I believe it was in 2003 when I coined the term “conservatives in the mist” for a certain style of reporting. A play on “Gorillas in the Mist,” it describes how liberal/mainstream reporters who don’t know very much about conservatism march through the bush to explore the strange and mysterious habits of these little-understood creatures that look so much like us. One classic version of a conservatives-in-the-mist piece is set on American college campuses, where the correspondent discovers that rightish college students can actually string sentences together and have almost human-like emotional states. Another standard of the genre is when a writer leaves Manhattan to talk to believing Christians about why they still cling to their sky god and discovers along the way that their antediluvian beliefs don’t prevent them from being nice people. (Oh, there’s also the perennial “liberal goes on a National Review cruise and discovers that conservatives say conservative things while on vacation.”)
The normal problem with conservatives-in-the-mist reporting is usually that it’s condescending — “Isn’t this amazing? Conservatives care for their young, too. Just like normal people.”
But condescension is sometimes preferable to the alternative version of conservatives-in-the-mist reportage in which the scribe heads off into the heart of darkness to prove liberals’ deepest suspicions about the savagery and backwardness of these alien tribes. The classics of this genre usually try to demonstrate that mainstream conservatives are really just little more than Klansmen living in mufti among us.
Tina Nguyen’s latest piece in Vanity Fair lies somewhere in the middle between these two genres. It’s not really a conservatives-in-the-mist piece so much as an “explainer” about how Kanye West walked off the trail and got seduced by the conservative natives. It’s full of signifiers that Nguyen really gets conservatives — and not just conservatives like, say, Jen Rubin or John Kasich, but the super-scary “far right.” The headline: “HE’S NEVER BEEN HAPPIER: INSIDE THE RED-PILLING OF KANYE WEST.”
You can almost hear readers by the pool in the Hamptons saying, “Oh red-pilling, I’ve heard of that. That’s how the neo-Nazis gave us Trump. This sounds serious.”
But it’s not.
When an author lumps Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, that Milo guy, Steve Forbes, Bret Stephens, and Jonah Goldberg under the same “far right” label, you can be sure they don’t really know what they’re talking about. The alt-right — which is not synonymous with far right — hates my guts and the feeling is mostly mutual. Jordan Peterson isn’t really a right-winger at all as far as I can tell, and neither is Sam Harris.
To be fair, Nguyen’s contention is that we all qualify as far right because we’re critical of identity politics in one sense or another. If you think that’s all you need to qualify as being “far right,” then I guess that’s defensible. But if you do think that, you also have to think most liberals — and a great many socialists and Communists — prior to about 20 years ago were far right, too. Nor is opposition to identity politics anything new on the right — what’s new on the right is the sudden embrace of identitarianism by the likes of Cernovich and Spencer, a development Nguyen seems utterly oblivious to.
And that’s why I find this piece more funny than infuriating. She just casually swerves across all sorts of ideological, intellectual, and categorical bright lines and even a few traffic cones like an old lady barreling down the highway while rummaging through her purse to find her enormous sunglasses. It’s like a would-be sportswriter chronicling last weekend’s sportball match where the batter scored a touchdown in overtime.
Let’s just look at two paragraphs. First this:
While onetime giants in the conservative-media sphere struggle to stay afloat — Breitbart is fighting to remain financially stable, let alone culturally relevant; part of Yiannopoulos’s multi-million-dollar start-up venture, Milo Worldwide LLC, collapsed last week; RedState, once a prominent conservative blog, recently fired several writers and editors; and I.J.R. has repeatedly slashed both its staff and budget — the new thought leaders of the right are eschewing news outlets entirely. [Emphasis mine.] The trend toward conservative influencers has also given a boost to Prager University, a massive media platform that pumps out slickly produced explainer-type videos by firebrands like former Google engineer James Damore, pro-Trump sheriff David Clarke, publishing exec Steve Forbes, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, and National Review editor Jonah Goldberg, all of which somehow manage to coexist. According to Buzzfeed, PragerU, as it’s known, is on track to hit a billion page views in 2018.
Look, I think PragerU is great. I don’t agree with everything or everyone on it, but I think there’s a lot of superb stuff there. But the idea that we “new thought leaders of the right” are eschewing news outlets entirely is, well, bizarre. Purportedly “far right” columnist Bret Stephens — a pronounced Trump critic, unlike Kanye — won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Wall Street Journal (in part for columns bludgeoning the GOP and the Right). He now works at the New York Times and is a contributor to MSNBC. As for me, aside from my responsibilities at National Review, I’m a Fox News contributor, a syndicated columnist, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, and a weekly columnist for the LA Times. But because I’ve done two or three Prager University videos — a few years ago — I’m eschewing news outlets entirely? Entirely? Oh, and Steve Forbes (a libertarian, by the way) is a “publishing exec,” so maybe he doesn’t fit the thesis too well either?
And then there’s this:
What unifies these disparate voices on PragerU, my sources tell me, is a sense that P.C. politics are fundamentally divisive and restrictive. “If the left is so narrowly defined itself that identity politics and hating Trump are its two main criteria, you’re going to find a lot people who, mainly at the identity-politics front, they’re going to say, ‘Well, hold on a second,’” Shapiro said. “I have lots of fans from all over the spectrum [saying], ‘I made it on the basis of my capacity and my grit and my hard work, not on the basis of my skin color. If you’re gonna boil me down to whatever it is you think I am based on my group identity, well, go to hell.’” Those outside the group have picked up on the same thread. “It’s not, ‘Oh, Kanye is [saying] socialism sucks. Kanye is realizing Democrats are the real racists.’ I mean, Jesus Christ. These people are killing me,” Cernovich said, dismissing the idea that West had become a Republican, and noting how West had recently tweeted support for his “hero,” Parkland survivor and gun-control advocate Emma González. “He’s trying to be himself.”
I literally “LOL’d” at the first sentence: “What unifies these disparate voices on PragerU, my sources tell me, is a sense that P.C. politics are fundamentally divisive and restrictive.”
“My sources tell me”? Did Nguyen really need to drop some Benjamins on the shoeshine guys of the “far right” to get this inside skinny?
“Whattya got Joe?”
“Well, Tina, ya didn’t get it from me. But I hear that what unites the disparate voices of that conservative website [looks around, whispers with his hand over his mouth] Prager University is that the people who record videos there actually don’t like political correctness.”
“Whoa. Hot stuff, Joe.”
“I know. I think this deserves an extra sawbuck, don’t you?”
Seriously, you need sources to explain to you that conservatives — anywhere — are skeptical or hostile to political correctness? Do Vanity Fair readers not know this?
Nguyen then goes on to talk to Ben Shapiro, who is literally making the opposite point Nguyen seems to want him to make. Ben’s point is that there’s enormous ideological and political diversity on the right — or really, the not-left — because of the narrow bandwidth of liberalism these days. Then in the same paragraph she talks to Cernovich, who represents an entirely different worldview than Shapiro’s. I don’t mean this in some esoteric factional sense. I mean primarily that Shapiro isn’t an insane, racist, mysogynist conspiracy-theory peddler, though there are subtler differences as well.
Anyway, you get the point. Nguyen tells the reader that she’s exposing “the new right-wing digital rabbit hole” and how it is “designed for precisely the sort of self-radicalization” Kanye West is going through. But it reads more like she’s the Alice who fell through the rabbit hole. And like the hero of that story, she has no idea what’s going on around her.