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One thing to keep your eye on is when right-wing commentators use leftish language to mask their sympathy for extremists. I’ll give you an example. In an episode of his podcast released last night, Tim Dillon, a comedian who used to sell subprime mortgages, pondered whether the fascist rioters who carried out a putsch on Wednesday shouldn’t face any consequences, because they’re just poor idiots with shitty jobs.
In a long segment arguing against “ratting” on the insurrectionists who flew to Washington, DC during a pandemic to storm the Capitol, Dillon said: “These people's lives are not great. That's why they're there with a helmet on. Nobody who has a really good life is in the Congress with a helmet on.” While people who destroy property certainly deserve legal consequences, he continued—using Black Lives Matter protestors as an example—he’s not so sure about those who are “just being an idiot”:
What's the punishment for that? You're probably not doing that great… I don't know what happened when everybody's like, “We gotta, we gotta get rid of all these, everybody we disagree with. They can't, they can't have shitty jobs.” People aren't really raking it in here, you know. These people aren't doing well, for the most part. They're living off money they've inherited. They have some type of stipend, they're living in some type of communal house—I don't know what the they're doing. But I mean, I'm sure that—I deal professionally with people I disagree with all the time about many different things. All the time. About many, many different things.
Elsewhere he characterized the putschists much as he characterized alleged murderer Kyle Rittenhouse earlier this year: as well-meaning people caught up in a movement that landed them in unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.
These people don't have high level jobs, they work at like call centers. It's some poor guy, some schmuck who's gotten sucked into a QAnon cult because he can't afford any other type of cult. He's fuckin', you know, spent six months thinking he's hunting pedophiles on 4chan. Then he goes to meet up with his friends, all of a sudden he gets caught up in the moment and he's in the chamber of Congress. Yeah. I mean, it's a bad choice. Probably gonna fuck him from doing certain things. Let that schmuck—if he's charged with a crime, he's charged with a crime, whatever. You know, if you got caught, you got caught. But don't you go and—I mean, let the guy go back to the call center job. This isn't the CFO of Goldman Sachs running around there.
It’s important that this characterization—made, again, in service of an argument not to identify people who turned to violent insurrection to keep Donald Trump in power—is incomplete. By ignoring the actual class makeup of the rioters, Dillon is able to downplay the seriousness of the riot, which he says was “closer to a high school theater group” than a coup. In reality, the mob included middle-class professionals and business owners, law enforcement officers, armed services veterans, committed neo-Nazis, even a West Virginia state legislator. They brought explosives and assault rifles. They planted pipe bombs. They bashed a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher. That they might be unwell is not a reason to let them reenter society until the police catch up, but a reason to do what it takes to stop them from trying again.
Dillon’s rhetorical gambit here is a familiar one. For the last five years, pundits and propagandists have attributed Trump’s power to poor misunderstood rural workers deluded into acting against their own interests. This narrative erases (and therefore empowers) Trump’s base of well-off suburbanites acting entirely in their interests. It also downplays the rising tides of white supremacy by fashioning white supremacists as sympathetic, powerless victims of society rather than willful actors using what power they have to enact harm. There are a great many poor people with shitty jobs in this country who don’t turn to fascism. As the writer Lyta Gold explained a few days ago, it’s more often the bourgeoisie who choose that path:
there absolutely IS a relationship between economic anxiety & fascism but it's not simple, or causal. poor white people do not (generally) become fascists bc the economy is bad. the bourgeoisie do, reacting to the fear of their own downward mobility/possible underclass uprising— and my haters can quote me on that (@lyta_gold) January 8, 2021
going to absolutely blow your mind here but it is possible to be affected by material conditions, and the material conditions of those around you, and yet not be poor yourself. this can be expressed in multiple political directions!— and my haters can quote me on that (@lyta_gold) January 8, 2021
also: it is possible for someone to be angry about the economy, and rightly upset at a government that they feel does not represent them...and blame minorities for it. just because people are upset doesn't mean they have any idea what's actually going on or why things are wrong!— and my haters can quote me on that (@lyta_gold) January 8, 2021
when people express rage about a bad economy and lack of political representation, this does not mean that they want wealth and political agency for all. they may want it just for themselves!— and my haters can quote me on that (@lyta_gold) January 8, 2021
I will acknowledge here that Tim Dillon is neither a wise man nor a particularly critical thinker. He probably doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s sort of the point, though. He exemplifies a class of comedian-commentators who fashion themselves vox populi with deeper insight into the American psyche than you could ever find in traditional media. Their fans consider them brilliant, refreshing truth-tellers, and their periodic gestures to working class populism earn them credibility among left-leaning audiences as well as the right. If you listen closely, you’ll notice they actually have no idea what they’re talking about. Their ostensible sympathy for the common man is marred by disgust. They’re completely incapable of analyzing the social structures they claim to understand better than anyone else, and their analyses more often serve power than critique it. Note the common impulse in Dillon’s commentaries on Kyle Rittenhouse and on the Capitol Hill putsch: to make violent white supremacist extremists the victims, actually. He has no anger for the rioters, only the people ratting them out.
On the one hand it’s embarrassing (if pretty funny) that people like Dillon have no idea they’re pro-establishment figures. On the other, it’s rather frightening. If your function is to continually downplay the threat of white supremacist violence, then your function is to uphold white supremacy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve criticized racist comedy only to get some response to the effect of, “It’s the only thing that makes me feel good about my shitty life. What’s the harm in that?” Permission to be racist, of course, is what Donald Trump offered too. I hope the harm is now plenty apparent.
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