy to the 28 nation states, or that the union has a severe democratic deficit. As he reminds me regularly, any EU law has to be approved by a majority of the 28 countries that make up the bloc (sometimes by simple majority, other times unanimously). It goes through two legislative chambers – the European Parliament elected directly by the people and the European Council made up of representatives of all 28 countries. “How is that ‘Brussels’?” he’ll exclaim, rather perplexed.

I put some of my father’s arguments to Tom. Even the vacuum-cleaner provision only exists because a majority of EU nation states agreed with it. He was skeptical but conceded the point, though he quickly pivoted to a different argument: Tom favors more referendums. The fact that Germany had to give up the Deutsche Mark without a referendum, for example, is a disgrace, he said.

My father (bless his Brussels-bleeding heart) responds to this argument in a way that populists would slam as elitist: The average citizen simply isn’t informed enough to make a decision about, say, whether the euro is a better currency than the Deutsche mark. That’s why we live in a representative democracy – to have better-informed politicians, paid by the taxpayer, to make those decisions for us.

That never sat quite right with me when it came to major issues like the euro or the European Union. If you can’t convince the public that what you’re doing is in their interest, should you really be going ahead with it behind their backs? Won’t the public, at some point, elect (populist) leaders who will reverse that decision?

Such demands for participatory democracy are what brought Italy’s populist Five-Star movement to power. The party lets members decide much of its platform through online votes. And while many of us might focus purely on the immigration stance of a party like the Alternative for Germany, people like Tom focus equally on the fact that they want him to participate.

“I just think that some things should be left up to the people themselves,” Tom said. “That is probably point number 1 that drew me to the AfD. Number 1 on their platform is reinstating ‘Volksabstimmungen.’” I didn’t have a good retort to that one.

Quelle: dpa
Outspoken and highly divisive.
(Source: dpa)

A love for the AfD

Tom is livid about the response to Germany’s last election in September. Angela Merkel’s party lost support, as did her Grand Coalition, and yet the very same politicians wound up back in power. Had Ms. Merkel stepped down, it would have at least made the new coalition more respectable, he said. “Keeping Merkel at the top was the biggest mistake in my view and that sealed the deal for me.” He decided to move back to the United States.

I couldn’t help but sympathize with his sentiment. Support for Germany’s two largest parties has steadily eroded over the last few years. They had their worst post-war result ever in the last election. Polls show that the two parties wouldn’t even get a majority if a new election were called today. Germans voted for change last September, but didn’t get any.

The reason, to be fair, is that they couldn’t agree on exactly what that change should look like – voters didn’t coalesce around an alternative to Ms. Merkel. Instead, just under half the country voted for four smaller parties – two on the left and two on the right. Polls also show that Ms. Merkel herself is still supported by a majority of the population. Still, it’s hard to argue with Tom’s logic that we ignore the will of voters at our peril.

So I tried another tack. The AfD really are Nazis in disguise, aren’t they?

Ask most AfD voters and they’ll be adamant that their party does not sympathize with Nazis. After all, forming a neo-Nazi party is illegal in Germany. So Tom gets riled up about our stories alluding to Nazi-leanings in the AfD, like this one. “When I see that, I just cringe,” he said, agitated. “To call the AfD Nazis is just way off. You’re just marginalizing the Nazis and making them harmless. When I hear that and I see it, they must not have an actual idea of what Nazis were and what they did.”

I challenged him on the troubling comments by some AfD members. Tom readily accepts that the rhetoric goes too far. “Sometimes it does. It does and that’s harmful,” he said. “It’s extremely harmful for Trump,” he added, shifting the subject to the other side of the Atlantic. “I like what Trump’s doing. I don’t like what he says. I wish he would just shut his mouth.”

This seems one of the key challenges of our populist moment. Like Trump, the AfD straddles a fine line between fiercely opposing immigration and spouting a hateful neo-Nazi ideology. Their talk probably also emboldens actual neo-Nazis. Even Tom, who is active in the AfD and has attended protests, admitted he had encountered some. He says he made clear to them he doesn’t “bark up that tree.”

