Fascism Isn’t Funny

Pranking Trump into tweeting Mussolini quotes is useless. Political humor should take deadly aim.

On Sunday, the staff of the gossip website Gawker were extremely pleased with themselves. After months of trying, they finally managed to get Donald Trump’s Twitter account to post a quote from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. They accomplished this by setting a robo-account to barrage Trump with Mussolini quotes, in the hopes that eventually he would pick one up and send it out to his followers. He did. This scandalous “event” was then covered in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, TIME, and the BBC. Some were swift to see Trump’s posting of the quote as confirmation of the oft-cited allegation that Trump is a fascist, while Gawker said it confirmed their theory that Trump was an “idiot” who would “retweet just about anything.”

Isolated from its context, the quote in question appears completely innocuous: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” If you didn’t know it was from Mussolini, you might expect it to be the epigraph to a business book, or simply one of the thousands of anonymous platitudes that percolate incessantly across the culture. The advice itself seems sound, if not terribly helpful; after all, few people would consciously aspire toward a lifetime of sheepdom. It also hardly seems much different in its general flavor from “it is better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,” a maxim associated with both Che Guevara and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. At the very least, this sort of sentiment is hardly confined to one particular political faction.

The question about Trump and the Mussolini quote, then, is: what does it prove? Is it news? And what is the use of pulling this sort of glib micro-stunt? The first two questions can be confidently answered with a resounding “nothing” and “no,” respectively. As to the third, it’s very likely that, far from successfully undermining or humiliating Donald Trump, tactics like these enable him to grow even stronger. Those with liberal political sympathies (like the staff of Gawker), who profess to fear a Trump presidency and think him akin to an actual fascist, may want to consider whether this sort of mischief is useful or simply childish. And if it is childish and useless, as one may suspect it is, one may wonder why people on the left are spending their time taunting Trump on Twitter rather than trying to stop the danger they believe he poses to the country.

When Trump himself was asked about the incident, he professed not to see what the issue was. “It’s a very good quote… I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else — it’s a very good quote.” In saying this, Trump is correct. What difference does it make? So he values the content over the source. He should! If Benito Mussolini had said the earth revolves around the Sun, he’d be right. If Benito Mussolini said we should live life to the fullest, he’d be right. What exactly are people trying to allege here? That Trump intentionally tweeted a quote from Mussolini because Trump is a fascist who thinks Mussolini is great and wants everyone to know it? Or that he didn’t notice it was from Mussolini, and just thought the quote was inspiring? That seems the more likely option, but in that case the only thing it convicts Trump of is not paying very close attention to Twitter, something that probably ought to be considered a virtue if it is judged at all. In fact, it doesn’t even prove that he was careless, just that some campaign staffer was. What of it?

“Well,” someone could say, “it does show that Trump’s rhetoric is in harmony with that of Mussolini, and that their sentiments coincide.” Come on, though. We all know this quote doesn’t show that; it’s such an empty bromide that nobody could reasonably call it inherently fascist. (Perhaps the mention of lions could imply a taste for blood, since lions sometimes eat people. But this is truly grasping.)

In fact, even Gawker was not quite sure what they had managed to demonstrate. They were very self-satisfied, but knew it was a “dumb project.” But the question is: if it’s a dumb project, why do it? Have we accomplished anything here, except to flatter our own intelligence and confirm our preexisting disdain for Trump?

A defense can be constructed: “By making him look ridiculous,” says the anti-Trump tweeter, “we help to destroy him. Through exposing his various idiocies and prejudices, we cut Trump down to size and may perhaps keep some from supporting him who otherwise would have.” The holes in this are easily spotted. First, they’ve done the very opposite of making Trump look ridiculous. In fact, they’ve made him look downright reasonable, and made his opponents look like they depend on cheap pranks rather than arguments. The likelihood of a single person switching their support away from Trump because he posted a quote about lions is next to nil. On the other hand, it absolutely seems plausible that voters’ support for Trump might crystallize when they see him being subjected to unfair “gotcha” attacks by a sneering liberal media.

The stupid Mussolini gag is one small incident in a far larger pattern of hypocrisy among Trump’s opponents. People who don’t like Trump claim that he can be labeled a fascist (this includes Gawker). And there’s a plausible argument for applying that word; policies like banning religious minorities, suppressing press freedom, and shutting down speech are strongly reminiscent of 20th century dictatorships. But if someone truly thinks Trump a fascist, really and sincerely believes this, then they should be arming a resistance militia rather than trying to coax an odious retweet. At the same time as Trump’s opponents insist that he poses a major threat to the country, they behave as if he is a harmless clown to be prodded and mocked. In other words, if he’s not a fascist, then there’s no point to the Mussolini trick, but if he is a fascist, then there’s nothing to be amused about.

In fact, even though the vast majority of progressives believe that the election could have a devastating global impact, most Trump coverage is still about the most asinine day-to-day trivia, like the size of his hands or his latest bit of theatrical prop-based insult comedy. Ostensibly serious news organizations run Trump GIFs as stories. Even the New York Times dutifully compiled a database of Trump’s colorful gallery of Twitter insults. In doing so, these organizations help lower our perceptions of the stakes; after all, if politics actually mattered, surely it would be reprehensible to spend even a second replacing Trump’s eyes with lips rather than actually attempting to dissuade his supporters or building up an effective opposition force. By descending to Trump’s level and reveling in gossip and minutiae, any sense of public urgency is steadily muted.

This is the way political media operates generally, though. It simultaneously treats politics as both extremely significant and totally inconsequential. Trump is an existential threat to the Earth’s people, yet we can spend our time mocking his hair or watching him make funny faces. George W. Bush was a war criminal who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, yet we could jest about his goofy malapropisms and difficulty handling Segways and pretzels. Liberals laugh at “robo-Rubio” and “fruit salad” fruitcake Ben Carson, but these individuals are competing to have access to a vast arsenal of nuclear weaponry. By being both pervasive and superficial, political media manages to treat political actors as tremendously important and worth obsessing over, while somehow obscuring the fact that bad political decisions actually devastate people’s lives.

Among progressive-minded people in the media, this may partially be the product of impotence: they do not know how to organize a serious political opposition to the things they dislike, so instead they mock those things on Twitter (and in the meantime, lose state governorships one by one). This lack of clear options was the explanation offered by opinion writer Ryan Cooper of The Week in his recent discussion with Current Affairs (available in our March-April issue). Cooper said he writes to “make rent,” and that “you’ve got to be insanely deluded to think writers are a major political actor.” When we pointed out that his belief that Donald Trump is a fascist should lead Cooper to be taking up arms and manning the barricades, Cooper shrugged and suggested he didn’t know what he could do. The politically committed don’t have an obvious outlet, so they tell jokes about Donald Trump’s spray tan and toy with him on Twitter.

