Rise of the Right: How the Vaudeville Left Fuels White Supremacy

Photograph Source: Anthony Crider – CC BY 2.0

White supremacy in America was never simply a rightwing phenomenon. It pervades all parts of the ideological spectrum. As I discussed in my CounterPunch piece last week, numerous polls show that Republicans, independents, and Democrats embrace white nationalism, even if it is most popular on the right.

In my last essay, I talked about the success of the Republican Party over the last three decades in selling the myth that it is the true representative of the “white working-class.” This is a propaganda campaign that’s long been promoted by reactionary pundits and party officials to rebrand the party and obscure its embrace of corporate power and the wealthiest one percent.

Related to this myth, the dominant national narrative now portrays Trump supporters, not as racist or bigoted, not as xenophobic or sexist, or as enabling a fascistic party leader a la Donald Trump. We are told, instead, to “take it easy” on individuals who are supposedly driven by economic grievances and financial insecurity and anxious about being left behind in an era of corporate globalization, manufacturing job loss, and rising worker insecurity.

As I documented in my last piece, there’s little evidence to validate the myth that Trump supporters are more likely than other Americans to be economically insecure. Most come from decent to well-to-do financial backgrounds, earning incomes that qualify them as middle to middle-upper income. The predominant view among social science experts is that reactionary socio-political attitudes are the primary statistical predictors of Trump support.

And yet, the myth of the insecure white working-class Republican voter has had the effect, practically speaking, of mainstreaming rising rightwing extremism in America. It’s obscured the increasingly reactionary and hateful socio-political attitudes that are primarily driving support for Trumpism. This myth of the insecure Trump voter has meant the normalization of a white supremacist and neofascistic American right, as intellectuals, pundits, and political officials operating on the right, center, and left parts of the political spectrum refrain from talking about the Republican Party or Trump as embracing neofascistic politics, despite alarming signs that this is the case.

Even as the U.S. government is not the functional equivalent of a fascist political system like those seen in the classical era of fascism, numerous books have recently been published (see here and here and here) from Washington reporters with insider political access to the White House in the late days of the Trump administration, that make it increasingly difficult to deny the obvious: this President was (and remains) heavily fascistic in his politics and aspirations. Considering these books and previous reports throughout his time in office, the case is damning. Trump pushed for treason charges against the editors of the New York Times after they ran an embarrassing editorial from an administration insider charging the President with being a danger to the country. Trump demanded that the Department of Justice arrest and prosecute Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama for treason and for allegedly trying to execute a “coup” against him. He wanted Black Lives Matter protesters to be shot by the military, as he threatened to send troops into U.S. cities. Trump wanted immigrants at the border shot, gassed, and electrified. When BLM protesters outside the White House grew increasingly volatile and the President sought shelter in a bunker and an administration insider leaked this fact to the press, the President reportedly sought the identity of the leaker, and wanted he or she executed. He referred to Latinx immigrants as “nested” “infest[ations]” and he implored women of color serving in Congress to go back to their own countries despite all of them being U.S. citizens and three of the four being born in the U.S., while referring to “their” countries as “infested” with crime – drawing on the type of language that was commonly used in the Third Reich to depict Jews as subhuman. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was reportedly so fearful that the President was set on executing a coup in the waning days of his administration that he compared Trump to Hitler, referring to his efforts to stoke insurrection as a “Reichstag moment.” Anxious that Trump would try to force the military to intervene on his behalf, Milley proactively took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement declaring that the military would not intervene following the election in favor of any candidate.

Where was the American left during all of this? Did it form a united front, organizing a mass movement to oppose this rising neofascistic Trumpian movement? Sadly, this was not the case, with much of what passes for the U.S. left being deeply fractured. Many were reluctant to even recognize that a rising neofascistic movement exists, let alone fight it. That’s in part because many high-profile left pundits have, for all intents and purposes, thrown their lot in with this neofascistic movement. More specifically, there is a heavily corporatized, nominally left segment of the punditry, which is heavily based out of Twitter, cable news, Substack, and YouTube, and dominated by personalities like Jimmy Dore, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Joe Rogan, Caitlin Johnstone, and Krystal Ball, among others, and with followers in the hundreds of thousands to millions, who are mainstreaming and popularizing Republican talking points. They work to mainstream the idea of a left-right political alliance in the U.S. They’ve popularized noxious reactionary propaganda and diversionary conspiracy theories that numb peoples’ minds, while convincing progressives that their primary enemy is “the libs,” and normalizing rightwing views, bigotry, and neofascistic politics. These are not individuals that any thoughtful leftist – whether one who advocates for liberal reform, progressive transformation, or socialism – should entertain.

