You can’t kill an idea but sometimes I wish I could

Some ‘populist Left’ figures have suggested meshing with the far-right on limited issues. It’s a god-awful idea.

You can’t kill an idea but sometimes I wish I could
Charlie Brown and Lucy. (Source: Wally Gobetz via Flickr Commons)

Every so often, some lefty pundit springs out of the gate with a take that goes something like this: The populist Right and populist Left both feel disillusioned by “establishment” politics, so maybe they should work together on crossover issues and effect change! And hey, maybe the Left could even push the Right toward better positions!

Others have made the case that this is entirely disingenuous backside-covering by people in left spaces who have decided for whatever reason that they’re going to tack right. I’m not going to do that here. I’m going to give the people with this take the benefit of the doubt and assume they believe it could work to at least some degree. Every time I do this, I think of Peanuts. There’s Lucy, holding the football for Charlie Brown as he lines up his kick. Lucy yanks the ball as Charlie Brown punts, sending our underdog crashing through the void it left, flat onto his back, to think about his life and the choice he made that led him to this point in it. It never matters that this always happens; Charlie Brown can always be convinced that next time he might actually kick the football for real. He never does.

After news broke of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago a week and a half ago, two lefty podcast hosts, Briahna Joy Gray and Krystal Ball, tipped their hats to far-right demagogues who suddenly claimed to oppose law enforcement overreach. Neither woman is the first to propose a limited alliance between leftists and the far right over pressing issues, and neither will be the last. But because they were the most recent on my timeline, they’re the ones I’m going to mention today. (Coincidentally, both have been fixtures on The Hill TV’s “Rising” show, which many people forget was initially sponsored by Koch Industries! Fun fact!)

During a segment of The Hill TV’s “Rising” uploaded on August 11, Gray took news of the Mar-a-Lago search as an invitation to tear into the FBI for its lengthy track record of overreach and impunity. And in tying those points back to her news hook, Gray ceded some credit to the Jewish space lasers congresswoman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been grifting her supporters with anti-FBI merch since the search. Throughout the segment, Gray expressed skepticism of Greene’s position, but also bizarrely referred to the QAnon congresswoman as “America’s favorite broken clock.” (For the record, in order to be a true broken clock, you must be right at least twice.) The sidebar next to Gray didn’t add much nuance, either, but I digress.

This sidebar made me feel like I’m watching The O’Reilly Factor again.

While I found the segment’s tone too hyperbolic, I didn’t object to its basic premise. The FBI isn’t great. But then came Twitter. Gray shared a clip from her “Rising” segment and wrote that Greene was “right about the FBI, bad faith or not” and proposed that the political left “should take advantage of the right’s new acknowledgment of systemic bias and push to abolish the FBI.” (I’ll be addressing Gray’s tweet here, not the segment.)

On “Breaking Points,” Ball dished up a similar take, though she was less direct. In a segment also uploaded on August 11, Ball took a satirical tone to celebrate the “rush of conservatives” coming around to the “lefty position” of defunding the FBI. Like Gray, she expanded on that observation to detail her own laundry list of indefensible behavior by the FBI, but not before she credited Candace Owens for issuing a “based call for action” and praised a response suggested by the leader of an organization trying to pave the way for Christian nationalism.

That organization is the Center for Renewing America; Ball complimented its leader, Russ Vought, after he appeared on Fox News primetime and argued that Republicans should launch a new kind of Church Committee to “dismantle the FBI into a thousand bits” if they regain majorities in the 2022 midterms. She called that suggestion “specific and laudable.”

Again, I’m going to assume that these two mean what they say and that maybe they do think that leftists and the far right share common cause now and again. I’m doing it now but I’m just getting visions of the “leopards eating my face” tweet.

You won’t catch me going to the mat for the FBI here. It is a deeply imperfect agency that deserves every word of righteous criticism thrown its way. But it’s naïve at best to see the Right’s outburst against the FBI this week as anything other than a checkpoint in its larger project of authoritarian control of the United States. If people like Vought and Greene can tighten their grip on federal power in the US, the only reason to dismantle the FBI would be to replace it with something far worse. It’s a line of thinking that misunderstands the moment’s political crossroads.

No one genuinely interested in advancing leftist ideals can achieve any progress by ceding the slightest modicum of power to the far right. When far-right governments take hold, one of the first things they do is seek retribution against leftists. And with the modern mainstream Right calling anyone who dissents from their orthodoxy, from Joe Biden on down, a “radical leftist,” you can expect that enemies list to be long.

Scholars of fascism will tell you that successful far-right movements synthesize their petty bigotries and grudges with the broader populace’s righteous frustration in order to acquire power. Of course they nod along when you complain about genuine injustice. That’s how it works.

I asked Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, what he thought about this notion of an unholy alliance between leftists and the far right on choice issues. He was skeptical, to put it lightly.

“The authoritarian populists who fantasize about so-called right wing death squads do not seem to be interested in learning about the historical or current misdeeds of our intelligence agencies,” Hayden told me. “They are not going to come to where leftists should be on issues of race, sexual freedom, class, or gender. They are more likely interested in occupying the intelligence agencies and using them to harm intellectuals, activists and anyone else who is on the wrong side of the friend/enemy binary with which they frame the entire world.”

“That’s what they talk about doing,” he added. “What we have learned from the Trump era is to take them at their word. As with the memes they made fantasizing about killing leftists with cars that preceded the murder of Heather Heyer, they generally mean what they say.”

If that seems hypocritical, it’s important to remember that authoritarianism draws much of its power from just that hypocrisy. The right does not imagine a world without law enforcement, it imagines suborning the apparatus of law enforcement so thoroughly that the laws only apply to its enemies.

Many people in this nation are in tough positions, confused and angry about why they struggle so much in the Land of Opportunity. They watch their national leaders seemingly unable to confront the distress present in huge swathes of our society or even imagine solutions to solve it. For some, the answer has been to blame “the establishment”: a term that has gradually expanded in use to describe nearly every function of government power that exists currently. It is true that the last generation of political leaders and institutions enabled the pain many are feeling today, and that fact should serve as a cause for deep self-reflection and change.

But disdain for “the establishment” is not a positive, creative vision for the future. Anger at the status quo is not a good reason to break bread with people who want to destroy everyone who isn’t like them.

An update on the status of this newsletter and podcast

SH!TPOST is in a period of transition to a new online host. I’m finally throwing in the towel on Substack. As simple and useful as it has been to what we’re doing here so far, it’s time to move on. Everything will be transferring to a new place online, and it should work out without anyone needing to do anything. I’ll have more info on all of that as it's available, but the biggest change most people will notice is that the newsletters start coming from a different email address.

There will also be some light rebranding, but I’m still working the specifics of that out.

More on this in a couple weeks.

What I’m reading: