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The Left’s Whackjob Problem—and Ours
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The Left’s Whackjob Problem—and Ours

On the asymmetric nuttiness between the right and left.

Supporters listen to a speech from Independent Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. during his campaign rally at the Legends Event Center on December 20, 2023, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)

Hi,

While trying to figure out what to write about today, I found an interesting Christmas Day tweet in my bookmarks folder (When discussing Twitter, FYI, the X is silent):

There should be a name for people like Taylor Lorenz and Shaun King where right-wingers figure out they’re crazy really early on, liberals get negatively polarized into defending them, and then they start acting so insane that the libs have to admit the conservatives were right.

The author of this observation, Swann Marcus, makes a useful point, which strikes glancing blows at several others. 

Lorenz and King are good examples of what he’s primarily talking about. I’m not going to dwell on either of them. But Lorenz was the subject of much scorn recently because of a little Covid-related tirade she went on about the “social murder of disabled people just because it’s ‘the holidays.’” Lorenz says she’s immunocompromised and I have no desire to criticize her frustrations, real or imagined, that come with her condition. I do think dunking on your family about it on Twitter is a debatable judgment call. Shaun King is also a piece of work, most recently garnering attention for falsely claiming that he’s been working behind the scenes to free Israeli hostages while simultaneously cheerleading for Hamas. 

There are other leftwing figures who fit this category. Rebekah Jones was obviously a fabulist from very early on. My friend Charlie Cooke was sort of a reverse Jack McGee on this beat. McGee was the character from the old Incredible Hulk TV series who was obsessed with proving the green behemoth was real. Meanwhile Charlie was determined to demonstrate that Jones was a fake. The mainstream media disregarded Charlie’s warnings, citing her as an expert, a whistleblower, and champion of “science,” long after it was obvious on the right that she was a hyperpartisan and paranoid crank. (When her son was taken into custody for threatening to shoot up a school, Jones insisted that the family had been targeted by Ron DeSantis as political retaliation). 

This could actually be a fun parlor game (feel free to add your own in the comments). Name a nutjob, grifter, or craven opportunist spotted early by the right that the left either embraced from the get-go, or doubled-down on precisely because the right criticized them. Michael Avenatti, Jussie Smollett, Scott Ritter, and Naomi Wolf come immediately to mind.

Fish recognizing they’re wet. 

But I wonder if there are several biases at work in this game. The first is recency. We tend to put a lot of emphasis on the folks we remember. Once the left finally abandons these people, they kind of fade away because no one is propping them up. Also, social media and cable news make it much easier to become instant celebrities, and therefore almost as instantaneous has-beens. 

In the old days, the time-lag between becoming famous and getting debunked could last long enough to live quite well. Herbert Matthews, the New York Times reporter who did so much to make Fidel Castro into a likable democratic freedom fighter, probably wasn’t a fraud so much as a dupe. He bought the spin from the Communists in Spain and Cuba alike (he also had a brief man-crush on Mussolini, when that was acceptable on the left). Still, he died with his legend largely intact outside the pages of National Review. Walter Duranty, likewise, was such an accomplished stenographer for the Bolsheviks that he made a list compiled by George Orwell of journalists not to be trusted by the British government because he believed they were either paid agents of Moscow or simply acted like it pro bono. His whitewashing of genocide is still not enough for the Times to give back his Pulitzer.

There’s also the fact that sometimes a little fraud is enough to break into the business and then you can play by the rules, at least for a while. “Fake it till you make it,” is a time-honored strategy, and was much easier before Google existed. If the allegations against Claudine Gay are true, she’d be good proof of that. Likewise, I firmly believe that Dan Rather got his big break in journalism as a faker, but once he had a profile, he had a very good run, until, well, the end.

Now, I could do this stuff all day, because I was raised by a father who clung to his historical anti-Communist receipts like it was a collection of Fabergé eggs. Spending my entire adult life in conservative world only intensified my passion for this kind of thing. I mean, don’t get me started on Alger Hiss!

The right’s whackjob problem.

