Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have a long track record of work that exposes the crimes of the powerful. Both were early intellectual heroes of mine; Taibbi was one of the first writers to see through Barack Obama’s hollow rhetoric, and his reporting around the financial crisis was unmatched. His book on the killing of Eric Garner by the NYPD, I Can’t Breathe, is a superbly-written indictment of modern policing. Greenwald’s exposes on the crimes of the Bush and Obama administrations were essential reading, carefully documenting both presidents’ abuses of basic civil liberties and debunking their lies. His reporting on the corruption of the Brazilian government has been personally brave and truly important. There is a good case to be made that for his role in freeing Lula da Silva from prison and exposing the reach of the U.S. surveillance state, Glenn Greenwald is one of the most consequential reporters in the world. He has also been personally supportive of my work in a way I have appreciated deeply.
I have long respected these two writers’ intelligence. I do not think they are sinister people. But something strange has happened with them both lately, and it’s worth looking at closely, because I think it shows (1) how bad right-wing arguments successfully pose as “common sense” and can easily persuade certain people, especially those who think of themselves as logical and reasonable, and (2) how excessive disgust for liberals can create deficiencies in one’s political analysis which in turn can give rise to a fuzzy understanding of the way the world works. (A bit more uncharitably, I might say it shows how Twitter turns smart people stupid.)
Let me start with a few quotes from these two journalists that I think show the places where they have begun to diverge sharply from what I consider sensible analysis:
- “Fox [News] is one channel that no longer represents real institutional political influence in this country anymore. The financial/educational/political elite with all the power is on the other side, and I think they’re the people to be worrying about.” — Matt Taibbi
- “The left always thinks everyone is against them. It’s a huge persecution complex. The vast majority of digital media and increasingly mainstream media is 100% on the side of the left on cultural issues like crime policy.” — Glenn Greenwald
- “I would be on [Fox News] every day if I didn’t say no sometimes. I just got done taping a Fox show, I’ll probably do another one on Monday. Why is that happening? It’s bizarre. You look at any article on my work and it’s ‘far leftist Glenn Greenwald’ and now I’m the most frequent guest on Tucker Carlson’s show. How did that happen? I think the reason is so many people on the left and on the right… have so much more in common in terms of their political views and their common enemies than either want to recognize…Those old labels [left and right] don’t really tell us much anymore.” — Greenwald, to Glenn Beck
- “The American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.” — Taibbi
- “Watch the cultural left try to cope with the fact that not only is their Woke Ideology no threat to any power centers anywhere, but the opposite is true: those power centers love it and embrace it because of how helpful it is to them.” — Greenwald
- “It’s just not true that most media is pro-law-and-order. Republicans are. Democrats, increasingly, aren’t. The left most definitely isn’t, neither are liberals. Liberals and the left have a very powerful position in media, arguably the dominant one outside Fox. — Greenwald
- “The political right and left in America have traded villainous cultural pathologies. Things we once despised about the right have been amplified a thousand-fold on the flip. Conservatives once tried to legislate what went on in your bedroom; now it’s the left that obsesses over sexual codicils, not just for the bedroom but everywhere.” — Taibbi, “The Left Is Now The Right”
- “Woke leftists are capitalists. Jamie Dimon kneeling and Nancy Pelosi in a Kente cloth scarf are perfect symbols of the union.”— Matt Taibbi
- “Real leftist groups—Sunrise Movement, Working Families Party, DSA, JD, Squad-adjacent stuff—are very attached to many of the worst attributes of identity politics and woke ideology. I wish it were confined to neoliberalism but it’s just not true.” — Greenwald
- “The go-to response to any criticism of mainstream politics for years has been to accuse people of being in league with the right-wing—well, congratulations, you’ve made those alliances real.” — Taibbi
- “The CIA and the Deep State operatives became heroes of the liberal left, the people who support the Democratic Party. They are now in a full union with the neocons and the Bush Cheney operatives, the CIA, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street. That is the union of power, along with mainstream media outlets, that are fully behind the Democratic Party which is likely to at least take over one branch of government, if not all of them, in the coming election and that’s a very alarming proposition, because they are authoritarian, they believe in censorship and suppression of information that exposes them in any kind of a critical light.” — Greenwald, to Tucker Carlson, before the 2020 election
- “The cultural left (meaning the part of the left focused on cultural issues rather than imperialism or corporatism) has become increasingly censorious, moralizing, controlling, repressive, petulant, joyless, self-victimizing, trivial and status-quo-perpetuating.” — Greenwald
I put these two men’s thoughts together because they are articulating variations on a common argument, which goes, roughly: the “woke” left are such an authoritarian threat that it makes sense to make common cause with the “populist” right. “Left,” “left liberal,” and “Democrat” are used somewhat interchangeably here, but the thrust of the argument is that Donald Trump is essentially correct about Democrats destroying the country with “woke.” There is a “villainous cultural pathology” on the left that is repressive, tyrannical, and bordering on all-powerful. Ordinary, sensible people must band together to oppose this Establishment.
Greenwald and Taibbi would likely insist that even though these views on the left align perfectly with those held by Fox News, the Koch Brothers, and Donald Trump, they are not themselves right-wing. (Greenwald, for instance, is married to one of Brazil’s foremost socialist politicians.) The truth does not have politics, and if Donald Trump says the sky is blue, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. If the right has correctly identified dangers in left-wing ideology, then making “common cause” or “alliances” with them is acceptable. Taibbi says that the right and left have “traded” pathologies, and so opponents of censorship and authoritarianism simply now find a more natural home among conservatives than they do among Democrats and supposed liberals. Greenwald has harshly criticized the ACLU, saying that it is run by “millennial woke warriors who don’t believe in free speech or due process” and arguing that his own former publication, the Intercept, “is shit” and run by “authoritarian shit liberals.” (In fact, the Intercept continues to be one of the best publications in the country in my opinion, with sharp writers like Jon Schwarz, Akela Lacy, Sara Sirota, Ryan Grim, Nick Turse, Murtaza Hussain, and Natasha Lennard.)
Greenwald appears to view this liberal authoritarianism, built on “woke ideology,” as a greater threat to the country than Donald Trump’s brand of right-wing “populism.” By calling it “a very alarming proposition” that the Democratic Party was at the time poised to take over “at least one branch of government,” and suggesting Democrats want to shred the Constitution and “don’t believe in standard democratic processes,” and calling the Democratic Party the “epitome of the fascism they claim to be fighting, but which in reality they embody,” Greenwald has heavily implied that the Republican Party is actually the lesser of two evils. After all, if Democrats are the “epitome of fascism” and “completely repressive,” but on the other hand, “asserting that Donald Trump is a fascist-like dictator threatening the previously sturdy foundations of U.S. democracy” is a “preposterous farce,” and non-fascism remains preferable to fascism, then Trump’s politics are preferable to those of the contemporary Democratic Party. Greenwald has rejected the idea that Trump is an authoritarian, saying that Trump had “perfectly crafted opportunities to seize authoritarian power” and “yet did virtually nothing to exploit those opportunities.” He writes that “those most vocally screaming about growing authoritarianism in the U.S. over the last four years [of Trump’s presidency] were very right in their core warning, but very wrong about the real source of that danger.” That danger comes instead, he argues, from the fascist Democratic Party.
This is the classic right-wing story about American politics: that left-leaning elites dominate the country and the right is marginal. Liberals control the most powerful institutions in the country, particularly centers of cultural power, and use these institutions to persecute conservatives. Greenwald writes that “the most powerful U.S. institutions—the intelligence community and military brass, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the corporate media—opposed and subverted [Trump] from the start.” Taibbi writes that Fox News is “without real institutional political influence” anymore. Instead, liberal fascists, in league with Wall Street, the Deep State, and Silicon Valley are trying to erode such vital democratic institutions like the Senate’s disproportionate representation of “small and rural states.” And while Greenwald sometimes distinguishes the Bernie Sanders left from the authoritarian liberals he so despises, he also says that the dangerous “woke ideology” is also present in leftist organizations like the DSA and the Sunrise Movement.
This story about American politics is short-sighted, delusional, and dangerous. It’s short-sighted because much of what is called “wokeness,” while limited in its transformational capacity and cynically manipulated at times, is still a critically important step toward achieving justice. It’s delusional because the Democratic Party, for all its flaws, hypocrisies, and capitalist inclinations, is still preferable to the racist and extremely capitalist Republican Party. And it’s dangerous because Republicans are going to try to use this story about liberal fascism in order to try to get back into power in 2022 and 2024, and people who short-sightedly use their large platforms to push a delusional right-wing narrative are actively helping the Republican Party achieve its incredibly destructive goals.
Let us begin with a few obvious cracks in the story told by Greenwald, Taibbi, and all of the American right. Here is a revealing exchange Greenwald had with right-wing pundit Glenn Beck:
We’re talking about the electoral process, we’re talking about new voting standards that they say are essential for everybody to vote and that Republicans are denying water to people. It’s pretty ridiculous. They’re talking now about the end of the filibuster, adding extra states and possibly packing the Supreme Court… It doesn’t seem as though this is the party [the Democratic Party] that’s moderate and not fascistic.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. The Democratic Party is a party that I view as completely repressive and not just the Democratic Party but the liberal movement that supports it. By liberal, just to be clear, I don’t mean the far left, the kind of left-wing movement that supported Bernie Sanders—a lot of them hate Democrats at least as much as people on the right. I mean establishment liberals of the Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton strain. Those people, they don’t believe in free speech at all. … They don’t believe in due process, they find people guilty all the time […] The whole MeToo movement was about destroying people based on accusations that are unproven. They don’t believe in free speech, they don’t believe in due process, they don’t believe in the standard democratic processes including the safeguards that our Founders put in including making sure that states that are small and rural have equal representation in the Senate but not the House. They want to change all of that. They want to change all of the rules to ensure that they remain in power forever. It is a genuinely repressive and tyrannical party and the movement that supports it is the reason I’ve become so violently alienated from it.
