Fascism's Useful Idiots
A conversation with Michael Hobbes on the media, cancel culture, and the rise of reactionary centrism
Michael Hobbes, the podcaster behind the health-woo-skepticism juggernaut Maintenance Phase and the early years of the beloved podcast You’re Wrong About, has a fixation. Nearly every time a column comes out in a major paper berating college students for caring too much about pronouns, or decrying trans-inclusive language in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade’s fall, Hobbes is there, providing a sarcastic, fact-filled rebuttal, whether by YouTube video, tweet or newsletter. He’s also one of America’s sharpest voices critiquing a strand of thought that has become dully, exasperatingly dominant at the most hidebound and self-important of journalistic institutions (the Times, the Atlantic, et al). Finding myself in a similar lather over this empty-headed, fascism-abetting and bizarrely popular mode of commentary, I called Hobbes in Berlin, where he spoke to me in front of a stark-white wall that held nothing but a shelf with a human skull on it.
I sense we’re at a similar pitch of frustration with elite media discourse. What’s your take on the current landscape?
Years ago, I came across a term in an Aaron Huertes piece: reactionary centrism. It’s basically the idea that, to determine what you think about any political issue, you don’t look at the facts, experts, or major institutions. You look at what the Right is saying and what the Left is saying, and you put yourself in the middle. It’s a useful rubric for some issues, and it’s a useful rubric under some political conditions. But it’s an ideology that doesn’t require any information, any research, any nuance or understanding of actual political dynamics, or the actual conditions of the country. It requires nothing to say, “The Left is saying this, and the Right is saying this, and I’m in the center.” It’s just utterly braindead. And I don’t get why more editors and people at the heads of institutions can’t see what’s going on.
It seems like an ideology that has a stranglehold on the op-ed pages of places like the Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post.
What’s so chilling to me is how many people like this are running newspapers and magazines, and are gatekeepers of the kinds of arguments that Americans are hearing. Once you start getting them out in front, doing frontline journalism, they’re not people with a sophisticated analysis or any intellectual curiosity. And they've had power for years.
I think the advent of Pamela Paul in the Times op-ed pages is what got me thinking about this. Her whole job is to make these vapid reactionary centrist arguments. And I’m like, why? I think it was specifically her column entitled “The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing. Women Don’t Count.”
A classic. We should shoot that one into space. That’s a time capsule one. If you want to understand where we are, just read this fucking thing.
Her argument was basically, “The Right may push policies that will endanger women’s health or cause their deaths, but the Left is pushing for a modicum of inclusivity of trans people. To me these are equal.”
And who can say who’s right? Pamela Paul is a fascinating example because she ran the New York Times Book Review for years as this invisible person with so much power. Then she somehow, for reasons I do not understand, gets this role as a columnist. And she does no research, she does no reporting, she doesn’t seem to have any grounding in expertise, she doesn’t seem to have any intellectual curiosity. The pieces that she writes are unbelievably generic. They’re just like any blog post on the National Review. Just, word for word, the same slop.
There was also a particularly egregious piece in the Atlantic, called, “Kamala Harris’s Blue Suit.” An article complaining about accomodations for blind people that did not interview a single blind person.
Yeah, I saw that one too. It was incredible.
They’ve invented a world that does not exist, where the Left is all-powerful. It’s bizarre and it’s also frightening to me that this worldview has so much influence and power.
My career project, now, is understanding where this comes from and what to do about it. Because I think Pamela Paul’s column about trans people and that column about Kamala Harris and her blue suit both do the same thing. Pamela Paul didn’t say, “Oh, I received a call from a trans person saying ‘Stop saying pregnant women.’” No, she was responding to other people using inclusive language. And Graeme Wood was responding to someone else using inclusive language. They’re experiencing other people being inclusive as a threat to them, somehow. Which is just the most reactionary, conservative, really terrifying impulse.
To me it’s an almost eliminationist impulse. Like, I don’t want to be reminded these people exist—disabled people, trans people. And because the voices on these op-ed pages are dominantly reactionary centrist, it gives the ideology more power, and therefore more opportunity to do harm, chiefly by dismissing literally any earnestness, any activism, any progress, as something either unreasonable, dangerous or both. And it seems so hollow and so nihilistic. Like, if you’re going to be a bigot, just say you’re a bigot!
