Recently, Jonathan Cook published a piece in Consortium News defending Glenn Greenwald and Russell Brand from claims that the two have been pandering to the far right by appearing on the now former Tucker Carlson Tonight program on Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. He argues that while right-wing demagogues like Carlson and Donald Trump have cynically utilized traditional left-wing anti-war and anti-corporate themes, Brand and Greenwald have been “taking the left’s fight” to platforms occupied by these demagogues. They appear on right-wing media because they don’t want to leave anti-war and anti-corporate themes alone for “the far right to exploit unchallenged.”
There are two main sections of the US establishment, Cook explains. On one side, you have a technocratic, anti-Trump traditional elite. On the other side, you have right-wing Republicans, an “entrepreneurial” section that tries to “recruit support by playing up xenophobic, racist tropes among the alienated, naive and disillusioned.” Cook concluded that “Brand and Greenwald demand the right to stand outside this artificial structuring of our politics. They are trying to steal back the political concerns that were appropriated — cynically — by the right.”
I’m afraid that in the case of Greenwald, Cook has indulged in wishful thinking. In recent years, Greenwald has acted not as a genuinely independent left-wing voice: his recent activities have been in defense of one side of the American establishment: the “entrepreneurial” section exemplified by MAGA. Whereas Cook intelligently notes the cynical nature of MAGA’s appropriation of left-wing themes, Greenwald largely takes MAGA’s populist branding (especially its alleged anti-war beliefs) at face value. He has had little if anything critical to say about MAGA figures like Trump, Carlson, and Steve Bannon.
Greenwald, like Krystal Ball, Briahna Joy Gray, and all too many others, advocates an alliance between left populists and right populists—but these days, on most issues, he works to dilute traditionally left-wing themes into reactionary populist drivel. This is especially the case on anti-war issues—which I cover to some extent here–but in this article I want to focus on how Greenwald uses his “left” cover to promote some of the most racist and inegalitarian currents in American life.
He reached an unintentionally comic extreme when he told the Daily Caller Podcast in 2021 that he considered Carlson and Steve Bannon to be socialists—and that Trump ran as a socialist in 2016. For the podcast’s audience, he offered a definition of socialism interchangeable with right-wing populism:
“I think the vision is, you know, you have this kind of right-wing populism, which really is socialism, that says we should close our borders, not allow unconstrained immigration, and then take better care of our own working-class people, and not allow this kind of transnational, global, corporatist elite to take everything for themselves under the guise of neoliberalism….”
When he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s program, he never disagreed with the host. He has directed a constant stream of fawning praise at Carlson as a dynamic anti-war and anti-corporate thinker–for, as he put it on his System Update podcast, “relentlessly and intensely forming his worldview based on increasing levels of radical dissent from establishment orthodoxy (Transcript, System Update #77, 4/25/23).” As I document here, his defense has reached a level of crudity where he promoted the falsehood (easily verifiable as such) that Carlson never gave credence to claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. He has repeated this falsehood on multiple recent System Update episodes, using it as a pretext to launch into odes about Carlson’s intellectual integrity.
More significantly, the fawning has reached the level of whitewashing Carlson’s racism. He returned to this whitewashing on his first System Update after Carlson was fired from Fox News. Addressing persons who accuse Carlson of racism, he declared:
“The only evidence they ever presented is that he defends the ‘Great Replacement’ theory, when in reality all he ever does, is recognize and point out that it’s the Democratic Party and Democratic Party consultants who adopted the plan explicitly, who wrote books about this fact, that they support immigration because they regard immigration as a way to change the demographics of the country, to make sure that the Democrats will win elections forever. That’s not even Tucker Carlson who came up with it. He points out that it’s the Democratic strategy because they themselves say so (Transcript, System Update #77, /4/25/23).”
Here, not for the first time, Greenwald endorses Carlson’s use of the false far-right talking point that Democrats support increasing undocumented immigration so they can legalize them and subsequently capture them as Democratic voters.
Immigration is an issue he has flagged where left and right populists can find common ground. He seems to share the fundamental MAGA anti-immigrant worldview. Earlier this year he compared Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump:
“They condemned free trade deals for the same reason that it de-industrialized all of America in order to benefit international capital. They were both credible outsiders to Washington’s power. People forget that Trump had an immigration policy that was actually very similar to Bernie Sanders’ and to the international left for a long time — until it became racist to have it — which was that large numbers of immigrants flooding over the borders are something that is an agenda of the Chamber of Commerce and multinational corporations because it keeps wages low for the American worker.
I remember when I was writing about politics, in 2005, it was George Bush and Dick Cheney eager to have immigration reform, and people on the left, including labor unions, were vehemently opposed to it on the grounds that it was a Chamber of Commerce plot in order to drive down wages.’ “
What Greenwald is implying here is that the “international left” in 2005-06 joined with right-wing nativists to demand harsher crackdowns on undocumented immigrants than that proposed by the Bush administration so as to stop corporate-backed immigration reform from driving down the wages of native-born workers. I was not aware that this political alignment occurred. I am aware that significant swathes of the US labor movement and Bernie Sanders have, in the past, embraced the scapegoating of immigrants as a threat to higher wages. I’m aware that Greenwald himself, in December 2005, produced a defense of Tom Tancredo, then a far right nativist Republican congressman. I’m aware that, currently, there are left populist thinkers such as Angela Nagle in Ireland and Sara Wagenknecht in Germany who have scapegoated immigrants. Wagenknecht, probably the most prominent figure in Germany’s social democratic Die Linke Party, has tried to steer her party into immigrant baiting in order to draw votes away from Germany’s crypto-fascist AfD Party; predictably, she has been heavily lauded by Greenwald.
