This week, like every week before it, quickly set a new high bar for asinine political takes. As always, the trash piled up from a number of sources, for a few different reasons — Nike’s ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick, confirmation hearings for Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the New Yorker dropping Steve Bannon from its annual pretension festival. The rhetoric was hardly novel or unexpected, but the way it wound through social media gave some clear examples as to how elements of a toxic center work in tandem to feed and enable the gross ultra-right.
The well-platformed public figures who consider themselves common-sense moderates fall into three strains. First you have the #Resistance grifters, self-appointed citizen journalists with massive(ly) gullible followings. Because the grifters spend 23 hours a day tweeting about how Trump is DANGEROUSLY UNFIT for office, as if we needed reminding, they may appear to lean left — and most pay lip service to liberal principles. But they’re more afraid of being called socialists, less interested in championing single-payer healthcare and prison reform. To them, a 10-term incumbent Democrat who has accomplished nothing is just as desirable as a younger, progressive primary challenger. Besides, they’d rather get bogged down in conspiracist trivia. As Kavanaugh was grilled on his legal opinions, they focused exclusively on the hand of the woman behind him.
Even when hedging on this dubious claim, #Resistance grifter voices tended to amplify it.
Of course, you hardly need Zina Bash to flash a white supremacist sign to accuse her of racism: She helped write Trump’s immigration policy. Examining footage of her fingers like it’s the Zapruder film not only steals focus from the drastically consequential fight over Kavanaugh’s own ideology but sets up right-wing media to call the other side unhinged and hysterical.
Which brings us to the second fringe-center personality: the never-Trump conservative. These guys despise Trump personally, perhaps as much as the Resistance crowd, while embracing much of the reactionary authoritarianism he stands for. Take the National Review’s David French, who actually loves Kavanaugh and thinks the president isn’t doing enough to push the criminalization of abortion. He’s also been denouncing protesters at the hearings, and not coincidentally, weighed in on the topic of the white power salute, chiding the “idiots” who bought into the story:
In this fashion, the #Resistance grifters and the never-Trump hacks can reaffirm their separate views, yet they tend to signal-boost the same, stupidest, least relevant parts of a given news cycle. And their consensus that the man-child in the Oval Office should not be there overrides any disagreement. This mutual investment in restoring previous governmental order and function, their combined worship of “civility” and theoretically dignified operatives like John McCain, the common refrain that “this is not normal” — all of it has the effect of making them appear united along a middle axis that doesn’t really exist. One half has faith in liberal platitudes, the other in the long-expired fantasy of a moral Republican party.
It’s the spectacular shittiness of Trump alone that allows for some thin shared feeling: a nostalgia for the bygone status quo. When the New York Times made waves by publishing an anonymous op-ed from a White House senior official who claims to be part of a secret internal effort to thwart the president’s anti-democratic tendencies, the Resistance was naturally thrilled (despite a dearth of evidence that the alleged cabal has had any positive impact). Meanwhile, Trump-hating conservative writer Erick Erickson was also glad to hear that the president has adults trying to control him — just annoyed that the column might undermine their subterfuge.
As Erickson realized, the open undermining of a dumbass president will fuel the far right’s paranoia over a potential deep state coup and further destabilize an erratic commander-in-chief. The apparently bipartisan and largely useless alliance of internet hucksters against Trump may have completely antithetical aims — the #Resistance grifters still crave Madame President Hillary Clinton, while guys like Erickson look forward to President Pence — but their incidental alignment gives MAGA die-hards a single target.
Meanwhile, a third variety of nebulous and unhelpful commentator plays the part of referee in any of this fragile coalition’s myopic disputes. These are the “objective” and “apolitical” pundits who turn out to be what strategist Aaron Huertas has termed “reactionary centrists.” He defines them as people claiming to be neutral but punching left while sympathizing with the right. They largely hate Trump as well, but as much as the #Resistance grifters and the anti-Trump GOP, they yearn for a return to the Discourse That Once Was.
As a result, they hew to an outmoded and damaging standard of intellectual balance that pairs opposing elements when there’s no comparison. They elevate climate change deniers, tell us that Antifa is as bad as the Nazis and sound the alarm on a mostly nonexistent threat to conservative free speech on college campuses. This was the mode that pop intellectual Malcolm Gladwell engaged when he learned that Steve Bannon had gotten the boot from a posh New Yorker event following great outcry.
For the Gladwells of this world, the debate is bloodless and academic. It doesn’t matter that Bannon’s ideas have purchase in Washington’s executive branch right this moment, that we’re all exposed to and wrestling with them every day, that people are dying because those ideas have turned into marching orders. It also doesn’t matter, I guess, when you get the history of McCarthyism baldly wrong.
Meanwhile, the editorial assumption that banning hate speech and conspiracy spam benefits the dickwads peddling it for money and attention simply doesn’t hold water. Nor is it a breach of ethics to tell the custodians of our current hell-nation that they suck. The middlebrow legacy media moron isn’t arbitrating between factions the way he imagines, but triangulating for maximum readership and acceptance, reminding the not-quite-left and disgruntled right that the best thing for both would be a resurgence of the old establishment, the indifference that prevailed before. Another epoch where the liberals are at brunch instead of a protest and neocons may unite in baying for a specific war.
Former FBI Director James Comey is the tallest example of such false equanimity:
Well, fucking enough of that.
We should be dynamiting the poison middle ground these three species occupy. What they’ve reinforced in their cross-pollinating is the demonstrably false belief that Trump is a temporary aberration rather than a climax of American rot. And most still envision a path back to their former comforts, the cushions of normality, respectability and inside-baseball circlejerks among a political class that at least understood how to stay out of the headlines.
If there’s any upside to this era, it’s the harsh foregrounding of wealthy white crime and corruption that typically goes unprosecuted. Don’t let a cursed triumvirate taken with ancient decorum and opaque scandals pull us to their dead harbor. To a more polite kleptocracy. A superficial or tonal change when the bad foundation could be rebuilt.
What a waste of this catastrophe.