They're All Like That
What I Learned About The Right Up Close
Hello Dear Readers,
I’m very sorry there haven’t been a lot of newsletters recently, but I’ve been extremely busy. I know I keep saying “I’m almost finished with the book now,” but apparently this is a much more drawn out and complicated process than I realized! So, yeah, I think now it is almost done and more posts should be forthcoming. But I should also say I’m planning on taking a vacation very soon. I’ve written either here or for the book just about every day for the last three years and I’m frankly a little bit exhausted. With that being said, every time I claim to be taking a vacation or break, I end up posting a lot, so let’s see what happens.
The Dipshit Vanguard
There are a couple of recent stories I feel like I should comment on. As I finish the book and maybe take a break here, maybe an extended reflection on them can even serve as a coda for my project over the last few years.
The first is the “revelation” from Huffpost that rising right-wing pundit Richard Hanania was writing for “alt-right” websites in the past. (Remember, that quaint old term?) I put “revelation” in quotes, because if you had seen anything he had written on Twitter or his Substack there absolutely was no question that he was an extreme and vitriolic racist. In fact, he had an extremely repulsive way of expressing himself on just about every topic.
Hanania first came to my attention for connection he drew between “wokeness” and the Civil Rights Acts, which apparently is the subject of his book, “The Origins of Woke.” I found this to be an almost refreshingly direct and honest, if not entirely original, statement of the essential truth of the right-wing anti-woke counter-assault.
For some, it appears to be just a pushback on annoying, overly-PC peccadilloes, but for the really serious and clear-sighted they would use that sentiment a wedge to attack and try to reverse core elements of the American democratic project. The rhetorical move is to make “woke” or “C.R.T.” encompass more and more phenomena, from music to movies to basic egalitarian principles of American democracy. On the one hand this often sounds absurd, stupid, and easy to mock, on the other, it’s a kind of insidious propaganda trick: it affixes a quick, negative label to a wide range of phenomena. I don’t quite agree with the people who say that calling things “woke” is just basically a coded version of the n-word: For better or worse, it’s now just shorthand for a certain type of identity politics and social and cultural liberalism. But in many contexts it does affix a certain degree of racial impurity to what’s being targeted and the kick of enjoyment it provides to its users certainly comes from how it mocks an originally Black term. Like with a lot of other words, it can be a slur depending on how its savored on the tongue by the sayer. You know it when you hear it.
Just how effective anti-wokeness is as a mass propaganda tool is still unclear: the Republican war on woke may just be disconcerting or confusing to voters who don’t really know what that means and have other things on their mind. But for a lot of people in the intelligentsia, generalized anti-wokeness is a kind of gateway drug to extreme politics. And hardliners know and understand this tool. For people like Hanania, standing behind “wokeness” is the Civil Rights Acts, the Reconstruction Amendments, and the idea of racial egalitarianism in general. For others, what’s standing behind “wokeness” is the you-know-whos. This is part of the translation process of a general sense of cultural alienation into a particular politics with particular sets of enemies. It’s an effective way of drawing people in, “Oh, you are against that annoying or disconcerting thing, well let me tell where it comes from…” while still appearing not to compromise core values: “Sure, sure we all agree with the principles, we are just objecting to the extremes.” Reasonable enough, right? Who hasn’t been annoyed or even angered at the dumb political commentary on some beloved work of art or literature? But I’d wager pretty much every single person who has made the hellish journey to the heart of the far-right in recent years has started out with a little basic anti-wokeness.
Despite his clear racism, Hanania was taken seriously as a kind of “gadfly” commentator by figures in the center and center-right. (I always thought it was kind of funny that he shared a name with a false prophet from the Book of Jeremiah.) Asthoroughly investigated through his Substack, he was also receiving some significant financial and institutional support for his little projects. And, as the Huffpost article notes, he had clear ties to the very top of the right-wing donor class, rubbing shoulders with Andreesens, Thiels, and Musks. In fact, you might say he is sort of the paid-for intellectual of the reactionary tech backlash, which he tried to articulate in his piece on the “tech right.”
His origin story sounds almost too good to be true:
“I’m High IQ” and “Blacks and Mexicans shook their heads at me. It was really traumatic…” pretty much sums it all up for a lot of these guys. The grievances that lead to these politics are so tiny, but the wounds they inflict are apparently so deep that they can they can fester into an entire persona and purpose in life. He was just resentful of having been in a subordinate position to people who he felt naturally superior to. This also reveals just how race, IQ, whatever other reified notion of hierarchy, functions for these people: it’s a permanent substitute for class position; no matter where you end up in life, you can always have this one thing, you’re white, you’re High IQ, you’re better. You have a Thing or really are a Thing: It provides the illusion of essential and permanent being and worth. (Obviously, this is an exact mirror image of the “woke” identity politics they critique.) The role of these things as spurious titles of aristocracy is further enhanced by their still-somewhat taboo status in society: “Oh, we are part of a special elect, an important in-group group that knows the truth, even if it can only be whispered among ourselves.” It also creates the illusion of cross-class solidarity between these masters of infinite wealth and their propagandist and supporter class: “We are of the same special breed, you and I.” Of course, they implicitly accept their own subordination: in the red-pilled universe, where vulgar power and wealth are the only true measures of worth, then necessarily the people who make a relative pittance hocking that ideology are just so many worms, too. Here is the real nub of it: it’s about the acceptance of relations of domination because you might have someone to kick down on one day. It’s a bad deal in the end.