But I’m also aware of a substantially reformist(including in the mainstream labor movement) and revolutionary left that has, over many decades–including in the 2005-06 period—fought for immigrant rights and combatted falsehoods of the sort propagated by Greenwald’s friend Tucker Carlson that immigration depresses wages for native-born workers and that undocumented immigrants are much more crime-prone than native-born persons. The “people on the left” that I’m familiar with believe in a welcoming attitude towards immigrants and that solidarity between immigrant and native-born worker is essential against business. Most significantly, leftists that I’m most familiar with have looked to the exacerbation of poverty and violence driven by US trade, pro-death squad and drug war policies as a driver of undocumented immigration. MAGA politicians, have rarely if ever, acknowledged the immense suffering imposed upon Mexicans and Central Americans by so-called free trade deals and other US policies. Trump, during the 2016 campaign, even implied that Mexicans were making out much better than Americans with regard to NAFTA. Trump’s NAFTA 2.0, formally ratified toward the end of his presidency, did nothing to fundamentally fix the original NAFTA’s injustices.
Though he admits that Trump’s presidency on the domestic and foreign policy fronts followed a largely traditional Republican pattern—militarism, corporate tax cuts, etc.—Greenwald remains to this day tormented and enchanted by lost populist millenarian visions from Trump’s 2016 campaign. In January of this year, he claimed that Trump’s 2016 campaign was so staggeringly, unprecedentedly, populist that it ran against traditional Republican militarism and even against “Reaganomics as no longer applicable to a 21st Century America that has been de-industrialized, stripped of all of its quality of life,..” A quick question: when Trump presented a tax plan during the 2016 campaign that lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent—and the top personal tax rate to 33 percent from 39.6 percent–was this an example of him running against Reaganomics? Is this what Greenwald is thinking of when he says Trump ran as a socialist in 2016?
Anyway, the following month, Greenwald said this:
“I think people have forgotten just how radical Trump’s administration could have been if he had followed through on the populist politics of those advising him. Steve Bannon in particular, had a very radical vision that ended up not working because Jared Kushner won the power battle with Steve Bannon. And Bannon was out after a few months. And Jared Kushner, a much more traditional Republican, was able to get Trump to – instead of what Steve Bannon was suggesting, namely raising taxes on the rich, doing a bipartisan infrastructure deal with the Democrats to build back American roads and infrastructure, and only then building the wall – instead cut taxes on the wealthy and on corporations….
‘Trump proposes a five-year ban on economic and executive branch officials and lawmakers who want to be lobbyists.’ That was according to The Washington Post. He wanted a ban on executive branch officials and lawmakers to become lobbyists.
That was part of his draining the swamp proposal. None of this ended up happening because, again, the actual economic populist, Steve Bannon, lost his power struggle with Jared Kushner, a much more traditional Republican. But that was what Trump ran on and that was the plan…”
It is touching to think that Greenwald really believes that the economic populist noises emanating from Trump’s 2016 campaign were really “the plan” for his administration—until Jared Kushner proved better at factional infighting that Steve Bannon. At this point let me posit an alternative explanation for Trump’s economic policies which some might potentially find bemusing: to get the votes of ordinary people, politicians, both Republican and Democrat, routinely express populist sentiments during campaigns that they have no intention of realizing once in office. This is quite probably what was at play in Trump’s case. After all, all politicians recognize the need to placate business by maintaining as much as possible existing inequalities of wealth and power: they recognize the power of business to wreck their own careers or wreck overall economic stability by withholding investment and job creation if displeased with government policy. That is why Joe Biden worked to reassure his rich donors in 2019 that “nothing would fundamentally change” in the American economic structure were he to become president. There is the particularly instructive example of Lizz Truss’s government in the UK which lasted 40 days last year and which was essentially overthrown by British financial markets which objected to her program of tax cuts and massive borrowing to pay for subsidies for energy consumers. In Trump’s case, he reportedly felt very comfortable with someone like the sinister Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackrock, one of the world’s elite private equity (i.e. vulture capitalist) firms, as a top economic advisor. He trusted Schwartzman because the latter, like himself, was very wealthy.
Greenwald’s analysis of the Trump domestic agenda is yet another case of him severely watering down what Jonathan Cook calls “the left’s fight” to make it fit right wing terms: instead of issues like union rights, socialized medicine, the affordable housing shortage or environmental protection, Greenwald is focused on a few vague tax and reindustrialization proposals from a white nationalist grifter (Bannon) and vague, often contradictory populist noises from a mentally unstable narcissistic casino magnate turned tv star (Trump). Trump, of course, also once oversaw a multi-level marketing scam called Trump University.
All of this is yet more evidence that while Greenwald was once plausibly thought of as a top-of-the-line, hard-headed, iconoclastic investigative journalist, his current incarnation is something else entirely. He is not just mushy-headed. Like his co-thinker Matt Taibbi, his current labors serve the purpose of furthering some of the most regressive currents in the country, all under cover of advancing progressive goals.