“My overall point,” Dick Masterson says, barely a minute into his conversation with Steven Bonnell, “is that I think you’re kind of a weaselly piece of shit.”
“Why do you think I’m weaselly?” Bonnell replies in his slight, entreating lisp.
“You argue like a scumbag,” Masterson explains.
It’s less than a year into Donald Trump’s presidency and Bonnell is hosting a debate on his Twitch stream with Masterson, a chippy, mustached “Rand Paul Republican” who helms a weekly podcast called The Dick Show. Bonnell, known online as Destiny, has recently made a career of tussling with right-wing figures for the entertainment of his followers, who total about 200,000 on YouTube and more than 500,000 on Twitch. He has already dispatched a number of opponents whose notoriety exceeds Masterson’s. But this debate—this utterly fruitless debate—is where Bonnell’s intervention into the politics of the internet sublimates into its ideal.
The disagreement at hand, ostensibly, is whether Trump is racist toward Mexican people, with Bonnell arguing in favor of the motion and Masterson against. For the most part, though, they bicker over the conventions of argumentation itself. Bonnell says that Masterson must cite evidence, not “feelings,” to support his claims; Masterson insists that Bonnell is a “condescending fuck” who uses “stupid arguing tricks.” These hopeless exchanges go on for 45 minutes, as fans flood the stream chat with Pepe the Frog memes and call Masterson names like “scrawny little bitch.” He is reduced to a mumbling state of rage. The two men end by trading insults: Bonnell is short, Masterson bald. “All right, that was about as cancerous as I thought it’d be,” Bonnell says as he logs off.
The vitriol is a typical hazard of the job Bonnell has given himself. Eight hours a day, seven days a week, he sits in the sunless office of his apartment in Los Angeles, playing games like Starcraft 2 or League of Legends and arguing with anyone who’s in the mood. His desk has the quality of a nerve center. Wires converge from around the room on a pair of monitors, a softbox light, a glaring LED panel, and a camera whose eye is positioned less than two feet from Bonnell’s pale, faintly perspiring forehead. On either side of his chair are an old Casio keyboard and a pearl white Fender Strat, recently purchased. He usually starts streaming around noon; within half an hour, he’s discussing the rights of trans people, or the theory of consequentialism, or the fate of American democracy.
Bonnell first waded into the online political discourse a few years ago, driven by a kind of intellectual fury. As he sees it, many of the web’s most influential gurus and luminaries are bewilderingly incapable of critical thought. Since 2016, Bonnell says, he has confronted more than a hundred figures from across the ideological spectrum, especially on the far right. His opponents have included self-proclaimed “skeptics” and “race realists,” a libertarian activist currently running for “Not-President of the United States,” an anonymous representative of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, and the Scottish provocateur Mark Meechan (aka Count Dankula), who was once arrested and fined by the Scottish government for posting a video of his girlfriend’s pug giving the Nazi salute. Bonnell has even debated his mother for her—by his lights untenable—support of Trump and the Republican Party. “Most people,” he says, “are two to three questions away from utter collapse.”
Bonnell’s contests are nothing like competitive forensics or the polite affairs at your local university. He made his bones in the more trollish quarters of the internet, where civility is a laughable and dead tradition. The humor—at the expense of disability, ethnicity, tragedy—is depraved. Everything is game. When Bonnell is intellectually stimulated or annoyed, which is most of the time, his rate of speech rises to that of a seasoned auctioneer. He has called his opponents “too fucking stupid to tell your ass from your fucking sister”; he has also advised them to “sterilize” themselves. So far, his boorish behavior has gotten him suspended four times from Twitch and banned three times from Twitter. But it’s been good for business: He recently moved to LA from Nebraska, where his 8-year-old son lives, in order to increase his exposure.
As in any respectable blood sport, the fights last as long as they need to, sometimes as many as six hours. Eventually, everybody runs out of bullshit, and this is when Bonnell’s work truly begins. He seems all but immune to intimidation or cruelty, and he isn’t bothered by views that might seem vile to others. (Indeed, he subscribes to a few of them himself.) What enrages him most is mendacity. “If you’re a Nazi or a KKK person, if you want to talk about white supremacy, then go for it,” Bonnell says. “Just don’t lie about it. Don’t make information up. I want to make sure everybody is in the same world and is dealing with the same factbook.”