Greenwald says that Democratic attacks on the Senate as an institution are attacks on fundamental “democratic” “safeguards” that the Founders put in, and that Democrats are repressive and tyrannical partly because they want to subvert the will of the principled gentlemen who devised our country’s original governing document. But as Noam Chomsky explains, the Senate is the opposite of a safeguard for democracy. In fact, it directly undermines liberty in the name of the wealthy and the powerful:
“Now states with 23 percent of the population have enough electoral votes to choose the president. Even more importantly, the same radical imbalance makes the Senate a highly undemocratic institution—in accord with the intentions of the Framers. In Madison’s constitutional design, the Senate was the most powerful branch of government, and the most protected from public interference. It was to represent “the wealth of the nation,” the most “responsible” men, who have sympathy for property and its rights. Furthermore, though the Framers did not anticipate this of course, social and demographic changes have placed this excessive anti-democratic power in the hands of a part of the population that is mostly rural, white, Christian, socially conservative and traditionalist.” [emphasis mine]
From the founding of the country to the present day, the Senate has helped make sure that the majority of people do not see their preferences enacted by their government. Because of that, those who believe in democracy really ought to fight against the Senate, not defend it. (Socialist congressman Victor Berger actually introduced a resolution in 1911 to abolish this “obstructive and useless body.” It failed.)
Both Greenwald and Taibbi present the American right as weak. As Taibbi says, the “financial/educational/political elite with all the power is on the other side,” on the left. But that’s not so. The Supreme Court, which literally has “all the power” in the sense that it can overturn any law passed by Congress, now has six of its nine members appointed by Republican presidents. As Chomsky points out, this means that “if [Biden] tries anything progressive, the Supreme Court is there to block it.” Controlling the Supreme Court gives the right extreme veto power over any remotely progressive piece of legislation or administrative agency action. And it’s not just the Supreme Court: Donald Trump appointed hundreds of judges at lower levels, flipping three federal appellate courts from majority-Democrat to majority-Republican (an achievement the Republican Party openly boasts about, in a frank admission that law is a sham masking a naked power contest.) These judges have already begun to “reshape US law in a more conservative direction on issues as wide ranging as gun control, voting rights, environmental protections, abortion and immigration.” (These new conservative judges have, for instance, helped Republicans restrict felon voting rights. A Trump appointee just ruled that Biden could not stop issuing new drilling leases on federal lands.) It has been a quiet revolution, but a good part of the reason it has been so quiet is that loud people with public platforms think “woke ideology” is a far more important issue than the court system which actually decides our fates.
The Republican Party fully controls 23 state governments, meaning it fully holds both the legislative and executive branches. (Democrats control 15.) Republicans have been using their power in these states to try to restrict abortion, deny healthcare to transgender youths, roll back voting rights, restrict schools from teaching about racism, ban cities from requiring paid sick leave, restrict cities from cutting law enforcement budgets, and reduce the rights of protesters. Nor is the Republican Party in Congress impotent. The 60-vote threshold in the Senate (which both Joe Biden and Joe Manchin resist abolishing) means Republicans have the power to prevent the Democratic Party from passing significant legislation. How, given that Republicans can literally prevent laws from being passed no matter how popular they are, can Taibbi possibly be right when he says that “all the power” is on the side opposite Fox News? The only way one can believe this is by swallowing the conservative story about reality rather than thinking carefully about what the world is actually like.
If it is true that the Democratic Party are fascist authoritarians who control all major public institutions, then one might not weep if they were cast out of power and Trump were to return to office in 2024. But this would be a calamity. Donald Trump’s approach to climate change, probably the most urgent issue of our time (alongside global arms control), is to gut even the weak emissions reductions measures that are currently in place. Trump’s suicidal lunacy on climate change led Chomsky to call him “the worst criminal in history, undeniably,” on the grounds that “there has never been a figure in political history who was so passionately dedicated to destroying the projects for organized human life on earth in the near future.” Perhaps an exaggeration? For Chomsky, it simply comes from accepting the basic facts of climate change:
That is not an exaggeration… We will emerge [from the pandemic, but] we’re not going to emerge from another crime that Trump has committed, the heating of the globe. The worst of it is coming—we’re not going to emerge from that. The ice sheets are melting; they’re not going to recover. That leads to exponential increase in global warming. Arctic glaciers, for example, could flood the world. Recent studies indicate that on the present course, in about fifty years, much of the habitable part of the world will be unlivable. You won’t be able to live in parts of South Asia, parts of the Middle East, parts of the United States… All around the world, countries are trying to do something about it. But there is one country which is led by a president who wants to escalate the crisis, to race toward the abyss, to maximize the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous of them, and to dismantle the regulatory apparatus that limits their impact. There is no crime like this in human history. Nothing. [Trump] is a unique individual. And it’s not as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Of course he does. It’s as if he doesn’t care. If he can pour more profits into his pockets and the pockets of his rich constituency tomorrow, who cares if the world disappears in a couple of generations?
You might think that given the overriding importance of climate change, it would be insane to worry that the prospect of a Democratic victory in 2020 was “alarming.” What was alarming in 2020 was the prospect of having four more years without any possibility of meaningful climate action. It’s true that the Democrats are hopelessly weak on this and every other issue that matters, but it is also the case that if there is a chance of passing meaningful climate legislation or improving regulation, it can occur only with Democratic power as a precondition. Republican power means absolutely nothing will get done. This alone should completely rule out any kind of alliance with the right. They must be defeated.
