For A Luxury Leftism

If socialism isn’t about giving people nice things and good times, what on earth is it about?

Luxury and leftism are too frequently seen as antagonists. But need they be? Is it so inconceivable that one could simultaneously be a leftist and enjoy one’s lifeTake a moment, please, dear reader, and kindly examine the image below:

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Assess your feelings about it. What shall we say is going on here? Yes, yes, it’s some kind of communist party. But do we have thoughts on it, and if so of what sort? We seem to find ourselves with a depiction of radical chic, that comically hypocritical form of pseudo-revolutionary self-indulgence. Our revelers like Karl Marx very much. And yet there they sit, fondling their pearls and sipping their brandies. How laughable their devotion to the cause of the workingman! What poseurs, what impostors!

And yet: perhaps our little cadre of caviar commies are not so indefensible as they seem. For our revulsion at them surely stems from their failure of principle: they talk of revolution as they clink their glasses, they gobble gazpacho as the world burns. They are sippers, flitters, dilettantes.

But what if the world does not burn? Perhaps we are assuming a little much. What if all human problems have been solved? What if we exist in a state of perfect equality? Then may we have pearls and Marx alike, without incurring opprobrium? Is there a certain point at which one may both be a leftist and enjoy one’s self?

“Ah,” you may reply, “but what of the waiter? Surely he gives it away. Your precious egalitarian paradise is illusory, there remains an unacknowledged servant class.”

But this is where you err. You assume that this gentleman is a waiter. This only demonstrates the limits of your imaginative powers. Why should it not be possible to rotate the role of donning the moustache and pouring the wine? Why must we assume that this man does not pour wine for the sheer joy of pouring it? Can we not take pleasure in taking turns serving one another?

There is, broadly speaking, something sound to the charge of hypocrisy around left-wing extravagance. The mansions possessed by Al Gore and the Obamas are an outrage. But they are an outrage because they exist in a time of great suffering, not because the world should not have mansions in it. The problem is not the existence of riches, but the failure to allow all to share equally in them. Progressives who wall themselves off from the poor, buy themselves beautiful things, and stop caring seriously about equality are monsters. But this is no indictment of beautiful things, or of human beings possessing them. The crime is the failure to share.

The problem with limousine liberalism, then, was not the limousines, but the liberals. Radicals should be chic, revolutionaries should drink excellent wine. Anarchist flophouses, abounding in filth and with defective plumbing, present no kind of vision for the future society. Any political movement that wishes to win people over must at least seem like it’s having a good time. The left’s suits must be well-tailored, its pastries must be fattening.

Never laugh, then, at the perfumed leftist. Would you wish them abominably scented? Gandhi said that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. I wish to see lovely libraries and comfortable chairs. Thus I have built myself a library and I am ensconced in a comfortable chair. There is nothing shameful about this. It could instead be called downright visionary.

There is still no excuse for stinginess, there is still no justification for inequality. One should still care about others as much as one cares about oneself. Many of the goods and services traditionally favored by the leisure class are tainted by inherent injustice. Blood diamonds and furs should revolt the soul. Nobody should employ a butler. Et cetera. But the fundamental principle must be this: things ought to be nice, and if they are not nice, then they are not leftist.

The left frequently seems to embrace an unappealing and Spartan set of aesthetic values. It stands for minimalism, sobriety, and self-abnegation. The left is Swedish, i.e. boring. This is no good. Our values must be toward joy, indulgence, and a pleasant time to be had by all. We will build cathedrals, we will wear incredible jewels, we will throw delightful parties and everyone will be invited.

One must always be careful not to go too far in the direction of the hedonistic, however. Again, the central principle here is: the good must be shared, not hoarded. Loving yourself is acceptable, but loving only yourself is not. It is very easy to develop a series of convenient justifications for one’s indefensible acts, and one of the central problems of liberalism is that it has allowed rich people to think that being rich in a time of deprivation is morally acceptable. (It is not.) But it is also true that we are attempting to lift everybody up into elation rather than drag them down into equal opportunity misery.

Consider this a call, then, for a truly luxurious leftism. One that does not deprive itself of the good things in life, but which shares them abundantly with all. When we say let them eat cake, we are serious: there must be cake, it must be good cake, and it must be had by all. The reason Marie Antoinette needed beheading was not that she wished cake on the poor, but that she never actually gave them any.

The international proletarian class deserves the very best.

Illustration by Chris Matthews

How The Times Failed You

A look back at the Paper of Record’s election commentary…

When 2016 dawned, it seemed like anything could happen. Now long-forgotten figures like Martin O’Malley and Carly Fiorina still roamed debate stages, Donald Trump was still a joke, Bernie Sanders had just stopped being one, and every voter could still dream of success for her favored candidate.

Still, even then, there were those warning voters against attempting to monkey with fate, against progressives delusional enough to believe they could create the future in whatever image they wanted. Hillary Clinton’s politics were the only feasible destiny, Paul Krugman warned Bernie Sanders admirers in his January editorial “How Change Happens.” If people failed to accept that, they would bring on disaster:

“Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.”

Krugman’s attitude would prove emblematic of the Paper of Record’s election coverage. As the months passed, the New York Times’ Hillary-boosting scribes would converge on a set of rhetorical strategies to defend hard thinking by squashing ideas that fell outside the bounds of pundit orthodoxy. The paper decided early on that 2016 was to be a coronation, and that all attempts to derail Hillary’s ascent to the presidency (or even to point out that it wasn’t going according to plan) would be mocked, ignored, or treated as failures to acknowledge Empirical Reality. The Times’ The Upshot” election predictor consistently held that Hillary was comfortably on her way to the presidency, regardless of what anyone else (e.g. voters) had to say about it. To read the Times in 2016 was to be told, in a tone of utmost certitude, that Hillary Clinton was inevitable and inescapable.

As the year opened, the big story was the success of the unconventional-seeming candidates whom David Brooks lumped together as “Trump, Sanders and Cruz….Cruz, Trump and Sanders.” Never mind that there is almost no political gap larger than that between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. All of these candidates were deemed to be of dubious electability, and unified by their departure from acceptable Times-ian political orthodoxy.

The Times’ liberal columnists were particularly prone to fretting about Sanders. Nicholas Kristof would point to a Gallup poll showing that “Fifty percent of Americans said they would be unwilling to consider voting for a socialist,” failing to consider that it might actually be a step up for the Democrats to have only half of Americans totally unwilling to vote for the party.

One might have expected different from the nominally mildly-progressive Paul Krugman, who has previously rocked the world of economics by pondering aloud whether vast inequality is truly necessary (and received large sums of money to study the question professionally), as well as airing heterodox opinions on such questions as whether or not shrinking the budget deficit is the most important thing in the world. But he, too, would spend the election season amplifying the conventional wisdom and bashing everyone to his left. In “How Change Happens,” he portrayed Sanders as a sort of political will-o’-the-wisp luring in the unwary: 

“On the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters” nursing “the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters…can be persuaded to support radical policies…The question Sanders supporters should ask is, When has their theory of change ever worked? Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic.”

Every election, idealistic leftists say we need a more radical candidate, and every year centrists make sure we don’t run one, but for Krugman this shows that “the theory of change has never worked,” rather than showing that the theory has never been seriously tried. And evidently, the example of FDR passing a bunch of idealistic new social programs disproves the theory that a president can pass a bunch of idealistic social programs.

