What I Learned About The Right Up Close
an entire generation of conservative youth spent their formative years binge-watching anti-sjw hatebait, lurking /pol/, irony od'ing, and online-role-playing their male fantasies behind marble bust avatars and we have yet to fully account for its consequences
in other words, the fascism-thesis naysayers are right about the dissolution of civil society in meatspace but wrong about the efficaciousness of its replacement by social ties in cyberspace, a virtually simulated, homebrewed civil society whose porous subcultural milieus and memetic properties have positive feedback loops and other group dynamics that facilitate reaction and radicalization
I will be completely honest and say that it's hard for me to imagine befriending anyone Groyper-adjacent. My working assumption is that all conservative staffers and thinkers of a certain generation have been infected with the frog virus and are untouchable except as objects of analysis. It's not just that I find their politics disgusting and beneath regard, their lame attempts at transgression piss me off. (ps this also obviously applies to the Dimes Square posers and Bari Weiss' dark webbers.)
I appreciate your willingness to honestly examine your relationship to the far-right. The country would be much healthier if we all did the same.
I think it's significant that you became chummy with that group of "young right-wing guys" when your interactions with them were face-to-face, and then you drifted apart once things became asynchronous and virtual. I'm stating the obvious, but I feel like these mostly asynchronous, mostly virtual friendships become a kind of video game for people. Distanced from you, your right-wing pals started to operate in terms of winning and losing (debates, dunks, ratios). You receded from being John Ganz, and became another character in the game — of which there are only teammates, opponents, and NPCs.
Reading this brought my thoughts toward the processes of Whiteness. Hochman and Hanania are not Nordic names, or at least not clearly. I am not referring to any actual sense of ethnicity, these are only surnames, but in the world that you describe their Whiteness may not seem secure. The recurring references to IQ may play a role in this a trait that they regard is heritable. I’ve had this thought about DeSantis and Rufo, too. All of these names that get underlined in red (not DeSantis, anymore) protesting just a bit too much that they are a part of the *herrenvolk*. Anti-Black racism has historically played a role in White racial formation.
Interesting. I'm a mere amateur compared to you, but have gone through a similar transition. Used to spend a lot of time arguing with libertarians and alt-right people, on various grounds (eg, the liberal-intellectual view that one should interact with different ideas to broaden your own point of view). Mostly have given it up, because ideas have very little to do with it, it's tribal warfare and we are on different sides, polite debate is an impossibility with people who want to throw you out of a helicopter.
I think Hanania's appeal to centrist pundits is the result of some actually canny moves on his part: his willingness to change his opinion on stuff (basically from one psychotic overstatement to another, depending on which way the wind is blowing), and in his open contempt for Trump. This makes him seem like a "reasonable" right-wing interlocutor, and these are always in demand on the op-ed pages. It raises a problem for mainstream newspapers, I suppose, that millions of Americans are racist, organize themselves politically according to their racist beliefs, while, at the same time, there exists a consensus that racism is beyond the pale of a liberal society. How, then, to stage a truly representative debate? That definitely creates market opportunities for guys like this.
I’ve worked on the same problem after many years doing history of ideas/intellectual history, especially of faiths, but I haven’t been able to keep up with the younger right since running into the likes of Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Ron DeSantis, and Ted Cruz in Ivy League intercollegiate debate. I have also never got close to John’s combination here of intellectual depth and intellectual humility. I hope it gets further than Substack, because it’s both well done and desperately needed.
"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."
This exact same thing happened with a coworker. I'm not even sure where they got the talking points from, I just watched them transition from seeing some terrible/unusual event as terrible or unusual to parroting ridiculous justifications for why that terrible thing had to happen and, actually, was the fault of the antagonist's political opponents.
re "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."
It's a little flippant, but re , how they seize on things that get stuck on loop, until it's migrated from joke to core belief, it reminds me very much of how nodes in a neural network function. Nodes receive inputs from various nodes in the layer above them, and each time they get a similar pattern of inputs, they tweak their own weighting function until, past a certain threshold, they start to fire their own signal onto the next layer of nodes beneath them (this is a terrible description of how neural networks work if you don't already know, and probably even if you do, apols). Once the signal response threshold is established, then that node will reliably signal every time they get the same inputs, like Pavlov's dog salivating when the bell rings (to jump to a wildly disconnected metaphor).
Because, the people in this particular fraction of the ideational wing of the ideological classes, may believe that they are autonomous agents exercising original thought, but really they're just intellectual cogs in a machine whose function is to filter the ideological output of the radical fringe to find elements that the repositioning centre can use.
