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The Resistible Urge to Scoff
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The Resistible Urge to Scoff

The ‘Twitter Files’ and the intellectual pitfalls of contempt.

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

“Hate makes you stupid.”

Say that to a hundred people and a hundred will agree. Prejudice blinds, as all of us know from personal experience. No one treats hate as intellectually ennobling—except perhaps Kanye West.

It’s the human condition, however, to recognize that hatred impairs acuity but to succumb to it anyway. There’s a lot of hate flowing through American politics nowadays, you may have noticed, the widely known stupefying effects of that hate notwithstanding.

Which brings me to a confession: I’m prejudiced. I think some of you might be as well. And I worry that our prejudice is making us stupider at times than we should be.

“Hate” is too strong a word to describe my feeling toward the post-Trump populist right but I’ll own “contempt.” You probably share my contempt or else you wouldn’t subscribe to this newsletter. Hardly a day passes anymore that the righteousness of our contempt isn’t affirmed. The MAGA-fied GOP is an endless pageant of contemptible people behaving contemptibly while urging us to direct our contempt leftward instead.

If you follow Republican politics closely, you’ll end up marinating in contempt. And the more you marinate, the less willing you’ll be to take seriously anything populists say or do.

Once you’ve decided that your party is rotten and needs drastic reform, you’re incentivized to accentuate the negative. You’ll seek out news stories that confirm your worst suspicions about the rot and look for ways to lay blame for it at the feet of mainstream influencers. (With Trump and his hangers-on leading the GOP, admittedly this isn’t hard to do.) Chances are you’ll spend more time obsessing about the party’s flaws than someone on the other side does, having invested more of your emotional energy in it. And you may bear it a grudge for having taken a direction you dislike.

It’s understandable. But it’s intellectually sloppy. And it’s apt to lead you to “overcorrect” in pernicious ways.

For instance, here’s a guy so blinded by his contempt for authoritarianism that he’s left arguing in favor of authoritarianism.

Hate makes you stupid. Even when the reasons for your hatred are justified.

Last week I wrote about our comrades on the right who have more patience for the disgrace of the modern GOP than we do. They’re prone to assuring each other that those of us who reject the party in its current form are only doing so because we’re working an angle, secretly auditioning for a gig at MSNBC or at one of the two or three outlets left in all of conservative media willing to tolerate an anti-populist viewpoint.

There are some grifters among Never Trumpers, it’s true, as there are grifters in any faction. But loyal Republicans have let their own partisan prejudices blind them  to the truth about why some of us have begun to take a reflexively adversarial posture toward all things Republican. It’s not because we want to be on Joy Reid’s show.

It’s because we’ve let our contempt turn healthy skepticism into a less healthy compulsion to scoff. We’ve grown a bit prejudiced.

It happened to me a few days ago when Elon Musk and Matt Taibbi published the “Twitter Files.”

The “Twitter Files” involve correspondence among executives at the company discussing their decision to suppress the New York Post’s story about Hunter Biden’s laptop in the last weeks of the 2020 campaign. Twitter eventually admitted error and allowed the story to be shared, but having a social media company temporarily put its thumb on the scale to influence an election in such a heavy-handed way was hair-raising. 

The files were published last Friday night and proved underwhelming even to a few MAGA stalwarts like Sebastian Gorka. (Musk and Taibbi are promising more to come.) Some populists expected evidence of “deep state” involvement in quashing the Hunter story would be shown, but Taibbi disappointed them. The closest thing to a scandalous new revelation, as Tim Miller noted, was the Biden campaign asking Twitter management to remove certain data related to Hunter Biden. But that data didn’t involve shadowy business deals made with the Chinese Communist Party. It involved photos of Hunter naked.

A private entity’s decision to remove nudie pics at the request of another private entity prompted Musk to wonder, absurdly, “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?”

The “Twitter Files” didn’t interest me much. What did interest me was my reaction once Musk announced that they were about to be published. I felt an intense urge to scoff even though, rationally, I had no reason to.

After all, if anyone might have access to secret, damning Twitter correspondence, it’s the company’s new owner/operator. And Taibbi is no rando plucked from obscurity to uncritically repost whatever Musk handed him. He’s a journalist with many years of experience.