So supporting a candidate who’s proposing things you want done is unrealistic. It’s more practical to support a candidate who doesn’t support the policies you want, and then hope they change their mind after getting elected, a strategy Krugman would model in October:

“Democratic control of the House would also open the door for large-scale infrastructure investment. If that seems feasible, I know that many progressive economists — myself included — will urge Mrs. Clinton to go significantly bigger than she is currently proposing.”

Similarly, after Clinton pledged not to add a penny to the deficit, he optimistically tweeted that she should instead “do years of deficit financed infrastructure spending.” This followed the traditional stance of the wishful liberal towards Bill and Hillary Clinton: insisting that the Clintons are, at heart, populist, anti-racist progressives, even though every empirical indication shows that they are self-infatuated lifelong Wall Street cronies who eliminated welfare and intentionally frightened white people about “superpredators.”

Krugman produced a string of anti-Sanders articles. In April he would take part in a popular media craze by declaring that “Bernie is becoming a Bernie Bro.” What does it mean to become a bro on one’s own behalf? For Krugman, Bernie had been engaged in the typically obnoxious frathouse behavior of “going on about the big banks” while failing to assign enough of the blame for the 2008 financial crash on smaller institutions. Furthermore, he was criticizing Hillary Clinton’s record too harshly:

“This is really bad…. Holding people accountable for their past is O.K., but imposing a standard of purity, in which any compromise or misstep makes you the moral equivalent of the bad guys, isn’t.”

Liberal anti-Bernie thinkpieces frequently relied on treating a desire for “purity” as worthy of ridicule. But replace “purity” with any noun from your resume, such as “excellence” or “objectives” or “strategization,” and it sounds like they’re all telling you to run out and vote for him. Try rereading Krugman’s last sentence with your finger over the phrase “of purity”: Krugman is now saying that holding people accountable is good, but having standards you use to decide what things to hold them accountable for is verboten.

Still, Krugman, like every anti-Sanders pundit, felt compelled to say something nice about the elderly Vermonter. The praise, too, had a common theme. “The Sanders campaign has brought out a lot of idealism and energy that the progressive movement needs,” but those things just shouldn’t come in the form of Sanders himself. The concept of an idealistic person who gets voters energized is great, Krugman insisted, and maybe next time we should find someone like that to run. Unfortunately, there was no one like that around right now except Bernie Sanders, but if such a person arrived on the scene without being Bernie Sanders, we should support them.

Krugman seemed to take Sanders’ success oddly personally—almost as if he resented feeling obligated to argue against economic proposals he had been in favor of throughout his career. But his scoldings only echoed the paper’s official stance. In February, the Times editorial board would endorse Hillary Clinton in the primary, saying that Sanders’ policies were fine “but his plans for achieving them aren’t realistic, while Mrs. Clinton has very good, and achievable, proposals in both areas.” The unified political theory shared by Times writers is that being “realistic” means forming detailed policy schemes as far in advance as possible, before you can be unduly influenced by, say, knowing who’s going to be in charge of the House and Senate or any other specifics about the political climate.  It’s similar to how you always pack for a trip a year and a half before your flight leaves.

An incident revealing of the paper’s attitudes occurred in March, when the paper ran a news analysis piece titled “Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years via Legislative Side Doors.” The piece went through Sanders’ record in the Senate, showing him to be a pragmatic legislator, who, contrary to conventional wisdom, was actually very good at achieving specific policy objectives.

The article was surprising, in that it was both in the New York Times and didn’t trash Bernie Sanders. Sure enough, later in the day the article was updated with a series of editorial changes, making it clear that while Bernie Sanders might have a decent record of senatorial accomplishments, he was still a pie-in-the-sky dreamer with no ability to achieve the meaningful changes he promised. The Times assured its readers that “there is little to draw from his small-ball legislative approach to suggest that he could succeed [as president]… Mr. Sanders is suddenly promising not just a few stars here and there, but the moon and a good part of the sun.”

Later, after complaints had been made to the Public Editor, it transpired that the article was revised by “senior editors” who “thought it should say more about his realistic chances” of enacting his agenda (because no one is a more credible expert on realism than someone who apparently thinks the moon is bigger than a star).

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The senior pundit class would soon have even bigger things to worry about than Bernie Sanders’ inconvenient political acumen. In June, Trump was officially declared the nominee, ushering in a preliminary round of humiliation for pundits who had insisted, as Ross Douthat did, that “Donald Trump isn’t going to be the Republican nominee.” Still, Krugman wasn’t worried. “Mr. Trump is flailing…. There’s a concerted effort by Democrats…to make the great ridiculer look ridiculous (which he is). And it seems to be working.” Brooks, Douthat, and Krugman each issued embarrassing declarations of Trump’s impending demise, reminding one of Thomas Friedman’s notorious repeated insistence that “the next six months” would see a turning point in Iraq. (And just as for Friedman, no number of failed prophecies would cause the paper to reconsider giving Brooks, Douthat, or Krugman a weekly platform.)

The hopes of the pundits were further buoyed when the Democrats nominated Clinton and held a flag-draped convention designed to undo their reputation as pessimistic draft-dodgers. Krugman gave the convention a rave review. “Usually [Republicans are] the ones chanting ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’,” he said, pleased that the Democrats had adopted the favorite mindless rah-rah of the Bush-era right. Apparently, bellowing the name of the country in which we live becomes a smart and progressive thing to do when it comes from the mouths of blue staters. Krugman also decided to issue what seemed like a belated submission to his third-grade “Win A Trip To Washington, D.C.” essay contest, with a column on the question “What does it mean to love America?” After concluding that the best thing about America is its “diversity” (i.e. the fact that it no longer practices genocide on its minority residents), Krugman would return to the patriotism theme in October, asking: “why does the modern right hate America?” (During the Bush years, Krugman would have been the first to point out the juvenility and repulsiveness of the “X hates America” formulation.)

By fall, the swelling success of Trump was a thorn in the side of columnists who wanted to claim that America was basically good. They couldn’t stop thinking about him. The paper published a glut of alarmist Trump pieces, with one run of Charles Blow columns titled “Trump’s Debate Flameout,” “Donald Trump: Terroristic Man-Toddler,” “Donald Trump: Barbarian at the Debate,” “Donald Trump, Unshackled and Unhinged,” “Donald Trump, the Worst of America” and “Donald Trump vs. American Democracy.” As much as any outlet, the Times contributed to the success of the Trump Show, whereby Trump prevails by successfully orienting every news cycle around himself, thereby ensuring that nobody discusses any issue of serious political consequence. (Nobody is more willing than a Times columnist to refrain from discussing issues of serious political consequence.)

Besides, even as Trump rose and rose, pundits could always spend their column space consoling themselves by insisting that Hillary was strong enough to prevail. Krugman didn’t just take for granted the inevitable win of his chosen candidate, he sang the praises of the plumage of his prehatched chickens: “Here’s a contrarian thought: Maybe Mrs. Clinton is winning because she possesses some fundamental political strengths.” She is “wonky” and “in command of policy issues,” traits that reliably arouse the pundit libido. Hillary may fail to fit political “archetypes” like “the heroic leader,” but she excels in other ways. “Maybe obvious competence and poise in stressful situations can add up to a kind of star quality.” This, it should be said, is the fantasy of the nerd and nobody else. (If you combine Krugman’s idea of star quality with my own theory that being soft-spoken and not getting in anyone’s way can be described as having “competence and poise,” my junior high school self was basically Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop.)