It’s obviously an ideological project. But as an ideology, it doesn’t have any ideological outcome preferences. It’s not clear what these people want—if there’s a reactionary centrist utopia, we don’t know what that is. They seem to want people to get along, they want there to be debate, they want there to be civility, they want things to stay the same. Whereas, the far right has a goal in mind. The far left also has a goal in mind. But with reactionary centrism, it’s like, what is the destination?
Their entire function is critique. Vapid critique. What do you think these op-eds obscure about our political landscape? What do they smokescreen?
There’s a lot of contrarianism wrapped up in this, and there’s also, of course, the incentives of the journalism industry: You want to write something interesting, and it’s just not that interesting to point out that the defining feature of American political life is that we have a radicalized, dangerous, anti-democratic, right-wing movement. But because we have so many reactionary centrists in media, we end up with the situation that we had with the first ten years of climate change: “We’ll talk to one person who says climate change is real, and we’ll talk to another guy who says that climate change is fake.” And, of course, one represented 98% of scientists, and one represented 2% of scientists.
But now they’re not even talking to the first guy.
Exactly. There’s always this one sentence where they bloodlessly say, “To be sure, the Republicans are radicalizing, blah blah blah,” and then spend 1400 words talking about leftists being uncivil.
I think it's more pernicious than that. Like, it’s manufacturing consent for the authoritarian drift.
I think most of these people genuinely think that they’re doing objective journalism. I think the cynical person who knows what they’re doing is fairly rare in American journalism. I don't know that I have any evidence for that, but that’s my sense of things. But I think that the evidence is very strong that those people are supporting and helping the authoritarian drift.
Fascists always present themselves as victims, and this pose of perpetual victimhood, even from a position of immense power, to me, is very characteristic of Fascist thought.
I’m sure there's a whole spectrum, but I think what makes it dangerous is that most of the reactionary centrists believe every word that they’re saying. What they’re having, I think, is an emotional reaction to conditions in the country, and to people yelling at them on Twitter. Because a lot of these writers are middle aged, center-left guys who get yelled at on Twitter. And a lot of writers have turned their entire career into pushing back against the people who are mad at them on Twitter, and we’re all supposed to think that it’s a coincidence.
You think it’s an unwitting alliance, rather than a willful complicity?
It’s just grievance. If I was getting yelled at by vegetarians all the time, after a couple weeks I would probably be like, “Well, you know what the biggest threat to America is? Vegetarians!” But these are public figures, and if you’re a public figure, like Pamela Paul—with a massive audience and platform who writes for the most prestigious outlet in America—and you say “only pregnant women are affected by abortion bans,” you’re going to get some emails! You’re going to get some annoying feedback because you’re a public figure, and that comes with the job. But if you’re a random flight attendant or a waitress and you say “pregnant women” to your friend, no one is going to burn you at the stake. This isn't something that happens to people who aren’t prominent writers.
Whether it’s witting or unwitting, I don’t understand it, and that’s what makes me so frustrated. It feels like we’re careening towards dictatorship, and we get these mewling, pathetic columnists, with a total unwillingness to recognize their own role in creating public opinion.
I know. When they look back fifty years from now and their kid asks, “Mom, what did you do as the country was drifting toward authoritarianism?” “Ah! I wrote columns about how the people fighting authoritarianism were annoying to me, personally.” Is that what anyone wants to say? Why can’t you just care what’s happening in the country? But we have this idea of journalistic balance. The defense of these op-ed pages is always that you’re supposed to hear from both sides. But what they’ve taken that to mean is that you should hear opinions based on facts, and you should hear opinions based on bad faith lies at the same time. That’s what “both sides” means now. And it drives me nuts. You’ve seen these polls, right, where most Americans think crime is out of control, even though crime has fallen for three decades? Well, why do you think Americans think that? It’s because they’ve read 200 fucking columns telling them that crime is up!
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There also seems to be a failure of imagination. It’s like people can’t imagine that other people’s beliefs are sincere.
This is something you see so much in moral panic rhetoric: the idea that people are only pretending to have these beliefs. And they’re like, “I’m above it all; everybody else is just playing theater. I’m savvy because I can see everybody: I can see the stage, and all the actors on it.” But of course it’s a pose like everything else. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking. Either way, it’s a refusal to actually engage with the ideas being expressed, and it’s a refusal to engage with the people who are expressing them. It’s this insistence and this rigidity on seeing things from behind plexiglass.
You mentioned the two magic words: moral panic. Do you think these screeds fit the definition of a moral panic? And if so, how do you define a moral panic?
I think that certain subcomponents of them, like “Kids are being bewitched into thinking they’re trans”—that’s absolutely textbook moral panic. I typically build the definition around an exaggerated threat, and the only actual evidence of the threat are these nothing-burger anecdotes, these low-stakes stories: “The woke mob is taking over!” There’s a huge disconnect between what you’re telling me to be worried about and the actual event that you’re responding to. I think that space in between is where moral panics happen, where I am willing to just completely turn off my critical faculties. It doesn't stand up to any scrutiny, but this is what bias does to your brain.
Maybe it’s that newspapers were more isolated and patrician in the past, and these writers haven't faced any form of direct public scrutiny.
Yeah, social media allowed normal people to speak to elites, and the elites, as a result, lost their minds. Look at what’s happened to Elon Musk. What is this weird sense of aggrievement? You’re finally interacting with the public in a way that you never could before, and this becomes your entire personality! It’s just what it means to be a public figure in 2022. You know? Grow the fuck up.
Hobbes is right about what motivates them, and you're both right about what they're abetting (though you're characteristically melodramatic about it, because a DeSantis presidency is not a totalitarian reich). Here's the thing: you, the intersectional progressive left, deserve it. So the columns are righteous. Their cause is righteous. Their effects will be righteous. Three cheers.
One of many reasons you deserve it (glaringly overlooked here): You did it first. Libs spent six years flooding the zone with hysterical demagoguery over people who annoyed them on Twitter -- in this case, kids posting frog memes. You demanded sweeping new censorship protocols, and got them. You smashed whatever remained of public trust in institutional media -- the "moral clarity" spasm of the #resistance moment, capped off by 2020, ensured this. You pioneered an entire new genre of journalism around punishing hapless proles for their opinions. You made the world worse, on purpose, out of spite.
So now some nice middle-aged centrists are put off by the exponential growth if trans ID in kids, and they're going to write columns about it, and maybe some Panera moms yell at the school board. And now Vanity Fair thinks Red Scare and Alex Jones are interesting, and you're not. Now, up-and-coming opinion-havers are unafraid to send UnHerd links to their friends, because those are no more cringe than Jacobin, and the people who write in this new milieu quietly hate women, and Dems, and maybe even an ethnic scapegoat. Whose fault is this? You are already readying your reply, which accuses me of striking a victim pose and abdicating agency and whining a lot. But I'm not doing that. I chose this reaction -- and it's a reaction -- to the cancer you caused. The counterrevolution is the chemo., maybe.
I don't think we will get a redemptive sorelian cataclysm. I think we will get some stupid laws. Some pregnant women will die, which I didn't really want. But the cultural vibes will continue to shift (it's already started) and whether or not it ends up being worth it, it will have been inevitable and necessary. I can own being part of this reaction, but you should own being part of the equal, opposite action that called it down.
I went to a university where two men kissing was (and still is) expressly forbidden, and men couldn't eat at the student cafeteria or even take exams if the staff thought their hair was too long.
And you want to talk about "chilled expression"? Until a few years ago, it was university policy that if a victim of sexual assault reported it, and was revealed to have been drinking at the time, they would face disciplinary action for drinking alcohol. Basically institutionalized victim blaming! This policy was reversed when somebody in charge finally had the epiphany that this was a surefire way to make sure sexual assaults went unreported.
So my reaction to a lot of these "I feel like my peers judge me for my perspective and I can't always speak my mind without reservation" takes is "Wow, that sure sounds hard". I got put on academic probation over a haircut! And that's far from the worst thing my school ever did.
It's more than a little frustrating to see the conversation about "free speech" so dominated by finger-wagging at "the wokes" while stuff like what happened (and still happens) at my school seems to be basically ignored.