Add to that, of course, the rest of the right-wing agenda. A world in which Republicans rule is one in which the problem of mass incarceration grows worse, worker safety rules and labor rights are stripped, arms control treaties are ripped up, and immigration is sharply curbed. Of course, with a conservative Democrat like Joe Biden in the White House, we are unlikely to see substantial progress on these issues even though Trump is gone. But the only way to guarantee zero progress—and considerable backsliding—is to let the Republican Party control the country.
The perception that Barack Obama and Joe Biden get less criticism from liberals for doing the same things as Donald Trump is absolutely correct. It is also correct to say that Donald Trump was not a bizarre authoritarian aberration, but in fact displayed tendencies that are also present in the centrist politicians who opposed him. This does not, however, mean (as Greenwald says) that the threat of authoritarianism in the U.S. had “nothing to do with Trump,” given that Donald Trump made every effort to delegitimize the election that ousted him and would have overturned the result if he had the power. Is the Democratic Party largely beholden to corporate donors? Are too many of them elite careerists who don’t care about much beyond securing their own status? Oh boy, you bet. Is it even somewhat embarrassing to be or support Democrats a lot of the time, to the point where leftists like Bernie deliberately maintain their distance from the party? Yes. I complain about Democrats constantly.
But we need to be extremely careful, because acknowledging the Democratic party’s gaping flaws is not the same as believing that Liberal Fascism and the Wall Street-Silicon Valley Democratic Cabal run the country, and that therefore the Bernie Sanders left should feel more kinship with the Trumpist right than the Democratic Party, because they share a common enemy. “We detest Nancy Pelosi, they detest Nancy Pelosi, so let’s team up!” This view, that there should be a unified left-right “populist” movement against the Establishment, has been pushed by commentators Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, who now have the #1 most popular politics podcast in the country. Greenwald, who appeared as the show’s first guest, praises it as “geared toward having people stop hating each other and hate the ruling class instead,” and is a proponent of the view that right-wing populism (seemingly exemplified by the salt-of-the-earth, working class Josh Hawley, Donald Trump, and Tucker Carlson) should not be seen as an enemy of the left. But it is not clear what, beyond a belief that Amazon is too powerful, unites these two groups. Certainly when it comes to climate change, labor unions, arms control, mass incarceration, immigration, police brutality, racism, drone strikes, Israel, and trans rights, the “populist” right and the left stand diametrically opposed to one another. I suppose if one can set all of these critical issues aside, there may be “common ground.” But even when it comes to corporate power, Tucker Carlson’s problem with corporate America isn’t so much about wanting worker ownership of the means of production than it is about his resentment at having to buy products from companies that support Black Lives Matter. Donald Trump was not an economic “populist” in any authentic sense; a tax cut for the rich was his biggest legislative accomplishment. The “economically populist” aspects of Trumpism are and have always been a fraud; he could not care less about working people, he just knew how to pretend he did.
This is not to say that there must be a problem with, say, a politician like Bernie Sanders working with Josh Hawley on narrow points of agreement, any more than there is a problem with Sanders co-signing a letter with free market libertarian Rand Paul. But it does mean that we need to be clear on what the consequences of Republican Party power are, and the fact that the difference between having a “right wing populist” in charge and a leftist is, to use a UK example, the difference between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Proposing an alliance between U.S. “populists” of left and right is as absurd as proposing an alliance between the Labour Left and the Tories on the grounds that the Tories have figured out that they ought to say the word “workers” sometimes. It is based on deep confusion about what the important questions of politics are, and only seems sensible if one lets the resentment of liberals take on an outsized role in shaping one’s politics.
Very well: but what about the issue of Woke Authoritarianism? Taibbi and Greenwald suggest that the most powerful institutions in the country are captured by an authoritarian kind of Cultural Leftism that includes the MeToo movement (the “whole” of which was about “destroying people” based on “accusations that are unproven”—and not, say, at least partly about holding predators accountable for having committed sex crimes without suffering even minor social consequences). The idea here is that institutions like the CIA and large corporations have become captured by culturally left “woke” ideology. (This same idea is expressed in new books like Woke, Inc. and The Dictatorship of Woke Capital.)
Personally I find use of the word “woke” by critics of the left to be extremely irritating, because the term is so imprecise. I feel the same way about “cancel culture.” The usage of this term often puts valuable anti-racist and feminist points in the same bucket as the most marginal and extreme beliefs. What exactly are we talking about? It is hard for me to even have this conversation, because to critics, there is a big blob called Woke that consists of many disparate, equally evil things. The 1619 Project. Staffers at Random House objecting to the publication of Jordan Peterson’s book. Facebook censoring Trump. The woman who resigned her job at Smith College because she was upset about the content of diversity and inclusion trainings. Dave Chappelle being criticized for transphobic jokes. Jazz hands instead of clapping. California trying to end inequities in math education by focusing more on low-performing students than gifted students. The concept of systemic racism being taught in schools. Corporations that hire Robin DiAngelo to give seminars. Trigger warnings. Nancy Pelosi wearing Kente cloth. Nancy Pelosi being criticized for wearing Kente cloth. Sensitivity readers. The CIA boasting of its commitment to intersectional feminism.
