The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The devolution of the contrarian class

Being contrarian for contrarian’s sake is no way to go through life.

Tucker Carlson speaks during Politicon 2018 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Oct. 21, 2018. (Rich Polk/Getty Images for Politicon)

Having just finished “Loki,” I’ve been thinking a lot about alternative histories. It occurs to me that if a multiverse exists, somewhere there is a grievance-filled Daniel Drezner railing about the unfairness of his existence.

No doubt that Drezner variant has cultivated his grievances with minimal effort. Sure, I have carved out a pretty decent life. As a radically imperfect human being, however, there have been disappointments and frustrations and reversals of fortune. A university denied me tenure. Some prizes and awards and jobs and fellowships proved beyond my reach. There were girls I mooned over who evinced zero reciprocal interest. A few teachers and senior scholars pegged me as a socially awkward, snot-nosed know-it-all back in the day and let me know what they thought in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. My point is, there’s a lot of potential grist to nurture resentments.

In this timeline I have not harbored such feelings, and one reason is the upside of privilege. I was born into an affluent, intact family. I graduated from an outstanding liberal arts college debt-free and earned a fellowship to an excellent grad school. I married a wonderful, supportive woman who had no qualms about me starting a blog or writing a book about zombies. Whatever bumps in the road I encountered, there were ample cushions lying about to absorb the blow.

What is striking, when surveying the conservative wing of the marketplace of ideas, is just how many folks have taken a different path. These self-styled contrarians claim to be pushing against a suffocating liberal orthodoxy. Mostly, however, they seem to be telling on themselves — and what they are saying is that they are fueled by petty grievances.

Consider Laura Field’s long Bulwark essay about the devolution of the Claremont Institute, an entity that was once viewed as a paragon of deep conservative thought and now publishes insane essays. Their current roster of employees includes the dubious likes of Michael Anton, Jack Posobiec and Charlie Kirk. As Field notes, “the Claremont group contributed to the spread of lies about the [2020 presidential] election, and in general consistently fails to live up to a threshold level of sound judgment and civic responsibility.”

What the heck happened? Field’s longform analysis arrives at a disturbing conclusion:

The main through-line in the Claremont Institute’s recent reactionary work is hatred for Democrats and the ruling “overlords” of modernity. But in the end, men such as Kesler and Anton and Ellmers, like all sophists and fakes, also betray loathing and contempt for their own audience, and for themselves. ...
Others have warned — going as far back as 1985 — that Claremont’s revisionist and idealizing brand of patriotism comes at a serious cost, because it refuses an honest encounter with the past. What begins as idealizing myth sours into a zealous denialism that eventually becomes feverish and all-consuming.
Today, such a thread seems to be pulling hard on the Claremont psyche, from Charles Kesler on down through the organization’s underworld. And the harder they try to assert their myth, the more their efforts chafe against reality. Claremont cannot erase the complexities, tensions, and brutal inadequacies of America’s past, and they cannot erase the basic decency of their political opponents. But they can stir up a lot of hate, and they are already in pretty deep.

Resentment also seem to be at the core of the intellectual dark web. Robert Wright has a gently devastating column about Eric Weinstein, who has a Harvard PhD in mathematics and is a financial adviser to Peter Thiel. This would ordinarily seem like a successful career, and yet Wright’s essay is entitled, “Is Eric Weinstein a crackpot?” Wright notes that a lot of the ideas Weinstein is peddling seem grounded in grievance:

Weinstein has a tendency to sound like a conspiracy theorist — and, not infrequently, like a victim of the conspiracies he theorizes. He says he would have become famous in math and physics circles decades ago had his ideas not been squelched by what he calls the “Distributed Idea Suppression Complex” (DISC). He says the DISC also kept his brother Bret (a biologist), and his wife Pia Malaney (an economist) from getting due credit for academic work they did as PhD students. Had it not been for the DISC, he says, both might have won Nobel Prizes — which could have meant three Nobels for his family, since, he says, he might have won one too, in a DISCless world.

And this leads us to the top of the Conservative Resentment Industrial Complex, Tucker Carlson. My Washington Post colleague Michael Kranish takes a long look at Carlson’s career. How did a child of privilege, who lost shows at CNN and MSNBC before landing at Fox, got to where he is now, which is making stuff up about covid-19? This Kranish sentence stands out: “What emerges is a portrait of an ambitious television personality who came of age in privilege — having grown up in an upper-class enclave and attended private schools — but who, by his own telling, is a victim.” Carlson goes so far as to falsely blame a grade-school teacher for his political orientation!

Any decent marketplace of ideas needs contrarians to challenge the conventional wisdom. As John Stuart Mill once observed, accepted tenets often ossify without such challenges. The arguments of Posobiec, Anton, Weinstein or Carlson, however, are so devoid of either facts or logic that there is little to debate: Simple fact checks undercut their arguments.

One begins to suspect that debate is not their goal. Rather, they have found a way to monetize the many slights and grievances that they have accrued in their years of being dudes who did not achieve everything they wanted in life and, as a result, feel like outsiders.