However, in an attempt to appear balanced, every pro-Hillary Times article contained a paragraph or two of damning-sounding concessions. In “Why Hillary Wins,” Krugman admitted that “Clinton is “a fairly mediocre speechifier; her prepared zingers tend to fall flat.” And “on some issues…she does sound a bit bloodless.” According to pro-Hillary Republican David Brooks, “Wherever Clinton walks, the whiff of scandal is always by her side. The Clintons…surround themselves with…some human hand grenades.” And in “I’m With Her: The Strengths of Hillary Clinton,” Nicholas Kristof wrote that:

“Clinton has made thousands of compromises and innumerable mistakes, her pursuit of wealth has been unseemly and politically foolish, and it’s fair to question her judgment on everything from emails to Iraq… Sure, she compromises, she sometimes dissembles and at times her judgment has been flawed.”

This, bear in mind, was meant to be an enthusiastic endorsement. It’s probably a bad sign when your reluctant admissions sound like incredibly persuasive reasons not to vote for somebody. If you put all the Hillary Clinton concession paragraphs together with all the reluctant statements about how the Democratic Party needs Bernie Sanders’ populist energy, you could assemble an entire Jacobin magazine article on the failures of liberalism.

Thus, as the floundering Titanic of Clinton’s campaign broke into two pieces and fell to the bottom of the sea, the Times dedicated itself to frantically repositioning deck chairs and striking up the band in joyful ditties. It was obvious to anyone with the most rudimentary political instinct that Clinton was widely disliked and failing to connect with voters. But columnists like Krugman conceived of a world in which “wonky” types with mediocre speechmaking capacity were of superior electability to “heroic leaders.”

By November everyone’s psyche was weary and scarred from covering the election. Lucidity suffered, along with David Brooks’ writing. On the 4th he said, “If I had to sum up the election of 2016 in one clause, I would say it has been a sociological revolution, a moral warning, and a political summons.”

Post-election, no one emerged without having made some bad predictions, but Brooks fared the most poorly, having engaged in a battle of prognostication with a grubby proletarian:

“A few weeks ago I met a guy in Idaho who was absolutely certain that Donald Trump would win this election. He was wearing tattered, soiled overalls, missing a bunch of teeth and was unnaturally skinny….He was getting by aimlessly as a handyman. I pointed to the polls and tried to persuade him that Hillary Clinton might win, but it was like telling him a sea gull could play billiards.”

It wasn’t worth Trump winning just so a toothless Idahoan could mock David Brooks, but as long as it had to happen, it is a small consolation.

Pre-election, the pundits had been largely in accord, repeatedly offering similar versions of the same column. Post-election, their views would fracture, the white light of their love for pragmatic compromise refracting into a rainbow of different wrong takes. David Brooks would pretend to have thought all along that the Democrats needed to get rid of “retired establishment types”; Krugman would rail against Trump’s corruption while ascribing his win to the wicked scheming of Jill Stein and Vladimir Putin; Ross Douthat would call for “conversation about the ways in which the Democratic Party might consider responding to its current straits by moving to the right.” (Douthat apparently being a time traveler sent from the recent past to warn Democrats to keep doing exactly what they’re already doing.)

Kristof, who had criticized Trump as a groper and a bully, voiced a sentiment suddenly common among mainstream pundits when he wrote that everyone should refrain from judging him too quickly: “Like it or not, we Americans have a new president-elect…. Let’s give him a chance — for those are our democratic values.” On the news side, the paper seemed strangely eager to do just that, running a series of softball articles in which it referred to Trump EPA transition team leader Myron Ebell as a “climate contrarian” and described Trump as “offering an olive branch” for offering to perhaps not repeal all of Obamacare (even as he stuffed his cabinet with a ghoulish array of conservative idealogues). And after Trump added two women and Ben Carson to his otherwise entirely white male cabinet, the Times went with the headline “Trump Diversifies Cabinet” (rather than, say “Trump’s Cabinet Has Barely Any Women” or “Trump’s Appointment of Women and Reactionaries-of-Color Shows The Limited Usefulness of Mere ‘Diversity.’”

The Times’ election coverage will live in infamy. Our paper of record had no idea how to interpret the moment as it unfolded, flailing wildly and trying to build an imaginary world in which Hillary Clinton’s campaign went the way liberals wished it would go, rather than the way it actually did go. (Much as, during the Bush years, Democrats relaxed by taking in the reassuring alternate reality of The West Wing’s Bartlet presidency, rather than seriously coming to grips with the actual political world in which they lived.) But as a certain Paul Krugman once told us, there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred the illusion of happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends.

This is Part II of our “How The Press Failed You” series. Part 1 was on Nate Silver.

It Matters, Yes, But How Much?

Are Putin and the DNC leaks worth our attention? Sure. Are they our number one priority now? Probably not.

As of this moment, millions of people remain incarcerated in this country. Immigrant families are living in fear for their livelihoods and lives, with no idea what may face them over the next four years. An opioid epidemic is ravaging white communities, gun violence is ending hundreds of black lives in New Orleans and Chicago, and the U.S.-created bloodbath in Iraq continues unabated. This is not to mention the civilization-ending threats of climate change and nuclear war

Yet few of these issues would penetrate your consciousness, were you to pay attention to certain Democratic and progressive commentators. Instead, you would see a single-minded focus on the question of Russia, and the connections between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. If, for example, you were to browse through the recent written output of Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn, you would find that fully ¾ of the stories he has written since Nov. 15th concern Russian intervention in the election. If you were to examine the Twitter feed of Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress (one of the left’s major think tanks) you would mostly find comments about Russian hacking and the Wikileaks-Putin-Trump axis. And if you were to look at the news generally, you would see coverage absolutely dominated by the question of Vladimir Putin’s role in the November election.

Indeed, some progressives seem to think that this is the only issue that ought to be discussed at the moment. Esquire’s Charles Pierce was quite direct about this, saying “I honestly believe that this should be the only story dominating the news right now.” In fact, things seem to be getting somewhat out of hand. People are talking about new Cold Wars; John McCain thinks war has already been declared. The hand of the Russians is being seen everywhere, from popular financial blogs to the Vermont electric grid. Though one risks being called a Putin apologist for saying it, one suspects a bit of paranoia may be setting in…

It’s fundamentally understandable to be concerned by the reports about Russian hacking activity. After all, elections should be fair. If they aren’t fair, the entire system’s legitimacy is thrown into doubt. And foreign tampering makes them unfair. But separate from the questions of evidence (which are considerable) are questions of proportion. And there is good reason to believe that progressives and Democrats, confused and terrified at the result of the election, and unsure what to do next, have blown up the issue beyond all reason, and in doing so distracted themselves from talking about things that matter and dedicating themselves to the work of formulating a compelling political agenda and rebuilding power.

Before anything else, let’s remember what Russia’s “hacking the election” (a bizarre term) is actually supposed to have entailed to begin with. If we assume all the facts as alleged, Vladimir Putin did not actually change the result of the election by throwing away ballots or hacking voting machines (even though many Democrats evidently believe this to be the case). He did not send Russian agents to pose as voters, or exercise some form of sophisticated mind-control. The allegation, instead, is that the Russian government embarrassed the Democratic Party by releasing a series of documents from the Democratic National Committee and the email account of John Podesta.

