The millennial generation is beginning to show its age. This overeducated and underemployed generation, raised on social media, once sought solace from its diminished life opportunities behind video game controllers, computer screens, and smartphones. Even for those with good prospects, nothing felt more real than gaming, watching, and, above all else, posting.
It was only a matter of time before the American media delivered a story of a millennial forced to choose between pure posting and real politics. And with the past two decades as our guide, their decision was inevitable: they would choose the post. Emperor Nero was alleged to have fiddled while Rome burned, but a millennial poster would today logged onto Twitter, “shitposting” his way through the cancellation of everything prior generations might have held dear.
On 19 January, the Chicago Reader revealed that 36-year-old Pericles “Perry” Abbasi — a campaign attorney, who was running for office in Chicago’s 25th police district with the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police — had a history of posting bizarre and unseemly content on social media. In a leaked screenshot from a group chat, he had written that “the horrible black diet” was the reason for “13/50”, referencing a common internet meme about Black Americans’ percentage of the population (13%) and supposed share of violent crime they commit (50%).
Abbasi denied these accusations of bigotry. He claimed he didn’t remember everything he was alleged to have written (without necessarily denying his authorship, either), while also offering a second more general defence of his behaviour: this was the internet, he argued, and if he thought of something funny, he’d immediately post it. If this meant writing a tweet about how a relationship with a 36-year-old woman led him to conclude that child porn sentencing is far too long, then so be it. If it meant “making up insane things to stir shit up”, then it meant just that. Abbasi admitted he couldn’t even remember what he posted 48 hours ago; it was all just a blur of posting, retweets, engagement, and likes. He has posted nearly 104,000 times over the past four years, averaging roughly 70 tweets per day (one can also assume he retweeted hundreds of replies each day). In a sense, Abbasi was telling the truth: he was lost in the sauce, living from post to post.
Many of Abbasi’s clients were less than impressed by this. The original report in the Chicago Reader was quickly amended to insert various statements from political figures whose campaigns had him, each stating his comments were unacceptable. But Abbasi doubled down, posting a series of tweets about how being cancelled “was a choice”, that he was an “alpha male” and thus above apologising for things out of principle, and that Osama Bin Laden himself taught us that people will always prefer a “strong horse” to a “weak horse.” Then, he received a “like” on one of his tweets from Elon Musk and declared that the era of his cancellation had ended.
At first glance, this appears to be a fairly mundane story. Political candidates and semi-public figures have their improprieties revealed in the press all the time, and careless millennial posters have been ruining their careers for years, as people who remember the case of publicist Justine Sacco know. The story of Pericles Abbasi, however, deserves a second look. It shows a crash between two different worlds, and reveals what happens when millennial online culture collides with reality.
Abbasi’s field of work — being an attorney for political organisations and campaigns, where he had begun to make inroads with Right-leaning groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police despite earlier support for Black Lives Matter — is based on trust and professional reputation. But the Chicago Reader revelation put his other reputation at risk: his reputation in the online world of “posting”, where he was among the most prolific posters on social media — perhaps the most prolific, as far as sheer volume of content production is concerned. In this world, online micro-celebrities fight with each other tooth and claw for likes, attention, followers, and social position inside a myriad of private group chats and social circles on Twitter.
Abbasi thus faced not one but two risks of reputational loss. He could either jeopardise his standing as an attorney entrusted with major real estate transactions and real-world political campaigns, where he is implicitly trusted not to embarrass his employers in public — or his standing as a preeminent poster. Abbasi chose the latter, which begs the question: why exactly would anyone choose to protect his standing — his “clout” — online, over his real-world career, for which he devoted years of his life? It is impossible to imagine scandalous figures from decades past, a rogue’s gallery ranging from Ted Kennedy to Silvio Berlusconi, risking so much for so very little — for a handful of likes, shares, and retweets.
There is little proof that Abbasi was motivated by some sort of genuine racist belief. He has in the past shared strong views in support of civil rights and, in his pre-shitposting days, cautioned a more intimate circle of colleagues about heaping too much scorn on BLM protestors. If Abbasi ever entertained a racist thought, I suspect he would just have forgotten it 24 hours later; lost in the endless stream of posting and “doing a bit” as he played some sort of role or character online. Abbasi, for instance, is engaged to woman, has also devoted a good many tweets to jokes about logging onto Grindr, a gay hook-up app, for the purpose of “outing” cheating husbands or “something I’m doing for a Nathan Fielder type show I’m developing”. Clearly, his tweets have little grounding in reality.
All of this ties into a curious fact about the sort of online culture that Abbasi is a part of: it is openly, almost to the point of being parodic, a form of “youth culture”, where the rules do not matter and where the norms of ordinary adult society are scorned. But time is a cruel thing: what might seem irreverent or radical at the age of 20 takes on a whole other sheen at 35. When Trump famously descended that escalator and inaugurated his campaign, an entire online “alt-Right” or “dissident Right” subculture clung to him like limpets, constantly stressing the “vitalist” and “youth” pretensions of his movement.
But that was eight years ago. During that time, many former members of these subcultures found partners and started families, leading them to naturally drift away as they assumed the responsibilities of the adult world. But others such as Abbasi remain there, stuck like Peter Pan in a permanent, virtual Neverland.
The Abbasi story is interesting, then, because here was someone who had punched his ticket out of this overproduced netherworld of millennial losers: he had a good career, good education, good skills, and a good client base for law practice. He cultivated political patrons; he is preparing to get married. Yet there he is, posting under his own name at a prodigious rate others in his generation wouldn’t attempt to match unless masked by anonymity; posting his life away.
Historians and cultural theorists have argued that civilisations have collective “death drives” — fuelled by an oppressive atmosphere of decline and decay — and here is a new variation, the “posting drive”. Abbasi, who is continuing to run for office in Chicago now that he has secured the coveted endorsement of some New York-based “dissident podcasters”, is willing to go down with the ship, so irony-poisoned from years of hard posting that the pain of drowning will be nothing short of sweet relief from his need to respond to likes and notifications.
He is not the first such millennial to go out this way, nor will he be the last — as many in his entire generational cohort, along with the ageing, weakening American empire that subsidises its narcissistic waste, seem likely to follow suit in due course. There are alternatives to running a nation-state to failure, such as serious involvement in real politics, but are those as fun as Elon Musk liking your tweets? I think not.
An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Pericles Abbasi retweeted a photoshopped image of himself over police officer Derek Chauvin. This was incorrect: Abbasi tweeted a photo of himself next to another of George Floyd.