Political junkies pride ourselves on our cynicism. We tend to treat it as a sort of battle scar, evidence of the savviness we’ve acquired from regular exposure to the worst of humanity. Doomscrolling through the Trump era may shock the casual news consumer, like a rookie cop turning pale after reporting to the site of a murder for the first time, but nothing shocks us. We’re the equivalent of jaded detectives hardened by years of visiting gory crime scenes. We’ve seen it all.
I bet I can still shock you, though.
A vignette from the defamation trial of Alex Jones, who was sued in Connecticut by the parents of schoolchildren murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre a decade ago.
After conspiracy theorist Alex Jones repeatedly lied that one of America’s most deadly school shootings was staged, parents of one victim said they got letters threatening to desecrate their child’s grave.
One person who sent a letter to Mark and Jackie Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, claimed to have urinated on the child’s grave. In another letter, someone threatened to dig up Daniel’s grave to prove he didn’t exist, his parents testified in Jones’ trial on Tuesday.
I’ve been writing about politics every day for the past 16 years. I was shocked when I read that.
So were the jurors, it seems. They dropped a $965 million verdict on Jones, an amount that’s hard to justify rationally as a measure of damages but quite defensible as a measure of his moral depravity. If anything, they went easy on him.
Particularly given how, without missing a beat, he turned the judgment into a fundraising opportunity.
In these divided times, one would think legal justice for a lying crank who put grieving families through hell and is still trying to make a buck off of it might unite us in contempt. One would be wrong. Here’s a taste of how populist Twitter reacted in the hours following the verdict:
There’s a lot of MAGA star power in that field. Kirk alone has nearly 2 million followers. Again, rationally it’s hard to justify riding to the defense of Alex Jones after he’d just been held responsible for engineering one of the ugliest “crime scenes” in the history of American defamation law.
But within the context of populist politics, it’s quite defensible.
Gut check: Who’s more mainstream, Alex Jones or The Dispatch?
If you define “mainstream” in terms of the politics favored by a majority of the American public, The Dispatch is. If you define “mainstream” in terms of the politics favored by a majority of Republicans, then boy, I don’t know.
Jones is pro-Trump (or was), as are most Republicans. Jones is an election denier, as are most Republicans. Jones reaches an enormous audience through his InfoWars site, larger than that of most conservative outlets. He had enough clout on the right in December 2015 to land an interview with Donald Trump, the frontrunner in Republican presidential polling at the time. Shortly after Election Day 2016, Jones claimed that the new president-elect phoned him to thank him for his support during the campaign.
Sounds pretty mainstream to me. What say you, future senator from Ohio?
Jones has been and continues to be a tremendous amplifier of the type of formerly fringe conspiratorial populism favored by many Trump fans. To more cerebral populists, the sort interested mainly in redistributing taxpayer money to encourage family formation, Jones is a scourge who’s wrecking the credibility of the movement. But to a MAGA voter who believes mainstream institutions have conspired to deceive him and is keen to be assured that all of his political enemies are demons, Jones is among the purest hits of populist heroin there is.
For Kirk, Greene, and the rest, then, protecting him is a matter of self-interest. He’s created a huge market for the sort of politics they practice and they’re keen to exploit it. Kirk, for one, is comfortable enough with Jones to have interviewed him on his radio program and to have invited him to Turning Point USA events. Whether you’re a populist politician or a populist huckster, ingratiating yourself to Jones’ audience means dollars, influence, and credibility to a degree few other right-wing broadcasters can provide.
In that sense, going to bat for him after Wednesday’s verdict came down was a simple case of trying to keep the gravy train running.
It was also an opportunity for influential enforcers to remind populist fans of the political code they’re supposed to live by.
Namely, don’t ever take sides against the family. And don’t give an inch when your enemies articulate a moral standard and demand that you salute it.
This tweet following the verdict made me laugh:
We heard that argument from the right in the aftermath of the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago in August. If they can do it to him, they can do it to you. What “it” was wasn’t clear; insofar as “it” referred to a search warrant authorized by a federal judge, the feds have been doing “it” to
“you” for ages.
It’s weird watching populists object irately to holding a member of the elite to the same legal standard to which the average joe is routinely held, but it squares with their suspicion that any trouble visited upon one of their heroes by “the system” is an act of persecution designed to punish him for his populism. The Russia investigation, the Mar-a-Lago search, the Sandy Hook defamation verdict are all meritless acts of establishment revenge on men who dared to stand up for the little guy. Trump and Alex Jones died for your sins, not their own.
The fallacy that the populist hero’s suffering is always a form of sacrifice on behalf of his people helps explain the unnerving cultishness of Trump’s following and makes any attempt to hold him accountable, literally for anything, necessarily seem illegitimate and politically motivated to them. When they attack him, they’re attacking us. Or, as some might prefer: Where we go one, we go all.