Without that common set of truths, Bonnell says, we enter the dangerous condition of “epistemic polarity.” The idea is that there exists in the United States a variety of decoupled social realities: a reality in which undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers pose an existential threat to the nation and one in which they do not; a reality in which vaccines cause autism and one in which they do not; a reality in which climate change is a farcical means of social control and one in which it presents a threat to civilization; a reality in which a clandestine cabal of Jews subjugates humanity and one in which this is known as a virulent lie. These realities share no factual basis with each other and thus present no hope of ever establishing consensus. “I think the path we’re on now sends us to destruction,” he says.
Bonnell grew up in a conservative Catholic household in the suburbs of Omaha. Now 31, he belongs to the first generation for whom it was possible to be raised on videogames—in his case, Japanese role-playing games, whose text-heavy interfaces he credits with making him an adept reader. His parents moved away when he was a teenager to take care of an aging relative with Alzheimer’s, and he lived with his grandmother until he turned 18. He learned, he says, to be intensely self-reliant.
After high school, Bonnell enrolled at the University of Nebraska to study music while working full time as a restaurant manager at a nearby casino, mostly at night. His experience of juggling the two commitments was frustrating, sleepless, and ultimately unmanageable. Forced to choose between a paycheck or an education, he dropped out of school in 2010. Within a year, he was fired from his job. Bonnell attributes this to his own failure to navigate workplace politics. “Empathy isn’t something that comes naturally to me,” he says. “It’s very hard for me to understand other people’s emotional experiences.”
Crestfallen, he cashed out his 401(k) and took refuge in videogames and internet culture. Although the streaming industry didn’t really exist yet, Bonnell discovered a community of brash young gamers who shared his morbid sense of humor and his penchant for confrontation. When the casino money ran out, he took a job cleaning carpets. He spent 12-hour days lugging power scrubbers in and out of a company truck; sometimes he encountered water damage and would cut his bare hands on fiberglass insulation he pulled from sodden walls. He was paid on commission, averaging $3 or $4 an hour. “The worst part about being poor,” he says, “is the understanding that every day is potentially the worst day of your life.” It was during this time that Bonnell received “one of the most hurtful comments I’ve heard.” A customer told him, after chatting with him for a few moments, “Wow. You’re really smart for a carpet cleaner.”
By 2011, the streaming industry was rapidly growing. Bonnell began selling ad space on his channels. Eventually, he quit his job and made streaming a full-time gig, earning more than $100,000 his first year. But even as his financial prospects improved, Bonnell was painfully withdrawing from a relationship with the mother of his son. (The two are now on friendly terms, and Bonnell sees his son often.) This experience, along with the indignities of forgoing college, being fired from a job at which he felt he excelled, and enduring years of profitless, grueling labor, did not soften Bonnell’s combative personality nor lighten his view of the world. He describes his political identity at the time as “anti-SJW”—against “social justice warriors.” These were days when words like cunt and retard would reflexively exit Bonnell’s mouth, along with what has become a debased salutation on the internet: “Kill yourself.” The comic value of a gag was measured by its repugnance. Bonnell once quarreled on Twitter with a woman who claimed she’d been sexually assaulted. At the end of their exchange, she told him to go fuck himself. “I hope you get raped with a fucking shovel,” he replied.
Bonnell’s early antics are indefensible, but they were not, and are not, unusual. It’s fairly well documented that when a large cohort of young men express themselves online, many choose to engage in a perverse kind of catharsis, uttering precisely what they have been forbidden to say in daylit civilization. This happens in the physical world too, but is typically curbed by the normal process of socialization: A child says something inappropriate, subverting what he sees as the arbitrary nature of social norms, and an adult corrects him. But for those who spend most of their free time in front of screens, behind the veil of anonymity, the feedback loop fails. When these young men go online, their behavior betrays that they know they should not thoughtlessly abuse others (how could it be funny otherwise?), but they fundamentally cannot grasp why.
