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.
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.