Theses Doctoral

Trolls and True Believers: Conservative Media Influencers in the Trump Years

Tomson, Danielle Lee

This dissertation is an ethnography of conservative social media influencers, particularly those associated with former White House advisor and media entrepreneur Stephen K. Bannon. It was conducted through the years of Donald Trump’s presidency. As both entertainers and political operatives, social media content-creators and activists, conservative media influencers utilize a variety of transgressive rhetorical and performative tactics intentionally deployed to attract attention from general audiences, political elites, and legacy news media, thus influencing the media conversation at large. They often deploy racist, sexist, or conspiratorial tropes that can seem so performative, begging the questions, “Are they for real? Are they sincere?”

Based on 100 hours of interviews with over 20 influencers, three years of field notes produced while embedded in their communities, and content analysis of influencers’ social media feeds, this dissertation shows how conservative media influencers navigate their profession as political social media personalities. It explores their performance conventions as entertainers, accusations against them of racism or xenophobia, their epistemological posture, their relationships to social media platforms, what being a “nationalist-populist” means, and their relationship to traditional institutions of Republican power.

I find that understanding conservative media influencers requires understanding them as performers as well as political agents who are invested in creating an entirely distinct narrative and symbolic universe from legacy knowledge production institutions—be they news media, universities, or political think tanks. As opposed to being a shared creedal or ideological community, conservative media influencers are similar in that they share an affective and emotional communication style. As consummate and competitive media professionals, influencers expressed a common goal of eradicating their audience’s and the public’s trust at large in institutions of journalism, academia, government, and the arts, filling in the void where that trust once was with their own content and convictions—sometimes as part of a grand historic calling.

By asking the question, “Are they for real?” I engage assumptions about liberal democracy’s own expectations of its participants and discourse. Instead of looking at conservative media influencers as “misinformers” who are peddling false information that is solved through correction or political agents who are offering policy solutions that need to be one-upped, when we look at them as performers who are creating an affective stylized narrative universe that both reflects and produces discontent, we can begin to see why they can be commercially, culturally, and politically successful.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-02-03.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
John, Richard R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 15, 2023