Bonnell’s political outlook began to change in 2012, when he was 23. On a trip to Poland for a gaming competition, he heard a fellow streamer say of a mutual acquaintance who was gay, “I hate that fucking faggot.” The slur was not a subversive joke; it was used with sincerity and venom—and for the first time it unnerved Bonnell. “It made me feel so incredibly uncomfortable,” he says, “because it was like, holy shit, this guy hates gay people.” He decided that it was not reasonable, nor really possible, to expect his audience to discern the intentional subtleties in his use of certain slurs, so he stopped using them. Mostly. It’s an ongoing effort, he concedes, because he’s always discovering new ways his language can cause offense. (He recently eliminated the insult virgin from his vocabulary.) And he sees no reason to censor his humor in private; not long ago, he admitted on Twitch to using the n-word when joking among close friends.
After the incident in Poland, Bonnell’s views began to shift from a reactionary libertarianism toward more liberal terrain. Lucas Nuzzo, a fellow streamer who befriended him years ago, says Bonnell took to politics in the same obsessive way he approaches games. “He does a deep dive into anything he does,” Nuzzo says. “He reads about it all the time; he talks about it all the time.” A true creature of the internet, Bonnell relies on Wikipedia for general knowledge. His understanding of political issues is deep but not especially wide; what he cares about most is being able to verify or disprove specific claims. (He is intimately familiar, for example, with the work of George Borjas, a Harvard economist who studies immigration, mostly because Borjas is frequently miscited by the right in order to demonize immigrants.)
From his new vantage, Bonnell could see an alarming trend: Online political discourse, whether on forums like Reddit or on YouTube, was dominated by reactionary thinking, antifeminism, and white nationalism. This was true even among his own fans, some of whom reacted savagely to the inclusion of Hispanic or gay characters in videogames. What irritated Bonnell most, though, was not so much the rightward skew but the anti-intellectualism that drove it. “It was around the Trump election cycle when I started to look at the online political conversation and realized how many stupid arguments were being made,” he says.
Bonnell’s first major political debate took place about a month after the 2016 election. For weeks, his fans had been skirmishing on Twitter with the followers of a YouTube firebrand called Sargon of Akkad, the bizarre Mesopotamian nom de guerre of Carl Benjamin, who recently ran for a seat in the European Parliament as a member of the far-right UK Independence Party. After much instigation, the two agreed to meet online and have it out. It would be a pivotal moment for Bonnell: He would get a chance to establish his bona fides—his argumentative style, his celestial capacity for patience—before an enormous audience. And he would have an opportunity to marshal the new knowledge he had garnered in his political transition.
Benjamin was in many ways a perfect foil for Bonnell. He was among a cohort of early YouTubers who had colonized the platform with a politics constituted by antifeminism, stalwart individualism, a disdain for religion (especially Islam), and opposition to social justice. Borrowing the obfuscatory tactics of white supremacists, they masked their beliefs in high-flown words like reason, science, rationality, facts, and logic. They weren’t reactionaries; they were “skeptics.” (Benjamin calls himself an “English liberal.”)
This sort of language infuriated Bonnell. He saw it essentially as a snake-oil version of his own ambition to foster independent thinking in viewers. The seductive ruse assured young, confused viewers that their restless doubt about politics—Who is right? Which cause is mine?—was not a kind of moral ignorance but a distinguishing talent, one that set them apart from belligerent feminists, chattering liberals, and other unthinking ideologues. One could calmly reason toward political truths; it just so happened that these truths curiously resembled those proffered by the alt-right.
Within an hour after the debate started, Bonnell and Benjamin had wrapped themselves around an axle. They disagreed over the causes of the disproportionate poverty found in certain black communities in the United States. Benjamin blamed low rates of marriage and high rates of children born out of wedlock. The solution, he maintained, was more marriages, because marriage is correlated with higher levels of wealth.
Bonnell seized upon the logical fallacy. “You’re putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “Wealthy people tend to get married. That doesn’t mean getting married makes you wealthy.” He unwrapped a cheeseburger and began chewing. “You understand the difference between correlation and causation, right?”
“But this is causative,” Benjamin said.
Sensing vulnerability, Bonnell applied pressure. If there were a causal link between single parenthood and poverty, he said, then he should never be able to find a successful single parent at all.
“O-OK,” Benjamin stammered. “I walk that back.”