Which brings me to the most obvious bias. The right has its own problem with this kind of thing. “Love me, love my whackjobs” is a human problem. I mean, just look around. There are still rightwingers inclined to circle the wagons, to one degree or another, around Mike Lindell, Mike Flynn, Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Andrew Tate, Jack Posobiec, even the artist formerly known as Kanye West.

Swann, the guy who sent me down this rabbit hole with that tweet, has a theory about the asymmetry between left and right. “Right-wingers are different because the median right-winger is far crazier than the median liberal so there is almost no limit to how nuts a conservative can be and still have a following.” He adds that “there are GOP primaries Tate could win with a Trump endorsement.”

I think there’s some merit to this as a broad generalization, but I could spend another thousand words on caveats and context. But I have to be honest, it would be much, much, easier for me to say this is unfair about the median rightwinger, if the median rightwing voter wasn’t currently sitting on the buckboard of a wagon doing lazy concentric circles around a candidate who says his talk about immigrants poisoning our blood couldn’t be Hitlerian because he never read Mein Kampf. It’s a strange defense to insist that you came to your Hitlerian rhetoric honestly. I’m waiting for Trump to go with the new Ivy League Defense®: “I didn’t plagiarize Adolf Hitler, I just used duplicative language!”

Regardless, I think the asymmetry between right and left is worth dwelling on. We don’t need to get into the weeds on the left’s Gramscian march through the institutions (a term Gramsci didn’t coin, by the way). As I’ve written too many times now, institutions are supposed to filter out bad actors, free radicals, opportunists, corner-cutters, frauds, and hotheads. The army is supposed to be on the lookout for recruits who enjoy killing too much, newspapers are supposed to be on guard for whippersnappers who seem too good at getting fantastic anonymous quotes, universities have procedures to catch data that is too good to check, and so on. 

Many on the left are put out by the—by my lights obvious—observation that they control most elite institutions. Heck, take out Fox News and a few other (much smaller) avowedly rightwing media outlets, I’m hard pressed to even justify the qualifier “most.” This imbalance has real sociological consequences. All of which are amplified in the new media climate. 

I don’t mean to sound unduly arrogant—just perhaps duly grateful—but because I grew up professionally at National Review and AEI, I benefited from an institutional emphasis on drawing distinctions between responsible and irresponsible rightwingery, between genuine intellectual conservatism and angry populist contrarianism for its own sake (I’m proud of the fact I had the number of people like Milo Yianopolous, Charlie Kirk, and yes, Donald Trump, from the outset. Fat lot of good that did me). Still, I’m not claiming to have never crossed that line between responsible and irresponsible, but when people persuasively pointed out to me that I had, I took it to heart (having my dad kibbitz over nearly everything I wrote, albeit after publication, until he died helped as well). 

William F. Buckley took seriously the idea that a policy of “no enemies on the right” would undermine the conservative project.  That’s why some—admittedly often brilliant—NR writers had to be shown the door from time to time.  That’s also why Buckley found it necessary to break with the Birchers and other nominal “allies” on the right. 

You know who else was involved with the defenestration of the Birchers? Barry Goldwater. Because he understood the danger they posed to the anti-Communist cause, but also to another fledgling conservative institution—the Republican Party (the GOP was old, but its conservatism then was still fresh). 

Anyway, you should get the point: Such institutional stewardship is impossible in an era when the GOP frontrunner can claim that the likes of Chip Roy is a “RINO.” The right is in a post-institutional stewardship era. I’m not saying there are no would-be stewards; I’m saying the tools just aren’t there for them to exert much control over the broader right in the attention-economy. I think NR, AEI, and a few other right-of-center institutions are good at maintaining quality control over their own products and staff, but their ability to steer the broader rightwing “market” of consumers and voters away from craziness is profoundly limited (hey, we’re trying at The Dispatch). And that’s if they even want to try. 

For instance, the religious right was once a coalition of institutions that served to weed out candidates of questionable moral character. The few that still try are vilified for even raising the issue of character. As I noted in my most recent column, Donald Trump is in the process of sidelining the most successful conservative institution of the last generation, the Federalist Society.

When catching the car isn’t good enough.