Now, the documents in question are not alleged to be fabricated. The Clinton team made some noises suggesting this was the case early on, but there is now almost complete consensus that they were real. So the allegation here is that the Russian government embarrassed the Democrats by exposing things about the party that were perfectly true. These included the biases of Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the primaries, the leaking of debate questions to the Clinton campaign by CNN contributor Donna Brazile, and Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs. (Another part of the strategy, according to the recently-released intelligence report, involved broadcasting a documentary on Russian television favorably depicting the Occupy Wall Street movement. One might observe that running a program on Russian state TV is an unusual way to attempt to influence voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.)

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All of this is pretty thin as election manipulation. First, the only plausible theory for how it “manipulated” the election to begin with is that voters didn’t actually like what the documents revealed about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, so they decided not to vote for her. Democrats are therefore arguing that voters shouldn’t have been able to take into account their feelings about the DNC’s biases in the primary, or Donna Brazile’s unethical coordination, in casting their ballots. This information, i.e. the unseemly truth about the inner workings of the party, should rightfully have remained secret.

But did this information even really have much of an effect? The DNC stories led to Wasserman Schultz’s resignation. But they also mostly confirmed what people knew already. Same with the Goldman Sachs transcripts, which were actually mostly notable for not nearly being as bad as anyone expected them to be. How many people’s decision-making was actually altered as a result of these few news stories? And if this made the necessary marginal difference, was it the bulk of the reason Trump won? (Since we’re in the habit of deferring absolutely to intelligence agencies’ judgments these days, the head of the NSA thinks the DNC stories didn’t make a difference.)

Now, note what I am not arguing: I am not arguing that Russia did not leak the embarrassing DNC information. Nor am I arguing that there should be no consequences for a government trying to aid one candidate over another in a foreign election. But it is important to remember that the “interference” in question did not involve telling lies or changing votes. It involved releasing true information, of genuine public interest, that made people less inclined to vote for one party over another.

I am sure this line of reasoning is not persuasive to many Democrats, who fundamentally believe they lost in an unfair fight. But as a voter, I was extremely glad to know the information that came out of the leaks. I felt it was important. I voted for Hillary anyway, but I felt more informed about how the party worked, and I’m pleased the facts came out. Leaks are often useful in shining light on secretive and undemocratic institutions.

It’s also true that by focusing so intensively on the leaking of DNC information, Democrats are failing to conduct the necessary critical self-reflection on other reasons why they may have lost the election. The DNC leaks would not have mattered at all had the election not been close, and it’s important to understand why the election was close. This requires a serious appraisal of the strategic mistakes the Democrats made, such as failing to focus on blue collar voters in key swing states and failing to craft a compelling message. It requires considering why the Clinton campaign decided to send Lena Dunham to North Carolina rather than sending Hillary Clinton to Wisconsin. It would require some humility, and some consideration of whether some voters’ rejection of the Democrats might have been, in part, an explicable and rational response to factors like major spikes in their health care premiums. Ultimately, single-minded focus on Putin entirely exonerates the Democratic Party from any responsibility for their own loss. And that’s dangerous, because it means they’re not actually trying to figure out how to improve their electoral fortunes in the future.

Even worse, every moment spent talking about Putin is a moment not spent talking about mass incarceration, policing, Social Security, Medicaid, public schooling, Chelsea Manning, gun violence, climate change, and war. It’s true that one can care about many things at once. But it’s also true that political messaging is somewhat zero-sum: you can’t talk about everything, you have to allocate your resources and energy. And if you’re spending all of your time trying to cheerlead the next Cold War (and, by the way, almost making Trump appear sane for being seemingly the only politician disinclined to start such a war), then you’re not pushing the progressive agenda forward. You’re definitely not giving anyone a sense of your major priorities, and you’re also not giving anyone a convincing reason to return to the Democratic Party. Trump is giving press conferences in front of factories whose jobs he has supposedly preserved, while Democrats are frantically calling Trump a Kremlin agent. Who is speaking most to people’s real life material interests?

Sadly, it doesn’t have to be this way. Trump is unpopular, and it wouldn’t take much effort for Democrats to build a serious opposition movement that excited the country and effectively challenged the Republican agenda. But when the media is absolutely dominated by Russia stories, this is going to be impossible. Just consider two hypothetical headlines:

  •  “Democrats Vow To Defend Social Security and Medicare, Fight Trump’s ‘Anti-Working Class’ Agenda”
  • “Democrats Vow To Investigate Russian Hacks, Fight Trump’s ‘Pro-Putin’ Agenda”

Which of these is going to rebuild the party’s political fortunes? Which is going to get politically apathetic people to join our side? And which do we care about most? Yet which are we seeing instead, over and over and over?

It’s difficult to escape the cynical conclusion that a lot of the Democrats’ noise-making on Russia is somewhat opportunistic. Consider what would happen if the roles were reversed. If Trump lost the election, and the intelligence agencies said it was because Putin pulled for Clinton by releasing the Billy Bush tape, what would Democrats say? Would they make the same arguments? Would they say that the Billy Bush tape should never have been heard? Would they say that Clinton’s victory was illegitimate? Would they spend the bulk of their time insisting that the election was compromised?

Of course they wouldn’t. We know exactly what they would do. They would insist that Trump was a sore loser, and would mock him. They would say that the tape had been of public interest, and was genuine, and that focusing on the source of the tape ignores the fact that it was the content that made the difference. And they would say that since there was no allegation that the vote itself was compromised, it was ludicrous and dangerous to delegitimize the election result. (Remember that before the election, it was Democrats warning about the consequences of the losing candidate refusing to accept the election result.) Fundamentally, they would want the country to move on.

So it’s difficult to take the Democrats’ high-minded invocations of patriotism and principle very seriously. Unless we think they would all be doing the same thing if they had won the election rather than lost it, then it is not really about foreign intervention, but entirely about the fact that they still don’t want to believe Trump is really the President-elect.

But they need to accept that, or at least massively dial down their level of concentration on the Russia issue. For one thing, this Putin stuff is a dead-end. We are stuck with Trump, and instead of complaining about all the ways in which his victory was unfair, we need to be figuring out how to make him a one-term president. That’s going to involve the kind of thinking that Democrats really don’t want to do: a deep critical inquiry into their own screw-ups, and (hopefully) an overhaul of their entire way of doing business. It’s harder, and requires more humility, than agitating against the Kremlin. But it’s the only way to win.

It’s also the right thing to do. The people who sit in America’s prisons, the people who work in America’s hotels and orange groves, and the people who clean America’s bathrooms, all need progressivism to work for them. That means they fundamentally need Democrats to keep things in proportion, and to remember how much the DNC email leaks matter, versus how much the needs of the American working class matter.

Killing You Softly With Her Dreams

Arianna Huffington’s war on sleep…

Arianna Huffington wants to put you to sleep.

In her new book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Huffington dramatically announces that we are in the middle of an unacknowledged sleep crisis. There is a problem in our society, Huffington tells us: we have forgotten how to sleep. Fortunately, sleepless readers need not fear: Huffington’s handy little book is here to show you how to combat sleeplessness.

