“The crazies have started rolling into Kandahar like it’s a f—king bathtub drain.”
—Gust Avrakotos, Charlie Wilson’s War
It is axiomatic that while change creates opportunity, chaotic change creates the most dramatic opportunities for the most unsavory actors. (See post-Soviet Afghanistan.) Power vacuums do that. Historically, the power vacuums in the United States have never been very large, because our republic has been reasonably stable. That is, until President Donald Trump took office.
Republicans experienced in administering government signed letters by the hundreds pledging not to work for him. While some have reconsidered and gone on to serve in his administration, most who said they wouldn’t, didn’t. (And some who changed their minds and applied for jobs learned that competency runs a distant second to loyalty in Donald Trump’s world, and were denied jobs.)
Of the qualified folks who shelved their concerns and made it past the loyalty tests? Many of them have headed for the exits already. Believe it or not, while we’ve only completed two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, we’re already on the third or fourth wave of staffers coming in to serve the president.
The same dynamic has taken place in the media sphere. When most mainstream conservatives declined to enthusiastically support candidate Trump that, too, created a vacuum. And this vacuum was filled by the Kayleigh McEnanys, Jeff Lords, and Scottie Nell Hugheses of the world. The only reason Kayleigh McEnany became the spokeswoman of the Republican National Committee was because she was willing to go on TV and defend Trump every night, when nobody else was.
For all the Trump talk about how Trump skeptics held out on the big guy because there was money in it, the exact opposite was the case: Anyone who wanted fame and fortune in 2016 simply had to be willing to defend Trump, full-stop, all the time, no matter what. And this dynamic held at the institutional level, too: It gave Gateway Pundit, Breitbart, and InfoWars an opening to cater to an audience that wanted pro-Trump coverage, reality and facts be damned.
Those early adopters were rewarded handsomely, and slowly but surely, others joined in. This is what happens in every market: When a business becomes successful, it spawns imitators. What is true for widgets has been true for Conservatism Inc.
One thing we’re going to focus on at The Bulwark is an unvarnished, fact-based take on grifters, misinformation pushers, whataboutists, and trolls.
Take David Reaboi, for example. An analyst at a little-known think tank, he was on Twitter last week spreading misinformation about former SecDef Jim Mattis’ party registration. Reaboi stated, matter of factly, that “MATTIS WAS A DEMOCRAT.” This (false) claim had been debunked three months earlier.
People are wrong on the internet all the time. That’s not a crime. The difference between the honest guy and the grifter is how they respond to their mistake. Rather than admit he was wrong, Reaboi doubled and tripled down. Reaboi used to be a big fan of Mattis, if you look at his old tweets. What changed? Well, there isn’t much of a market for defending Mattis right now, but there’s a big opportunity for someone—anyone!—willing to take the other side.
Reaboi always seems to be looking for an angle to take the most extreme minority position possible. For instance, he got himself onto NPR by defending the Trump administration’s position on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He went so far as to say that those who were concerned about the murder and are seeking more than a fig leaf (sanctions on 17 allegedly involved individuals) were just virtue signalers who were “crazy” for trying to “upend” the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship.
There’s more, of course. You don’t keep adding to your follower account if there isn’t more. In his defense of Alex Jones, who had just been kicked off of numerous social media platforms, Reaboi wrote: “Say what you will about Alex Jones, he’s as much of a ‘journalist’ as #JamalKhashoggi ever was.”
Here at The Bulwark, we’re going to hang a lantern on the sort of bad-faith arguments, absurd justifications, whataboutism, and counterproductive trolling that has come to take the place of a great deal of conservative thought. Because the conservative movement can be better than this—heck, it was better than this until about five minutes ago. We’re not talking about a return to some long-forgotten, golden era. We just want to go back to, say, the the Romney-Santorum fights of 2012.
Speaking of trolling, let’s check in with TurningPointUSA’s Charlie Kirk! This bright young man is not known for his knowledge of history, or reading books about his main grift, but he’s still out there on Twitter, turning out bad take after bad take, like it’s his job. (Spoiler: It actually is his job.)
Just as new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was being inaugurated, Kirk blasted out a tweet of support to South American strongman. As our Andrew Egger points out, Bolsonaro is not a big win for Trumpworld voters, but Trumpworld seems to see him as some sort of spirit animal and loves him because he owns the libs. Or something.
Kirk, who deferred on going to college because he knew too much already, spent part of last week dunking on new far-left Congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
Ocasio-Cortez said that members of Congress shouldn’t be paid during a shutdown – I agree!
She was just asked by reporters whether she is taking a paycheck during this shutdown and she said “Gotta run”
So what is it @AOC , is it rules of thee but not for me?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t exactly Seneca, but Charlie Kirk couldn’t even dunk on her properly. As this Fox News story reports, she pointedly said that “next time” there is a shutdown, Congressional salaries shouldn’t be paid.
In another tweet, Kirk took the median income from where Ocasio-Cortez grew up, reported where she went to college, and then observed that she interned for Ted Kennedy (who was rich!) to suggest she is, too.
But wait, there’s more! Charlie Kirk has some foreign policy ideas, too:
We should cut ALL funding to countries that burn the American flag and use the savings to build the wall
Do “countries” burn flags, or do people burn flags? How many flags would have to be burned for a country to lose aid? Would NATO contributions count as foreign aid if, say, someone in Belgium was caught on video burning Old Glory? Would it be in the interests of the United States to withdraw aid from countries such as, say, Saudi Arabia if it meant unbalancing a geostrategic region? If you get a sense that the Future of Young Conservatism hasn’t thought too deeply about his policy ideas, well . . .
Donald Trump may run the Republican party today. But that doesn’t mean conservatives have to sell out their principles, their intelligence, and their honor to protect the precious. And it’s important to remember that he won’t be around forever. When he’s gone (let’s be honest we’ll never hear the end of it from him), we’ll have to, again, coalesce around a shared sense of values and ideas.
Fame, after all, may have a half-life of 15 minutes. But infamy lasts a little longer.