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How the populist left has become vulnerable to the populist right

A new political subculture could funnel people from leftism to authoritarianism.
Photo collage: Images of Glenn Greenwald, Tulsi Gabbard and Matt Taibbi amidst images of fists up in the air in protest, details of an architectural column and screen static colors.
Former stars of the far left have become aligned with the populist right in surprising ways in recent years.MSNBC / Getty Images

UPDATE (Jan. 12, 2023 12:00 p.m. E.T.): This piece has been updated to reflect Glenn Greenwald's response to a question about funding for his show on Rumble.

Since the mid-2010s, the rise of the populist left and the populist right has shaken up the American political spectrum. Both movements have maneuvered to pressure and persuade the political establishment to adopt their objectives. But in recent years something unusual has been happening. We’re seeing the formation of a pipeline that circumvents the center altogether — and directly connects left-wing to right-wing populism. 

A group of journalists and media personalities who once were at home on the far left has formed a niche but influential political subculture that encourages leftists to abandon leftism for the populist right. Its most recognizable faces are former icons of leftist discourse who have millions of diehard fans: Glenn Greenwald, a co-founder of The Intercept, known as one of the most powerful critics of the “war on terror” in the Bush era. Matt Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone writer, who was famous for excoriating defenders of neoliberalism and likening Goldman Sachs to a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” Tulsi Gabbard, formerly a Democratic House member and 2020 presidential candidate, was aligned with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.

But in recent years their focus has changed. These commentators had never hesitated to criticize Democrats alongside Republicans. But now they've pivoted to targeting liberals nearly exclusively, while forming ties with the authoritarian right.

Anti-lib populism might not necessarily convert leftists into MAGA activists. But it could still do damage by generating cynicism.

On issues such as free speech, the war in Ukraine, and social inclusivity, this group’s commentary has garnered tremendous attention and plaudits from right-wingers, and some of them have grown fond of using conservative media platforms to spread their message. In 2022 this trend appeared to reach new heights. Gabbard served as a guest host for Fox News’ white nationalist-in-chief, Tucker Carlson. Taibbi became right-wing Twitter CEO Elon Musk’s go-to stenographer for a series of leaks from Twitter’s internal documents meant to make Musk’s takeover of the social media platform look necessary. Greenwald attended the premier of a documentary about right-wing disinformation mogul Alex Jones and conducted a shockingly sympathetic interview with him.

Collectively, these and other lesser-known pundits push a political position that could be called “anti-lib populism.” (“Lib” as in the pejorative slang term for a liberal, in currency among leftists and the right.) Like all populisms, it purports to oppose elitism and speak on behalf of the people. But as a practice, it funnels people toward the snake-oil populism of the right.

Anti-lib populism may not necessarily convert leftists into MAGA activists en masse. But it could still do damage by generating cynicism that could divide the left. That's why the left must be vigilant about its rise.

The free speech fallacy

One of the most prominent strategies of anti-lib populists is casting liberal media as the biggest threat to free speech in America. Taibbi and Greenwald spend a lot of energy warning about cancel culture and opposing deplatforming and speech regulation on internet platforms OKed by a liberal worldview. Some of it is legitimate — I, too, worry about opaque internet censorship and certain aspects of cancel culture like self-sabotaging groupthink and targeting people's jobs for misbehavior. But what’s odd about the anti-lib outlook is its singular focus on liberals.

The right is at least as worrisome on the issue of restricting speech, and in some respects far more. The GOP has become an overt advocate for government censorship on college campuses and in schools and libraries. When he was president, Trump ramped up legal attacks on the media and harassed journalists. The MAGA right endeavors to dampen the very meaning of free speech by embracing disinformation as a political strategy. Billionaires who are hostile to the left own social media platforms and make decisions about speech based on profit motives.

Yet somehow Taibbi has said he finds Republicans “irrelevant” on matters of speech, has downplayed Fox’s enormous influence on the right, and has preposterously argued that all elites are on the left side of the spectrum. Greenwald focuses the lion's share of his criticisms of censorship as a phenomenon tied to Democrats and liberal media.

