It is conventional wisdom that we live in an ‘age of extremes.’ Turbulence, populism, and radicalization seem pandemic. On the left, “literal” communism is crawling out of its post-1989 exile. Nativism, isolationism, and “strongman” leadership increasingly define the right. Across the spectrum, identity politics and conspiratorialism are the new normal.
For some, this polarisation and the collapse of the center are the primary ills afflicting Western society. Whatever truth there is in this, it is missing something about what has “gone wrong.” A striking feature of contemporary political movements that is distinct from extremism is the sort of people who have gained influence and how they conduct themselves.
There is an odd consistency in the conduct of high-profile political figures, from the incontinent tweeting of President Donald Trump to the exhibitionist “clapback” of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A cocktail of hyper-partisanship, aggression, hostility to nuance and ambiguity, emotional instability, a martyr complex, and an ability to produce sound bites is a prerequisite for successfully leading or influencing a political movement. In other words, obnoxiousness sells.
Extremism with Circus Characteristics
While controversial opinions may be in demand, they are insufficient for building a successful political brand. This insufficiency is particularly apparent in new media personalities. The internet has granted anyone with a political opinion a platform, reflected in an explosion of DIY podcasts and alternative media sites. Still, only a scant few manage to achieve breakout success. Moreover, they’re seldom the most interesting or even the most extreme.
The “dirtbag leftists” of the Chapo Trap House podcast do not have anything particularly original or coherent to say. Their unique selling points are being unashamedly unpleasant and having a feral instinct for gutter politics. The UK’s Novara Media has pretensions of intellectualism but trades more on performative style and slavish partisanship than substantive radicalism. Its most prominent contributor, “sassy socialist” Ash Sarkar, is most famous for having feuds with middle-aged men. Novara founder Aaron Bastani is known for cynical provocative stunts, such as claiming that the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal is “white supremacist.”
Perhaps the most extreme example of the importance of obnoxiousness is the alt-right. Since the alt-right have any sincere beliefs at all, they are trivially (if at all) distinct from generic ethnonationalism. The alt-right’s presentation is a different story. Where the far-right have traditionally projected an overtly militaristic and only inadvertently comical image, the alt-right seep in the intentionally weird, infantile, and kitsch. Examples include their fondness for cartoon frogs, their association with “PewDiePie” (a grown man with the persona of a 12-year-old amphetamine enthusiast), and, revealingly, their adoption of clowns as a symbol. This fact is partly about obfuscation. Absurdity can go a long way in blurring the line between “satire” and genuine extremism. It’s also about the fact that obnoxious trolling is a reliable way of being noticed.
Obnoxiousness is not synonymous with extremism. The posturing, antagonism, and pettiness of the new politics exist across the spectrum. The “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS liberal socialist post-modern feminist trans gay atheist snowflakes with FACTS and LOGIC” phenomenon exemplifies this. Shapiro is not, by any meaningful definition, far-right. A common-or-garden neo-conservative, Shapiro’s career owes less to articulating any particularly novel ideas than to, well, DESTROYING his opponents. Ironically for someone with the catchphrase “facts don’t care about your feelings,” his primary selling point is his audience’s raw desire to see him “triggering the libs.”
Parallel obnoxiousness industries cater to all ideological leanings. In the US, this has existed for a while in the form of radio and late-night TV talk shows. The archetypal, sneering, partisan host was a fixture through the divisions of the Bush and Obama years. The surrealist Era of The Donald, though, has seen some significant re-fashioning.
While the right-wing Fox News has consistently pumped out dystopian diatribes and disinformation, it has arguably become increasingly brazen and unrestrained. Meanwhile, the left’s established approach of collected smugness has fallen out of fashion. Old sneering stalwarts such as Bill Maher and The Daily Show are increasingly un-woke and dated. While the far-left has embraced rabidity, the center-left now speaks with lame earnestness (#resistance) or hysteria. Passive superiority and steady propaganda have lost out to more obnoxious modes of punditry.
Hatred in Every Direction
In a sense, this is still about polarization. Political obnoxiousness requires antagonism to function correctly. Still, the term “polarization” misses that this is not a one-dimensional division between left and right. New fault lines, such as the UK’s “Remain” vs. “Leave,” have hardened to the point that “compromise” is synonymous with “betrayal.” The “Open-Closed” (globalism v. nationalism) debate is as seemingly bereft of a functioning middle ground as the left-right spectrum.
Avid Europhilia was a rare sight pre-2016. People mostly voted to Remain on the basis that the EU is an unromantic convenience at best and a necessary evil at worst. Now, though, Remainers are increasingly flirting with the fanatical and the absurd. The EU is held up as some surreal bureautopia. Euro-cosplay has somehow become a thing. Some Remainers seem more interested in lambasting Leave voters for being stupid and racist, or in reveling in the prospect of disaster, than in actually persuading anyone of anything.
The same is true among Leavers. Once upon a time, the mainstream Eurosceptic position was that Norway was an excellent example to follow. Now, this sort of softer-than-Soft-Brexit is tantamount to treason. The most vulgar and jingoistic Brexiteers are propelling to prominence. Fiery indignation and cartoonish war metaphors have won out over anything resembling argument or realistic proposals.
Why has this happened? To some extent, any publicity-based industry involves attention-seeking clownery. Politics, especially in a democracy, is unavoidably a part of this ilk. Writing in the 1940s, H. L. Mencken quipped:
“Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.”
Something does seem to have changed, however. It is a departure to have someone with a toddler’s capacity for impulse control, decorum, abstract thought, and subtlety in the White House. A level of obnoxiousness that was once a sign of pronounced abnormality is now entrenching itself in the corridors of power.
There are a few distinct factors. One cause, or at least an amplifier, is social media. Particularly Twitter. The need to condense communication into 280 characters inevitably pushes it into the realms of snappiness and simplicity. The need to stand out from millions of accounts and maximize your re-tweets rewards controversy and racing to the lowest common denominator. The need to maintain your followers means your messaging needs to emphasize consistency and intensity over accuracy and moderation.
The phenomenon of social media filter bubbles (where algorithms use your searches, friends, and likes to determine that you want to see more of the same) is well understood and documented. This intellectual isolation may be dangerous in itself. Combined with the need to be snappy and on-brand, it fuels the obnoxiousness industry.
The online influencer’s function is to be a sort of warrior-jester who plays to the gallery, confirms their biases, and whips them up into a masturbatory frenzy. Interactions with representatives of enemy tribes are not about good faith engagement. The purpose is to score cheap points so you can screenshot or quote, tweet it, and parade your “dunking on” an enemy to your whooping fan base.
The Power of the Audience
What I have been saying may be a modern expression of primordial instincts that are arguably always a feature of politics. It certainly plays up when liberalism is out of fashion in favor of conflict, identity, resentment, and “belonging.” Nevertheless, there does seem to be something different in the style of tribal expression that is currently in vogue. It is more infantile, trivial, and self-important.
What I am saying is exemplified by “cancel culture.” “Cancelling” is where you (loudly) perform an absolute boycott of someone or something by withdrawing support (financial and otherwise) from them to erase them from public consciousness through a sort of democratized unpersoning.
Cancel culture’s origins offer a clue as to what has gone wrong with politics. Canceling was initially done to celebrities by their (former) fans, typically due to the unhealthy (not necessarily false) notion that an audience has some ownership over its idols. Its spread to other social spheres, including the political, is symptomatic of a broader ugly phenomenon.
The Cult of Noisy Shallowness
We live in a world defined by celebrity. It is hardly unusual that the Age of the Kardashians is also the Era of the Donald. While Trump presents himself as a real estate mogul and hard-nosed businessman, his real success was in reality TV (and, notably, professional wrestling). His true calling was always portraying a grotesque caricature of a businessman rather than running businesses.
As host of The Apprentice, on his Twitter account, and in the Oval Office, Trump has always drawn an audience by demeaning others. If it’s people they already hate, envy, or resent, so much the better. The righteous resentment and sneering derision of his critics (“haters and losers”) only augment his brand. His most obnoxious enemies have also emerged from the world of celebrity. A notable example is Michael Avenatti, a lawyer who specializes in representing celebrity clients. Given that Avenatti is now facing criminal charges for extortion, fraud, and embezzlement, it is sobering to remember that he was genuinely touted as a potential Presidential candidate as recently as 2018.
In a world of hashtags and Instagram millionaires, it is inevitable that political players have to be mini-celebrity “personalities” and “influencers” to succeed. In such a world, “nailing” your style, speech patterns, insults, and emotional outbursts matters a lot more than having anything intelligent to say. To be listened to, you have to make yourself heard. To be heard, you increasingly have to be so obnoxious that what you say is meaningless.