Dear Reader (particularly any of you who’ve been paying taxes since the Ice Age. You’re due for a rebate!)
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine you really think that the Habsburg monarchy should be restored. Not only that, you think that America should become an imperial holding of that empire. Every time someone complains about taxes being too high or dog owners not cleaning up after their canines, you say that such problems won’t exist under the new regime. “Once we get Karl Von Habsburg on the throne that won’t be a problem anymore!” “Karl will tax his subjects just enough but no more!” “Karl will make an example of a few scofflaws, and after that you will never have to watch where you step again!”
In other words, you’re a terrible bore about how all of our problems stem from the lack of an enlightened monarch and no one is impressed by the fact you have AEIOU (the actual acronym for Austriae est imperare orbi universo—“it falls to Austria to rule over the whole globe”) tattooed on your ass.
Now, I should say, the utility of this thought experiment doesn’t depend on this specific desire. I could have asked you to imagine that you’re obsessed with the flat tax, or legalizing double-cousin marriage, or barring left-handed people from voting. What I’m getting at are political obsessives who think a single issue or a single theory is at the heart of everything that is wrong with America or the world.
Sometimes, such people can be incredibly charming in their eccentricity. In my career I’ve met quite a few and gotten email from many, many more. I once met a guy who considered it his life’s mission to restore the Kingdom of Poland and the return of all the holdings of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. I used to run into people who believed that if we just legalized weed and taxed it, we’d empty the prisons, balance the budget, and—presumably—live peacefully by the light of lava lamps.
Other political obsessives get seduced by conspiratorial thinking. The alleged obviousness of the “problem” is so monumental they can’t believe anyone can’t see it. So those unconcerned with the problem must either be “in on it” or brainwashed by the sinister forces in control. Like Johnny Fever’s obsession with the phone company (“Wake up man! We’re talking about the phone company!”), every contradiction is proof of how deep this thing goes. So much of Marxism rested on this kind of worldview: It’s objectively obvious that communism is The Answer, so anyone who opposes communism must either be getting rich off the existing system or suffering from false consciousness. Ironically, some anti-communists had the same habit of mind. Because Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t supporting Joseph McCarthy, he had to be a secret communist.
Conspiracy theories of all ideological flavors share this idea that the existing order is “no accident.” You know how in The Matrix the sensation of déjà vu is actually evidence that machine overlords are tampering with the code that runs the illusionary world they’ve created? That’s how conspiracy theorists view coincidences—little tears or glitches in the established order that reveal how everything is being manipulated behind the scenes. “There are no coincidences!” is an article of faith of those who think the world is being run by sinister forces.
A more prosaic article of faith, for the harmless obsessives and the tin foil hatters alike, is that there’s no difference between the two parties. I mean really, how could there be? If there’s one unitary entity running the show, then partisan conflicts have to be little more than theater. Political combat is like kayfabe rivalries in professional wrestling: entertainments and distractions, bread and circuses for the unwashed who don’t understand it’s all being scripted.
Which brings me back to your (hypothetical) obsession with restoring the Habsburgs. If the title of your spoken word album is Restoring the Habsburgs is My Bag, Baby, then you have every reason to declare that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties. But first of all, that doesn’t mean the parties are conspiring to keep the Habsburgs down. The anti-Habsburgian consensus is not a policy position per se, it’s simply an epiphenomenon of the fact that we’re not monarchists and no one but you gives a damn about your ideas or cause.
More importantly, it means you’re just wrong about the parties. Yes, yes, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between them when it comes to your pet obsession, but there are, in fact, some pretty monumental differences between them if you’re obsessed with—or simply concerned with—say, abortion, tax rates, student loan forgiveness, defense spending, transgender issues, etc. In other words, except for large swaths of foreign policy and domestic policy, there really is no difference between the parties.
Now, while I’ve talked about harmless obsessives and the more dangerous conspiracy theorists, I’ve left out a third category of political actors: people who want power, either literally for themselves or because they want the power to implement policies they favor. These people aren’t all cynical frauds, like the avowedly Leninist Steve Bannon. Some actually believe what they are saying. But often the intensity and confidence of what they’re saying derives less from good faith conviction and more from the fact it’s in their self-interest to convince people they’re right. In other words, it’s a political strategy and the ideology is, at best, just motivated reasoning.
If you want to topple and replace the people running the Republican Party, one of the best ways to do that is to convince people that the GOP is no different than the Democratic Party. It also helps if you can convince them that the current GOP leadership is lying to you when they say they believe the same things you do. Persuading voters and activists that those in power are self-dealing, duplicitous, or bought-off fakers is a necessary first step toward convincing them that you and your oh-so-honest comrades should be in charge.