Sleep Revolution is written in classic Huffington style: part Deepak Chopra, part Oprah, and strung together with quotes from everyone from Persian poet Rumi to art critic Jonathan Crary to even (bafflingly for a self-described progressive), the anti-immigrant, Brexit-enabling, racist former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

The writing, it should go without saying, is bad. A chapter begins: “From the beginning of time, people have struggled with sleep.” In fact, from the beginning of time, sophomore English teachers have been taking red pen to any essay that starts with “from the beginning of time.” Her phrasing is often corny and uses too many exclamation points.

Sleep Revolution is less a book than a business plan, a typical product of the can-do inspiration industry made popular by the likes of Andrew Weil and Suze Orman, the snake oil salespeople of the 21st century. Like them, Huffington first tells you that you have a problem, one you were unaware you had. She then generously reveals the many products that can help alleviate your symptoms, suggesting plenty of expensive solutions. Huffington has learnt her trade from the best hucksters. She absorbs the techniques of assorted rich people’s gurus, like cult leaders Bhagwan Rajneesh and John-Roger, combining new age verbiage with sly admonitions to give up one’s material wealth (into their outstretched hands, of course).

Huffington undoubtedly possesses a kind of brilliance. It lies not in the quality of her thought or writing, but in her ability to understand and exploit the zeitgeist. The ideas in Sleep Revolution, such as they are, are mostly bits and pieces about sleep deprivation and the problems thereof cribbed and culled from a range of sources (likely the product of several intensive hours of Googling). To be sure, they are banal. And yet Huffington’s book is perfect for our moment in time: it arrives just as capitalism is making many of us more sleepless than ever.

Huffington is never so impolite as to mention that capitalism, which has done well by her and made her a multimillionaire, may be to blame for keeping people working long, sleepless hours. She prefers proposing solutions to diagnosing causes. She tells you to leave your smartphone outside your bedroom, to have warm baths, to disengage. Don’t tackle work emails after a certain time.

Her solutions have the convenient consequence of making you a better worker for your employers, without actually raising your material standard of living. After all, she writes, “it would actually be better for business if employees called in tired, got a little more sleep, and then came in a bit late, rather than call in sick a few days later or, worse, show up sick, dragging themselves through the day while infecting others.” Her advice to her fellow bosses is purely expedient: if the worker drones rest, more labor can be wrung out of them.

This approach to sleep is common in the discourse of “self-care,” in which people are constantly admonished to heal themselves with candles, self-affirmation, and long baths but not told that they can actually revolt against the systems that create their exhaustion in the first place. According to a massive amount of sleep literature, the worst thing we do is not sleep enough, yet that same literature never bothers to wonder what might be keeping us up at night.

Yet many people know full well why they can’t sleep. Many of us juggle multiple jobs to cobble together our livings, and the problem of sleeplessness cuts across class barriers. While those with little or no money battle exhaustion as they travel from job to job, even wealthier people are frequently like hamsters in their wheels, constantly working against the clock to hold on to and add to their fortunes. No matter who you are, under competitive capitalism the rule is the same: you sleep, you lose. Marx once pointed out that capital is vampire-like and feeds on dead labor. But that’s somewhat unfair to vampires. After all, unlike vampires, capital never sleeps.

Capitalism has never slept much, and has always relied on the lack of sleep of millions of workers to be as efficient as possible. In fact, until the invention of the eight-hour day and the weekend (both startlingly new ideas, for which workers had to fight hard) “work” as such simply carried on day by draining day. Even the idea of a legally mandated lunch break is astonishingly recent.

Among all of the Huffingtonian pro-sleep, self-help guidance, there is no discussion of the fact that people are compelled to walk around like zombies, without sleep. Take, for instance, the website Everyday Health which poses the question: “Why Don’t Americans Sleep Enough?” The answer: “Reasons why we’re not getting enough sleep abound, but one of the biggest changes behind the sleep decline is the availability of electricity and technological advances that allow us to work and play 24/7.” Note the phrasing: allow us to work 24/7! Yet most people don’t actually have a choice.

Consider that even something as simple as the lack of good transit systems can effectively ruin your chances of a good night’s sleep. In Chicago, where I live, and where the city’s segregation is enforced through its transit system, it can take two hours or more to get from the mostly white north side to the mostly black and brown south and west sides, and the trip usually involves multiple buses and trains. That’s a commute performed daily by many poorly-paid workers.

And that’s Chicago, a place with relatively good infrastructure. The situation is much worse for those living in cities and towns with little or no public transit (which is most of the United States). Researchers point to the economic consequences of rough commutes, but there are also substantial health costs involved when people spend so much of their lives traveling to and from their jobs and have little energy or time left to recharge or fully rest before the next day’s work. The sheer stress of getting to work can, in the long run, literally kill you. But work we must if we are to survive, and those on the bottom rungs run themselves ragged even before they start their workday.

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Huffington is willfully oblivious to all of this, evading questions about workplace conditions even when they are most obvious. She writes that a “2015 Stanford University study of Chinese workers found that those who worked from home saw their productivity go up by 13 percent.”  Only Arianna Huffington could so blithely use the words “Chinese workers” and “productivity” together and not even offer the slightest hint that, perhaps, the rise in productivity is due to factors like the grinding exploitation they are likely to experience. Examples of such obtuseness about the exploitation of capitalism abound in the book, including her glowing praise for Goldman Sachs banning summer interns from staying overnight. Quartz’s sarcastic response to the news puts it best: “A rule that may be obvious to those of us in normal people jobs, this apparently was not clear enough to the aspiring bankers entering the intense Wall Street working environment for the first time.” Praise for such global and rapacious corporations makes it clear that success for Huffington is defined at astronomical levels; it’s not at all about ordinary workers, whose only job is to buy the products she and her friends sell.

Instead of discussing the larger context surrounding sleeplessness, Huffington wants, instead, to remind you of different consequences. Wrinkles, for instance.  She cites a UK experiment that showed that a lack of sleep resulted in a 45 percent increase in fine lines and wrinkles in women, and a rise in blemishes by 13 percent. She is also concerned that sleeplessness can cause “bad decisions,” and explains away Bill Clinton’s most indefensible presidential decisions as a possible result of a lack of sleep, for example “his inept handling of the issues of gays in the military — now widely considered to be one of the low points of his two-term presidency.” Here, as everywhere in the book, she simply ignores political ideology in favor of a diagnosis that locates acts and consequences entirely on the plane of personal problems.

Huffington is an inveterate name-dropper, and that’s no surprise given that her biggest project so far, Huffington Post, relies on the appearance of many of her celebrity “friends” to supply free labor.  “My friend Nora Ephron” makes an appearance, and she describes how “at a lunch for Jennifer Aniston, her manager took me aside,” and the time “when I interviewed [the Dalai Lama],” Oh, and we must not forget the time when “for my Thrive e-course on Oprah.com, I invited basketball great Kobe Bryant…” (That last one is a small masterpiece of economy, rolling her business enterprise, the planet’s most famous woman after the Queen of England, and a sports legend all into the same sentence.) Huffington’s desire to suck up (there is no elegant way to put this) to powerful and famous people requires her to be spectacularly clueless at times. Following up on the wrinkles theme, she writes effusively that “Jane Fonda credits her age-defying looks to sleep.” In fact, Fonda has gone on record as having had plastic surgery, a fact confirmed by no fewer than three aggregated stories on the Huffington Post itself.

