With friends like Stephen Colbert, the left doesn’t need enemies. I’ve always been a bit leery of Colbert’s audience; it seemed rather heavy on smug bourgeois supremacists with limited insight into their own circumstances, beneficiaries of privileges that dare not be named in polite company. He and especially Jon Stewart were aggregators and abettors of exactly the sort of unreflective, self-serious, quasi-intellectual elitism dressed up as populist liberalism that has been poisoning the Democratic Party, and by extension the American left as a whole, ever since the yuppies first broke out as a movement thirty or forty years ago and started high-hatting their socioeconomic inferiors in mixed company.
There have always been privileged shitheads who privately make immoral comments about the inferiority of those who keep them fed, sheltered, and clothed, but there have not always been mainstream political circles where their immorality was tolerated. The mid-twentieth century was one of the times when, not so much for the love of decency as for the love of their own reputations, the haughty elites thought better than to make supercilious pricks of themselves in public and consequently shut their fucking mouths. Early on in the Great Compression, this love of personal reputation was often subsidiary to the love of one’s head, especially as attached to one’s body and unencumbered by rope. Yes, the thinking of the sober wealthy really was that coarse. It had to be; the United States would have had a redux of the French Revolution if it hadn’t been. FDR wasn’t bad at all in comparison to his contemporaries. We dodged a bullet, especially the wealthy. As it was, the country was afflicted with Father Coughlin and a spate of ransom kidnappings and bank robberies. Realize, though, that this ugliness arose in response to half a century of violent state suppression of labor activists. We finally shook our fascists off, more or less, during the Great Depression, while Germany acquired its own and set about gassing its ethnic minorities by the trainload in due course of time. Murica.
What passed for elitism in the midcentury was really innocuous by today’s standards, if you think about it. Most Americans don’t think about it; this is by design. Adlai Stevenson was at worst a boorish poseur. So were the beatniks, but they were never close to real power. The fifth column Comintern elites in high government and academic positions were eccentrics, insofar as they weren’t in Joe McCarthy’s head, the imaginary friends of a paranoid drunkard. There was a national consensus that it was beyond the pale to dis the working man. Looking down on someone for having limited formal education provoked roughly the same reaction that overt racism does today. It was the sort of talk best confined to one’s private club. This sense of discretion had a refining effect on the public discourse and on public manners.
The Soviet Union, of course, loomed in the background as an alternative that the American working man might choose to support should his betters stateside get too high-hat or rapacious for his taste. (Stalin, the architect of General Order No. 227, must have enjoyed this dynamic, and enjoyed it with his Cheshire Cat smile.) The U.S. elites knew that they had something to lose by angering normal people, and that they might lose it in an orgy of violence and civic dysfunction.
They no longer feel this modesty. They see no need for it. With great luck, a quarter of my contemporaries from Dickinson College have the decency not to shit on the poor and uneducated for being poor and uneducated. I can’t say with any confidence that even ten percent are so decent. I doubt I’ll ever forget how cruel many of them were to me, and sometimes still are, on account of my having achieved less than they have and refused to honor their dirty games. It’s a bell that cannot be unrung. I hate to imagine how they treat their maids and gardeners, especially any who are acculturated Americans. I can’t romance any respect out of these people, and I have a fucking bachelor’s degree. In the liberal arts, from an institution drowning in the sweet smell of its own flatulence. But that’s the problem. If they weren’t natural bastards at matriculation, they were trained for the job by our alma mater. By the way: one of the girls at a Dickinson accepted students’ open house that I attended used “matriculate” as a synonym for “trickle.” We had a few certifiable Dumbos floating around, and most of them were unshakably convinced of their own superior intelligence. We couldn’t have had more destructive idiots than the ones the administration nurtured.
These are the sorts of people my college commissioned to “Engage the World.” God help the world. Any world is fucked silly by the engagement of a crowd like that. But of course these dipshits haven’t read their C. S. Lewis or their Ivan Illich. If they had, they might figure that going to Cozumel and getting shitfaced isn’t the kind of thing that would have learned dead guys on two continents calling them endlessly troublesome busybodies. They only pretend to be educated, just as Bill Durden only pretended to educate us. The sort of humility that would come from a truly liberal education would be a buzzkill, for the student’s inflated self-esteem and for the school’s fundraising efforts alike. My comments on this subject have annoyed some of my fellow alumni, but I’d rather be cynical than crass. These are people who refuse to live in truth, under Vaclav Havel’s tutelage or anyone else’s. Maybe a third of them vaguely recall hearing about Vaclav Havel somewhere, and that’s a generous guess. Most Americans have no idea who the fuck he was, but most Americans aren’t presumptuous enough to think that they should have positions of policy authority over the rest of us as international studies majors who can’t formulate a coherent sentence about the sitting Pakistani or Afghan presidents three weeks after 9/11. I met one of these, too. I was floored.