It’s no coincidence—heh—that the author of the phrase “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican parties” was George Wallace. He was convinced that both the Republicans and Democrats wanted to desegregate the South. So yeah, given that Wallace’s view was “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” he had good reason to say there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the parties. That didn’t make him right, unless you stood outside the consensus that segregation had to go. But if you’re trying to cobble together a pro-segregation coalition from both parties, it was a clever bit of marketing.
Which brings me to the recently defenestrated Tucker Carlson. The other day, he posted a kind of resistance-video-from-exile from Gasparilla Island, where he has one of his homes. Donald Trump Jr. treated it like Charles de Gaulle’s 1940 appeal to the Free French. “A silenced Tucker is a uniparty/warmonger/deep-state/globalists dream come true,” the princeling of the Trump restoration movement declared.
Now, like so many of Tucker’s monologues it was well-written and well-delivered, a rhetorical garden of delights full of pretty flowers. But like all flowers, the bloom comes from a generous helping of manure in the soil. After correctly noting that many of the debates roiling American politics, particularly on cable news, are frivolous and forgettable—and conceding that he’s played his part in amplifying them—he said:
The undeniably big topics, the ones that will decide our future get virtually no discussion at all; war, civil liberties, emerging science, demographic change, corporate power, natural resources. When was the last time you heard a legitimate debate about any of those issues? … Debates like that are not permitted in American media.
Now, with the exception of “demographic change,” which is pretty taboo for good and bad reasons, all of his examples are, to one extent or another, utter nonsense. Really? We have no debates about war or civil liberties? No one is talking about corporate power or natural resources? Seriously: really?
Now I confess I live in rarefied professional circles where debates about such things are commonplace. But I think it’s indisputably and irrefutably true that arguments about civil liberties are a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. (Indeed, Fox was fine with Tucker raising these Big Topics—from testicle tanning to demographic change—for years.)
There was an enormous amount of debate about the Iraq War—for years, if not decades. It’s true that there’s less debate about the Ukraine war, and that explains a lot of Tucker’s schtick—because as an anti-anti-Putin guy he’s outside the general consensus on that issue. But it’s worth pointing out that one of the reasons there’s less debate about the war in Ukraine is that we’re not fighting in the war in Ukraine. I assure you that if Joe Biden says we’re sending troops to Kyiv or the Donetsk region, there will be a lot more debate.
Both political parties, and their donors, have reached consensus on what benefits them and they actively collude to shut down any conversation about it. Suddenly the United States looks very much like a one-party state. That’s a depressing realization. But it’s not permanent. Our current orthodoxies won’t last. They’re brain dead. Nobody actually believes them…..the people in charge know this. That’s why they’re hysterical and aggressive. They’re afraid. They’ve given up persuasion, they’re resorting to force.[
This is a conspiracy theory masquerading as brave truth-telling. The idea that rich liberal donors and rich conservative donors have conspired to “shut down any conversation” about these “big topics” is just nonsense. Do we believe that George Soros gets the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson’s widow on the phone to hammer out what topics no one can discuss? Tucker was once a great reporter—he has to know that Jaime Harrison, the head of the DNC, and Ronna McDaniel, the head of the RNC, don’t meet regularly to coordinate how they’ll stifle any talk about “natural resources.” The “drill, baby, drill” party and the “eliminate fossil fuels” party have not signed some secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
The reason they haven’t? Because it’s just a lie that “nobody actually believes” what they say about natural resources, war, civil rights, etc. Lots of Americans, including most elites, actually do believe their orthodoxies. Any theory that denies this fact needs the word “conspiracy” in front of it.
America in no way looks like a one-party state. How many millions—billions?—of words have been written about polarization and partisanship, red states and blue states, over the last decade? Thousands of polls, focus groups, and election results demonstrate that lots of people think there are really important differences between the parties. Lots of people cheered or booed the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I didn’t see many people shrug and say, “Don’t fall for the one-party state’s fakery. They want you to be distracted from the Gypsy defecatory menace.”
There are literally Republicans floating ideas about civil war, secession, national “divorce,” etc. Are they all in on the kayfabe? Or are they all suckers who actually fall for the corporate-elite-ruling-class’ Potemkin politics? Is there some Egg Council or Pentavaret rejoicing in all of this like Monty Burns when he proclaimed, “Let the fools have their tartar sauce”?
Granted, it’s absolutely true that the way we debate the “big topics” and the small ones is often stupid and silly. That’s one reason we launched The Dispatch.
Tucker ended his monologue with a self-congratulatory peroration on the importance of telling the truth. I’m with him entirely on the text, but we’re in very different places on the subtext. That’s because Tucker invokes truth-telling like it’s a marketing ploy, to peddle all manner of opinions that often look a hell of a lot like lies, or at the very least are incredibly debatable assertions. But he insists that his opinions are unassailable facts. You can often tell such an assertion is on offer when he begins or ends a sentence with the claim that “no honest person” can disagree with or dispute what he’s saying.