But while disaffection is understandable, a pernicious culture of easy ridicule also diminishes the seriousness of politics. Gawker and its editor-in-chief Alex Pareene may be the most glaring example of this, regularly transforming deadly serious subjects into diverting clickable fluff. Their political coverage trafficks in the facile and the asinine, whether conducting unnecessary hypotheticals like “Jeb Bush Should Become a Democrat” and “Would Elizabeth Warren Have Beat Hillary Clinton?” or quizzing readers about whether selected quotes are from Antonin Scalia or a Minions meme.

Every satirist and political humorist should recognize that there is a place where the fun stops. The great British comedian Peter Cook knew this, and sarcastically praised the efficacy of Weimar satire and “those wonderful Berlin cabarets… which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” And say what you want about Jon Stewart (the Current Affairs position is that he was an unpleasant tyrant who will not be missed), but the ex-Daily Show host knew when a moment required sobriety and reflection. If we accept the progressive premise, the rise of Donald Trump should be a moment beyond the scope of humor; when a major presidential candidate starts murmuring about racial killings and equivocating on the KKK, what the hell kind of person thinks creating an “Il Duce” Twitter account is worth anybody’s time? Perhaps nobody can reasonably expect Gawker to be anything other than an anaesthetized, indifferent gang of snark-mongers. But by invoking the specter of fascism they acknowledge that politics is supposed to be something other than mere spectacle.

That’s not to say that everything in political life must always be a unremitting joyless misery, or that the sort of person who declares certain subjects for humor “not okay” should not be bludgeoned and derided by his peers. Sometimes it is only by photoshopping a person’s lips onto their eyelids that we come to appreciate their underlying nature, and thus their true significance. The real problem with Bush/Carson/Rubio/Trump humor is not that it makes light of something serious, but that it does them no true damage. The best joke about George W. Bush was nothing to do with My Pet Goat or the pretzel-gagging incident, but was the Onion’s devastating headline: “George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere.” If you’re going to wield comedy as a weapon against the powerful, make sure you obliterate your target. With Bush, don’t go for the cheap shots, like his guileless fumbling or his simpering baboon-face. Hit him where it really hurts.

Politics have consequences. Is Donald Trump dangerous or isn’t he? If he is, that retweet victory may not seem quite so hilarious when Trump’s immigration agents are dragging families out of their homes at gunpoint. If this stuff actually matters, then all the jokes about bad hair and orange spray-tans and those eerie white rings around his eyes are about as funny as a firing squad. The problem with fascism has never been that the fascists have comical hairdos (even though they always do). It’s that fascism kills. It’s not funny, and the more it’s treated as something trivial and amusing, the more politics is reduced to a series of gaffes, GIFs, and personalities rather than a process by which human beings can be shot, starved, and imprisoned, the more callously indifferent we become to the fates of the victims of political decisionmaking.

Keeping the Content Machine Whirring

Reports from an experiment in the manufacturing and distribution of clickbait…

While the internet’s main function may be the display of cats, beheadings, and pornography, a sizable portion of the remainder consists of opinion, both political and cultural. Every day, hundreds of brief thinkpieces are churned out, each containing a packaged nugget of argument about something in the news. Readers get to post these on Facebook, in order to both signal their affiliations to friends and feel good about having contributed to the public debate. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the internet is in large part an affirmation economy, for them to profess their identities and beliefs and have them confirmed by others who share them.

As someone who enjoys writing, over the past year or so I’ve been experimenting a bit with the manufacture of hot takes. They’re enjoyable enough to produce (you just have to get angry for about 700 words and then throw in some links), and often they pay (though not well). So when a Harvard professor threatened to sue a Chinese restaurant over a $4 tip, I used the medium of The New Republic to insist that he was completely right to do so. I also insightfully called Ted Cruz an idiot for Salon.

But while writing these things is both easy and fun, more than one person has observed that the displacement of actual cultural and political analysis by short slices of superficial clickbait is one of the most unfortunate consequences of digital media. My own adventures in thinkpiece-land have confirmed what others have observed; there turns out to be a huge market for thoughtless inflammatory contrarianism, and much less of one for anything reflective or nuanced.

The worst part of this, to me, is not that writing is becoming shorter or more partisan. I’m not a member of the Strunk and White brevity brigade, but I do believe in being economical. Like many others, I gasped when the new editor of the New Republic announced that he was bored by anything over 500 words. But it’s also true that most published writing is too long, and many useful points can be made quickly. There’s not much that Ta-Nehisi Coates says in the last 7,000 words of his Atlantic articles that he hasn’t already made quite clear in the first 10,000.

Nor is it inherently damaging that writing is increasingly opinionated. Polemic can be invigorating; Gore Vidal was not known for his fairness of judgment, yet nevertheless produced some of the century’s finest essays. The same goes for H.L. Mencken or Dorothy Parker. Better to read something that takes a stand than a bunch of dreary “on-the-one-hand” waffle.

No, the problem is not that this writing is opinionated, but that so much of it is boring and predictable. With any piece of news, we know exactly what the commentary will consist of. And then we know what the commentary commenting on the commentary will consist of. (And the commentary thereupon, and so forth until the news cycle elapses after a few hours and the process begins anew.)

I recently tried a small experiment in online writing. I wanted to try to get some things published, and see what would make it and what wouldn’t. (I call it an experiment, but that’s probably misstating my intentionality a bit. I was curious about what would get published, but my main motivation was that I was in need of money and desperate to write something that would pay.)

So I wrote two articles. One was a carefully-reasoned argument on immigration, critiquing progressives for advocating the deportation of criminals. The argument went as follows: if we believe in deporting people with criminal records for fear that they will harm society, then deporting them is simply imposing that harm on some other society. It’s very easy to say that, when an unauthorized immigrant kills someone in America, they should have been deported, but in practice that amounts to wishing they had killed an innocent person off in some other country. Now, perhaps you think those people deserve to be the ones victimized. But being honest in the immigration debate requires one not to pretend that deportation is a magical way of stopping crime. It isn’t, it just moves crime elsewhere, to those we care less about.

I wrote this argument as carefully as I could, with clear reasoning and many sources. I tied it to an event that had, at that point, been in the news for about two weeks: the killing of a San Francisco woman by an unauthorized Mexican immigrant with multiple felonies. Many progressives had recently agreed that this man should have been deported, and so I thought it important to point out what the consequences of thinking that were.

My second article was basically an attempt to write the most clickbaity thing I could think of; i.e. taking some item in pop culture and calling it racist. For that, I went to see the film Trainwreck and then just mindlessly wrote a screed about it. I looked online and saw that nobody in a major outlet had called the film racist yet, and I figured that as long as I was the first person to call Trainwreck racist, it would be easy enough to get such a thing published. People have said that the star, Amy Schumer, is a racist plenty of times before. But nobody had yet called this particular film of hers racist! I figured it would be a sure fit for Salon, since it was basically exactly the article I think of when I think about the site.

So which of my articles made it through: deportation or Amy Schumer-is-a-racist? Well, I think you’ll be able to make a pretty sound guess if I tell you the headline: “Trainwreck’s Race Problem.”

As for the deportation article, the only page was published was my email outbox. (It’s now at Current Affairs.)