Ultimately, Sleep Revolution tells us very little about what we need to know to get more sleep. Huffington’s slender thesis (“Sleep more so you can make more money”) is covered fully in her 4-minute TED talk on the subject, and solutions to sleeplessness are available in innumerable resources on the internet. The book is less important for what it says and more for what it reveals about Huffington’s place in enabling a particularly rapacious form of capitalism, one which first deprives people of sleep and then sells them the methods by which they might regain some of it.

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Arianna Huffington likes to tell her life story as follows: once, a middle-class 16-year-old Greek girl saw a picture of Cambridge University and decided to study there. Against all odds, and with the help of a determined mother, she entered the august institution and quickly made a name for herself, even becoming only the third female president of the 200-year-old Cambridge Union. She became a well-known conservative author and public figure in England, and eventually left for America where she gained spectacular amounts of both wealth and fame.

But the story’s reality is somewhat more complex, and reflects her alliances with two particular powerful men. At the age of 21, Huffington, whose maiden name was Stassinopoulos, met the famed and influential British intellectual Bernard Levin, 22 years her senior, on a game show. Huffington wrote books in which she insisted that feminism could only appeal to “women with strong lesbian tendencies.”

Not surprisingly, it was in England, still replete with class snobbery, that she earned her most infamous put-downs, being labeled “the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus,” as well as “the Edmund Hillary of social climbing.” They’re good lines, though they’re also sexist. No one calls Bill Gates a social climber, and women seem to be the only ones subjected to such snide comments as they make their way upwards. That said, it’s true that large parts of Huffington’s social and financial capital have come about because she was the consort of two powerful men, and she does make much of her immense network of famous friends.

Huffington remained with Levin till she was 30, and then embarked on the next step of her journey, to New York. Only six years after her arrival in America, having ensconced herself in a social circle that included Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger, she married the oil billionaire Michael Huffington. Levin had given her access to enormous intellectual and cultural capital; Huffington provided her with massive amounts of financial capital.

They divorced in 1997, when their two daughters were eight and six. She would go on to tell an interviewer that she doesn’t believe in marriage, just very good divorces. (Her settlement reportedly gained her $25 million.) Soon after, Michael Huffington came out as bisexual, and Arianna turned into a blazing liberal (whether or not those two facts are connected were the subject of speculation). She began working with Al Franken on Air America. (Remember Air America?) Explaining her sudden right-left shift, Huffington insists that she had always been socially liberal, and simply saw the light. A different hypothesis can be found in a friend’s observation that in famously liberal Los Angeles, to which Huffington returned after her divorce, her conservatism “would not have gotten [her] invited to a lot of parties.”

Huffington’s rapid geographic and ideological shape-shifting also meant additional scrutiny of the contradiction between her politics and her lifestyle. In 2003, the same year she ran unsuccessfully against Arnold Schwarzenegger in a gubernatorial campaign, she launched an incendiary ad campaign linking SUV owners to terrorists, despite having driven a Lincoln Navigator until the previous year. Huffington has complained about big money corroding democracy, but was a pivotal part of her husband’s unsuccessful campaign against Dianne Feinstein, in which he spent a then-unprecedented $30 million of his personal wealth. Whenever she has been challenged on these inconsistencies, Huffington has simply claimed to have subsequently seen the light.

In a 1995 Mother Jones piece designed as a Guide to Republicans, the comedian Paula Poundstone wrote, “It’s hard to pin down Arianna’s species. If only her ears drooped forward.” It’s a sharp assessment of Huffington’s innate tendency to switch positions. Poundstone also described what was then the celebrity’s fourth book, The Fourth Instinct:  “[S]he says we should be nice. She says it in 248 pages, using her own nice thoughts as a standard toward which we all should strive.” Clearly, the ability to expand a few scant phrases into hundreds of pages has not left Huffington.

But when it comes to discerning what species of political animal Huffington represents, the most striking and truthful description may come from an anonymous source, quoted by the Washington Post, speaking about her then-husband’s disastrous second campaign:

[O]ne person who knows the couple makes a particularly unflattering analogy. It is to the movie a while ago in which a creature would suddenly spring out of a human’s chest.

“I think of that thing in John Hurt in ‘Alien,’ “ he says, “but with better hair.”

“In Michael,” he says, “she’s found a host.”

In the mythology of the Alien films, the central figure (the aforementioned “thing”) is a vicious space species that exists purely to breed and take over every terrain it encounters, whether a ship or an entire planet. Its method of self-propagation, enabled by a gigantic queen, is to implant eggs in any available host. The egg eventually and quickly gestates and finally emerges as a fast-developing creature, mutating in the process and eventually becoming more human-like. By the fourth film in the series, Alien: Resurrection, the creature has developed a womb and gives live birth to its progeny, which proceeds to eat its mother alive.

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In the films, alongside the titular, rapacious and monstrous being, there exists another equally deadly force: the ubiquitous Weyland Corporation. All through the series, it becomes clear that Weyland is, if not the only one left, at least one of the biggest corporations in the known universe. Its interests extend from the petty junk-harvesting of space debris and old ships to dreams of universal domination. Its intense desire to harness the Alien itself comes from the corporation’s ambition to use the creature as the ultimate biological weapon. The alien is a perfect killing machine, with acid for blood, blood so toxic it can melt thick steel and spurts out at even the slightest injury, causing massive harm to its adversaries. In the first film, the robot Ash describes the creature with admiration as a “[p]erfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility….I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

It is no wonder, then, that the Washington Post’s source should be reminded of the Alien franchise when asked to analyze Huffington.

Yet the Alien comparisons are striking not only for their insight into Huffington personally, but as a means by which to understand her enterprise and the larger formations of capitalism that she has helped to create and cement.

In August 2016, Huffington announced that she was leaving the Huffington Post to focus on her new startup, Thrive Global. The venture, according to the Wall Street Journal, will “work with companies to improve the well-being of their employees.” Set to launch in November, Thrive describes itself as a “corporate and consumer well-­being and productivity platform.” At Thriveglobal.com, the visitor is led to understand that “By reducing stress and exhaustion, we can improve people’s health and increase productivity for both companies and individuals around the world,” and that “Thrive Global is a corporate and consumer well-­being and productivity platform.”

The point of such an enterprise, wrapped in such transparently vacuous new age verbiage, remains a mystery. For all their pretense otherwise, it’s clear that Huffington and her commercial partners care very little about the effects of sleeplessness on those who are not their target audience. In April 2016 a sleep-deprived Uber driver, too tired to continue driving, asked his passenger to take over, and woke up to find the car embroiled in a high-speech chase with police. A Huffington Post reporter, Sarah DiGiulio, was prevented from “writing” about the story. (At the HuffPo, “writing” means “linking to.”) Post senior editor Gregory Beyer told DiGiulio that they wouldn’t be linking to it because Huffington Post was currently “partnering with Uber on our drowsy driving campaign.” In other words, Huffington’s policy was to ignore or actively censor any story that actually proved that sleeplessness is a function of capitalism, and to protect her financial partner from being implicated in any resulting damage. In response to the story, Uber suspended the driver, then issued a statement about the dangers of sleeplessness (which predictably cited the company’s link up with the HuffPo and Toyota “to raise awareness of the issue and help save lives.”)