Taibbi’s blinkered attitude about speech likely explains why Musk, who has revealed himself to be a QAnon-friendly fan of MAGA politics, appears to have entrusted Taibbi with a cache of Twitter documents to report on Twitter’s history of controlling speech on its platform. To be clear, the leaks have helped shine a light on some deeply troubling issues, like the FBI’s apparent input into Twitter’s speech regulation. But it’s notable that Taibbi has exaggerated and misframed the import of his exposé, and that by agreeing to conditions set by Musk (or Musk-connected sources) regarding his access to the information and where he could publish it, he has tainted his findings with the aura of a comms operation. (Taibbi once noted in the past, “Once you start getting handed things, then you’ve lost.”) He has also conveniently lost his sharp tongue when it comes to Musk’s arbitrary suppression of users on Twitter

If you are a free speech warrior, you should be concerned about threats to robust speech that manifest across the political spectrum, and you should take steps to demonstrate your independence from plutocrats who are whimsically buying public squares. Instead, anti-lib populists finds common cause with the right and designate Democrats as the implacable enemy.

The populist right is not antiwar

Another example of how anti-lib populism tries to nudge the left to come to mistaken conclusions about the nature of the right is the war in Ukraine. Now, Gabbard and other anti-lib populists have correctly pointed out that the Democratic Party has been overly blasé about nuclear escalation with Russia, and has stigmatized even minor dissent over the issue of how the U.S. should approach vital diplomacy with Moscow. That concern overlaps with the leftist antiwar posture of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America.

But the anti-lib populists focus almost all their energy on the Democrats, despite the fact that most Republican lawmakers share the Democrats' position. Gabbard cited Ukraine policy as the primary reason she left the Democratic Party and slams it as controlled by "warmongers"; Greenwald trumpets MAGA dissent on Ukraine aid as a sign of the GOP's politico-intellectual health.

More worryingly, they implicitly imply the MAGA right is antiwar when it's anything but. While it’s true that the MAGA wing’s increasing hesitation to involve itself in Ukraine has the effect of calling for a less hawkish position than many Democrats, the actual ideology underlying the position isn’t fundamentally antiwar. 

Trump and MAGA Republicans are nationalists interested in militarizing domestic American life. They’re in favor of aggressively securing the borders, supporting armed vigilante formations and emboldening militarized police. And while Trump isn’t interested in the kind of nation-building that both parties supported during the war on terrorism, he exhibited no lack of appetite for war when he torpedoed the Iran nuclear deal, played chicken with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, requested colossal defense budgets, continued drone warfare but with less transparency, called for military parades in the streets and employed strategists such as Steve Bannon who enjoy saber-rattling about the prospect of war with China.

The reality is that Democrats and Republicans today are hawkish in different ways, and anybody who cares about making America less bellicose — both at home and abroad — should be angling to pressure both parties. But the anti-lib populists focus all their energy on disparaging the Democrats.

There are also other players who aren’t as big as Gabbard, Greenwald or Taibbi are also involved in this game of pushing the left to consider right-wing populism across a number of different issues. YouTuber Jimmy Dore deemed the self-described leftist lawmakers in "the squad" frauds for declining to try to block Nancy Pelosi's speakership to "force the vote" on Medicare-for-all, a strategic question that split the left at the beginning of the Biden presidency. Regardless of one’s position on that issue — I had mixed feelings — it's illuminating to contrast Dore's eagerness to dismiss the squad as sellouts with his charitable attitude to the right. Just a few months later he conducted a remarkably credulous interview with a Boogaloo Boi, a member of a violent accelerationist movement with roots in right-wing, anti-government and white nationalist belief systems.

The hosts of “Red Scare,” a popular podcast once considered part of "the dirtbag left," also probably fits into the anti-lib populist scene. The cohosts of Red Scare issue critiques of capitalism and reserve plenty of venom for liberals. But they also pal around with the authoritarian right; they've conducted friendly interviews with Jones of Infowars and Curtis Yarvin, a neo-monarchist blogger.

How anti-lib populism inverts left-wing populism

It is not unusual for leftists activists and thinkers to focus a significant amount of energy on criticizing Democrats, since Democrats are, theoretically, more likely to be receptive to or susceptible to left-wing ideas, and are more realistic bargaining partners on a number of policy issues like expanding the welfare state. Meanwhile, the right is often seen as a lost cause. (Or sometimes the right is seen as indistinguishable from Democrats, depending on the issue.) But in anti-lib populism, liberal politics is portrayed as irreversibly corrupt, and the populist right is hinted at as an idyllic alternative.