Now, let me say that I don’t not think Amy Schumer is, to use the present terminology, “problematic.” Frankly, I don’t really know her work very well; the only thing I’ve seen of hers, outside of the film, is her extended 12 Angry Men parody, which I enjoyed. I have almost zero Amy Schumer expertise, it just seemed as if people really liked reading other people’s opinions about her, hence she seemed a good subject.

I believe most of the things I wrote in the article were roughly true, although the real story about Trainwreck is not race issues but the fact that it’s confusing and poorly-assembled. But, yes, the race stuff was inadroitly handled. In fact, I might trivialize it too much when I say I just “called something racist.” It was, a bit, I suppose. The problem is not that the observations were wrong, it’s that who cares?

Actually, a lot of people apparently do. The article received scores of comments and was reposted hundreds of times. People violently disagreed with me and called me names, but they read the thing. (The funny thing about the thinkpiece-economy is that the people who hate them the most are some of the strongest drivers of traffic, by incessantly commenting and reposting and keeping the debate going.) There’s a Trump Syndrome phenomenon going on here, whereby everybody spends large amounts of their day loudly insisting they don’t care about something, and writing huge bodies of text listing all the reasons why they don’t care and why the thing is overhyped and not worth discussing.

And this dynamic repeats itself every day in the exact same way. Pop Culture Thing X or Current Event X will occur, and then some writer looking to earn a hundred bucks will fire a shot, and then a huge firefight will ensue for about a day, and then night will come and the dust will settle until the next day and the onset of Thing Y and the refreshing of the cycle. In fact, you can observe this empirically. A sociologist friend of mine, Zach Wehrwein, is starting to produce some research on “Twitter outrages” and their predictable dynamics. Zach has produced charts showing all the angry tweets on any topic. You can watch the thing occur, then the tweets roll in, and then the tweets subside. Then you find another thing, and watch the conversation on that. Each online outrage follows the precise same form.

“So what? That’s how news works. It’s not news forever, we talk about it and then there’s more news,” a hypothetical interlocutor might say at this point. Yes, true enough, all things must pass and whatnot. But the the reason this is harmful is that these blossomings of controversy are (1) manufactured for consumption and (2) totally disconnected from any kind of meaningful action in the real world. As to point (1), it’s odd that I can get paid to think of ways to poke the internet hornets’ nest, and that if I can get a bunch of people to shout about a thing, a company makes money. As to (2), it’s very odd that the public conversation about something so serious as racism can be reduced to gabbing online about a Judd Apatow comedy.

“But that’s not the whole conversation. There are other, more serious things being discussed as well.” Yes, but it really is shocking how much of it is vacuous. And it’s true that even when good points are being made well, the ultimate function of so much online media consumption is social signaling (for the consumer) and profit-seeking (for the media entity.) Perhaps there is an attenuated connection between online media and the real world (if my article goes far enough, Amy Schumer might hear about it herself and get mad and/or sad for a few minutes!) But that’s certainly incidental to its function.

An unfortunate consequence of the fact that this really is a writing economy is that writers themselves are stuck in a bind. Online media is so ruthlessly click-driven that it’s almost impossible to break free of the existing forms. After all, they do precisely what they’re supposed to do. Clickbait gets clicks. I click on it myself. I would probably actually have read my own article, even if I would have been bored by it and then fumed about how petty and humorless the author was.

So it’s not that editors are bad gatekeepers with poor judgment. In fact, it’s astonishing just how perceptive they are. They know exactly what succeeds. I’ve had things turned down because they came literally 24 hours after the window for their newsworthiness closed. But if you watch the graphs of the tweets, you know that an editor is right when they say a public conversation died yesterday afternoon, and that everybody has moved on and won’t be interested.

But a writer therefore has to produce the material that fits perfectly into the media moment. You can’t wait a moment longer; if you’re not the first to bring up racism in Trainwreck, nobody’s going to want to hear it. Instead, then you’ll have to write the “In Defense of Trainwreck” article. Or the “Why People Defending Trainwreck Just Don’t Get It” article, with steadily diminishing reader interest for each iteration, with the Next Controversial Thing hopefully having arrived before we get to “People Keep Writing Articles About Trainwreck–And That’s a Problem.”

(Actually, the same is true in a different form in more “serious” news. Look at the disproportionate amount of attention the Greek economic crisis received, just because it made for an interesting drama. Not that the Greek crisis was unimportant, but during that period it was much harder to get anybody to listen to you about any other country, because that’s not where the action was. A friend of mine spends seemingly half his waking hours in a state of exasperation over the fact that the ongoing multi-month Saudi bombing of Yemen gets hardly any media attention. And in fact, at a certain level this is a problem of news generally. I continue to think there’s something deadening about religiously following“current” affairs, because remaining current precludes getting in-depth background knowledge. Reading the newspaper becomes ritualistic rather than useful or educational. It’s always funny that the more time you spend trying to “stay informed,” the less informed you actually become compared with someone who doesn’t stay informed but goes out and learns untimely things.)

It’s hard to know how the cycle can be escaped. Nobody can resist clicking on the bait, and there’s a lot of money being made. Writers learn quickly that the more contrarian they can be than the next guy, the more interest they’ll pique (even though so many true and necessary things are not contrary to received wisdom; in fact, they’re exactly what you’d expect.) Even worse, despite the money being made, for the writer herself it’s very hard to eke out a living, no matter how fast you can churn out Content. The demand is high, but so is the supply, hence the relentless competitive pressure.

I have to say, though, after producing some stuff just because I knew it would get published, it really doesn’t feel worth it. That Amy Schumer thing is the first piece of writing I’ve ever produced that has felt shameful, because it was created from an ulterior motive. It was calculated. And the feeling of producing things that aren’t your best, just because you know they’ll sell, isn’t worth the paltry cash they give you.

Yet you can’t really tell that to someone trying to make a living writing. Personally I’m fortunate in that I do something else for a living. But I’ve always thought if I could quit the something else, and subsist solely by writing, I’d do it instantly. I realize, though, that that’s not true. I’d much rather only write things that feel like my own, yet be unable to live by it, than constantly be thinking about what will get commented on or shared.

Because it does eat your brain. You can insist that you maintain a strict division between your two sides: your personal side, with the integrity, and your professional side, which is shameless in selling itself. But every piece of writing is also writing practice, and it’s impossible not to be affected. For one publication, I had written something successful without thinking about the kind of response it would get. Then the editor told me it received a large amount of traffic. And when I went to write something else, I couldn’t help but think about whether the next piece of writing would replicate the success of the first, and that thought inevitably affected the end result.

I think, therefore, that to have any chance of being a good writer depends on having a stubborn commitment to resisting incentives. The media landscape is so bleak that anyone who consciously tries to succeed in it, and writes accordingly, will end up producing work that they are not proud of.