“I cried to dream again,”

—Caliban, The Tempest

The great irony of Huffington’s new enterprises, which promise both sleep and thriving, is that the Huffington Post itself feeds off the sleeplessness of its writers, people who are compelled to stay up all night in order to read and repost pieces about how sleeplessness is ruining their lives. The Huffington Post is notorious for paying not a single cent for most of its contributions, paying writers solely in illusory “publicity.” By building a hugely popular website on unpaid labor, HuffPo played a major role in establishing the pitiful compensation structure currently faced by online writers. If writers can’t sleep, it’s because they make HuffPo rates, i.e. nothing.

The Sleep Revolution is therefore a work of extraordinary gall. There is no consideration of the structural problems with sleeplessness, no critique of the systems which drive people from their beds toward jobs where they nod off to sleep in exhaustion. Arianna Huffington did not invent the web, but she is among those who created the news that never sleeps, in turn created by aggregators working around the clock, so that you might wake up at midnight or three or four in the morning, entertained by yet another set of links about Kate Middleton in a red dress or a hammock for your head so you can sleep on the train on the way to work.

In the Alien films, the Weyland Corporation sends its workers across the universe, millions of light years away in search of material and profits. But travel across the cosmos is time-consuming; workers would inevitably age along the journey, dulling their efficiency. Weyland’s solution is simple: Sleep pods that hold the bodies in suspended animation. Here all natural bodily functions cease, and the workers are reduced to nothing more than bodies. Once at their destination, the ship, a machine that possesses complete control over them, wakes them up and they continue their work. Everyone is a freelancer; everyone is put to sleep till their next gig. In the first film, when Captain Dallas hacks into the ship’s computer to discover the mission’s operating mandate, he discovers a chilling command stating that capturing the alien is the first and only priority. “Crew expendable,” it reads.

On her Twitter feed, Huffington retweets yet another famous billionaire, Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates: “Make sure to be gentle to yourself. Take time for yourself. Make sure that you’re taking care of yourself in order to be the best person and do your best job.” Ultimately, that’s all that matters to Huffington and her ilk, that the workers remain at their most fit, churning out content when awake, then suspended in pods until their labor is next required. And should these freelancers prove too costly, well, “crew expendable.” In space, no one can hear you cry in your dreams.

Illustrations by Chris Matthews

Finding Your Inner Gorilla

Examining the written works of alt-right Twitter troll Mike Cernovich…

Making money off saps has always been the real American Dream, and by this measure Mike Cernovich is doing his best to truly live out our great national aspiration. One not might have thought the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump would make compelling raw material for a self-help franchise, but in MAGA Mindset: Making YOU and America Great Again, Cernovich manages to meld the nationalist rhetoric of the “alt-right” with the affirmational platitudes of The Secret.

Over the course of the presidential campaign, Cernovich built up a reputation as the man too toxically right-wing for even FOX News. When the network invited him on, a RedState blogger exclaimed, “They’re giving this motherfucker legitimacy? Oh my god!” Cernovich, after all, is a Pizzagate truther known for sending tweets about how date rape doesn’t exist. He regularly uses the word “bitch” in describing women, and has called the Syrian refugee crisis a media-created “hoax.” Yet Cernovich has built up a considerable platform on (where else?) Twitter, where he preaches to a swarm of over one hundred and fifty thousand followers.

In his conspiratorial and misogynistic pronouncements, Cernovich is a run-of-the-mill creature of the online alt-right. He nevertheless makes for an interesting subspecimen, as one of the only fixtures of the movement to parlay his politics into a self-help brand. Cernovich’s blog and books are not just Trumpist propaganda. They sell a lifestyle, a package of inspirational macho clichés to help weedy, socially inept men become their ultimate selves. Cernovich takes Trump’s sales pitch one step further: Make America Great Again is not just a political program. It is a whole new you.

Cernovich himself is a classic rags-to-riches story: the inspiring metamorphosis of a poor, fat kid from the Midwest into a fully-fledged asshole in Venice Beach, California. During this remarkable journey, Cernovich learned martial arts, went to law school, was accused of rape, self-published three entire books on juicing, married a highly successful Silicon Valley patent attorney, was divorced by a highly successful Silicon Valley patent attorney, got a seven-figure alimony payout, rose to internet prominence by savaging a bunch of female gamers on Twitter, and finally became a thought-leader in the world of tinhat fake news (e.g.: “The Orlando Shooter Did Not Act Alone”). Also, his podcast has more followers than James Altucher’s. (We have no idea who James Altucher is either, but Mike Cernovich mentions this fact in every single one of his books, so we must assume it is one of Cernovich’s more significant achievements.)

Cernovich’s internet writings include such thinkpieces as “How to Choke a Woman During Sex” and, entirely unrelatedly, “How to Avoid a False Rape Case.” (Cernovich’s professional advice is that you should secretly film the woman during sex.) Given this provocative online oeuvre, the surprising thing about Cernovich’s first self-help book, Gorilla Mindset (other than how little it actually discusses gorillas), is just how milquetoast and prototypical Cernovich’s advice is. Confronting your challenges, reaching your goals, maintaining your focus. For a masculinist tract, parts of it have a surprisingly Chicken Soup for the Soul vibe.

The gorilla conceit itself goes unexplained. Why gorillas? Presumably because they are muscly and do not suffer from self-doubt. (They are also, however, not known for being especially sophisticated political thinkers, a fact one may wish to bear in mind when assessing how much credence to give Cernovich’s theory of an international war on whites.) The gorilla mindset seems to have something to do with unleashing an inner animal. But what gorillas have to offer, other than large chests and a constrained capacity for higher-order reasoning, one is never told.

We do learn one characteristic of people with gorilla mindsets, which is that they are very organized. “When stepping outside of my door and before closing the door,” Cernovich reveals, “I stop. I feel for my wallet, cell phone, and keys. Because of this Gorilla Mindset habit, I have never locked myself out of my apartment.” A real gorilla never forgets his keys! Mike Cernovich is laying down all the hard truths those effeminate left-wing nature documentaries will never tell you. Later on, in a list of Gorilla Focus habits, we are told that gorillas “do not eat in front of the television.” A real gorilla knows this will only make him lose track of his calorie intake! The discoveries continue to pile on. A real gorilla pees eight times a day, clear urine! A real gorilla always registers as self-employed on his tax returns! A real gorilla COOKS WITH A CROCKPOT!

Cernovich’s next book, Danger & Play, continues the themes of Gorilla Mindset in a more aggressive style. The content is edgier, the formatting is far worse, and Mike Cernovich wants you to know that he is done coddling you. Straight away, he lays down the central traits of Masculine Men. Masculine men are aggressive. Masculine men move with purpose. But above all else, masculine men are hard. Do you have what it takes to be hard, Cernovich taunts his eunuch readers, or are you a coward? “Are you afraid of drinking a green juice?” he asks, “and instead look for your milk and cookies?”

Cernovich’s writing on dating and relationships is predictably full of bad advice. “Acting like a narcissist will make people like you,” he says. (This is not the case.) There’s the usual stuff from “pick-up artist” culture about being mean to women to make them like you, and about how it’s a good idea to bite a woman on the neck if you’re not totally sure she wants you to kiss her. (Though you’d better make sure you film it, lest you be brought up on a false vampirism charge.) His declarations often have the interesting quality, in common with virgins writing letters to Penthouse, of leading the reader to emit a long “Suuuuuuuure.” “My first marriage was ruined by feminist indoctrination,” he insists. (Suuuure it was.) “I was friends with a lot of girls who had crushes on me, but I was too polite to fuck them.” (Suuuuure they did.) Not all of the claims he makes are implausible, though. A long list of “what I juiced this week” (including recipes for cabbage carrot juice, kale lemonade, and a celery refresher) is too exhaustively-documented to be fictionalized.

