Six months into his presidency, activists and journalists on both sides of the political divide are still struggling with how he won and what his victory should mean for their own behavior. Just as a minority of conservative writers are beginning to understand the value of journalism in holding the powerful accountable, some liberals seem to be recoiling from the idea that their own side deserves mockery and ridicule.
The Democratic establishment’s failure to win against the most unpopular presidential candidate in the history of public polling has led to a resurgence of left-liberalism in the country. Even many former supporters of Hillary Clinton have become willing to admit that the party’s elderly and wealthy elites have lost touch with the majority of Americans they claim to represent. Activists' repeated calls for single-payer finally appears to be gaining some traction with Democrats in Congress as well.
For decades, pushing toward universal coverage was the goal of many Democratic politicians, particularly that of former president Harry Truman who made it the centerpiece of his agenda. All that changed, however, after Bill Clinton’s attempt to address the issue crashed and burned early on in his administration. Ever since, Democratic politicians have been afraid to pursue health insurance for all Americans, including Barack Obama.
Since Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump, these and other center-left policy decisions have begun to come under fierce criticism from left-liberals who have felt shut out of Democratic politics since neoliberals (including former Republicans like Clinton) effectively took control of the party in the 1990s. The stronger-than-expected primary challenge of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 served as the galvanizing agent for left-liberalism.
With social media platforms like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter, like-minded progressives who supported Sanders' campaign began to explicitly challenge Democrats they identified as sell outs. The left has also taken to web videos to resuscitate itself. Right now, the TYT network on YouTube has more subscribers than CNN or MSNBC have viewers. Podcasts have also exploded in popularity among left-liberals.
One podcast, in particular, has been taking left-wing politics by storm. Chapo Trap House, sarcastically named after a drug house, is a highly irreverent, pop-culture-inflected group discussion that frequently features parodies of mainstream media figures.
The show also frequently ridicules Democratic politicians and neoliberal leaders for their willingness to go along with the desires of Wall Street. The hosts of Chapo --- who jokingly refer to themselves and their listeners as the "dirtbag left" --- also frequently point out that most of the architects behind the second Iraq invasion have never really had to face accountability for their disastrous policy ideas.
“That’s why making fun of them is so important,” co-host Matt Christman told Mediaite last year. “One of the reasons they’re able to pass off their really sophomoric claims to authority is that they have this aura around themselves of wonkery and really the only way to pierce that — you could, I guess, do point by point rebuttals — but I think viscerally the most effective way to pierce that is just mockery.”
Obviously, their targets aren’t laughing at the jokes but another person who doesn’t find the material funny is New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer. In his view, the ridicule that Christman and his co-hosts dish out to Democrats is unproductive and evocative of the masculinist politics of the neofascist alt-right. Heer recently described Chapo Trap House as an example of the “dominance politics” which lies at the core of Donald Trump’s appeal to his supporters:
It’s easy enough to prefer insult comedy to milquetoast liberalism, the latter being too timid to go to blows with the right, but Chapo directs its barbs rather democratically. Chapo is fighting a two-front war, one against the Republicans and another against moderate Democrats. About half the time, the Chapo crew attacks right-wingers like Mike Cernovich, Sebastian Gorka, and Alex Jones. Just as often, though, they go after Clintonites like Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias, and Neera Tanden.
To redeploy the alt-right style of unruly jokes against alt-right figures like Cernovich or Jones makes a certain amount of sense. That’s a choice many of us would make. But the humor becomes very different when used against people of the same party, since the goal then is not to defeat an opposing side but dominate people who are part of your political coalition. … you can’t really build a coalition of egalitarian politics by browbeating a key segment of that coalition.
Besides the contradiction inherent in the argument that ridicule is counterproductive but still permissible to use against Republicans, Heer’s contention also reflects a lack of familiarity with the Chapo Trap House manner of dishing ridicule. Almost invariably, the hosts’ targets are political leaders and media figures instead of average Americans. The show’s populist message is also apparent in the fact that it is one of the few media outlets willing to take an openly progressive message into parts of the country where run-of-the-mill Democrats refuse to tread.
Heer’s allergic reaction to intraparty debate and ridicule is actually rather similar to the arguments raised by conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher in a debate he had last week with Guy Benson, the political editor of Townhall.com.
Six months into the new administration, Benson is still refusing to make excuses for Trump on Russia the way that many others on the right have done. Gallagher, a co-host on the radio network which also owns Townhall, went after his colleague, essentially saying that he has no right to offer opinions on the president in light of his previous “NeverTrump” position.
“You’ve got a credibility problem,” Gallagher told Benson. The two conservative commentators disagreed about the revelation that Donald Trump Jr. and other top aides had met with a woman they believed to be working with the Russian government.
“I want people like you who are smart and sophisticated who appear to have the pretense of objectivity to acknowledge and maybe even via a disclaimer in your current work that you’re a NeverTrumper,” Gallagher said to Benson. “You didn’t want the guy to win and you’re not happy that he won.”
Contacted afterward about his exchange with Gallagher, Benson said that his colleague’s attitude is in line with that of many on the right.
“I think a lot of conservatives believe that there's so much antipathy toward conservatives in the mainstream press that any internal criticism or firing inside the tent, so to speak, is simply piling on,” he told Salon in an interview. “And therefore, they view it as some kind of a betrayal.”
Benson continued: “While I share the view that the media is disproportionately hostile to Republicans and conservative thinking, I don't think that fact requires conservatives analysts or journalists to abandon intellectual honesty.”
One doesn’t have to agree with Benson’s view of media coverage to agree that he’s right about the need for more intellectual honesty. Both conservatives and progressives got where they are today because neither side has been willing to clean its political house. Until that's done, Democrats won't be able to win and Republicans won't be able to govern.
The left and right's elites have been living in bubbles that Donald Trump's victory should have completely burst. Instead, they've just been leaking.