That’s not to say that I think good writing will never be noticed or become popular. I think it will, and sometimes does, but to get quality and popularity to coincide depends on being driven by an ambition toward the quality rather than the popularity. That’s a completely unoriginal thought, and applies across so many spheres. But I’ve learned it especially through these recent forays into paid writing. Doing anything less than your best work will never be worth it, will always be embarrassing, and can only ensure that the hideous cycle of online writing culture keeps whirring until eternity.

Unless the Democrats Run Sanders, A Trump Nomination Means a Trump Presidency

Democrats need to seriously and pragmatically assess their strategy for defeating Trump. A Clinton run would be disastrous; Bernie Sanders is their only hope.

With Donald Trump looking increasingly likely to actually be the Republican nominee for President, it’s long past time for the Democrats to start working on a pragmatic strategy to defeat him. Months of complacent, wishful insistences that Trump will disappear have proven false, and with a firm commanding lead in polls and several major primary victories, predictions are increasingly favoring Trump to win the nomination. If Democrats honestly believe, as they say they do, that Trump poses a serious threat to the wellbeing of the country and the lives of minority citizens, that means doing everything possible to keep him out of office. To do that will require them to very quickly unite around a single goal, albeit a counterintuitive one: they must make absolutely sure that Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee for President.

The electability question should be at the center of the Democratic primary. After all, elections are about winning, and high-minded liberal principles mean nothing if one has no chance of actually triumphing in a general election. Hillary Clinton has been right to emphasize that the pragmatic achievement of goals should be the central concern of a presidential candidate, and that Bernie Sanders’s supporters often behave as if this is immaterial.

Instinctively, Hillary Clinton has long seemed by far the more electable of the two Democratic candidates. She is, after all, an experienced, pragmatic moderate, whereas Sanders is a raving, arm-flapping elderly Jewish socialist from Vermont. Clinton is simply closer to the American mainstream, thus she is more attractive to a broader swath of voters. Sanders campaigners have grown used to hearing the heavy-hearted lament “I like Bernie, I just don’t think he can win.” And in typical previous American elections, this would be perfectly accurate.

But this is far from a typical previous American election. And recently, everything about the electability calculus has changed, due to one simple fact: Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee for President. Given this reality, every Democratic strategic question must operate not on the basis of abstract electability against a hypothetical candidate, but specific electability against the actual Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

Here, a Clinton match-up is highly likely to be an unmitigated electoral disaster, whereas a Sanders candidacy stands a far better chance. Every one of Clinton’s (considerable) weaknesses plays to every one of Trump’s strengths, whereas every one of Trump’s (few) weaknesses plays to every one of Sanders’s strengths. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, running Clinton against Trump is a disastrous, suicidal proposition.

Sanders supporters have lately been arguing that their candidate is more electable than people think, and they have some support from the available polling. In a number of hypotheticals, Sanders does better than Clinton at beating Trump, and his “unfavorable” ratings among voters are a good deal lower than Clinton’s. In response to this, however, Clinton supporters insist that polling at this stage means very little, and since Bernie is not well known and there has not been a national attack campaign directed at him from the right yet, his supporters do not account for the drop in support that will occur when voters realize he is on the fringes. Imagine, they say, how viciously the right will attack Sanders’s liberal record.

Clinton’s people are right to point out that these polls mean very little; after all, Sanders’s entire campaign success is a caution against placing too much weight on early polling. And they are especially right to emphasize that we should visualize how the campaign by conservatives will realistically play out, rather than attempting to divine the future from highly fallible polling numbers. But it’s precisely when we try to envision how the real dynamics of the campaign will transpire that we see just how disastrous a Clinton-Trump fight will be for Clinton.

Her supporters insist that she has already been “tried and tested” against all the attacks that can be thrown at her. But this is not the case; she has never been subjected to the full brunt of attacks that come in a general presidential election. Bernie Sanders has ignored most tabloid dirt, treating it as a sensationalist distraction from real issues (“Enough with the damned emails!”) But for Donald Trump, sensationalist distractions are the whole game. He will attempt to crucify her. And it is very, very likely that he will succeed.

Trump’s political dominance is highly dependent on his idiosyncratic, audacious method of campaigning. He deals almost entirely in amusing, outrageous, below-the-belt personal attacks, and is skilled at turning public discussions away from the issues and toward personalities (He/she’s a “loser,” “phony,” “nervous,” “hypocrite,” “incompetent.”) If Trump does have to speak about the issues, he makes himself sound foolish, because he doesn’t know very much. Thus he requires the media not to ask him difficult questions, and depends on his opponents’ having personal weaknesses and scandals that he can merrily, mercilessly exploit.

This campaigning style makes Hillary Clinton Donald Trump’s dream opponent. She gives him an endless amount to work with. The emails, Benghazi, Whitewater, Iraq, the Lewinsky scandal, ChinagateTravelgate, the missing law firm recordsJeffrey EpsteinKissingerMarc RichHaitiClinton Foundation tax errorsClinton Foundation conflicts of interest“We were broke when we left the White House,” Goldman Sachs… There is enough material in Hillary Clinton’s background for Donald Trump to run with six times over.

The defense offered by Clinton supporters is that none of these issues actually amount to anything once you look at them carefully. But this is completely irrelevant; all that matters is the fodder they would provide for the Trump machine. Who is going to be looking carefully? In the time you spend trying to clear up the basic facts of Whitewater, Trump will have made five more allegations.

Even a skilled campaigner would have a very difficult time parrying such endless attacks by Trump. Even the best campaigner would find it impossible to draw attention back to actual substantive policy issues, and would spend their every moment on the defensive. But Hillary Clinton is neither the best campaigner nor even a skilled one. In fact, she is a dreadful campaigner. She may be a skilled policymaker, but on the campaign trail she makes constant missteps and never realizes things have gone wrong until it’s too late.

Everyone knows this. Even among Democratic party operatives, she’s acknowledged as “awkward and uninspiring on the stump,” carrying “Bill’s baggage with none of Bill’s warmth.” New York magazine described her “failing to demonstrate the most elementary political skills, much less those learned at Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie.” Last year the White House was panicking at her levels of electoral incompetence, her questionable decisionmaking, and her inclination for taking sleazy shortcuts. More recently, noting Sanders’s catch-up in the polls, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin said that she was a “rotten candidate” whose attacks on Sanders made no sense, and that “at some point, you cannot blame the national mood or a poor staff or a brilliant opponent for Hillary Clinton’s campaign woes.” Yet in a race against Trump, Hillary will be handicapped not only by her feeble campaigning skills, but the fact that she will have a sour national mood, a poor staff, and a brilliant opponent.

Every Democrat should take some time to fairly, dispassionately examine Clinton’s track record as a campaigner. Study how the ‘08 campaign was handled, and how this one has gone. Assess her strengths and weaknesses with as little bias or prejudice as possible. Then picture the race against Trump, and think about how it will unfold.