But let’s get back to the left. The problem with the left’s long march through the institutions is the marchers didn’t want to stop marching. I’ve long argued that America has a kind of autoimmune disorder. The mostly noble effort to purge America of racism, sexism, this-ism, and that-ism achieved most of its achievable goals a long time ago. But the zeal for their project didn’t go away. So the left intensified its efforts, going after the last vestiges of the stuff it hates—or creating new monsters to destroy to justify keeping the revolution going. All of that “critical” race, legal, and gender theory stuff and the Howard Zinn historiography project can best be understood as an attempt to carry the revolution backward in time. You can tell the anti-racism cause has reached immune-disorder territory when statues of abolitionists are getting torn down

Every revolution, small and large, is prone to rejecting victory. Without responsible stewards to stop them, the revolutionaries launch hunts for internal heretics and the less-than-pure. Jacobins start hunting Girondists, because all the monarchists are long gone. Bolsheviks start liquidating Mesheviks, and eventually, other Bolsheviks. 

Even being a moderate liberal starts to count as the new rightwing in these bubbles. Look at the Biden White House: The kids signing “open letters” think Biden is a conservative. 

This auto-immune ideology dominates many institutions. They’re aided and abetted by mutually validating foundations and journalists who’ve grown up entirely in a leftwing monoculture that thinks it’s the job of these institutions to keep marching, even though they caught the car. 

One result of this mindset, and the monopoly that engenders it, is that the products of all of these institutions are simply assumed to be authoritative. “How can you question the NIH? Harvard? The New York Times? Don’t you understand that these are authoritative institutions?”

But these institutions have jettisoned much of their authority precisely because they have cleansed themselves of dissenting points of view. Dan Rather was undone in part by his own asininity, but that asininity was enabled by the lack of anyone in the newsroom who didn’t want his bogus story about George W. Bush to be true just as much as he did. Hate crime and rape hoaxes—and there have been plenty—almost always get identified by rightwingers, because leftwingers are ideologically primed to assume they must be true (unless, of course, you have ample evidence the rapist or anti-Semite was a member of Hamas). 

Actual Marxism gets too much credit as an influence of the average leftwinger, but the vulgar Marxist tendency to dismiss contrary evidence or arguments based upon the interests or motives of the messenger thrives in the left’s monoculture. “Oh some rightwinger at National Review says Rebecka Jones is lying? Who cares? She was just quoted in the New York Times! They wouldn’t do that if she was untrustworthy.” 

Of course they would—and did.

The result is that crackpots and fraudsters of the left—Naomi Wolf, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., et al.—can go years exploiting the good will and unearned status of elite institutions. Indeed, sometimes, as with the case of Wolf and Kennedy, the only thing that will get the left to admit they are embarrassments is when they start playing footsie with the right. 

The reason I think things will get worse before they get better is that the dysfunctions of the left fuel the dysfunctions of the right, and vice versa. In an environment where each side picks the worst excesses of the other and holds them up as representative, it’s impossible to avoid political warfare with each side holding up the most damning totems of the other side. It’s even harder in an environment when responsible stewards from your own side are so easy to dismiss as corrupt members of some horrible “establishment.” 

I don’t know how you unwind this problem. I don’t think the dysfunction of the right can be solved until Donald Trump is no longer in the picture. The incentives to defend your own side, no matter what, are just too strong. And so long as so many on the right defend literally anything Trump says and does, the broader left will never trust anything else the right says. 

But I do think a lot of elite progressive institutions could start a long march to sanity by hiring a lot more sane conservatives committed to the fundamental missions that define education, journalism, and even entertainment. Large institutions need internal intellectual and ideological diversity because groupthink is a universal human problem, not just a problem of the left or the right. The diversity mania of identity politics leads to institutions that all “look” alike, but think the same way. Harvard’s Claudine Gay should go not because she’s a black woman, but because she’s fallen short of Harvard’s own standards. Keeping her on isn’t just a problem for Harvard, or higher education: She’s a problem for the identity politics worldview of Harvard’s own brahmins. You can see a parallel of it in microcosm at Fox, which has a wide assortment of female and minority apologists for Trump or Trumpism. But few serious progressives are capable of, and few conservatives are willing to, meaningfully push back on any of it. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.