“No honest person could believe the Trump raid was a legitimate act of law enforcement.”
“In retrospect, it is clear the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy. Given the facts that have since emerged about that election, no honest person can deny it.”
“The 2020 presidential election was not fair, and no honest person would claim that it was.”
“The key question was: Did Kyle Rittenhouse act in self-defense that night in Kenosha? And the answer unequivocally is yes. Obviously, it’s a no-brainer. It’s like the O.J. trial, no honest person could reach a different conclusion.”
On the Memphis police abuse tape: “Whatever the story may be about, it’s not about racial bias. Any honest person could see that immediately, but you would never know it from watching the so-called news coverage of this tape today.”
After showing images from the January 6 tapes showing non-violent protesters, “no honest person could look at that video and decide America is under attack from terrorists.” (Well, yes. And I can show you images from the George Floyd riots of peaceful protests. That doesn’t mean those protests were all peaceful—some of the most whole lies are peddled with half-truths.)
Ironically given their history, Tucker is a lot like Jon Stewart from his Daily Show days. The difference is that when called on his BS, Stewart would often respond, “Hey, I’m just a comedian.” Tucker stays committed to the bit.
Still, I might agree with some of Tucker’s opinions and disagree with others. But what I don’t believe is that anyone who disagrees with my opinions is therefore automatically or axiomatically dishonest. Tucker’s whole worldview and schtick depend on the idea that people who disagree with him are in on it. He’s the last honest man in the media and therefore anyone who disagrees must be dishonest—not wrong, not mistaken, not right, but on terms that Tucker considers to be illegitimate. He’s right and you’re a liar.
The “establishment” or “elite” doesn’t agree with him about Putin, Kyle Rittenhouse, vaccines, the 2020 election, the Great Replacement of Americans with those “dirty” immigrants, and of course those righteous, law-abiding patriots who brutally smashed their way past police to hang Mike Pence or at least take a dump in the halls of Congress. And that’s proof they don’t care about you the way I do.
That’s what is so hilarious about Tucker’s stated desire for more honest debate about those “big topics.” How can he be part of any honest debate if Tucker starts from the premise that anyone who disagrees with him isn’t merely wrong, but lying about knowing that Tucker is really right?
Don Jr. is right about one thing. You should note who is getting Tucker’s back and who isn’t. Lots of folks just like Tucker—he can be infectiously charming. But the people wailing about his defenestration the loudest are wailing about what it means for them. A lot of people have made bets that they can replace existing conservative and Republican “elites,” and Tucker was their dashboard saint. He amplified the voices of people who may or may not believe this uniparty nonsense, but who definitely stand to benefit from that nonsense becoming the new consensus on the right, so they can run the new right.
Much of the new right’s theory of how the world works looks like projection. They believe in the weaponization of ideas for their own benefit, so they assume their motives are mirrored in their opponents. The elites rig the system for their benefit, so we should re-rig it for ours! I want to be an authoritarian, so they must, too.
I’m not going to say no honest person can disagree with all this, because some elites on the left and right do behave that way, but also because I know lots of decent people on the left and right who believe all of the BS they spew.
But I’m perfectly willing to say they’re wrong.
Various & Sundry
Canine (and feline) update: The week started with an embarrassing incident. I had Zoë on leash because there were a bunch of small dogs around on our way out of the park. One of those diminutive beasts—a Schnauzer or Schnauzer-adjacent dog—ran after Pippa and the fraidy-cat fled, loudly whimpering. Zoë wanted to be let off leash to take care of the situation, but that would be like launching an ICBM in response to a trade tariff.
In other news, tensions between Zoë and Gracie have escalated of late, largely because Gracie loves to troll the dingo. The other night Gracie got in my lap and Zoë shoved her snozzle right up in Gracie’s grill in protest. Zoë wasn’t about to bite her, but these days her breath alone is an unconventional weapon all by itself, so Gracie thwapped her. Zoë prefers to hang out with dogs who respect her authority. Speaking of cats, I’m in New York for a memorial event for my mom (many emotions!). I’m staying at my mom’s—now my—house in Weehawken with Her Majesty Fafoon and Her sergeant-at-paws Paddington. They’re doing fine (they get daily—and day-long—visits from my friend Dru), but Paddington is an affection bully. He repeatedly headbutts me and demands attention. He will also try to push my computer or podcast mic out of the way. It’s unclear if he’s acting on Fafoon’s orders.
Wednesday’s “news”letter on Biden’s “finish the job” campaign (subscribe now!)
And now, the weird stuff