It’s easy to see that Trump has every single advantage. Because the Republican primary will be over, he can come at her from both right and left as he pleases. As the candidate who thundered against the Iraq War at the Republican debate, he can taunt Clinton over her support for it. He will paint her as a member of the corrupt political establishment, and will even offer proof: “Well, I know you can buy politicians, because I bought Senator Clinton. I gave her money, she came to my wedding.” He can make it appear that Hillary Clinton can be bought, that he can’t, and that he is in charge. It’s also hard to defend against, because it appears to be partly true. Any denial looks like a lie, thus making Hillary’s situation look even worse. And then, when she stumbles, he will mock her as incompetent.

Charges of misogyny against Trump won’t work. He is going to fill the press with the rape and harassment allegations against Bill Clinton and Hillary’s role in discrediting the victims (something that made even Lena Dunham deeply queasy.) He can always remind people that Hillary Clinton referred to Monica Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony toon.” Furthermore, since Trump is not an anti-Planned Parenthood zealot (being the only one willing to stick up for women’s health in a room full of Republicans), it will be hard for Clinton to paint him as the usual anti-feminist right-winger.

Trump will capitalize on his reputation as a truth-teller, and be vicious about both Clinton’s sudden changes of position (e.g. the switch on gay marriage, plus the affected economic populism of her run against Sanders) and her perceived dishonesty. One can already imagine the monologue:

“She lies so much. Everything she says is a lie. I’ve never seen someone who lies so much in my life. Let me tell you three lies she’s told. She made up a story about how she was ducking sniper fire! There was no sniper fire. She made it up! How do you forget a thing like that? She said she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who climbed Mount Everest. He hadn’t even climbed it when she was born! Total lie! She lied about the emails, of course, as we all know, and is probably going to be indicted. You know she said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! It was a lie! Thousands of American soldiers are dead because of her. Not only does she lie, her lies kill people. That’s four lies, I said I’d give you three. You can’t even count them. You want to go on PolitiFact, see how many lies she has? It takes you an hour to read them all! In fact, they ask her, she doesn’t even say she hasn’t lied. They asked her straight up, she says she usually tries to tell the truth! Ooooh, she tries! Come on! This is a person, every single word out of her mouth is a lie. Nobody trusts her. Check the polls, nobody trusts her. Yuge liar.”

Where does she even begin to respond to this? Some of it’s true, some of it isn’t, but the more she tries to defensively parse it (“There’s been no suggestion I’m going to be indicted! And I didn’t say I usually tried to tell the truth, I said I always tried and usually succeeded”) the deeper she sinks into the hole.

Trump will bob, weave, jab, and hook. He won’t let up. And because Clinton actually has lied, and actually did vote for the Iraq War, and actually is hyper-cosy with Wall Street, and actually does change her positions based on expediency, all she can do is issue further implausible denials, which will further embolden Trump. Nor does she have a single offensive weapon at her disposal, since every legitimate criticism of Trump’s background (inconsistent political positions, shady financial dealings, pattern of deception) is equally applicable to Clinton, and he knows how to make such things slide off him, whereas she does not.

The whole Clinton campaign has been unraveling from its inception. It fell apart completely in 2008, and has barely held together against the longest of long shot candidates. No matter how likely she may be to win the primary, things do not bode well for a general election, whomever the nominee may be. As H.A. Goodman put it in Salon:

Please name the last person to win the presidency alongside an ongoing FBI investigation, negative favorability ratings, questions about character linked to continual flip-flops, a dubious money trail of donors, and the genuine contempt of the rival political party.

The “contempt” bit of this is obviously silly; we all know levels of contempt have reached their world-historic high point in the Republican attitude toward Obama. But the rest is true: it’s incredibly hard to run somebody very few people like and expect to win. With the jocular, shrewd Donald Trump as an opponent, that holds true a million times over.

Nor are the demographics going to be as favorable to Clinton as she thinks. Trump’s populism will have huge resonance among the white working class in both red and blue states; he might even peel away her black support. And Trump has already proven false the prediction that he would alienate Evangelicals through his vulgarity and his self-deification. Democrats are insistently repeating their belief that a Trump nomination will mobilize liberals to head to the polls like never before, but with nobody particularly enthusiastic for Clinton’s candidacy, it’s not implausible that a large number of people will find both options so unappealing that they stay home.

A Clinton/Trump match should therefore not just worry Democrats. It should terrify them. They should be doing everything possible to avoid it. A Trump/Sanders contest, however, looks very different indeed.

Trump’s various unique methods of attack would instantly be made far less useful in a run against Sanders. All of the most personal charges (untrustworthiness, corruption, rank hypocrisy) are much more difficult to make stick. The rich history of dubious business dealings is nonexistent. None of the sleaze in which Trump traffics can be found clinging to Bernie. Trump’s standup routine just has much less obvious personal material to work with. Sanders is a fairly transparent guy; he likes the social safety net, he doesn’t like oligarchy, he’s a workaholic who sometimes takes a break to play basketball, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Contrast that with the above-noted list of juicy Clinton tidbits.

Trump can’t clown around nearly as much at a debate with Sanders, for the simple reason that Sanders is dead set on keeping every conversation about the plight of America’s poor under the present economic system. If Trump tells jokes and goofs off here, he looks as if he’s belittling poor people, not a magnificent idea for an Ivy League trust fund billionaire running against a working class public servant and veteran of the Civil Rights movement. Instead, Trump will be forced to do what Hillary Clinton has been forced to do during the primary, namely to make himself sound as much like Bernie Sanders as possible. For Trump, having to get serious and take the Trump Show off the air will be devastating to his unique charismatic appeal.

Against Trump, Bernie can play the same “experience” card that Hillary plays. After all, while Sanders may look like a policy amateur next to Clinton, next to Trump he looks positively statesmanlike. Sanders can point to his successful mayoralty and long history as Congress’s “Amendment King” as evidence of his administrative bona fides. And Sanders’s lack of foreign policy knowledge won’t hurt him when facing someone with even less. Sanders will be enough of an outsider for Trump’s populist anti-Washington appeal to be powerless, but enough of an insider to appear an experienced hand at governance.

Trump is an attention-craving parasite, and such creatures are powerful only when indulged and paid attention to. Clinton will be forced to pay attention to Trump because of his constant evocation of her scandals. She will attempt to go after him. She will, in other words, feed the troll. Sanders, by contrast, will almost certainly behave as if Trump isn’t even there. He is unlikely to rise to Trump’s bait, because Sanders doesn’t even care to listen to anything that’s not about saving social security or the disappearing middle class. He will almost certainly seem as if he barely knows who Trump is. Sanders’s commercials will be similar to those he has run in the primary, featuring uplifting images of America, aspirational sentiments about what we can be together, and moving testimonies from ordinary Americans. Putting such genuine dignity and good feeling against Trump’s race-baiting clownishness will be like finally pouring water on the Wicked Witch. Hillary Clinton cannot do this; with her, the campaign will inevitably descend into the gutter, and the unstoppable bloated Trump menace will continue to grow ever larger.