But speaking to Tom made me think this is equally shaky ground for the AfD’s opponents. Many will identify a Nazi-sounding remark by an AfD politician and think they can declare victory over the entire movement. The trouble is that intentions are a matter of perception. Supporters like Tom will shrug off a bad remark as a one-off, a poor choice of words, or something taken out of context – and then take offense at being called a Nazi or a racist for still supporting the party. “Instead of taking a step back and asking themselves what’s happening, they’re just demonizing,” Tom said. “Then people like me go to these events and listen to them speak and find out they’re just regular people. They’re not Nazis.”

The discussion becomes most fraught when it involves World War II specifically. Members of the AfD have repeatedly sparked outrage for suggesting, in various forms, that Germans should stop apologizing for the Holocaust. If such remarks are code for a genuine rejection of Germany’s Nazi past, or for denying the Holocaust, or even for forgetting the past, we should be horrified. Yet even here, we have to choose our battles more carefully. If you believe, like Tom, that the Nazis were despicable but that “collective guilt” has gone on for too long (think of the bullied 6-year-old) then a call by political leaders to “stop apologizing” might resonate. Instinctively calling someone like Tom a Nazi because he rejects collective guilt will only drive him further into the far-right camp.

To be sure, there are Nazi elements in the party. Yet if your goal is to pull an average AfD supporter back into the mainstream fold, you probably have a better chance if you don't call them a Nazi. Perhaps it's better to focus on the language itself. Rather than simply stating that something (or somebody) is offensive, how about discussing why it is offensive.

Let’s try not to offend. Period.

Tom has been blocked numerous times for comments that cross the line, not just on our site, but on other media outlets like Deutsche Welle. His Facebook account was suspended for 10 days. The next time, Facebook warned him, it would be 30 days. He says this has only happened in Germany – never in the United States, where he also posts regularly. I contacted Facebook and asked about the discrepancy. A spokesperson insisted that their community standards are the same in both countries. But it’s also clear that there has been broader pressure from authorities to crack down on hate speech in Europe than in the United States.

Facebook block large

An example of Tom going too far for Facebook’s community standards is above. Tom didn’t see the comment as offensive. In fact, he raised it with me to show how curbs on speech have gone too far. Brash, yes, but he insisted he has a right to voice his opinion. Speech can be as vile as you like, as long as it doesn’t condone violence. And more importantly, most Germans don’t say what they really think. They need to awaken from their slumber – particularly on immigration – and this calls for blunt language, he said.

One other thing that struck me: Before bringing up that specific remark, Tom had said he makes a point of not offending individuals on social media. “You’ll never see me insult anybody,” he said.

I suggested to him that he is demonizing immigrants in the same way he doesn’t want the AfD to be demonized – holding the entire group responsible for the transgressions of one member. “That point is taken. That unfortunately is something we do,” he replied, likening it to a teacher who punishes an entire class for the transgressions of one student. “I used a word like ‘mostly.’ Maybe I should have used ‘some,’” he added.

I prodded a little further. Generalizing about a group of individuals isn’t so different from insulting an individual. “I hear you. That’s a valid point. It is. I think all of us have some areas we can work on. That might be one of them. I’ve been known always to be very vocal,” he conceded. I prodded more: It’s when he’s being “very vocal” that others stop taking him seriously. “That’s true,” he said. “That’s a good point.” And he volunteered to add that this is also one of the problems with “our commander in chief” in the United States.

At this point I felt moved, thinking that we had reached an agreement. By talking honestly and openly and patiently with each other, we might actually get somewhere.

The real challenge of immigration

Tom was incredibly friendly to me throughout our conversation. He gave me the impression of being a sensitive and caring family man, a loving father, and someone who looks out for his own community. Beyond that, he spoke about being invited into the home of Turkish immigrants in his hometown, whom he respects and admires for their hospitality. He’s also had positive experiences with Muslim colleagues at work.

None of that changes his views on immigration. He emphasized that the Turkish family –  guest workers who had immigrated in the 1950s – agrees with him about the current challenges. In a follow-up email to me after our conversation, he wrote: “Despite my personal experience with Muslim colleagues, I do not view Islam as being compatible with a free society….My experiences were that they felt the same way, and even though these fine people had integrated they never became a real part of our everyday life.” He cited more radical Islamic practices to prove his point – that Muslims are not allowed to marry Christians, or the case of a 16-year-old Croatian girl who was married off against her will.