The “Twitter Files” plausibly could have been, and might still be, a blockbuster about Big Tech liberals manipulating the truth for political reasons. As a conservative, that would bother me. And as an American, it would bother me. The country would benefit from having that bias exposed.

But I was revved up to scoff anyway.

My problem is that when people whom I distrust get hyperbolically excited about something (“First Amendment violation!”), it piques my antagonism. And when that distrust bleeds over into contempt, the urge to scoff becomes almost irrepressible.

I distrust Musk and Taibbi because they’ve aligned themselves with the right at a moment when the right has taken a contemptible turn. Musk calls himself a centrist but his politics are clearly trending GOP: He complains about the “woke mind virus,” called for Republican victory in the midterms, and has endorsed Ron DeSantis for president in 2024. Taibbi is more slippery, ostensibly still a man of the left on policy but one who’s built a right-wing populist following by criticizing woke excesses and liberal institutional biases. He’s often mentioned in tandem with Glenn Greenwald, who occupies a similar “leftist who hates the left” niche.

Never Trumpers should be careful about throwing stones from the comfort of their glass houses at ideologues who hate their own side. But it’s not dissenting from leftist orthodoxy that leads me to distrust Taibbi and Greenwald. That’s noble of them. What’s suspicious is that they’re fishing for readers nowadays from Donald Trump’s pool of fans. They’ve made common cause with people who, per Mona Charen, have clearly invested in∂ the Hunter Biden story for the wrong reasons.

For seven years, the right has been explaining, excusing, avoiding, and eventually cheering the most morally depraved figure in American politics. That takes a toll on the psyche. You can tell yourself that the other side is worse. Or you can tell yourself that the critics are unhinged, suffering from “Trump derangement syndrome” whereas you are a man of the world who knows nobody’s perfect. But then Trump will do what he always does—he’ll make a fool of you. You denied that Trump purposely broke the law when he took highly classified documents to Mar-A-Lago and obstructed every effort to retrieve them. And then what does Trump do? He admits taking them! You scoff at the critics who’ve compared Trump with Nazis. And then what does he do? He has dinner with Nazis! (And fails to condemn them even after the fact.) You despised people who claimed Trump was a threat to the Constitution, and then Trump explicitly calls for “terminating” the Constitution in order to put himself back in the Oval Office.

The right has a deep psychological need for the Hunter Biden story. They desperately want Joe Biden to be corrupt and for the whole family to be, in Stefanik’s words, “a crime family” because they have provided succor and support to someone who has encouraged political violence since his early rallies in 2015, has stoked hatred of minorities through lies, has used his office for personal gain in the most flagrant fashion, has surrounded himself with criminals and con men, has committed human rights violations against would-be immigrants by separating children from their parents, has pardoned war criminals, has cost the lives of tens of thousands of COVID patients by discounting the virus and peddling quack cures, has revived racism in public discourse, and attempted a violent coup d’etat.

I have Trump fans in my own family who are very excited about the House’s forthcoming Hunter Biden investigation yet can’t provide a theory when asked what Joe Biden might be guilty of. He may have been involved in some of Hunter’s dubious foreign business dealings while out of office, they insist, but as for how those dealings allegedly led to public corruption after Biden assumed the presidency, they have no idea. What they do know is that he must be corrupt, because he must. Not one in 10 Republican voters could explain to you in detail what the Benghazi investigation was about, but all 10 are sure that Hillary Clinton was very, very guilty.

As for the son-in-law and top adviser of a once and possibly future Republican president receiving billions of dollars from the Saudis during the interregnum, they have nothing to say about it. I doubt they’ve even heard of it.

That’s the sort of audience to whom Musk and Taibbi are playing.

And yet.

It’s a shameful thing for an intellectual, especially an intellectual who writes for a living and is adjacent to journalism, to have plunged into “scoff” mode before viewing the evidence behind a blockbuster claim. Although my skepticism ended up being justified, it’s no excuse for poor instincts. In fact, the “Twitter Files” exist only because the company’s executives in October 2020 failed to suppress their own foolish urge to scoff at a damaging political revelation that ended up being … true

Hate makes you stupid.

Maybe worse than stupid. It can turn you into a conscript in somebody else’s war.