Sanders is thus an almost perfect secret weapon against Trump. He can pull off the only maneuver that is capable of neutralizing Trump: ignoring him and actually keeping the focus on the issues. Further, Sanders will have the advantage of an enthusiastic army of young volunteers, who will be strongly dedicated to the mission of stalling Trump’s quest for the presidency. The Sanders team is extremely technically skilled; everything from their television commercials to their rally organizing to their inspired teasing is pulled off well. The Sanders team is slick and adaptable, the Clinton team is ropey and fumbling.

There’s only one real way to attack Bernie Sanders, and we all know it: he’s a socialist fantasist out of touch with the Realities of Economics. But Trump is in the worst possible position to make this criticism. Economists have savaged Trump’s own proposals as sheer lunacy, using every word deployed against Bernie and then some. And while from a D.C. policy veteran like Clinton, charges of a failure to understand how political decisionmaking works may sound reasonable, Sanders is a successful legislator who has run a city; the host of The Apprentice may have a more difficult time portraying a long-serving congressman as being unfamiliar with how Washington works.

Of course, the American people are still jittery about socialism. But they’re less jittery than they used to be, and Bernie does a good job portraying socialism as being about little more than paid family leave and sick days (a debatable proposition, but one beside the point.) His policies are popular and appeal to the prevailing national sentiment. It’s a risk, certainly. But the Soviet Union bogeyman is long gone, and everyone gets called a socialist these days no matter what their politics. It’s possible that swing voters dislike socialism more than they dislike Hillary Clinton, but in a time of economic discontent one probably shouldn’t bet on it.

One thing that should be noted is that all of this analysis applies solely to a race against Trump; the situation changes drastically and unpredictably if Marco Rubio is the nominee or Michael Bloomberg enters the race. Yet the moment, it doesn’t look like Marco Rubio will be nominated, but that Donald Trump will be. And in that case, Clinton is toast.

Some in the media have rushed to declare Sanders’s campaign moribund in the wake of his recent loss in Nevada. This is absurd; after all, out of 50 states, only three have voted, one being a tie, one being a major Sanders win, and one being a small Clinton win. The media has dishonestly pointed to Hillary Clinton’s higher superdelegate count as evidence of her strong lead, despite knowing full well that superdelegates are highly unlikely to risk tearing the party apart by taking the nomination out of voters’ hands, and are thus mostly a formality. The press has also crafted a narrative about Sanders “slipping behind,” ignoring the fact that Sanders has been behind from the very start; not for a moment has he been in front.

But even if it was correct to say that Sanders was “starting to” lose (instead of progressively losing less and less), this should only motivate all Democrats to work harder to make sure he is nominated. One’s support for Sanders should increase in direct proportion to one’s fear of Trump. And if Trump is the nominee, Hillary Clinton should drop out of the race and throw her every ounce of energy into supporting Sanders. If this does not occur, the resulting consequences for Muslims and Mexican immigrants of a Trump presidency will be fully the responsibility of Clinton and the Democratic Party. To run a candidate who can’t win, or who is a very high-risk proposition, is to recklessly play with the lives of millions of people. So much depends on stopping Trump; a principled defeat will mean nothing to the deported, or to those being roughed up by Trump’s goon squads or executed with pigs’ blood-dipped bullets.

Donald Trump is one of the most formidable opponents in the history of American politics. He is sharp, shameless, and likable. If he is going to be the nominee, Democrats need to think very seriously about how to defeat him. If they don’t, he will be the President of the United States, which will have disastrous repercussions for religious and racial minorities and likely for everyone else, too. Democrats should consider carefully how a Trump/Clinton matchup would develop, and how a Trump/Sanders matchup would. For their sake, hopefully they will realize that the only way to prevent a Trump presidency is the nomination of Bernie Sanders.

All of Your Attempts to Redeem Martin Shkreli Will Fail

Writers are scrambling to explain why the detested pharmaceutical executive is Not As Bad As You Think. But he’s precisely as bad as you think. Possibly worse.

For some reason, recently a number of writers seem to have taken it upon themselves to salvage Martin Shkreli’s reputation. Previously, there had been a rough consensus that Shkreli, the oily, simpering pharmaceutical executive who raised the price of HIV drugs by 5000 percent before being indicted on fraud charges, was one of the most cretinous human beings alive. This seemed utterly uncontroversial, in fact so self-evident as to render debate unnecessary.

But a miniature genre of article has sprung up recently: the Martin Skhreli Is Not As Bad As You Think hot take. From Vanity Fair to The Washington Post to The New Yorker, authors have issued the provocative thesis that, far from being the mealy, smirking, patronizing little snot he appears to be both at a distance and up close, Shkreli is anything from a blameless cog in a vast dysfunctional apparatus to a sweet and tender do-gooder unfairly disparaged by a society too stupid and hateful to appreciate his genius.

The former type of portrayal is the least outlandish, though perhaps the more insidious. Some have conceded that while Shkreli might indeed be a greedy heartless reptilian AIDS profiteer, his behavior is enabled by a broken system of drug approval and pricing, and the public’s ire should be directed away from Shkreli and toward that system. James Surowiecki gave a typical example of this argument in The New Yorker:

The Turing scandal has shown just how vulnerable drug pricing is to exploitative, rent-seeking behavior. It’s fair enough to excoriate Martin Shkreli for greed and indifference. The real problem, however, is not the man but the system that has let him thrive.

The Atlantic‘s James Hamblin echoed this, saying that Shkreli’s existence is “a product, not a cause,” with an innovation-stifling regulatory structure far more to blame for Shkreli’s scheming.

The thrust of these arguments is easy to buy: by focusing on the acts of a single individual for his noxious personal qualities, instead of on the legal framework in which he operates, we entirely fail to advance any solution to the actual problem of drug price hikes. While it may be satisfying to hurl abuse at Shkreli, he is merely a scapegoat. Business Insider noted that Shkreli was “right” in insisting that he needed to maximize shareholder value, and went so far as to say that he may be “the villain we need to get our healthcare system in action.” One doctor mirrored Shkreli’s own insistence that because what he did was legal, it wasn’t wrong, saying:

Remember, he is not doing anything illegal. The media is portraying him as an unsentimental money maker. I couldn’t care less if he boiled his neighbor’s bunny. The demonization distracts us from the most important question, which is not why Shkreli is raising the price of Daraprim by 5,500 percent, but how.

But here is where I profoundly differ with these people: if Martin Shkreli boiled his neighbor’s bunny, I’d be disgusted, not indifferent. I mean that quite seriously: nobody should have attention deflected away from their harmful, immoral behavior simply because it occurs within the context of more pressing structural issues. What these arguments encourage us to do is to shift blame away from Shkreli and onto our laws and policies. But by treating individuals like Shkreli as mere inevitable consequences, rather than human beings who make deliberate choices for which they should be held morally accountable, they effectively exonerate heinous behavior.

It’s completely accurate, of course, to say that our time is better used trying to devise a fair drug market rather than sitting around despising Martin Shkreli. However, in apportioning blame for the Daraprim hike, Shkreli bears complete responsibility. It is no defense of anything to say that it is “legal” or made possible by the market. And if he believes that limiting patient access to medications is compelled by his mandate to maximize shareholder value, then Shkreli should find a job whose mandate does not require one to hurt people.