Under one story, all of these can be lumped together as part of the spread of Woke Ideology. But under my own view—which I would argue is more nuanced and less reactive—there are many different kinds of things here, some of which are quite useful and represent social progress. The 1619 Project is mostly correct, with a few errors and failures, but on the whole has been a good contribution toward advancing public understanding of how important racism has been as a force in American history. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility captures a real phenomenon—white people get very prickly when you suggest they might care more about white people than nonwhite people—but is also built on a liberal kind of identity politics with little understanding of how power works or commitment to true egalitarianism. It’s okay for publishing staff not to want their firm in particular to publish a terrible book by a reactionary (a publishing house is not a public square), but it would not be good if Peterson was banned or blocked entirely and the public could not read his work. (They should read his stuff, because it’s hilarious.) Sensitivity readers can actually help improve people’s work by making sure they’re not saying anything embarrassing or wrong about groups they are not members of. Facebook probably should have censored Trump in the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, but while it is refreshing to not have to constantly hear about his yakking, I don’t see a good justification for permanently banning him from a platform that does amount to a “public square,” so long as we have a First Amendment. The ACLU is not “anti free speech” or “anti due process,” both of which are critically important, but faces a difficult trade-off where multiple values it holds come into conflict. It is possible, then, to have nuanced views, and I think that many people who are dismissed as Woke Authoritarians are actually, when their views are represented empathetically and fairly, a lot more reasonable than critics assume.
The fact that Wall Street may pretend to care about George Floyd is not a sign that social justice rules the land. Powerful institutions are happy to embrace symbolic gestures, because pretending that you care about racism makes for an excellent branding exercise. This does not mean that the CIA is now “woke” and actually cares about racism, any more than hearing an Amazon executive describe the company as “the Bernie Sanders of employers” means Amazon has magically gone pro-labor. It’s all simply good business. And it doesn’t discredit the underlying left values of anti-racism and feminism, any more than a bottled water company’s usage of the words “pure” and “fresh” would discredit the value and importance of clean water. (Natasha Lennard of the Intercept provides an excellent explanation here of why powerful institutions’ co-optation of radical language does not show that the concepts are benign and toothless.)
All the same, is it possible that anti-racist and femininist ideologies go “too far”? Given the persistence of the racial wealth gap, and the failure of MeToo to change longstanding exploitative workplace dynamics, I would say the problem is they haven’t gone far enough, having managed to change discourse without changing the social world very much. I don’t like it when leftists are unforgiving about small infractions, and believe we need a social justice politics with a comradely spirit that encourages people to grow, but the idea that the United States has an excess of feminism is laughable.
No matter where the stories came from they all featured a few familiar beats: A loved one seemed to have changed over time. Maybe that person was already somewhat conservative to start. Maybe they were apolitical. But at one point or another, they sat down in front of Fox News, found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia, and became a different person—someone difficult, if not impossible, to spend time with. — Luke O’Neil, “What I’ve Learned From Collecting Stories of People Whose Loved Ones Were Transformed by Fox News,” New York
Right-wing thought is kind of a black hole, in that once you are sucked in it is very hard to escape. This is because many right-wing arguments can sound quite persuasive, even like “common sense” (which is, of course, how they tend to present themselves). People don’t always notice when they have started to develop certain right-wing ways of looking at the world, often because they are only seeing one side of an argument.
To see what I mean, I want to look at some of Greenwald’s comments on a police shooting. One of the first signs I had that something distinctly odd was happening to him came during an exchange we had about the killing of a young Black man by a police officer. In September of 2020, Washington D.C. police shot and killed 18-year-old Deon Kay. Bodycam footage showed that Kay had fled from officers while carrying a gun, but had thrown the gun away in the seconds before officers shot him to death.
The American Civil Liberties Union tweeted a statement about the killing. It read:
DC police murdered Deon Kay yesterday. He was just 18 years old. His death is yet another painful reminder that violence and racism is endemic to policing in this nation. We demand justice for Deon, and every life taken by DC police.
Greenwald, a longtime civil liberties advocate (I first met him at an ACLU conference ten years ago) was outraged. But mostly at the ACLU. He said:
The ACLU spent decades demanding robust due process for everyone, no matter how notorious, before declared guilty. Now—drowning in #Resistance cash and new hires who want it to be a standard liberal group—it leads online mobs declaring people guilty of murder with no trial. The ACLU still has great lawyers (including its Executive Director) who believe in its core mission of being a civil liberties group, not a partisan arm of the DNC or a dreary trite liberal group. But they’re a minority, overrun by newly hired people with a very different agenda. You don’t have to love the police or support what they did to believe the ACLU of all groups shouldn’t be declaring them guilty of murder with no due process—just like you didn’t have to love GITMO detainees to demand due process for them (as the ACLU did). That’s what due process is.
(Taibbi, too, has said the ACLU is “just a partisan political organization now.”)
The argument here, which may look quite reasonable on its surface, runs as follows: the ACLU is supposed to protect civil liberties, including the rights of the accused. The police officer here is accused of a crime. Thus the ACLU should not call the police officer a murderer until he is convicted. The fact that the ACLU did call the police officer a murderer shows that it is no longer clearly committed to due process of law, but instead leads “online mobs” declaring people guilty, and is a sign of their creeping liberal partisanship.