Which brings me onto . The power of centrism is to police "acceptable discourse" and to exclude "the unthinkable". They glaze, maintain and clean the overton window, if you like. The downside is that this tendentially leads to a crippling of the idea for original thought from within the centre - because they don't trade in "ideology" but good old common sense, etc. Which means that when the current stock of centre-left or centre-right ideas are exhausted and are no longer fit for purpose, the only place to look for new ideas is from the bubbling ideological chaos of the excluded fringe. Hence the need for these living ideological filters to sit their trying to strain new life into their camp, that doesn't blow up in their faces. This is a very lossy process and the people doing it, pretty much by selection, don't have the intellectual or (meta-)ideological tools to really understand what it is their real function is. So inevitably a lot of them screw up and get burned and thrown into the garbage disposal in the process
On a personal level, I can attest to views changing among "normal", "non-political" people. I have a good friend with whom I shared virtually all outlooks and beliefs.. until Trump ran. They were thoughtful, considered both sides of issues, usually very moderate in conclusions. Hadn't decided whether to vote for Hillary or Trump. Until they went to the first Trump rally with some friends. Came back and said they had so much fun, they might have found their tribe, their folks. It was as though their brain chemistry changed instantaneously. From that point forward, they spout - and believe - every Trump talking point. This is not a bad person; for instance, they send birthday and holiday notes out to EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the local nursing and assisted living homes. They help homeless people. They volunteer for things they believe in... and tilt at windmills, where they see injustice being done. One point of corruption... which is a valid corruption, I and anyone would agree .. on a local basis.. they have fought for years now via reporting to local and federal authorities, filing lawsuits, etc. Most people in that community have opted to just leave rather than fight the uphill battle with that small governing body. I hate to admit it, but I would have just walked away, rather than risk losing everything to make the situation right. In fact, they almost did lose everything.. but still kept at it. Yet they now are bigoted against gays - they never were before . In fact, we have a trans person within our high school class, they never had an issue with them. Before. We have made a real effort to find common things and keep the friendship alive, avoiding politics. At times, we do sincerely ask the other about what they think of something, how did they come to that conclusion? Often, I will have them agreeing with me, only... within a day or so, adopting the complete opposite conclusion. I get some understanding of the logic - or nonlogic - behind their beliefs. Why do I keep up with the friendship? Because I believe dialogues between the 2 conflicting political beliefs need to continue. There ARE compromises and bipartisan agreements that can exist. I'm not willing to throw away decades of friendship.. yet. If in fact, we are not willing to associate or communicate AT ALL with the other side, then... the United States as we know it is already finished and over. JMHO
I think you are remiss in not mentioning your tweet about leftist scrapbooking of the right. It's not the whole thing, but it's a big part.
The personal cross-political affinity is so true and so strange. Yglesias is getting roasted for it right now on Twitter, but the only exceptional aspect of his behavior is maybe his complete obliviousness. We also had that entire media infatuation cycle with Richard Spencer circa 2016. And then, a personal hobbyhorse of mine is Scott Alexander, beloved by, e.g., Yglesias (again) whose racism was barely concealed going back to maybe 2014 at the latest.
It's true that I would probably have more fun hanging out at a bar with Hanania than the NYC-DSA folks, but doesn't mean the latter aren't right on the merits about basically everything. I think it comes down to a kind of aesthetics that rebellious and noxious is more appealing to certain types than earnest and corny. I'm married to someone towards the latter end and while our politics are similarly aligned our social media and reading diets have almost no overlap.
"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." This is kind of a tangential remark, but I feel like there are certain factoids that pop up out of the history of the far right that various writers will sometimes get really excited about, will fasten onto as examples of how Things Could Have Been Different, that really just represent the same phenomenon you describe here, writ large. If you read about the history of Christian fundamentalism, for example, you will sooner or later encounter historians who make a big deal of the fact that one of the guys who wrote the original ten (or was it twelve?) Fundamentals pamphlets, from which the movement got its name, believed in evolution and thought it was no problem. Or, much later, people will point out that initially some people were pro-choice who you'd be surprised were pro-choice (W.A. Criswell, a bunch of Christianity Today writers in like 1968, etc). In all these cases I feel like it's probably just "they hadn't gotten The Talk from their friends yet." A reason to be careful in picking our friends, I suppose.
"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." I came to that conclusion long ago.
Terrific essay! Thank you!
It wasn't obvious to me that Hanania was a racist. I thought he was someone who started out as a heterodox centrist and then went down a dark path in the past year or so, due to associating with rightists and having a strange and bad temperament. Guess I got it completely backwards!
I don't want to become one of those people you see sometimes, who's constantly doing paranoid close readings of little things people say and then accusing them of being crypto-fascists.
But apparently there's a lot of crypto-fascists running around these days, and I also don't want to be duped into accidentally promoting their work or associating with them.