This is significant, because it reflects the way businessmen are often spoken of: as if they cannot be expected to act differently. Marxists are just as guilty of this as free-market libertarians; they believe it is senseless to “moralize” about the rich, who after all are the product of inevitable historical forces; to blame them is akin to blaming the moon for the tides. But I disagree strongly: I believe that humans have free will, and that it is both right and necessary to detest the world’s Shkrelis, because unless morally shameful behavior is treated with scorn, it no longer remains shameful. Those who willingly maximize profits at the expense of the sick, regardless of whether they are behaving predictably or legally, should experience intense public ire. “Don’t Hate Martin Shkreli, Hate the System That Made Him,” we are told. But nothing stops us from hating both; nobody is required to choose.

But beyond the “focus on the system” angle, there is another class of Shkreli-defense out there, one far more extreme in its propositions: the “Martin Shkreli is actually a good guy” defense. A number of articles actually attempt to make the case that Shkreli is decent, sensitive, and misunderstood.

The general thrust of these articles is that once you get to know him, Martin Shkreli turns out to be a more “complex” and human person than his irritating public persona would have us believe. “When speaking for himself, instead of battling crass media characterizations, Shkreli is an endearing chap,” said Yahoo Finance‘s Rick Newman, in an article entitled “Martin Shkreli is Actually A Great Guy.” Vanity Fair and Vice have both run humanizing profile stories based on lengthy interviews. The Vanity Fair profile contained the following lines:

He’s such a perfect villain when viewed from afar that it’s almost impossible not to like him more up close. He swerves seamlessly among obnoxious bravado, old-world politeness, purposeful displays of powerful intelligence, and even flashes of sweetness.

And the Vice profile, while questioning a number of Shkreli’s claims and containing numerous criticisms, calls Shkreli a “finance wunderkind” and “a Horatio Alger story” and sympathetically relays Shkreli’s claim that his unapologetically money-grubbing attitude is merely an exaggerated caricature that he plays for the public to entertain himself. The Vice reporter sees Shkreli as an enigma because:

On one hand, Shkreli can wax poetic, as he did to me, about the “puzzle of medicine” and his desire to help people. On the other hand, he told Vanity Fair that he switched to biotech because hedge funds weren’t lucrative enough.

Let’s be clear: these reporters are dupes. The behavior Shkreli displays, veering wildly between charm and amorality, is not a sign of complexity, but of sociopathy. Seen up close, Shkreli does not become more likable, but more disturbing, because it becomes clear that he is willing to put on any facade necessary to get what he wants out of people. Ordinary, morally healthy human beings do not do this.

I am not simply exercising my imagination here. One of Shkreli’s ex-girlfriends has confirmed that he is a manipulative, psychologically abusive habitual liar with zero capacity for empathy. As she explained:

It soon became obvious that Martin was a pathological liar, would pretend to cheat on me and brag about it to raise his value in my eyes, so I’d always feel like I was hanging on by a thread, could be replaced, would vie for his approval and forgiveness.

Shkreli’s ex-girlfriend also displayed screenshots of conversations in which Shkreli offered to pay her ten thousand dollars for sex, a proposition that revolted her. Again, ordinary people do not do this.

His menacing behavior has been noted elsewhere: he has been accused of waging a harassment campaign against an ex-employee, writing in an email that “I hope to see you and your four children homeless and will do whatever I can to assure this.” The “Old World politeness” that so impressed the Vanity Fair correspondent appears to be hauled out for the benefit of journalists, only to vanish once they leave.

Both reporters know this, though. As Vanity Fair notes:

“Sociopath” is a not uncommon description of him. “Malicious” is the word another person uses… Shkreli says that the harsh words don’t bother him.

Note how the “sociopath” designation functions here: not as an enormous red flag that should make a reporter worry she or he is being manipulated, but as “harsh words” from a hostile public. Surely, though, if people tend to refer to someone this way, it should be seen as a warning rather than a badge of honor. Once again, ordinary, morally healthy people are rarely mistaken for malicious, destructive sociopaths.

Another writer, who went on a Tinder date with Shkreli and reported on it for the Washington Post, was also taken in by his disarming manner, even as he displayed exactly the same crass self-absorption we would expect:

He seemed the most genuine when he was acting like the guys I hung out with in high school (I dated the president of the chess club); that’s probably why I felt so comfortable on our date. We finished our food, and Martin flagged down the waitress and ordered the $120 tea. This was the most surprising and jarring moment of the night. I know he’s a multimillionaire, but I thought we were on the same page about this tea. He asked if I wanted a cup, and I couldn’t bring myself to say yes. When Martin finished his tea, I asked how he liked it. “I’m not really a big tea drinker,” he replied. What? I thought of all the good I could do with that money — donating it to charity, buying a new winter coat, buying myself 20 Venti iced soy vanilla chai lattes. He might as well have eaten a $100 bill in front of me.

Shkreli deliberately purchased the most expensive tea on the menu and drank it in front of this woman despite the fact that he doesn’t like tea. This is twisted behavior. Yet the Post writer remains sympathetic, concluding that Shkreli is “a lot more interesting and complex than I would have imagined.” Again, “complexity” here is used to refer to “that peculiar combination of charm and total lack of moral feeling that characterizes sociopathic individuals.” There’s no mystery as to what we’re seeing.

Another writer who interacted with Shkreli on Tinder also came out with warm feelings about him:

I do believe that Martin Shkreli believes he is doing good for the world, or else he wouldn’t have engaged with me. And even though Martin Shkreli is the current face of all that is wrong with capitalism, I do have sympathy for the guy. After all, even questionably sociopathic pharma bros deserve to get laid.

There are several problems here. First, it is peculiar to conclude that “because he engaged with me,” Martin Shkreli “believes he is doing good for the world.” What if, implausible as it may sound, Martin Shkreli simply cannot resist an opportunity to attempt to prove his intellectual superiority over others? We can apply a variation on Occam’s Razor here: why assume the more complicated explanation (hidden benevolent soulful core) when the more intuitive one will do (he’s an argumentative asshole)?

But even assuming Martin Shkreli does “believe he is doing good for the world,” what sort of defense is this? Hardly anyone believes their own actions to be evil, least of all evil people. To the contrary, everyone from the IRA to the Klan believes they are doing good for the world, that their worldview is the correct one. A person’s sincerity in no way excuses them; Donald Trump may sincerely believe that Muslims are a pox and Mexicans are rapists and that ejecting them all would be doing good for the world, but the honesty of his delusion doesn’t make it a shred more justifiable.