But there is another way we can look at this situation. Police officers are the armed wing of the government. Deon Kay was a private citizen. Deon Kay deserved due process of law, and he didn’t receive it—he was extrajudicially executed. But in the United States, when police officers murder people, it is incredibly difficult to actually convict them of murder, because the law gives them wide latitude to kill people when they feel it is necessary. Police officers do murder people, and those crimes usually go unpunished. If the ACLU followed Greenwald’s standard, it could hardly ever call police officers murderers, even when they commit murder, because the law allows police officers to commit murder with impunity. In other words, the organization whose job is to stick up for civilians when the state commits crimes against them would rarely if ever be in a position to accuse the state of those crimes because the state has immunized itself from accountability. Thus Greenwald is wrong: the ACLU calling a police officer a murderer does not necessarily show it is less committed to due process than it used to be, but rather that it views deprivations of civilian due process (through extrajudicial killings) as more important than protecting the right of the government not to be called out directly for its crimes. The alternative—allowing government agents to end up being largely immune from being called murderers because their murders can’t be prosecuted—is absurd.
Notice something here, which is that the point I am making is not as intuitively obvious as Greenwald’s formulation; his conclusion is quick and easy to reach. For him, the ACLU should not call a government crime a government crime until there has been a conviction, and if it does make the accusation pre-conviction, it doesn’t care about due process and clearly prioritizes Social Justice over Civil Liberties. It can take some thought to realize why this argument is overly simplistic and ignores crucial facts about the situation. When I tried to point it out to Greenwald, he saw this as evidence that I, too, must have become a Woke Revolutionary who doesn’t care about due process:
Being executed by the state without trial is also something of a due process violation. The ACLU’s job is to demand the enforcement of the rights of those who have them taken away by the state. Not to protect state executioners, who not only get due process but total impunity.
Not really interested in your performative Twitter show where you get to show how radical you are by defending the condemnation of Bad People as murderers without affording them due process. It’s boring. But fly, you revolutionary!
Greenwald later apologized to me for responding this way. But it illustrated something important, which is that once you begin to believe that the other side are Crazy Social Justice Woke Authoritarians, it becomes harder and harder to actually hear what they are saying. I have documented over and over how critics of the left, because they think we are a bunch of unreasonable PC snowflakes, often struggle to notice when they themselves have become irrational, hyper-emotional, quick to condemn, intolerant, smug, and self-righteous. It is possible not to see that you have subtly developed a greater concern with fairness to police than protection from police. To avoid the drift into confident irrationality, you need to be just as self-critical as you are critical of others.
The ACLU, under pressure from those who saw the word “murderer” as Wokeness rather than fact, deleted its tweet and replaced it with something more mealy-mouthed. (And so were civil liberties protected for another day.) The Trump administration, predictably, declined to charge the officer who shot Deon Kay. Months later, the Office of the D.C. Auditor would find that the officer who shot Kay had acted recklessly and not taken opportunities to de-escalate the situation. The Auditor would not, of course, accuse the officer of murder, because as a legal matter, an officer who commits murder is often not technically a murderer. But the fact remains that Deon Kay was murdered, even if the groups charged with sticking up for his civil liberties do not feel comfortable saying it for fear of impinging on the rights of the police.
This is not the only instance in which Greenwald has seemed more interested in defending those in power than those challenging them. He has recently been vigorously condemning Liberals and corporate media for what he sees as a piece of anti-Trump “fake news,” namely the story that on June 1st of 2020, Trump had protesters tear-gassed in order to do a photo op. In fact, a new Inspector General report shows that the police had planned to violently clear out the protesters for a couple of days as part of a plan to install anti-protester fencing in the area. Greenwald fixates on the fact that the tear-gassing was not arranged specifically so that Trump could do a photo op, saying this is an example of the lying corporate media, who do not care about truth and only care about attacking Trump. But it seems to me that presenting this as a “fake story” is highly misleading. After all, the factual question at issue is: did Trump (1) plan a photo-op to coincide with a previously-scheduled tear-gassing, or did he (2) arrange the tear-gassing to facilitate the photo op? (Of course, it would be denied that the tear-gassing itself was scheduled, just a clearance operation of the area. This is a rhetorical distinction with little meaning.) Because Trump had been calling for harsh crackdowns on protesters right before the tear-gassing, and then did a photo op at the site immediately after, it was originally assumed that (2) was true (quite a natural assumption given that Trump did a photo op in the area immediately after police tear-gassed people to get them out of it, and seemed proud to be seen “retaking the territory” and restoring Law and Order), but now it turns out it was (1). It appears the police had planned to empty the park of protesters, and Trump decided shortly beforehand that he would come and do a victory lap after they’d all been gassed and hauled away. He may have even wanted to leave the impression he had ordered the “rioters” tear-gassed because, in case you don’t remember, Donald Trump relishes cruelty and made no apologies for a tough stance on those he viewed as disorderly anarchists.
