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The Democratic civil war has been a long time coming

My sympathy for the dirtbag left

March 3, 2020

11:07 AM

3 March 2020

11:07 AM

Bernie Sanders has had an unlikely ally during the 2020 Democratic nomination race: Donald Trump. The president has repeatedly insisted that the Democrats are staging a ‘coup’ against Sanders, who, he has said, is the only Democrat with a real movement behind him. Some would argue that Trump is cynically encouraging the nomination of an unelectable candidate. I think this would be foolish, as Sanders is obviously more electable than the memory of Joe Biden, but it might be how the president thinks. I believe that another explanation for why Trump is vaguely sympathetic towards Sanders, though, is what they have in common. Don’t shoot, Trump and Sanders fans. I am not suggesting that they are politically similar. What I am suggesting is that unlike a glistening non-entity like Pete Buttigieg or a 2016-era Marco Rubio, Trump and Sanders are authentically themselves. You know, pretty much, what you are getting.

I can’t hate the so-called ‘dirtbag left’ for the same reason. Sure, I hate most of their politics. Granted, most of them seem to be giant assholes. Yes, I would rather swan-dive into a septic tank than listen to their podcasts. But amid a crowd of gleaming party apparatchiks, dead-eyed pundits and hysterical moralizing commentators they are at least themselves.

What is the ‘dirtbag left’? Well done for asking. You clearly have a healthier relationship with the internet than me. The dirtbag left is a ragtag subculture of socialists who use satire and trolling to disturb their more liberal and conservative opponents. While their flagship platform is the podcast Chapo Trap House, their radical leftism and confrontational behavior puts them in the league with more mainstream pundits like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald.

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The dirtbag left are in conflict with more ‘moderate’ Democrats. I use the word ‘moderate’ with sneer quotes as the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden are clearly radical in a social sense, and the former if not the latter is clearly radical in an economic sense. Still, Warren and Biden are concerned with managing capitalism rather than attempting to replace it, and with scaling back — at most — America’s military commitments rather than dramatically and rapidly abandoning them. 


The dirtbags also reject the stylistic norms of civility, and balance, and high-mindedness. As someone who thinks these norms are generally a front behind which spite, and groupthink, and smugness lurk, I am fairly unmoved by this, though it is always unpleasant to be on the wrong side of mass trolling.

Nellie Bowles of the New York Times clearly does not know quite what to make of the dirtbag left. Her long profile of the men and woman behind Chapo Trap House oscillates between condescending sympathy and prim disapproval. The high-minded tone is a bit ridiculous. She says the Cum Town podcast has a name which ‘cannot be printed’, which would make sense if she was writing for the Catholic Herald but is absurd in a paper which publishes weekly tributes to polyamory. Bowles has obviously never bothered to listen to the show, which, unlike Chapo Trap House, is not ideological and is consistently entertaining.

A more significant thing about Bowles’s piece is how ahistorical it is. In her article, the dirtbags seem to have emerged out of nowhere, but in fact their ideological and stylistic roots are deep. Others have written about how their trolling was perfected on the ‘Something Awful’ forums, where young posters graduated from making racist jokes to posting esoteric anti-capitalist screeds. Their godfather, though, in my opinion, was the Irish-American writer Alexander Cockburn, who combined the politics of Noam Chomsky with a combative satirical style. Bowles writes about the Chapo hosts telling their audience that joy is ‘not as good a motivator when you’re really going to war as spite’, and Cockburn was famous for asking new Nation magazine interns, ‘is your hate pure?’

Cockburn was also famous for the contempt in which he held the Democratic party, which he held to be pro-war and pro-capitalist. Cockburn supported Nader in 2000 and 2004, sneering:

‘Nader’s seen it happen time and again. Bold promises from a Democratic candidate, followed by ignominious collapse. And each time the promises are vaguer, more timid. Each time the whole system tilts further in the direction of corporate power.’

Obama’s 2008 triumph delighted most Democrats, who saw the US leave Iraq, the expansion of healthcare coverage and the symbolic triumph of an African American president. Some left-wing Americans, however, saw Obama intervene in Libya and prolong the Afghanistan war, compromise with the Republicans on healthcare and maintain what they regard as the racist institutions of ICE and mass incarceration. One important blog was ‘Who Is IOZ’, where an anonymous blogger wittily and cruelly skewered liberal pundits that he thought were too bloodless, too spineless and too elitist. (Will Menaker, the host of Chapo Trap House, was a fan of Who Is IOZ, and signed its author to a book deal when he was still working for the publishers W.W. Norton.) Other blogs in this subculture included the wonderfully named ‘Stop Me Before I Vote Again’, on which the author Michael J. Smith inadvisably compared left-wing Democrat voters to a battered housewife too scared to leave their spouse.

These currents of discontent almost bubbled up to the surface in the 2016 primary race, but the Democrats, and their candidate Hillary Clinton, just about kept them down. The moderate Democratic favorite Joe Biden faces a harder test, though, because the dirtbags have spent four years stewing over Clinton’s seizure of the nomination from Sanders and subsequent humiliating loss to Trump. In that moment, all the arguments that they had heard about moderation, and rationality, and civility were shattered. The moderate, rational candidate had been beaten by a foul-mouthed, philandering billionaire. 

Of course, I oppose the dirtbags. As I wrote in my review of the Chapo book, I think their politics combine a starry-eyed utopianism with a nihilistic spite, and that their personalities tend to combine a posturing cynicism with a startling lack of self-awareness. But I sympathize with them. They have been told for years that a party establishment which voted for the Iraq war and lost to Donald Trump is the only alternative to the Republicans, and now the abrupt ending of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar’s campaigns and immediate endorsement of Biden have shown that this establishment will move Heaven and Earth not to give them a chance. To some extent one can understand their pure hatred.


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