Anyway, so much for Hanania. Let’s quickly take at the case of Nate Hochman, who was fired from the Ron DeSantis campaign for sharing a video with a Nazi symbol. Hochman first came to public prominence as a kind of wunderkind of the so-called “new right.” While he was working at National Review, I got into an exchange with him about the fascism question. He wrote about it in a way that seemed either hopelessly ill-informed and naive, deliberately obtuse, or in actual bad faith. Even more than Hanania, who seems mentally deranged in some real way, Hochman seems like a relatively normal person, but maybe more than a little bit of an idiot. He was apparently convincing the DeSantis campaign to do all this hyper-online, message board meme-type shit that most voters won’t get or might actually scare them. No wonder DeSantis can’t break out in the polls. He tells the New York Times that every young staffer in the Trump administration read Bronze Age Pervert with admiration, then says he has no idea what fascism means, then BAP says openly, “I’m a fascist or something worse,” now he gets fired for this Nazi symbol business.
Is Hochman himself now a self-conscious Nazi who happens to have gotten caught out for showing too much of his true colors? From my interactions with him, I still somehow doubt it. He seems to be kind of a dumb guy playing around with stuff he doesn’t fully understand. He’s also trying to look cool for the ultras of the movement. The word I think of when I think of Hochman is a “tool.” He probably thinks he’s just a normal guy who has gotten a lousy break.
I also think basically a lot of this stuff happens in an intense cloud of bad faith and self-delusion: a lot of these symbols, memes, and tropes are just mindlessly reproduced. A lot of these people, who think they are the self-conscious intellectual class generating the ideas on the right, are just essentially the tools for the reproduction of propaganda. Some of them are more self-consciously aware of the true nature of the program, some think they are being ironic as an alibi, others become more so over time. Some like the frisson of danger that comes with it. But, from a political perspective, their psychological state doesn’t matter that much: They are simply nodes in a network of reproduction and distribution.
What I can say with a lot of confidence, is just about everybody in the vanguard of the right-wing, among its intellectuals, its staffer class, its journalists, etc. is in daily close proximity to some form or another of fascist or white supremacist propaganda. And I don’t mean this in the “woke,” everything-is-kinda-white-supremacy way, I mean this in it literally bubbled up from Nazi message boards and the like. At the very least, they do not react in horror at coming into close contact with someone or something from the real extreme. It’s titillating for them. Perhaps it might be worrisome for their career prospects, but not for their sense of themselves. They barely bother to really hide it anymore! It’s in their feeds. It’s in their DMs. It’s their real life social networks. It’s just the air they breathe. Even if they are afraid to hold or evince extreme views, they will admire those who do as the cooler ones and heroes. For the brainier of the set, even as they mock those who talk about fascism as hysterics, they eat up the works of Jünger, Evola, or Schmitt. This is what you have to realize about these people: It’s all lies, all the way down; to themselves and to others. The other thing: there is a reason why people don’t say “alt-right” anymore, there is no more “alternative”, this is just the Right. This is who they are.
What I Saw
I have some personal experience with this. Way back in 20181, I was given the assignment by the The New Republic of writing a piece that was ostensibly about the anti-Trump right. My own plan for the story was to uncover the infiltration of what were still called the “alt-right” into mainstream organizations. This was still not long after Charlotesville and there was a wave of discoveries of Richard Spencer acolytes working in conservative media. While reporting on the story, I met a small group of young right-wing guys,:staffers, journalists, and the like, whom I was trying to feel out about the state of the movement. I was surprised to find that I actually really liked and got along with them. They all seemed funny, smart, and sincere. They read. They liked good music and movies. They were into Christopher Lasch, whom I was also interested in at the time, so we had a lot to talk about. They all claimed to dislike Trump, which back then was good enough bona fides for me.