In his classic work Amusing Ourselves to Death, political and cultural critic Neil Postman lamented the contemporary age of television mass showbusiness entertainment politics. He saw it as trivializing and destroying American political discourse. Reviewing some of the most egregious content from the pundits above, one can see why Postman was so concerned with modern politics-as-entertainment, and why it might devolve into a series of modern-day vaudeville acts. Profiling the rise of the corporatized left reveals an ascending punditry with politics that vacillate between clownish and toxic.

Krystal Ball, who gained fame as a liberal MSNBC pundit, and who hosts one of the top-ranked political podcasts in the country, became a darling of the progressive-left by supporting Bernie Sanders and Medicare-for-All. This is seemingly enough to motivate her followers to justify her bizarre politics, including her decision to co-host her program with white supremacist Fox News host Tucker Carlson acolyte Saagar Enjeti – who has recently suggested that Anthony Fauci funded “gain of function” research in China, in the process inventing Covid-19 as a bioweapon. It’s not hard to see why Ball would be attracted to a tinfoil hat closet white supremacist kook like Enjeti, considering her own troubling history of normalizing conspiracies, rightwing politics, and white supremacy, including: her suggestion that the January 6 Trumpian neofascist insurrection might have been a government planned hit job; her false equivalency between BLM protesters and the January 6 insurrectionists; her depiction of those convicted for criminally breaking into the Capitol as non-violent, coupled with her lament about them receiving prison time; her outlandish and baseless speculation that the Michigan militia plan to kidnap Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer may have been about the “FBI helping manufacture the very terrorist plot it ends up thwarting and then publicizing”; and her embarrassing efforts to whitewash and erase rightwing Trumpian racism and white supremacy – via her insistence that progressives understand, despite Trump’s “race baiting nationalism,” that “what this moment demands” is that they not talk about the “prejudices” of Republicans, and that “our fellow [Trump supporting] citizens,” deserve “the benefit of the doubt…[that] the vast majority of Trump supporters are good people trying to find their way in a poisoned politics and through a troubling time. We are all here on the same journey, in the same boat, loving the same country.”

Other high-profile figures on the vaudeville left repeat similar tropes about the importance of a left-right alliance. Matt Taibbi, who built his reputation as a self-described lefty doing commentary for Rolling Stone on the 2008 economic crisis, openly embraces “horse shoe theory” – advocating strategic alliances between the left and right. His Twitter and Substack pages increasingly regurgitate rightwing Republican talking points about “cancel culture,” as he fixates on Hunter Biden’s laptop; dismisses the New York Times’s anti-racist “1619 Project” and charges of racism against Trump supporters as “propaganda”; postures about the Democratic Party as an authoritarian entity while refusing to discuss the rising neofascistic politics that define the Republican Party under Trumpism; interviews Covid-19 denying reactionaries who write for neo-Nazi websites; and defends Tucker Carlson from charges of white supremacy despite his very long history of mainstreaming Klanner-style rhetoric – in the process mainstreaming Carlson’s white supremacy.

