The Post-Dirtbag Left

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On the evening of January 6th, while National Guard troops were still trying to remove an insurrectionist mob from the Capitol, the right-wing activist L. Brent Bozell III appeared as a guest on Fox Business. “They believe this election was stolen,” he said, of the rioters. “I agree with them. They are furious about the deep state. . . . I agree with them.” He offered a limp concession or two—“You cannot countenance our national Capitol being breached”—but spent most of the segment zigzagging across the thin line between explanation and excuse. As many viewers would have known, Bozell’s father, L. Brent Bozell, Jr., was a titanic figure in the history of modern American conservatism, his influence arguably second only to that of his co-author, brother-in-law, and former college-debate partner, William F. Buckley. What viewers would not have known—what even Brent III did not yet know, apparently—was that his son, also named L. Brent Bozell, was part of the insurrectionist mob. In fact, Brent IV, who goes by Zeek, was one of the few invaders to make it all the way to the Senate chamber.

In February, Zeek was charged with three federal crimes. A week and a half later, the two hosts of “Know Your Enemy”—a podcast, founded in 2019, that bills itself as “a leftist’s guide to the conservative movement”—released a bonus episode called “Keeping Up with the Bozells.”

“It’s a fastball right down the middle for us,” Sam Adler-Bell, one of the hosts, said. The other host, Matthew Sitman, added, “This is really a great opportunity for us to dive into some deep-cut conservative lore.” It was less than two minutes into the episode, and already he had made a self-consciously erudite joke about Leo Strauss, and another about the Carlist movement in postwar Spain. “Look, when there’s Brent Bozells in the news,” Adler-Bell continued, “you want to hear ‘Know Your Enemy’ break it down for you.”

If “Know Your Enemy” were like most podcasts, then an episode of this kind—pegged to the news, available only to subscribers—might have consisted of an hour or two of aimless riffing, a few apocryphal anecdotes, and some easy punch lines about how the mighty have fallen. Content production is a high-volume business, and professional talkers, especially political ones, almost always offer up old whines in new bottles. Sitman and Adler-Bell hawk a more artisanal product. To prepare for the episode, Adler-Bell had watched—“for you, the listeners, and for my sins”—hours of speeches by Brent III, including a histrionic 2015 appearance in which he compared the Obama Administration to the Stasi. Sitman drew on several articles and books by and about the Bozells, quoting most extensively from “Living on Fire,” a biography of Brent, Jr., published by a small conservative press. (Listening to “Know Your Enemy” can feel like visiting a semi-reclusive friend whose apartment is crammed with out-of-print books, but who always keeps a stash of good bourbon on hand.) The hosts summarized the life of Brent, Sr., an adman in interwar Omaha, before devoting the bulk of the episode to Brent, Jr., who ghostwrote Barry Goldwater’s 1960 best-seller, “The Conscience of a Conservative”; founded the Catholic magazine Triumph; and spent the end of his life advocating for an American brand of theocracy. The two living Brents were deemed less worthy adversaries. “For us,” Adler-Bell said, the figures worth scrutinizing “are these weirdos who had a lot of idiosyncratic, terrible, dangerous, Fascist-sympathetic ideas, but nonetheless were interesting.”

Sitman and Adler-Bell are serious, in other words, about the “know” part of their title. They seem more ambivalent about the “enemy” part. It’s not that they’re squishy about their politics: they have discussed at length what their socialist utopia would look like, and their only sustained disagreement during the 2020 primaries came in the form of Sitman, a die-hard Bernie Sanders fan, gently ribbing Adler-Bell for even entertaining the idea of supporting Elizabeth Warren. Their hesitancy has more to do with temperament. Last year, they interviewed the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat, who has drawn leftists’ ire for several of his pieces, including one called “The Necessity of Stephen Miller.” None of those columns came up. Even Douthat seemed to find the hosts’ questions suspiciously magnanimous. (“You’re just softening me up, right?”) In an introduction recorded after the interview, the hosts warned listeners that what followed would be “a conversation, not a debate.” “He’s a nice guy,” Sitman said, of Douthat. Adler-Bell agreed: “It’s annoying how nice he is.”

Sitman grew up in a white working-class family in central Pennsylvania. His parents were self-described Christian fundamentalists and straight-ticket Republicans—“God-and-guns voters,” he called them, in a 2016 essay in Dissent—and, in college, he was, too. During his twenties, as a graduate student in political theory at Georgetown, he started to doubt the axioms of conservatism; by his mid-thirties, he was a Catholic, and a democratic socialist. (Adler-Bell, who was reared in Connecticut by secular leftists, didn’t have to defect from much of anything.) Occasionally, Sitman speaks with the zeal of a convert. Once, while complaining about “shitheads on the right” who claim to be “all Second Amendment” but don’t actually know how to shoot, he said, “I was born with a King James Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, and I still know them both better than any of these guys.” More often, though, he speaks with the guilt of a Catholic, the humility of a conflict-averse introvert, and the circumspection of someone who actually knows and loves working-class Republicans (and expects at least a few of them to tune in). In the “Keeping Up with the Bozells” episode, Sitman contrasted Brent III with his more illustrious father: “What a letdown.” Then, in the next breath, he apologized for the insult.

At times, this reflexive solicitousness can itself be a bit of a letdown. (Imagine Jesus, before squaring off with a Pharisee, promising “a conversation, not a debate.”) Still, if forced to choose between not enough light and not enough heat, I’ll take the latter every time. Sitman is a writer and an editor at Commonweal; Adler-Bell is a freelance writer whose work appears in The New Republic, Jewish Currents, and elsewhere. Like many coastal media types, they constantly mock themselves, often on Twitter, for spending too much time on Twitter. But they haven’t allowed their personalities (or, at least, the personas they perform on the show) to be subsumed by the deadening collective affect of social media. “What do you do if you’re not a hot-take artist?” Sitman asked, during an episode about Christopher Hitchens. (The episode, “Sympathy for the Hitch,” was another instance of the show treating its ideological opponents with grudging respect.) His answer, which he admitted was “a little, maybe, self-serving”: “I do find some of the complexity coming out in podcasts.” If the currency of Twitter consists of eye-rolling quote-tweets, drive-by insults, and tortuously recursive in-jokes, then “Know Your Enemy” is, blessedly, in the online world but not of it.

When the podcast “Chapo Trap House” began, in March of 2016, it served a real need. Millions of voters, disaffected and politically homeless, saw in Bernie Sanders an obvious solution to an array of systemic problems. “Bernie won Michigan on Tuesday,” Will Menaker, one of the co-hosts, said on the show’s first episode. “I’m not being facetious here . . . it has really kinda upset a lot of what I thought was gonna happen in this election.” Later, when Sanders dropped out, the fact that he had come so close to eking out a victory made his defeat all the more painful. Many of his admirers—especially the young, angry, and very online ones—wanted to hear their outrage reflected back at them, not in temperate op-eds or both-sides TV punditry but through hyper-specific satire, historically literate left-wing analysis, and gleefully ad-hominem jokes about how John Podesta and Debbie Wasserman Schultz were neoliberal ghouls. “I can’t wait to watch the debates this fall, when Donald Trump is accusing Hillary Clinton of…

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