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America's self-righteous contrarian trap

If you find yourself praising Marianne Williamson or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (or, heaven forbid, Tucker Carlson) this election cycle, you aren’t a leftist. You’re a mark. 
Marianne Williamson, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Tucker Carlson.
Marianne Williamson, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Tucker Carlson.NBC News / Bloomberg; Getty Images

Following Fox News star Tucker Carlson’s firing last month, most on the left were celebrating. Not the high-profile progressive politics and policy journal The American Prospect though. An article there mystifyingly praised Carlson as someone who “punctured the lazy pieties of the media class.” That’s a funny way to describe someone whose vicious racism and misogyny are well-documented

So why would a left-wing publication apologize for a lying right-wing bigot who uses his platform to terrorize critics on the left? The answer is anti-establishment branding. Carlson presents himself as a foe of “elites” and of those in power. But he’s not the only one benefitting from this misplaced iconoclast romanticism.

Some people on the left (and not just on the left) love anti-establishment branding.

Some people on the left (and not just on the left) love anti-establishment branding whether it’s deployed by Carlson, or by self-help author and current presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, or by her fellow Democratic candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer. (We could even include billionaire blusterer Elon Musk on that list.)

Railing against the squares or against the ruling class sounds cool and edgy. And people who are committed to change, or at least very frustrated with the status quo, like many on the left, can mistake cool and edgy for actual liberatory politics. 

The dynamic is quite clear in the article on Carlson in the Prospect. “Carlson’s insistent distrust of his powerful guests acts as a solvent to authority, frequently making larger-than-life figures of the political establishment defend arguments they otherwise treat as self-evident,” authors Lee Harris and Luke Goldstein gushed.

The thing is though that when Carlson attacks “elites,” he’s not talking about those in power. For instance, one of Carlson’s favorite targets is billionaire Democratic donor George Soros. Conspiracy theories about Soros are among the most common and dangerous antisemitic dog-whistles on the right. The shooter who murdered 11 people at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was partly inspired by Soros conspiracy theories. You cannot separate Carlson’s alleged populism from his nativism. (The Prospect itself, after much criticism, apologized and acknowledged that the article “downplayed[ed] the motivations” of right-wing populists.] 

You can see a similar left confusion of marketing and politics in a recent Marianne Williamson puff piece at Jacobin, another important left outlet. In a breathless interview, Liza Featherstone chronicles every time the candidate denounces the “neoliberal crowd” or praises socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

Williamson isn’t a fascist reactionary like Carlson. But she’s got no qualifications for president either; she’s never run held political office. And while she’s rebranded herself to look like a lefty candidate, historically she’s voiced a lot of those neoliberal opinions she claims to be against, often blaming individuals for their own suffering. 

She has insisted that people suffering from AIDS need to “forgive everybody” in their lives to recover, for example, a strange prescription that seems to imply people who died from AIDS may not have been sufficiently spiritually advanced. She has also said the term “clinical depression” is a “scam” and signaled support for the anti-vaccine movement.

Williamson has since walked back some of those positions. But her work overall presents a portrait of a woman who believes that illnesses are in some ways mental and spiritual lapses which can be banished through introspective New Age positive thinking.

Whether or not you think those views qualify as anti-establishment, they’re not progressive. Leftists should show solidarity with disabled people and advocate for accommodations and better public health measures, not suggest they read more self-help books. Yet Jacobin was so dazzled by Williamson’s bromides it failed to even ask her about her controversial, and ugly, statements about vaccinations or depression.

To be fair, it’s not just leftists who get bamboozled by anti-establishment branding. David Samuels, a thoroughly centrist journalist, published an absolutely groveling interview last week with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at the thoroughly centrist Tablet. 

To be fair, it’s not just leftists who get bamboozled by anti-establishment branding.

“The fact that Robert F. Kennedy is the country’s leading ‘conspiracy theorist” alone qualifies him to be president,” Samuels proclaimed. Kennedy believes in nonsense, debunked anti-vaccine theories, and that makes him a hero? By this logic, the more ridiculous and dangerous one’s opinions, the cooler and edgier they become.

Sadly, that’s a formula that works on centrist pundits as well as left ones. Everyone wants to self-righteously fight the man.

But if everyone wants to fight the man, is performatively fighting the man really that contrarian? In fact, praising wealthy, powerful, popular poseurs like Tucker Carlson or Marianne Williamson or Kennedy, Jr. is easy. The actual day-to-day grind of helping pregnant people access abortions in a post-Roe era, or reporting on the assault on trans rights, or protesting against out-of-control police budgets is less glamorous and less punchy.

Boosting anyone who says they don’t like Joe Biden isn’t a substitute for left politics. Actual change requires solidarity, long-term commitment and a willingness to center people who aren’t millionaires with national platforms. If you find yourself praising Marianne Williamson or Robert F. Kennedy this election cycle, you aren’t a leftist. You’re a mark. 

CORRECTION (May 3, 2023, 11:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Marianne Williamson's political record. She has run for office, but she has never held elected office.