Like Taibbi, and despite his once important role in breaking the NSA spying scandal during the Obama years, Glenn Greenwald now regularly devotes himself to normalizing rightwing Republican talking points. Most troubling is his routine normalization of white supremacist television, with his dozens of appearances on Tucker Carlson’s program, lending a sympathetic “left” face to the network’s rising neofascistic politics. Whether he’s on Fox or Twitter, Greenwald is lamenting Democrats and liberals as intolerant cancelors of freedom and liberty, while routinely avoiding criticisms of the Republican Party. It should be blindingly obvious to the sober observer that Greenwald is allowed on Fox News because he provides the network with the useful service of targeting liberals and Democrats, nominally from “the left,” without making Republicans look bad – and that he will not be invited back to the channel if he begins to challenge Fox’s own propaganda messages. When Greenwald does engage in political analysis, it’s increasingly farcical and outlandish, including his blanket condemnation of the #MeToo movement, which he blames for “destroying people.” Greenwald would rather blame women for spotlighting alleged abusers than target corporations and other employers for failing to provide accused men with due process in the face of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations. When he’s not attacking victims of sexual harassment and assault, Greenwald is trafficking in nonsensical content, including: conspiratorial rhetoric about a threatening and ominous “deep state”; baseless and conspiratorial speculation about how the January 6 insurrection might have been planned by the government; bush league fixation on the Hunter Biden laptop story, which was widely panned by most-all professional journalists considering the suspicious timing of the story’s release immediately prior to the election and the story’s main source being “unable and unwilling” to answer questions about how he gained possession of the laptop and shared its content with Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; absurdist and embarrassing past efforts to characterize neofascistic right-wingers like Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Steve Bannon as “socialist”; and an equally embarrassing attack on President Biden for requesting that Facebook flag Covid-19 disinformation – a request that Greenwald refers to as “fascism.”

There is a strong case to be made that Trump’s politics became increasingly fascistic during his time in office. As I’ve argued over the years (see here and here and here and here and here), the former President drew on numerous elements from classical fascism, including the cult of patriarchal personality, support for rightwing paramilitarism and violence in the streets, the embrace of white supremacy, and support for one-party politics via his encouragement of insurrectionist efforts to overturn the 2020 election and impose himself for a second term. But Greenwald has little to say about any of these disturbing trends, which he has ritualistically ignored or downplayed for years and has refused to associate with neofascistic politics. When he does talk about fascism, he demonstrates how little he knows about classical fascist regimes and their corporatist political-economic structure. The Biden administration’s request for Facebook to flag Covid-19 disinformation didn’t even rise to the level of government regulation against a social media corporation, let alone is it comparable to the sort of corporatism that prevailed under Third Reich fascism, when businesses were subject to a command-and-control style economy under a dictatorship of the national government. Facebook in 2021 America is not the equivalent of IG Farben under the Third Reich, and Greenwald’s efforts to make this parallel are little more than bad comedy.

The list of vaudeville acts continues. Former Fear Factor host, comedian, UFC “color commentator,” and now number one nationally ranked podcast host Joe Rogan gained serious notoriety for his endorsement of Bernie Sanders and his support for Medicare-for-All. That’s apparently enough for many lefties, including Sanders himself, to look the other way (Sanders accepted his endorsement in 2020), despite Rogan’s history of Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and racism, and his commitment to outlandish conspiracies such as his belief that the moon landing was faked and his speculation that Covid-19 was created in a lab as a “bioweapon,” and despite his anti-vaxxer politics. Former late-night comedian and YouTuber Jimmy Dore also supports Bernie Sanders, supports Medicare-for-All, and has turned many eyes after his efforts to normalize the neofascist Boogaloo Boys as the sort of people the left should be finding “common interests” with and to which activists should “reach out.” He has indulged in naïve and propagandistic theatrics – delivered on Tucker Carlson’s program – appealing to Donald Trump to end U.S. militarism and wars around the world and put the money saved into universal health care. These appeals overlap with the propaganda rhetoric of Trump and the Republican Party claiming that the former President was “ending the era of endless wars” and fighting for “working-class” Americans.

Finally, many on the “radical left” have bizarrely fallen into disseminating the snake oil grifter nonsense of astrologer to the stars Caitlin Johnstone, whose meteoric rise on Medium, Twitter, and RT provides her with mass venues to popularize rightwing political views to naïve and unsuspecting audiences. Johnstone, an Australian pundit with little direct experience and no expertise in U.S. politics, is notorious for claiming to support leftwing political causes, billing herself as anti-war and as opposing mainstream media propaganda, while fusing that rhetoric with attempts to promote collaborations between the left and right. This is seen most egregiously in her sympathetic tweets toward the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Alex Jones; her support for the Pizzagate conspiracy (the predecessor to QAnon); her callsfor the left to fight the “deep state” by working with figures like QAnoner Robert David Steele – himself a known collaborator with white supremacist and former Klanner David Duke; her support for forging tactical alliances with “alt-right” neofascists like Mike Cernovich (of the “white genocide”-lamenting variety); and her suggestion that the January 6 neofascist insurrection may have been planned by the U.S. government. Johnstone’s impact on the left is hard to ignore, with her tweets and writings being routinely reposted by legions of self-identifying leftists who seem to believe that her writings are compatible with their efforts at promoting radical political change.