Anti-lib populists can do something doctrinaire right-wing populists can’t — use their cred in leftist circles to issue critiques that act as a crowbar to crack open fissures on the left.

A skeptic of my schematic might say that I'm simply describing right-wing populists. Well, not exactly. First of all, these commentators don’t fit neatly into any conventional ideological box (and, complicating things further, never really did very neatly fit on the left). Greenwald’s stated normative views are decidedly not conventionally right-wing; Gabbard identifies as an independent and has declined to join the Republicans (at least for now); Taibbi calls himself a “run-of-the-mill, old-school ACLU liberal” who likes Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Moreover, as discussed earlier, they still hold some views that overlap with a leftist sensibility, and it’s reasonable to assume they still have many left-wing followers. And that's why their interventions matter. Anti-lib populists can do something doctrinaire right-wing populists can’t — use their cred in leftist circles to issue critiques that act as a crowbar to crack open fissures on the left. And they can distort the nature of the right to make it appear innocuous. Witness Greenwald’s (tortured) attempt to portray Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon and 2015-era Donald Trump as socialists.

I can't say I understand the origins of this phenomenon, or that there's a single explanation for it. Part of it could be a reactionary response to the the rise of "woke politics," a preoccupation of almost all anti-lib populists. Part of it could be growing fed up with the Democratic establishment, particularly after it fended off the Sanders insurgency in two presidential primaries, and resolving to go to war against it. Part of it could be the economics of provocation and contrarianism — anti-lib populists are almost always in independent media, and might find it financially rewarding to relentlessly own the libs. Part of it could be based on their commonly articulated (and misguided) belief that media — and mostly liberal media — is the single greatest source of power in society. Part of it could be naivete about what the populist right really stands for. Whatever it is, the result is an orientation that's adept at generating cynicism.

The authoritarian right loves the chaos

The authoritarian right has delighted in the emergence of anti-lib populism. It knows that even if disillusioned leftists don’t join the right, it’s worth destroying their faith in the possibility of building a mass movement including Democrats. Yarvin, one of the most influential intellectuals of the “new right,” has said a key strategy for his movement is to “sow acorns of dark doubt” in the minds of the left and pounce when its “conviction and energy flag.” Put more simply: divide and conquer. This is why Yarvin and a number of influencers on the right mingle with anti-lib populists, help them with exposure and seek to work with them on media platforms.  

Political axes are being scrambled. Strange bedfellows roam the streets and the halls of power.

Greenwald has recently launched a show with what he describes as a “cable news budget” on Rumble, an independent alternative to YouTube. Greenwald told me in a direct message over Twitter that Rumble is providing the funding and paying him for the show. Rumble is backed by Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley tycoon who has funded ultranationalist political candidates for the Senate, such as the recently elected Republican J.D. Vance of Ohio, and has said he doesn’t “believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Greenwald and Taibbi have hosted podcasts on Callin, a podcast platform backed by David Sacks, a right-wing venture capitalist and pal of Musk. Gabbard is a paid contributor to Fox News. Blake Masters, who ran a failed ultra-MAGA campaign for the Senate in Arizona in November, said he and Thiel have met with one of the hosts of “Red Scare” and would consider financially backing the podcast.

None of this is to suggest that anti-lib populists have been bought off or are taking direct editorial cues from owners of platforms. The point is authoritarian elements of the capitalist class are cultivating relationships with anti-lib populists and backing platforms that can facilitate the left-to-right-wing populism pipeline. Networks and infrastructure are being crafted.

It’s too early to identify how this scene could be reshaping political identity and behavior. But it should be taken seriously. This scene has lots of followers and citizens take ideological cues from leaders.

We live in an era of ongoing ideological rupture. Political axes are being scrambled. Strange bedfellows roam the streets and the halls of power. For leftists, this is a time for discipline and clear-eyed appraisals of possibility and peril. If we are to have a civilized, democratic society, the populism pipeline must flow the other way.