This, Bonnell would discover, is how a successful debate very often ends—not with a logical coup de grâce or a stunning rhetorical maneuver but with a small humdrum admission of intellectual laziness. Most of Bonnell’s opponents, under the scrutiny of thousands of eyes, would rather seem thick, dishonest, or emotionally unstable than merely ignorant, which is what makes that tiny admission so powerful—and the hours of pedantry and contempt worthwhile. Bonnell was rewarded with sardonic comments on his YouTube page. One viewer wrote, “If there was one conclusion drawn here, it is that the solution to racism is forcing black kids to marry each other.” Another wrote: “I was poor, then I got married 10 times and now I’m a billionaire! Carl is right!”
Over the past several years, as politicians, journalists, and researchers have sought an explanation for the rise of extremism online, a familiar technocratic narrative has emerged. It says that the social media behemoths—and YouTube in particular—are shepherding innocent young minds into the cognitive snares of white nationalists and neo-Nazis by tuning their recommendation algorithms to favor extremist content. One 2019 working paper on the “radicalization pipeline” even characterized viewers’ radicalization by varying degrees of “infection”; someone who was highly active in the alt-right digital universe was said to carry a “severe” infection, like tuberculosis or MRSA.
YouTube does not regularly make the mechanics of its recommendation system available to the public, and it frequently changes its algorithmic recipes. Until 2016, the system optimized for “watch time.” Now, according to a company spokesperson, it privileges attributes like “information quality” and “user satisfaction,” neither of which the spokesperson was willing to define in any detail. The lack of transparency makes independent analysis virtually impossible. Perhaps as a result, YouTube’s algorithms have earned a sinister place in the public imagination, right alongside Facebook’s News Feed.
If the recommendation system is truly a horrifyingly competent engine of radicalization, then it’s difficult to imagine Bonnell or anyone else making much of an impact. Yet the familiar narrative may be incomplete. Last fall, Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips, a pair of political scientists at Penn State, published a corrective study of radicalization on YouTube. Using the platform’s API, which is publicly available, they examined metadata from nearly a million videos, drawn from 54 different channels. They sorted the channels into five segments: liberals (including Bonnell), skeptics, conservatives, alt-lite, and alt-right. (These last two categories distinguished between carnival barkers like Milo Yiannopoulos and white supremacists like Richard Spencer.) Munger and Phillips found that while overall viewership in all five categories has boomed in the past decade, viewership of alt-lite and alt-right channels has actually declined since mid 2017. The highest growth, by far, occurred in the conservative category, which includes mainstream commentators like Ben Shapiro.
In seeking to explain their results, Munger and Phillips eschew the “radicalization by algorithm” hypothesis. Instead, they propose a “supply and demand” framework. YouTube, they point out, has an unprecedented ability to match “radical alternative political canons” with the communities that are prone to be persuaded by them. It allows these underserved audiences to begin “consuming media more consistent” with their true beliefs and sentiments. So while the platform may well facilitate the spread of radical ideas, it does not implant them into the minds of unsuspecting viewers. What it does do, Munger and Phillips write, is afford radicalized viewers a sense of community and shared purpose that they struggle to find in their ordinary lives.
That the far right has been able, however artificially, to fulfill these needs for thousands of people—mostly white men—is what makes this phenomenon genuinely dangerous. Scott Atran, a widely respected anthropologist who studies terrorism, religion, and international conflict, has written about the similarities between the far right in America and violent extremists in the Muslim world. In both groups, Atran says, the ability to divert or deradicalize someone “depends on where along the path to radicalization” they are. Earlier on in the process, he says, various forms of persuasion—an income, a prison sentence, a supportive community—“might do the trick.” But if the person has bought into the radical group’s “sacred values,” the beliefs they will not compromise for anything (like, say, ethnic purity or racial supremacy), then it becomes vastly more difficult to deter them.
Bonnell shares none of the far right’s values, sacred or otherwise, but he is uniquely positioned to intervene. In 2018 the Data & Society Research Institute published a report charting the relationships between some of YouTube’s popular political voices. There, in a visualization on the report’s 11th page, lodged above the men’s rights activist Stefan Molyneux, pinched between the anti-immigrant pundit Lauren Southern and the self-proclaimed “disaffected liberal” Tim Pool, is Destiny. Bonnell has entangled himself, like a gadfly, into a web of contrarianism and derangement.