Trivializing the Left in an Era of Vaudeville Politics

Neil Postman warned that the rise of television would transform politics into entertainment, and that Americans risked “Amusing Ourselves to Death” as we prioritize titillation over reasoned discourse and education. Serious political content is trivialized in the pursuit of profit, ratings, and spectacle. In one classic passage from the book, Postman reflected: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” The rise of the Internet and social media venues like YouTube and Twitter as “serious” mediums for political communication has intensified the trivialization of politics, as entertainment figures, charlatans, and clownish pundits pervert discourse to the point where the conversations we entertain aren’t worth having at all. This criticism is not about the pundits above; they’re symptoms of the larger perversion and rightwing radicalization of U.S. political discourse. That pundits of this sort, who traffic in such transparently absurd content, are now taken seriously, is a sign of how significantly political debate in the U.S. has deteriorated. This sort of content simply has no value for substantive efforts at left mass movement building. If anyone thinks that pundits like Joe Rogan, Glenn Greenwald, Krystal Ball, Jimmy Dore, Caitlin Johnstone, Matt Taibbi, or their imitators who practice toxic left-right politics will be central to leading mass movements against American empire or achieving changes like Medicare-for-All, mass student loan forgiveness, or other major economic changes, then they should feel embarrassed. And it’s equally embarrassing to watch self-described leftists pretend that a left-right alliance is compatible with efforts to combat the defining challenges of the day, including the rising climate crisis, intensifying poverty and inequality, systemic racism and sexism, or a rising neofascistic movement that seeks to undermine public confidence in elections as a means of selecting our leaders. The American right will not help to solve these problems; it has actively fueled these crises at every turn.

The vaudeville left fuels a larger narrative, embraced by the mainstream media, political centrists, and the right, which all seek to normalize white supremacy and rising neofascism in America. And there are other facets to this campaign. For example, on Fox News we see the normalization of white supremacy via the rise of reactionary pundits like Tucker Carlson (and others), who is now the most watched cable primetime pundit in the nation. He takes advantage of his massive platform to mainline white supremacy into the veins of Americans each night. And Carlson is perversely normalized by “left” pundits like Dore, Greenwald, and Ball (indirectly through her co-host Enjetti), who are content to avoid challenging him on his racism.

The left’s tepid response to Trumpian neofascism means that the Republican Party has been empowered to downplay its white supremacy. They could not have done so had it not been for the complicity of mainstream reporters, intellectuals, and elements of the left. The efforts to mainstream rightwing politics have also driven Democratic voters toward the Republican Party. As polling data from 2016 and 2020 demonstrate, an estimated 15 percent of Bernie Sanders’s primary voters in both years later voted for Donald Trump in the general election. While nominally left pundits have been calling for a left-right alliance to defeat the political establishment in recent years, all that this strategy has proven is that it can send Democratic voters to the right in general elections. And the numbers are hardly insignificant, as 15 percent of Sanders voters amounts to 1.5 million votes in each of the last two general elections.

On the other hand, there’s no evidence that’s been presented that any of the efforts to cultivate a left-right alliance have attracted a single Republican or Trump voter to the progressive-Democratic-Sanders left by drawing 2016 Trump voters (or Trump supporters in general) to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 primary campaign. If evidence exists that this strategy is drawing support to Sanders from disillusioned Trump voters, then it’s incumbent upon Sanders’s supporters and “horseshoe” advocates to present it and demonstrate that their advocacy of left-right politics has produced something tangible in contributing to the Bernie revolution.

Rather than normalizing white supremacy and the right’s neofascistic politics, any left worthy of the name should be mobilizing and empowering disillusioned and disadvantaged demographic groups that have been left behind in the neoliberal era by two political parties that increasingly represent plutocratic, elite business interests. But the chances of building a big tent mass left movement are made more difficult so long as “left” intellectuals and activists continue to devote their time to repeating tired propaganda narratives that normalize rightwing ideology and GOP politics.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.