You never knew where Andy Kauffman the character ended and Andy Kauffman the human being began. Whether he was wrestling women or reading The Great Gatsby aloud, onstage, until he had emptied a theatre of his own fans, the great performance artist always asked the question of whether it was merely an act or whether the antics reflected real instability. When Kauffman died of lung cancer at the age of 35, some people even wondered if he had faked his own death.
Many comedians have aped Kauffman’s deranged realism but his true heirs are not comics. They are right-wing performance artists like Alex Jones, Jacob Wohl, and Laura Loomer. Are they Trump-loving, left-hating, conspiracy-theorists? Or smart businesspeople exploiting their audience? Are they mad?
Perhaps the truth is that they are all those things.
Jones, Wohl and Loomer, like many others, rode the Trump train into the public eye. Jones was famous already, of course, and is undeniably the most talented and entertaining of the bunch.
When he was getting his divorced, his lawyer came out and said that his client was a performance artist. That might explain how he has quietly and skillfully built a media empire by selling dodgy food supplements. It would also explain why he drops unfashionable conspiracy theories, like those of 9/11, in favor of hotter trends. When you watch him rant about interdimensional child abusers you have to admit you can’t tell whether he is the most talented carnival barker of our times or whether he means it. That’s his art.
Laura Loomer has built her name on outrageous stunts, from invading the stage at a performance of Julius Caesar to protest its anti-Trump message to chaining herself to the doors of the Twitter offices to protest her ban from the social media platform. Perhaps Loomer’s funniest stunt was claiming that leftists had slashed the tires of her car when it was painfully obvious from her photographs that her tire had blown out. Hey, it got the girl attention. When it comes to keeping herself in the public, Loomer has the kind of genius that many celebrities must long for. Whether or not she is sincere is beside the point.
Jacob Wohl is another step away from entertainment and towards tragedy. A 21-year-old, he once had plans to be a hotshot in the finance world but was banned from the National Futures Association for misleading his investors and misrepresenting his investments. Wohl rebranded himself a pro-Trump Twitter troll, outraging leftists, paleoconservatives and the alt-right with his curious mix of paeans to the president and calls for Middle Eastern invention. In this half-serious phase, the Jewish Mr Wohl debated the alt-right’s Anthony Cumiaesque radio host ‘Mike Enoch’ and nationalist wunderkind Nicholas Fuentes on the subjects of Israel and foreign policy.
Wohl always lied, and had no shame in doing so. In an interview with USA Today he voiced his cheerful indifference to objective truth:
‘In the spread of information, he said, truth is an obsolete concept. “It’s something that can’t be thought about in a linear, binary true-false, facts-non-facts – you can’t do that anymore,” Wohl said. “It’s not the way it works.”’
Sometimes the mask drops and it is obvious that right-wing performance artists are not simply lying but doing so with a wink to the crowd. Wohl used to refer to whispered conversations he had heard between liberals in ‘hipster coffee shops’ about, for example, their secret delight in the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, which were plausible enough to be accepted by the most gullible MAGA moms but obviously false to everybody else. In time, he embraced the ‘hipster coffee shop’ meme and his tweets became more frequent and more ridiculous, to the point where he would have had to bene living in a coffee shop, with liberals all around him bellowing unlikely admissions, for his claims to have had even the whisper of truth. What did it matter if people believed him? They still talked about him.
Wohl’s antics acquired a new seriousness when his firm ‘Surefire Intelligence’, which was such an obviously bogus front for his personal endeavors that he had stolen other people’s photos and given them fake names and job titles to make the firm seem important, announced that they had a witness who would testify that Robert Mueller, Special Counsel of the so-called Russian investigation, had raped her. The ‘witness’, Carolyne Cass, came forward to claim that she had been offered $2,000 to pretend to be raped, and that Wohl and his colleagues had manufactured a statement and faked her signature. ‘Fabricated Mueller Smear Appears to Have Come From Comically Inept Right-Wing Person,’ announced one headline.
Wohl was banned from Twitter after he was found to have been posting under fake accounts as well as his own, which brings us to his latest and perhaps most outrageous stunt. With Loomer and their equally curious collaborator, Ali Alexander, Wohl has filmed a ‘documentary’ from Minneapolis, during the course of which he reported a death threat to the police.
A mysterious ‘diversity coordinator’ was alleged to have sent Wohl a floridly written message that threatened to ‘shoot you and shit on your fucking bodies.’ Now, it appears that Wohl sent to the death threat to himself through one of his fake accounts.
Even Ali Alexander, who formerly went by the name of Ali Akbar and is himself a convicted felon, is reported to have said that Wohl is ‘a little sociopathic’.
In an intriguing glimpse into tragi-comic mindset of the right-wing performance artist, Alexander said: ‘It confirms that he’s not operating at a level where there’s useful misinformation, but kind of stupid, vanity-filled, ego-fueled disinformation.’
The problem, then, is not Wohl’s dishonesty. Or are Ali and Jacob performing in themselves? Ali’s whole shtick is toy with the idea of whether he is in on joke. He thinks it is very clever. Right-wing performance artists are very tolerant of lying, both because it is good for business and because media scandals like the Jussie Smollett case make them think that lying is not as sin as much as a strategy. Their attitude towards the truth is solely about ends, not means. If their vague aims are accomplished, anything can be said and done to get there. This is war after all.
For Ali, the problem for Wohl is that he has not told useful lies. He has not maintained the plausible deniability that right-wing performance artists depend on; the skill that lets them keep a straight face for supporters yet sneer at their critics. It is too easy, in other words, to see through his act.
As absurd and obnoxious as right-wing performance artists are, they might be savvier than it is comfortable to admit. As the rise of YouTube has demonstrated, media consumers look for personality and ‘drama’ more than principle and insight. Liberals have their own performance artists, such as the paranoid Louise Mensch or the ebullient Krassenstein brothers. Political commentators of the future will become ever more eccentric and outrageous to fulfill the immense desire for controversy and sensation.
Andy Kauffman must be laughing his ass off in Heaven, if there is such a place.