The brutality of the operation has not changed. And in fact, Greenwald leaves out an important fact: the report suggests that even though the evacuation of the area was previously planned, the Secret Service appears to have started the operation early for unclear reasons. The report also relies on police officer testimony to substantiate its conclusion that the Attorney General did not order the area cleared earlier than planned in order to facilitate the photo op. One would expect a civil libertarian to be more skeptical of “the word of police” as evidence. But Greenwald has become so fixated on the Liberal Media that police violence against protesters seems almost ancillary to the central and more important point, which is apparently about the Lying Media. (As another example, Greenwald’s take on the death of Officer Brian Sicknick during the Jan 6 riot, which was first thought to be at the hands of protesters but turned out to be of natural causes, is that the Liberal Media fudged the facts to make Trump look bad. That may be so, but it’s also the case that the Capitol police themselves lied about Sicknick’s death, probably so they could distract from their own incompetence at controlling the crowd. It’s as much a story about police misinformation as Liberal Media misinformation, but Greenwald’s hatred is aimed squarely at the Liberals.)
I am not alleging here that Greenwald or Taibbi have become conservatives. They don’t identify as leftists, but they differ from the right on too many points to actually be labeled right-wing. I think the Daily Beast’s recent critical piece on Greenwald is deeply unfair in conflating believing some charge against Donald Trump is factually false with defending Donald Trump, and calling Greenwald the “new master of right-wing media.” Taibbi is right to argue that for many in the media who deplore Trump, the fact that Donald Trump believes something is seen as reason to reflexively disbelieve it.
The problem is that the opposite can happen, too. A person who sees themselves as an Independent Thinker can come to resent and despise liberal hypocrisy so much that they don’t notice themselves becoming careless and reflexive thinkers, and buying into conservative propaganda that looks like “common sense” but isn’t. They can care a lot more about the threat posed by college students to free speech than the threat posed by Republican state legislators who want to tell professors what to teach. Taibbi and Greenwald have both shown an odd credulity toward conservative talking points about transgender people, perhaps because they haven’t thought carefully about the counterarguments. Greenwald has connected rises in violent crime to the presence of reformist prosecutors like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, and accused progressive media outlets of “erasing” facts about the negative effects of reform, even though this an easily debunked myth. (Homicides have increased in metro areas but “the increase was consistent across 69 major municipalities, regardless of whether the county had a progressive district attorney.”)
The belief that Liberals and Democrats are irredeemable and unable to care about anything but power can lead one into downright wrong and sloppy analysis. For instance, Greenwald appears to have become convinced that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Democratic party apparatchik whose job is to provide leftist support for centrist elites. “All she wants to do is attack Republicans and fortify the Democratic party. That is what the left has become, and they know it,” Greenwald said. In a scathing blog post during the Israeli bombing of Gaza, he wrote that it was unthinkable AOC would criticize Biden’s role in supporting Israel:
She refused to call on the Biden administration explicitly to change its policies or denounce Biden’s fanaticism on this issue… . Is it possible to imagine AOC telling her 14 million followers that the reason Israel receives billions each year in U.S. funds… is because Obama gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record-shattering $38 billion package on his way out (just as Obama broke records with military aid to the Saudi dictatorship)? Is it possible to imagine AOC making clear to her loyal flock of millions that the real parties responsible for what she says she regards as deeply immoral, even as war crimes, are—by name—Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi? (May 12)
In fact, that very day, AOC did just that, tweeting:
By only stepping in to name Hamas’ actions—which are condemnable—& refusing to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians, Biden reinforces the false idea that Palestinians instigated this cycle of violence. This is not neutral language. It takes a side—the side of occupation.
And soon after:
The United States should not be rubber-stamping weapons sales to the Israeli government as they deploy our resources to target international media outlets, schools, hospitals, humanitarian missions and civilian sites for bombing.
The fact that Greenwald thought this was “not possible to imagine,” and then it immediately happened, should suggest that his analysis is screwy and defective in major ways. AOC, like Bernie Sanders, often does deeply disappointing things. But it is excessively cynical—and frankly erroneous—to pre-emptively decide she is a careerist whose only goal is to bolster the Democratic Party. We know AOC is a young democratic socialist in a hostile environment who has to navigate difficult political choices. In that situation, there is immense pressure to be “cautious,” and certainly I wish she would resist that pressure harder. Sometimes she takes stances I find downright wrong, like pressuring Facebook to be more heavy-handed in policing political advertisements. (I’ve written before about how terrified I am that Facebook will end up deeming leftist content too radical and booting it, killing critically important political discourse as well as my ability to make a living.) We should be highly skeptical of any politician, even the ones on “our side” and hold them to account. But it’s simply not correct to view her as solely invested in propping up the Democratic Party’s leaders, since she has shown herself willing to harshly criticize them. (Just in the past week we saw the headline “AOC Rips Into Fellow Democrats” over their condemnation of Ilhan Omar, and AOC attacking Biden for not canceling student debt). She may not do it often enough, or strongly enough, but she does do it.
Distaste for liberalism and political correctness can dull your political analysis, because the dislike is visceral and formed before thought has occurred. In fact, a lot of the “politically correct” stuff, when analyzed carefully, actually turns out to be much more reasonable than it seems. Sometimes the stories of “wokeness gone mad” are simply exaggerations of what happened. Other times, they are accurate but a little empathy is warranted. For instance, the DSA, which Greenwald says follows Woke Ideology, was mocked by Fox News for some debates over inclusion that the right found risible. I was at that convention, though, and these discussions formed such a tiny part of what happened there that I didn’t even know about them until I saw the clips on Fox. The overall narrative of the convention was that socialists were beginning to organize very successfully across the country, electing officials in many different states and coming together around a clear agenda for environmental justice, health justice, labor rights, and more. And as Jacob Bacharach writes in a lovely essay about Political Correctness at the DSA convention, fixating on the embarrassing or over-the-top things the left does, and forgetting that many efforts at inclusion “[come] from a genuine wellspring of generosity that must be the foundation of any decent society,” means making enemies of people who are often just trying to do their best to be good. (These attempts to be good are frequently dismissed as Virtue Signaling, because people trying to show you that they’re good must be doing so for selfish reasons and not because figuring out how to be a decent person is often hard.)
It is difficult to talk to someone who has been sucked into the black hole of right-wing arguments, and who is so confident they understand The Cultural Left that they see any pushback as an attack by a PC Cancel Culture Warrior. Taibbi has developed the habit of muting on social media anyone who asks “what happened to you?” or why he chooses to focus on certain subjects rather than others. (He considers this whataboutism.) He literally makes sure he cannot hear those who make arguments he dislikes. (For more on Taibbi’s strange arguments and unwillingness to hear criticism, see this response to him I wrote last year.) Greenwald has alienated nearly all of his former colleagues at the Intercept, plus many brilliant leftists, such as Naomi Klein (who says he is “losing the plot”), Jeremy Scahill (“[Greenwald is] promoting smears…disturbs me deeply”), and Noam Chomsky (“I don’t understand what is happening… I hope it will pass”). (If these legendary people all thought this about me, I’d go off and do a hell of a lot of self-reflection.) It’s sad watching someone you have long respected drift in this direction, becoming angrier, more irrational, impossible to talk to, and all the while convinced that they haven’t changed and you must have just swallowed Liberal Ideology.
The hatred of political correctness can kill your power to reason. Look at Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker. All convinced the left is nuts and they’re the sensible ones. All uninterested in actually engaging left arguments seriously. You start by disliking liberal hypocrisy, and soon you end up saying ridiculous things like “the minute you declare yourself nonbinary or trans, you catapult up the ladder of oppression that absolutely confers concrete benefits.” This is just a laughably incorrect statement which utterly ignores the average life experience of trans people in this country. Conservative talking points like this are full of rage, nastiness, and a total lack of interest in the material realities of the people under discussion.
The cases of Greenwald and Taibbi offer evidence for something that should alarm us all: conservative stories about the world are powerful, and even though they often aren’t true, it is easy for people (especially but not exclusively white men) to come to believe them without even really noticing they are gliding away from reality. Greenwald insists he hasn’t changed his beliefs, and perhaps he has not. He did, after all, begin his career as a commentator spouting vile right-wing myths about immigrants (“illegal immigration—whereby unmanageably endless hordes of people pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate—renders impossible the preservation of any national identity”) and attacking Latin American protesters against the Iraq war as Castro-lovers. But it appears he genuinely evolved out of those horrendous beliefs, only to end up swallowing new right-wing propaganda later in life.
We may well see more of this “I’m sympathetic to left goals, but I have been driven to the right on many issues because of political correctness” nonsense. Elite institutions are going to keep embracing a caricatured version of some social justice values, because it helps them assuage their guilt over the fact they are fundamentally unjust. This hypocrisy will be easy to mock, and it will be easy to use to make a case that Radical Leftism Is Everywhere. An intelligent person will see that this does not in fact mean The Left Controls All The Institutions, but that grand shows of wokeness are often purely cynical acts performed by sociopaths. (Jamie Dimon is not taking a knee because he cares about racial egalitarianism.) An intelligent person will try to think clearly about who actually has power, looking beyond the media and toward state legislatures, courts, and the Chamber of Commerce.
Unfortunately, if the narrative about a sinister Fascist Cultural Left That Controls Everything continues to spread, it may well be the right’s path to regaining power. The Republicans made cancel culture the focus of their 2020 convention, and they nearly won the election despite the president having totally botched the coronavirus response and the party’s policy platform being deeply unpopular. The Taibbi-Greenwald view that sensible people ought to form an “alliance” with the right against the Democratic authoritarians means, at best, obscuring the real stakes of Republican power. At worst, it may actively help Trumpists get back into power and ramp up xenophobia and climate catastrophe. Taibbi resents “being accused of aiding the cause of Trump or the right-wing,” but right-wing political power has consequences, and it is necessary to both tell the truth (even when that truth favors Trump) and keep our focus on what matters most. We must keep our analysis clear. We must not focus excessively on Twitter-based cancel culture flaps and forget the political forces that are the greatest determinant of who lives and dies. What has happened to Greenwald and Taibbi may happen to people you know and love, and we need ways to keep people from crossing the event horizon and ending up ranting about BLM, trans kids, Liberals, and the ACLU without ever noticing they have drifted far away from the realm of the reasonable. I would beg those who find themselves being told they are going down this path to deploy some self-reflection and empathy, and see if their critics might have a point.