Suffice to say, I didn’t get the story I wanted. (I am not a very good reporter, turns out) We’d have drinks sometimes and I stayed in touch through Twitter DMs. We’d also fight and argue. But we usually could calm things down. If not real, deep friendship, then at least some prep school or fratty camaraderie built up between us: nicknames, inside jokes, etc. We’d talk about girlfriends and break-ups, insecurities, and foibles. We’d encourage each other. Ask each other about our projects. Compliment each others work. Part of this relationship took place during the pandemic and it was just nice to have people to chat with. I don’t know exactly when things started to turn sour, but gradually our arguments got more heated and bitter. It got more and more clear that we were committed to our ideological positions and weren’t gonna budge.
Were they getting more extreme? Or, gradually, showing me more of what they actually believed? I can’t say for certain. But one thing I noticed was just how’d they’d just repeat things. They would get some meme or idea from the netherworld of right-wing twitter that sounded sort of bizarre or amusing, and just start repeating it, repeating it, repeating it. And then it went from a joke to something else. Then they believed it. The other thing I saw is that they related to the extreme fringe as some kind of oracle of forbidden knowledge. They were like these chtonic forces that had to be listened to for some reason. They would show me things and I was like, “These people are just obviously mentally disturbed shitposters,” but to them it contained some deep wisdom. And often, the more deranged, the better: it was closer to The Real for them.
The other thing was gradually how a narrative took hold. We’d observe some phenomenon together, have roughly the same thing to say about it, then gradually they’d get their right-wing talking points from somewhere and that was that. We all were chatting about January 6. They were all scared and angry about it. Shocked that this was happening. Then gradually it wasn’t a big deal. Or maybe even a set up. Any event that happened would get metabolized like that.
I saw some other ugly things, too, about the way they practiced internecine politics. They had a lot of other people on the right they intensely hated: they were stupid, dowdy, or they were professionally more advanced than them and didn’t deserve it. And they sniped at them endlessly in the DMs. I really regret to say this, but I would attack the people they didn’t like, on their behalf, acting as their catspaw. What was the harm? I was a left-winger, I was attacking right-wingers. That’s what I was supposed to be doing, right? Is the enemy of my enemy my friend? Well, not always. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be used.
As I can see now, with the contents of these right-wing DMs leaking and these people trying to fuck each other over, this is how they do things. Functioning like little secret police bureaus, they like to gather files on people they want to get. And they convince themselves of the other people’s total depravity: They convince themselves these people deserve it, that they have it coming. They do this kinda stuff to their friends, the people they socialize with, with people who ostensibly share their values and politics. Through acts of subtle and overt bullying, they practice a politics of personal destruction on their internal enemies that’s every bit as brutal as “cancel culture” and often for far pettier reasons. Does this happen on the Left? Yeah, sure, I’ve seen and, yes, even participated in some nasty feuds, but I’ve never seen anything quite so cold-blooded. I’ve certainly got some difficult friends, but I’m very glad I’m not part of that crowd. But, as my parents like to say, “That’s politics, my dear.”
There was no definitive moment or event I can recall where we broke off our contacts. I just couldn’t take what they were saying anymore and I know they felt the same about me. It wasn’t about slurs or anything like that. They just sounded increasingly insane to me and held views that I found objectionable, even when expressed without overtly hateful language. In some cases, we’ve exchanged some pretty harsh words since. I picked a lot of these fights. The fact of the matter is I’m not a very nice guy. I’m very irritable and quick to anger and not particularly good at impulse control. But I never went away from them feeling particularly good. And, to be frank, I did sometimes still regret the loss of the friendships.
I didn’t really get the story I was after back in 2018.2 I got some other good quotes, but these guys didn’t have that much to give me or they cannily avoided doing it. I’m just not a very good reporter. I also broke a cardinal rule of journalism: don’t become friends with your sources. I was extremely naïve and trusting. I shouldn’t have been. I went in thinking I was doing a story on the right or was almost like an anthropologist among a strange tribe. I was a journalist after all and they could maybe become my sources and contacts for years. I also probably thought I could perform a pastoral role: perhaps I could persuade them to stay away from the worst stuff and could actually help them be part of a better, less insane right wing. That seems not naïve but actually self-important in retrospect. In some darker and more paranoid moments, I wonder if maybe they were spying on me just as much as I was spying on them. I definitely shared with them far too many details about my own life, my own hopes, fears, and loves.
From another point of view, I really got all the information I needed. I’ve seen the way these people think and operate up close. Believe me, it is not pretty. So, maybe not a great reporter, but not such a terrible journalist after all. But while I may be able to record what I see to some extent, I don’t have much confidence anymore in my ability persuade or argue with people. I can point out till I’m blue in the face that they are playing around with awful ideas or that truly sinister things are slithering among them, but it’s never made that much of a difference. From my perspective, things have only gotten worse. People just don’t care or they actually like that shit. I realize I can’t persuade or change people through my writing. They are going to be who they are. All I can do is to try to tell the truth, as I see it.
[Correction: I got the dates wrong. I started working on the the New Republic Piece in early 2019 and it came out in 2020.]