To the extent that Bonnell manages to deter radicalization and make people think critically, then, it is not because he has hijacked YouTube’s recommendation algorithms but because he knows the cultural norms that the far right trades in. If you’re someone who has succumbed to reactionary politics online, you’ll see in Bonnell a kindred spirit—a college dropout from Nebraska who scoffs at political civility, revels in seamy, self-referential humor, and will talk openly about literally anything. And, perhaps most important, you’ll see someone who has spent years cultivating a community that is more likely to forgive your past indiscretions than to shame you for them.
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It’s more or less impossible for Bonnell to measure how effective he has been, so he grudgingly relies on intuition. After any debate, he spends a great deal of time scouring the various forums of the internet—Reddit, 4chan, comment threads on YouTube or Facebook—in search of minds perturbed. In doing so, he has noticed a common formulation of doubt among viewers, which he generalizes as, “You know, I normally really like Figure X and I think Destiny is a fucking idiot, but I don’t think Figure X responded well to what he said.”
One seemingly anodyne admission of doubt can, like a potent acid, slowly dissolve an entire system of thought. Bonnell estimates he has received hundreds of emails from disaffected former alt-righters. One man found himself “drifting away from extremist content.” He thanked Bonnell for giving him “the tools to disprove my own opinions, while avoiding the propaganda that reinforced it.” Another grateful fan wrote that “the tipping points for me were when you covered Jordan Peterson (a seemingly wholesome do-gooder) [and] made Sargon look like a buffoon.”
Bonnell’s most public success story was his influence on Caleb Cain, a white college dropout who, in a recent New York Times feature, credits two YouTubers—Bonnell and the left-wing “video essayist” Natalie Wynn—with his turn away from the alt-right. After watching a few Destiny debates, Cain recalls, “I started learning how a lot of the crises and fears of the far right were overblown. And a lot of their facts were misused.” He adds that Bonnell’s “edgy personality” and barbed humor were familiar and made him feel at ease.
Bonnell’s political debates have invited a somewhat predictable criticism from the left. As spectacular as many of the contests are, they carry a risk of legitimizing the lies inherent in the subjects discussed—that Jews control the world, that black people are intellectually inferior to white people, that minorities aspire to commit white genocide. A popular leftist YouTuber named Shaun, who asked that his last name not be used for reasons of personal safety, thinks Bonnell’s is probably a lost cause. Far-right figureheads can never actually be persuaded, he believes, because they aren’t arguing in good faith. “It is very difficult to have an honest debate with someone whose paycheck depends on them refusing to admit they are wrong,” he writes in an email.
Bonnell’s fans have confronted him with similar criticisms, which he regards as a manifestation of the same naivete that allowed so many to be shocked by the election of Donald Trump. The strategy of ignoring those who hold detestable views and ideas, Bonnell believes, is simply counterproductive. Besides, he agrees that there is no convincing his interlocutors. That’s not his goal. The audience—a small section of the audience—is his ultimate target. He abides by what he calls the 40-40-20 rule, which holds that, in any debate, 40 percent of the audience holds an implacable allegiance to one side, another 40 percent is equally committed to the other side, and an ambivalent 20 percent in the middle is movable.
Bonnell says he is reluctant to abandon his strategy, because, for one thing, it feeds his narcissism. It also earns him a lot of money. More than that, though, Bonnell feels, not without reason, that he is uniquely equipped to handle the emotional toll of confronting some of the worst people on the internet. The threats are constant. Threats against his life, threats to rape his son, threats against the mother of his son—these come with regularity through every channel imaginable. Once, he made the mistake of publicly discussing the death of a close friend who committed suicide 10 years ago. Later, an opponent erupted in baby talk: “My friend killed himself, guys! My friend killed himself, so you guys should feel bad for me!”
People falsely report him to the authorities for making bomb threats, harboring child pornography, and threatening to kill conservatives. “I just had my third FBI visit,” Bonnell says. He’s on a first-name basis with one local agent. “Usually Chris calls me and says, ‘Hey, we need you to come in and chat,’ ” Bonnell explains, smiling darkly.
It’s a warm August afternoon in Los Angeles and Bonnell is debating the merits of capitalism with Emerican “EJ” Johnson, a self-described anarcho-communist who hosts a YouTube channel and Twitch stream called Non-Compete. Bonnell’s larger project has recently taken an unexpected detour into the left-wing discourse of the internet. He sees partisans like Johnson as strikingly similar to their right-wing nemeses, particularly in the ways they argue (evasively, he says) and invoke history (misleadingly, he says).