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One can glimpse the fruits of Cernovich’s gender philosophy in a New Yorker profile of him, which portrays his current marriage as wracked by tension and nervous laughter on the part of his indulgent wife. (“Never marry for love,” Cernovich advised his readers in a December 2016 blog post, published just two days after his wife gave birth to their child.) Cernovich’s principled commitment to being an asshole to women seems to have, shockingly enough, caused its share of tearful rifts in the home:

Early in Shauna’s relationship with Mike, she read Danger and Play, including such posts as “How to Cheat on Your Girlfriend.” She said, “I would come home from work crying—‘How can you write such rude things?’ He’d go, ‘You don’t understand, babe, this is just how guys talk.’ ” (Advice from the blog: “Always call your girl ‘babe,’ ” to avoid mixing up names.) Shauna, who has stopped working, continued, “I was still upset, though, and he eventually deleted some older posts.” “I rewrote some of the wording,” Mike insisted. “I never disavow things I’ve said.”

Though Cernovich may draw a principled distinction between disavowing and deleting the things he’s said in the past, he certainly has no aversion to simply lying. His championing of Donald Trump, for example, began as a cynical ploy to sell e-books. In a 2015 Twitter exchange with a follower, who remarked that Cernovich “took a damn sharp turn to the right,” Cernovich replied: “My real views are far more moderate, but now is the time to win. Arguing over details is reserved for the winners.”

MAGA Mindset, Cernovich’s Trump-themed book, is 75% alt-right screed against the evils of feminism and the ethnic adulteration of the United States, and 25% of the usual warmed-over gorilla feces sandwiched between Trump block quotes. Cernovich is eager, in this book, to cast himself as a defender of white working-class folk against the diabolical coastal elites who say that such people “deserve to die.” This is a fascinating evolution from Cernovich’s pre-election view, which was that the people from his own small Midwestern town were human garbage. “My brother is a loser who just got out of prison for shooting his meth dealer,” he writes in Danger and Play. “I haven’t talked to him in more than a decade. Why would I associate with such a scumbag? Because he’s family?” If Cernovich himself hadn’t moved to California, he added, “I’d be stuck working a shit job in a shit downtown, married to some shit cow and raising some shit kids.” Instead, he’s now living the dream in Orange County, alternating between making his wife cry and blogging about liberal media conspiracies. He is truly a populist in the Donald Trump mold.

“My first marriage was ruined by feminist indoctrination…”

Reading Cernovich, one gets the distinct impression that he is urgently trying to prove something. The New Yorker profile provides one possible explanation of this might be:

After law school, his wife became a successful attorney in Silicon Valley. But Cernovich was not admitted to the California bar until nine years after getting his law degree. In the meantime, he says, he got by with “freelance legal research” and “appellate stuff.” Cernovich’s wife earned millions of dollars in stock from an I.P.O.; he told me that he received “seven figures” in the divorce settlement. This seems to have been, and might still be, his primary source of funds. (He insists that book sales provide his main income.)

Thus Cernovich, who wishes to restore American masculinity, is a parasite on his much more successful ex-wife. (It is this, presumably, to which he is referring when he says that feminism killed his first marriage.) The amusing thing, when delving into the Cernovich’s writings, is realizing just how contrived and desperate the masculine posturing seems. Margaret Pless, a blogger who has made it her gleeful mission to catalogue Cernovich’s many egregious fibs and hypocrisies, has described Cernovich as a “Potemkin Alpha Male,” whose online persona is cobbled together from a whole host of unlikely claims. Though Cernovich boasts of his lawyerly credentials—and routinely threatens lawsuits against his opponents during online feuds—he has apparently never served as counsel in a single state or federal court case. Though he’s publicly mocked other men for accepting alimony, he’s also repeatedly contradicted his own claims that his media products have been the source of his financial success, and seems content to stealthily subsist on the drippings of his high-powered ex-wife’s IPO. His pickup game includes such medically dubious advice as “the best condom a man has is the skin on his dick,” and even his 10,000 juicing books contain lengthy legal disclaimers against foolish readers who expect any kind of health benefit from his recipes. “Although Michael claims to be a self-made man, he trolls more well-known men, drafting off their fame to get attention,” Pless writes. “His tales of sexual conquest are just that, and Michael’s legal career is a similarly trumped-up story with little to no basis in fact.”

One could be amused by Cernovich’s constant attempts to puff himself into the gorilla he knows he isn’t. After all, if this is masculinity, then masculinity is pitiable. And it’s a shame that Mike Cernovich and his followers feel the need to become these ghastly creatures, who call women bitches and never leave the gym, just so they don’t feel like failures. It says something dispiriting about the way boys are raised. Cernovich himself writes of a childhood plagued by bullies, which led him to adopt the following life philosophy: “I hurt anyone who wrongs me and hold lifetime grudges.” One feels for the boy Cernovich, the pudgy kid with the speech impediment, who still spends every day trying to prove himself to his imagined tormentors.

Yet as much pity as one may have for men destroyed by the impossible quest to eliminate personal failure and weakness, the Cernovich mentality is still disturbing. By finding a way to fuse Trumpism with self-esteem building, Cernovich offers a tempting ideological framework for today’s angry white man. One of the ways that Cernovich distinguishes himself from other conservatives is that his brand of right-wing politics openly embraces power rather than logic. Cernovich does not want to have a debate. He wants to achieve dominance. One hesitates to use the word fascist, because of its emptiness. But Cernovich, like Trump, seems a dash like Mussolini by way of Norman Vincent Peale.

Not that Cernovich’s books themselves are especially threatening. The reader feels more likely to die of tedium than at the hands of right-wing terror squads. Your reviewers had a very difficult time getting through them (the Cernovich assignment required two reporters, as the boredom was too much to justify inflicting on one). They are not very slickly made. The paperback version of Cernovich’s blog posts includes hyperlinks that do not work because they are, well, on paper. For MAGA Mindset, someone has evidently forgotten to include the page numbers (even though there is a table of contents). They are produced by a tiny publishing house whose other offerings include There Will Be War, Vol I-X and a guide to “extreme composting.” (None of the usual weak, girly composting here. You must compost like a man.)

Under different circumstances, one might be inclined to simply give Cernovich a gentle pat on the head and coo “There, there,” perhaps also passing him a recommendation for a good therapist, who could help him work through some of his lingering complexes about his childhood. But unfortunately, Trump is president, and the cruel, self-aggrandizing philosophy that could usually be met with ostracism and disdain now threatens us all. Mike Cernovich’s philosophy of vanity, bombast, and sexual assault has become national policy.

None of that changes the underlying facts, though. A gorilla may be strong enough to mash you into the pavement, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything. A man may get a lot of people to buy his books, but that doesn’t mean they are good. And an insecure, narcissistic rapist may look in the mirror and fancy himself a great and powerful beast, but he’s still Mike Cernovich. 

Illustration by Tyler Rubenfeld.