Second, what is this about sociopathic pharmaceutical executives deserving to get laid? Perhaps under a Bernie Sanders administration the right to coitus will at last be construed as a basic human social entitlement. But until such time, why on earth would we grant the idea that Martin Shkreli deserves so much as a sultry flutter of the eyelashes directed toward him, let alone that he should have the expectation of genuine human affection? If you’re unpleasant, people will not want to have sex with you. That should be the rule, lest unpleasant people begin to think unpleasantness pays unlimited carnal dividends. Referring to the importance of literary curiosity, John Waters once said that if you go home with someone, and they don’t have books in their house, “don’t fuck them.” A similar principle should apply here: if you go home with someone, and they turn out to make their living profiting from the desperation of sick people, perhaps reconsider rewarding them sexually for their crimes.

But the worst part of the Shkreli redemption-stories is that they give credence to Shkreli’s lies about his price gouging. Each allows Shkreli to pour out all manner of self-serving horse manure about how much he cares about AIDS patients, saying things like: “It’s our holy mission to make great drugs. And what we did with Daraprim is what it is. At the end of the day, the effort and the heart is in the right place.” He compares himself to Robin Hood, says he has “altruistic” motives and that nobody who needs the drugs will go without them.

Nothing he says can be trusted. He promised to lower the price of Daraprim in late September; now it’s February and the drug remains $750 a pill. He said insurance companies rather than patients would bear the cost; patients have been hit with co-pays up to $16,000. He insisted that the income from the price hike would be swiftly put back into new drug research; but in personal correspondence wrote that “almost all of it is profit.”

The facts on the ground suggest that real people are being hurt by Shkreli’s actions:

David Kimberlin had one month to get his hands on some Daraprim. His patient, a pregnant woman infected with toxoplasmosis, was due to give birth in September. But in August, the 52-year-old doctor, who works at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, learned of the drug’s price hike: a treatment that used to cost him $54 a month was now running at least $3,000. Babies born with toxoplasmosis need to be treated for about a year, with the total cost of treatment approaching $70,000 at the bare minimum. Fortunately, after a trip to the outpatient pharmacy, his pharmacist found a supply of the stuff already on the shelves—a break Kimberlin says saved the baby’s life.

During Shkreli’s Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, a Daraprim user worried about how he would pay for the medication:

If they don’t follow through on their promises to provide it for free for patients like me for longer term, or if my insurance rejects the $27 per pill price, then I’ll be significantly affected. I am not a wealthy man by any stretch, and will struggle to afford the $27 price without finding a way to convince my boss to give me a raise or borrowing money for the next year. I don’t exactly have disposable income. I spend everything I make on my treatment.

Bear in mind, the commenter is worried about the $27-per-pill price that Skhreli promised. In actual fact, the medication remains at the astronomically higher rate of $750-per-pill. There’s no word on how this user has fared, but all of Shkreli’s showy professions of compassion are plainly fabricated. Again, not because of “complexity,” but because this is typical behavior for someone incapable of empathy and willing to tell whatever lies necessary to get what he wants, in this case favorable press coverage portraying him as thoughtful and many-sided.

But by far the most over-the-top defense of Shkreli came from the New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh. Sanneh made some of the usual points about the drug industry being the real culprit and so forth, but then got so wrapped up in Shkreli-love as to endorse Shkreli for the New Hampshire primary:

Last fall, Trump said that Shkreli “looks like a spoiled brat”; in fact, he is the son of a doorman, born to parents who emigrated from Albania. Look at him now! True, he has those indictments to worry about. But he is also a self-made celebrity, thanks to a business plan that makes it harder for us to ignore the incoherence and inefficiency of our medical industry. He rolls his eyes at members of Congress, he carries on thoughtful conversations with random Internet commenters, and, unlike most of our public figures, he may never learn the arts of pandering and grovelling. He is the American Dream, a rude reminder of the spirit that makes this country great, or at any rate exceptional. Shkreli for President! If voters in New Hampshire are truly intent on sending a message to the Washington establishment they claim to hate, they could—and probably will—do a lot worse.

This is plainly ludicrous. Holding everyone around you in disdain is not “never learning the art of pandering.” Trolling people on Reddit is not “having thoughtful conversations.” And Martin Shkreli only embodies the American Dream to the extent that the American Dream is to start with nothing and work your way up to becoming as much of an enormous rich asshole as possible. (Actually, come to think of it, this is not far from how the American Dream is usually portrayed.)

But one can understand the pressures that would lead a writer like Sanneh to publish something so stupid. In the world of online writing, spewing indefensible opinions is financially incentivized. In a #SlatePitch-driven media, writers are constantly competing to best each other for the most “counterintuitive” opinion. So we get a whole mess of articles like “The American Revolution Was Actually a Bad Thing.” Or, from Slate’s own Matthew Yglesias “Actually, Deadly Bangladeshi Factory Collapses May Be A Good Thing.” (Yglesias has now reached the logical endpoint of this reasoning, having suggested that the Nazis “may have had some good ideas.”)

These articles come about for obvious reasons; “It Is Bad When Factories Collapse and People Die” is not nearly as provocative as its converse. Fewer people would click on an article entitled “Wasn’t the American Revolution Nifty?” But here again, explanation is not justification. To take up immoral positions for the sake of Facebook shares is to dishonor the responsibilities that come with being a writer (or rather, being a person generally.)

The simple truth is that some positions should not be defended. The Nazis had no good ideas, factory collapses are tragic and must be stopped, and Martin Shkreli is neither interesting nor good, but a run-of-the-mill specimen of Wall Street vermin, albeit slightly more callous and two-faced than is standard even in America’s financial sector. The desire to find a novel journalistic angle should never outweigh one’s duty to acknowledge basic facts of the universe. Some things are simply true, with no contrarian angle to be taken, and that’s perfectly alright.

It therefore remains worthwhile to hate Martin Shkreli, and to hate him intensely. Forget the questions over drug pricing; what we have serendipitously found in Shkreli is a convenient public example of everything a human being should strive not to be. Shkreli may have ignited a debate about access to medication, but his real social function is even greater: he displays all of the traits that our species must exorcise if we are to build a just and decent world. He is greedy, smug, and vulgar. He is a liar and a braggart. He treats women abominably. He is contemptuous of those he considers his lessers. His literary curiosity stops at Ayn Rand. (Actually, the Cliff’s Notes to Ayn Rand, according to the reporter who looked at his bookshelf.) He doesn’t just wish to amass pleasures for himself, but to deny them to others (witness his purchasing the sole copy of a $2 million Wu Tang Clan album and threatening to destroy it.) He toys with people for his own amusement. He can be charitable, but only when it pleases him, for what motivates him is not the desire to maximize human good but to maximize his own power over others.

In short, even the people who have most loudly denounced Martin Shkreli have insufficiently appreciated just what a blight he is. Never mind “Shkreli is not the real problem.” Shkreli is, in fact, the only problem, for once we can eliminate every little bit of Shkreli from ourselves, human beings will have reached perfection. We should teach about him in schools, cautionary sermons should be preached against him. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Shkrelis.

All of these attempts to redeem Martin Shkreli must fail, then, so long as there is a glimmer of mercy and decency in the world. Of the many problems with the drug industry, Martin Shkreli may only represent only one of them. But of the many problems with humanity as a whole, Martin Shkreli represents essentially all of them.