What made me so self-aware about my reaction to the “Twitter Files” was watching the early reaction of Democrats and other Never Trumpers as it played out in real time on Friday night. The scoffing was widespread even before Taibbi began tweeting out the particulars of his evidence.

In some cases, it even seemed coordinated.

As social media has shifted from conversational salon to a battlespace for information warfare, discrediting enemy claims before they get traction has made preemptive scoffing a shrewd tactic. That’s especially true on Twitter, to which reporters and politicians pay famously (and overly) close attention. If you want to limit the public’s exposure to a new talking point offered by the other side, the time to begin working the refs before they pick it up and bring it to the masses was yesterday.

That goes for both sides. Tim Miller noted how hard certain MAGA influencers strained to inflate the revelations from the “Twitter Files” in the aftermath in hopes of elevating the story to mega-scandal status through sheer force of will.

Right-wing commentator Buck Sexton (real name), said this was a “bright red line violation” and that Biden should be IMPEACHED for it. Rep. James Comer (R-TN) was on Fox promising that everyone at Twitter involved with this would be brought before the House Oversight committee. Rep. Billy Long retweeted several MAGA influencers praising Elon for, among other things, “exposing corruption at the highest levels of society” (Projection Alert). Meanwhile Kari Lake hype man Pizzagate Jack Posobiec declared this the “biggest story in modern presidential election history,” claimed that “we can never go back to the country we were before this moment,” and donned this “a digital insurrection.”

I doubt the people quoted there believed what they said any more than Musk believed Twitter violated the First Amendment when it removed d-ck pics at Team Biden’s request. No one would stoop to such absurd hyperbole in earnest intellectual conversation. But in information warfare, when everyone is a soldier self-commissioned to fight for or against a side, absurd hyperbole to promote a story—or preemptive scoffing to demote it—is a matter of duty. Even, in some cases, for reporters, the very people whom one might think would welcome the release of formerly private correspondence at an influential tech company.

That also bugged me about my reaction to the “Twitter Files.” I don’t want to participate in information warfare. I don’t want to even feel the urge to do so. But I did. The impulse was intense to deny Musk a “win;” to puncture the hype balloon that propagandistic conservative media would inevitably try to inflate; to punish those who’ve spent six years brainlessly apologizing for every populist excess due to zombie partisanship; and to spite those who’ve attacked anti-Trump conservatives for blaspheming the faith.

But I bit my tongue, knowing that spite is a terrible impulse politically and intellectually. With rare exceptions, there’s no excuse for scoffing at a claim because of who’s made it before you’ve seen the evidence behind it. 

Still, I wonder whether former partisans who’ve grown disillusioned with their side are more prone to such temptations than even standard partisans are.

Where once you extended it the benefit of the doubt, all that’s left is a sense of betrayal. Which leaves you primed to confront them aggressively over whatever their latest wild claim is. 

Coincidentally or not, the first piece published about the “Twitter Files” of which I’m aware was Miller’s, just hours after Taibbi released his information. Miller worked in Republican politics for years and wrote a book about his regrets in having helped, in his small way, to shape the culture of a party that proved easy pickings for Trump. In his previous life, an enemy oppo dump on a Friday night might have forced him to put his plans aside reluctantly and concoct a rapid response as a matter of professional duty. Now he does it voluntarily out of contempt for what his former party has become, seemingly not wanting to let the latest ginned-up populist outrage go unchallenged a minute longer than necessary.

The thinness of the revelations in the “Twitter files” ensured that his effort paid off. But I suspect many anti-Trump conservatives would have worked hard on social media to downplay Musk’s evidence even if it had been more substantial.

Am I wrong? I hope I’m wrong. But if I’m not, the almost but not quite irresistible urge to scoff at the populist right will lead us to foolishly provide cover to people who don’t deserve it.

Before Trump I was often a reflexive Republican partisan, not because I was dishonest but because it was seductive to believe that most of the untrustworthy people in politics congregated on the other side. After Trump, there’s no way to carry on with that illusion. But as a matter of intellectual hygiene, we should resist the temptation to become reflexive anti-right partisans. Contempt is good—righteous, even—until the moment it makes you stupid. I’m open to considering whatever else Musk and Taibbi have to show me.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.