The answer, more often than you think, is actually yes.

Tom’s views on immigration also come down to a simple question of safety. He framed his own fear of Muslims as a question of personal security, rather than some xenophobic idea of Muslims being inferior. He cited individual examples: A 29-year-old-mother who was sexually assaulted in his neighborhood, a policewoman whose face was cut with a knife. All of this “in the town where my kids get on the bus.”

When I put it to him that most immigrants are hard-working and don’t commit crimes, he was surprisingly willing to concede the point – but not to change his view.

“You’ve got 100 [immigrants] and maybe two of them commit some heinous crime and the rest of them have to suffer for that, and that’s not always fair. I don’t know what the solution to that is. A lot of people would say get rid of them. They shouldn’t be here. I would rather save the woman’s face and get rid of all of them and save her face. That’s kind of how I think a lot of us think.”

I sensed that Tom knew he was on shaky ground with this one, but the point that he was making is clear. The safety of his community, and his family, is paramount. “These last three years of politics scared the shit out of me in Germany,” he said. “Changed my view of everything.”

I have to say, that exchange troubled me more than any other with Tom. Not because it made me feel like he's a bad person, but because it highlighted  the power of fear, how it can influence thoughts, and actions. It also troubled me because I feared that Tom is right. This is how many people think.

Therein lies the crux, I thought to myself, of our current societal standoff. It’s the sort of simple question we don’t like to ask ourselves – at least not out in the open. Are we willing to risk a (small) amount of additional crime to care for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a war zone? Many of us will say yes. But many others – whether they admit it openly like Tom or not – would rather not take the risk. They’d rather pass the problem to someone else. Another country. Another people.

Liberals have a tendency to assume this means that “anti-immigrant” voters like Tom don’t care. But that’s not entirely right. When I asked whether asylum seekers have a right to flee their homes, he readily agreed. But he said they should have remained (as per the EU’s Dublin agreement) at their first port of call in Greece. He’s also readily willing to have Germany pay for this to happen.

Tom feels that he does care. Refugees should get all the financial aid they need to make a new life for themselves – just not in Germany, near his family. The best solution would be to set up humanitarian zones back in Syria, or near where they live, he said. If people are fleeing war, why not settle them closer to where they live? Why should they come to Europe? And why to Germany?

Talking to someone like Tom has a way of cutting through the bullshit – and challenges you to think deeply about the reasons for your own beliefs. Supporters of immigration like to pretend that the other side is uneducated or cold-hearted. But I found Tom mostly consistent, honest and, yes, even caring, in his arguments.

That suggests supporters of immigration have to be more honest about their own intentions, too. After all, it’s not that allowing refugees to come to Europe is the only solution to the crisis. On the face of it, closing our borders and sending the necessary aid to help resettle in another region doesn’t have to be a cruel idea if done right.

So why, then, do we accept immigration to Europe? It’s because we’re willing to take the risk, to take up the burden. I had a friend who once put it starkly to a group of rather skeptical Germans. “I, for one, would accept a small amount less economic opportunity in order to help these people,” he said. It struck me as the kind of honest remark you hear rarely – an acknowledgment that immigration is a burden, but one that many of us are still willing to bear.

Listening is better than shouting

On the drive back to Berlin, I fought with myself: Was I too accommodating? Too understanding? Should I have challenged him more, expressed my own beliefs more forcefully? Dismissed his views? Walked away?

The fact is a two-hour discussion was never going to change either of our minds on much. So I choose to count the little victories. We were not only civil but wound up agreeing that showing understanding for others and their plight (including immigrants) is worthwhile, whatever you think the solution to the current immigration crisis might be. In email exchanges since our conversation, Tom has written that our talk remains in his thoughts, particularly the discussion about "tone." In this age of intense anger and frustration on all sides of the political spectrum, surely that counts for something.

Tom remains in my thoughts, too. He has helped me understand the "freedom-loving populist" mindset, as he put it. And whether we agree or not, that can only help me as a journalist, and even a person. So Tom, as I know you’re reading this, let’s keep up the conversation. Preferably not in the comments section when this article is posted.

Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. He is half Austrian, half American and has lived and worked for media organizations in Germany and the United States. To contact the author: [email protected]