If every prominent populist who talks himself into legal or political trouble is martyring himself for his fans then it’s never acceptable to take sides against him, no matter what he might be accused of. To do so would be to betray the family. Kirk, Greene, and the rest were honoring that principle by signaling to their audience after Wednesday’s verdict that the principle applies even to behavior as loathsome as Jones’. I think the same logic compelled Candace Owens and, more ambivalently, Ben Shapiro to defend Kanye West after his antisemitic tweets last weekend. Frankly, the more obnoxious someone’s behavior is, the more urgent it is for populist influencers to enforce group discipline by “vice signaling” on their behalf. Never take sides against the family—even if someone in “the family” has been Jew-baiting or egging on the harassment of Sandy Hook parents. “Never” means never.
And never let your political enemies make the rules about which norms you’re supposed to follow. Those norms may be good in the abstract, like “don’t tell grieving parents you’re going to piss on their dead child’s grave” or “don’t tell tens of millions of your admirers that ‘Jewish people’ are persecuting you.” But whether a norm is virtuous doesn’t matter; what matters is who gets to set it. Those outside the family have no right to make demands on populists to observe a norm they favor. Next thing you know, they’ll be demanding that you admit that coup plots are bad even if they’d keep Donald Trump in power forever.
Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.
Extremism in defense of populism is no vice. Don’t help the suckers convince fighters like Kanye or Alex Jones that it is by holding them accountable for anything.
There’s one more ideological current pushing Kirk and the rest to defend Jones after the verdict. It’s the belief, abhorred by classical liberals and championed by the new right, that the law should work for us and against our enemies.
Jones’ defamation verdict is a nice example inasmuch as some of the populists caterwauling about it have argued in the past that America’s libel laws should be looser, not tighter.
Trump has long supported making it easier to win defamation claims in American courts, never mind that few people in public life malign others as casually and as nastily as he does. If the Sullivan standard for libel requiring public figures to prove actual malice were overturned and a U.K.-style regime implemented instead, he might well end up paying out on defamation suits more than he ended up recovering.
You might also think MAGA media outlets would think twice about easing libel laws given the jeopardy some of them are in after falsely accusing certain entities of conspiring to rig the 2020 vote in Biden’s favor. The most powerful conservative news organization in America is staring down the barrel of two judgments potentially, one for $1.6 billion and another for $2.7 billion. Other companies have already reached settlements with some of the people whom they accused of wrongdoing. If the Sullivan standard died tomorrow, many a right-wing website would need to reach for its checkbook when lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic inevitably came calling.
Wanting looser libel laws so that Trump can sue his enemies and tighter libel laws so that Alex Jones can’t be sued is logically incoherent, as Frum notes, but it makes sense when you read between the lines. Populists simply want the legal system to operate as a sword for their own grievances and as a shield against their opponents’.
Trump wins and Alex Jones wins because they have the right politics. If they had the wrong politics, they’d lose. Pretty straightforward.
The starkest example of that thinking since Trump left office was Ron DeSantis’ battle with Disney in Florida over the so-called “don’t say gay” law. Before the bill passed DeSantis was on good terms with the company, as governors tend to get along with mega-businesses that drive the economy in their state. When Florida’s Republicans passed a law last year barring social media companies from deplatforming politicians—one of many cases of DeSantis obviously pandering to Trump fans ahead of 2024—an amendment was quietly tacked on exempting any business “that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex.”
Disney was a friend at the time. The law looks the other way at friends.
Then, under pressure from employees, the company spoke up against the “don’t say gay” law. Sensing a new opportunity to impress Trumpers, DeSantis attacked Disney as another “woke corporation” sticking its nose into politics where it doesn’t belong, which is fine and well. But then he and Republicans in the legislature went further, moving a bill to strip the company of its power over the special improvement district that Disney World has operated since it opened decades ago.
Disney was no longer a friend. The law reacted accordingly.
I’m convinced that the Disney episode has done as much, if not more, to secure DeSantis’ stellar reputation among right-wing populists as his policy of keeping schools and businesses open during the pandemic did. Being anti-lockdown was swell, but other governors like Brian Kemp were also anti-lockdown. It wasn’t distinctive. What’s distinctive is being willing to abuse state power by practicing blatant viewpoint discrimination against the most important business in Florida, just to prove a point about how ruthless you’re willing to be in punishing the left.
As a former president of Peru allegedly once said, “For my friends, everything. For my enemies, the law.” That was the unspoken ethic of DeSantis’ bout with Disney and it’s the sort of logic that Alex Jones’ defenders would like to inform American law more broadly. Political viewpoints should matter in how the law is applied, they believe. Charlie Kirk and Benny Johnson grousing about “the regime” targeting Alex Jones for his opinions and celebrating the DeSantis “regime” for doing the same to Disney sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t really. They’re fine with viewpoint discrimination. The salient questions are “Who? Whom?”
Post-liberalism is about power, not consistency. Insofar as consistency is a barrier to power, that’ll need to go too. For our friends, everything. For our enemies, the law.