This particular contest pits the idealism and punishingly theoretical vernacular of leftism—Johnson introduces his partner, Luna, who is Vietnamese, as a “Marxist-Leninist of the Ho Chi Minh school”—against the prosaic reformism of liberal capitalism. Caleb Cain, who recently launched his own deradicalization project, modeled after Bonnell’s debates, moderates.
Johnson’s main contention is that capitalism is a system of unjustifiable hierarchies that restrains humanity’s potential. Its central socioeconomic promise—that you can grasp some control of your fate through work—is a lie. And when capitalism inevitably fails the majority of the population, Johnson says, the wrong people, be they Mexican or black or Jewish, are blamed for society’s dysfunction and decadence.
Bonnell admits all of this but sees no reason to abandon a system that has demonstrated its potential for improvement. The experience of black Americans, he argues, has gotten marginally but measurably better in the United States over the centuries since its founding. Bonnell is also deeply skeptical of the nebulous systems of thought that constitute contemporary socialism. He presents Johnson with a scenario in which a fully democratic factory (the favored socialist synecdoche) happens to be composed of a majority of racist white workers, who vow to never elect a black manager. His question is, How can the black workers rectify this injustice? Johnson answers with anemic hypotheticals, such as the black workers forming a political coalition to concentrate their power.
When Bonnell is at his best, he is able to make a superior version of his opponent’s case; this is both his most impressive and, for his adversaries, his most humiliating ability. But during the debate with Johnson, his thinking becomes uncharacteristically lazy. At the contest’s highest point of tension, Bonnell claims, hyperbolically, that if Vietnam had not been a communist country in the ’60s and ’70s, it could have better withstood being manipulated and carpet-bombed by a capitalist superpower. “If your countries roll over because they can’t defend themselves, that sounds like a good argument for my system,” he says, laughing at Luna’s dismay. A more cognizant Bonnell might have noted that the US’ imperial dominance after World War II cannot be attributed solely to capitalism.
As the debate winds down, Bonnell seems bored, depleted. He sighs. Now years into his intervention into online politics, he is discovering that many of his leftist and progressive fans merely want a mouthpiece for their own views, which, though he considers them less barbaric and inane than the far right’s, sometimes carry their own delusions. That people can fail to reason seems to him, at times, unimaginable—or, at any rate, intolerable. This feeling is the source of Bonnell’s defining mannerism: When he encounters a profoundly stupid idea, he stops speaking, a slightly pained look creeping across his cheeks. As his incredulity builds, he squeezes his eyes shut, twists his neck, and begins violently convulsing in his chair. It’s as if his nervous system simply cannot accept that people sincerely believe the crazy shit they so often say.
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To some extent, Bonnell’s experience validates the vague liberal concern that infectious ideas are spreading online. But this popular notion commits itself to a perfunctory metaphor—that ideas are pathogens passed from one mind to the next upon exposure. In this view, the YouTube user is not an independent moral agent but a helpless victim of the algorithm. The liberal complaint isn’t that YouTube is engaged in a kind of social engineering; it’s that the platform is engineering for a politically undesirable output. Bonnell’s approach to radicalization, so far, could not be further from this casual anti-intellectualism. As hopeless and sapping as his project often seems, it puts stock in the human capacity for reason.
Still, there have been times when Bonnell wondered aloud whether the American population is cognitively equipped to govern itself. As he said to one viewer, rather frankly, “I think that people in general are stupid, and I’ve actually lost my appreciation for democracy at this point.” Not too long ago, Bonnell inveighed against efforts to “deplatform” prominent figures on the internet, citing his commitment to freedom of speech. Today he supports, albeit waveringly, the opposite: Those who willingly lie and misinform at great scale should be silenced. His weary cynicism about the ordinary intellect is what you might expect from someone who has spent years trying to get people to change not what they think but how they think. That has always been slow, hard work. And it would be almost understandable, in the midst of so much thankless labor, in a climate so wracked by fear over the dangerous contents of the American mind, to forget why you started in the first place.
Trevor Quirk (@trevorquirk) is a writer living in Asheville, North Carolina. He is working on a book about nihilism in American culture.
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