The problem with taking news reporting at face value is that one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. There’s all kinds of horrible propaganda mixed up with genuine reporting and sincere commentary. The slippery thing about the Daily Show and the Colbert Report was that they purported to transcend the propaganda and developed a reputation for doing so for a highly educated audience. They cultivated an audience that expected intractable bias from Fox News but incorruptible honesty from its blowhard counterpoints on the left. I understand that there’s quite a large overlap between Stewart/Colbert dittoheads and mini-Dawkins atheism boors. And yes, they’re dittoheads, just like Rush Limbaugh has. He’s worse than Jon Stewart, but how does that make Stewart respectable? It’s like saying that Todd Akin is worse than Claire McCaskill. Neither one is a strong enough foil to make the other suddenly not suck. But at least Colbert was a semifictional character on the Colbert Report. Stewart played himself. He certainly esteemed himself.
Now Colbert is on CBS as a straight character, and it’s a clusterfuck. He’s showing his true colors, I assume, or otherwise his masters’ true colors, and it’s unlikely that his target audience–the left-of-center one he inherited from David Letterman plus the younger, even harder left one he brought over from Comedy Central–realizes how badly he’s threatening to fuck up the leftist cause.
The Oreo stunt got things off to a spectacularly bad start. It would have been reasonable enough to tweak Donald Trump for being shrill for announcing his lifetime boycott of Oreo, but it would have been a right-libertarian position, and Colbert’s street cred is for being a left-statist. Trump was the one defending union jobs in Chicago here, and Colbert was the one trying to make him look like a blowhard for siding with labor rather than the brand. Who is more credible as a labor ally: the guy chastising a multinational corporation for disrupting a working-class American neighborhood with its latest international labor arbitrage, or the guy shoving cookies into his mouth as a statement of solidarity with tastiness? Shit, who’s more credible as an adult here?
Colbert has subsequently managed to squeeze in opening week interviews with Jeb Bush (the milquetoast triangulator heir-apparent to an entitled political dynasty who’s getting his clock cleaned by Donald Trump), Joe Biden (wildly overrated as a liberal, especially on crime), Elon Musk (a true tech innovator, but also a huge influence-peddler presiding over first-class subsidy dumpsters), and Travis Kalanick (founder and CEO of the very shady but highly bougie-approved Uber). Colbert’s editors had to edit out audience heckling during Kalanick’s initial studio taping. Colbert also kept carrying on about how he owns a Tesla, not necessarily an intrinsically unethical purchase, but also not something that a television host should repeatedly plug.
Kalanick in particular is a megalomaniacal creep who punishes dissident employees. (Yes, they’re employees, although the litigation is still ongoing in this matter.) He’s exactly the sort of falsely modest robber baron that has been ruining the San Francisco Bay Area for two decades and is now trying to ruin the country and the world. Someone has to stand up to his ilk. If Donald Trump is the only person with any social proof who is willing to do so, he’ll seize that territory without firing a shot. He’s already done so on immigration, positioning himself as the only principled and honest candidate in a field of apologists for big business and affluent employers of Latin American household staffs.
Colbert’s fawning interviews of Kalanick and Musk in particular raises the possibility of marketing corruption. Only an internal whistleblower will be able to prove this, but there’s a strong circumstantial case for pay-for-play. He’s either crooked or one useful earnest bastard. Given the amount of time he’s done in the industry, I have to guess crooked.
We’re dealing here with a bourgeoisie that manifestly cares about nothing but its own parochial interests. This is what Uber is. It’s a way for Bougie to avoid paying full cab fare or taking the bus. At long last, Trump looks like someone, if from an unlikely socioeconomic cranny, who is willing to assert the parochial interests of the broad middle class, extant and dispossessed, against treacherous haut-bourgeois elements that would rather throw everyone below the eightieth percentile under the bus for convenience’s sake. He’d have much less support if anyone else in both major-party fields aside from Bernie Sanders were willing to talk straight for an entire sentence about the vulnerability of normal Americans to the highbrow predators in their midst. Notice, too, that Bernie, an eccentric Brooklyn Jew turned Vermont country socialist, is beating Hillary in Iowa polls. It’s because the United States has reached a tipping point. It’s because all the self-dealing shitheads in “public service” have finally poisoned their own habitat with their waste. But really, no one should have expected Hillary Clinton to show any more wisdom than a yeast colony in a wine barrel. Or Jeb Bush, after watching his brother come by the presidency under dubious circumstances and hold it for two full terms without a serious threat of impeachment.
We can’t all be insiders. I sure as hell can’t hack it in that world. The left has been assuming for a decade that Stephen Colbert can be trusted to speak truth to power on these matters, but he’s speaking power to truth instead. At least the Donald doesn’t give a shit about offending Bougie. He, of all people, may be the one who defuses the powderkeg. This sucker is sure to blow if the bourgeois supremacists keep talking past everyone else. Better the weasel on a real estate developer’s head than all the wigs of Marie Antoinette.