Michael Hobbes on how all of American politics is just the War On Christmas now
"We've perfected this model where we've got the right freaking out about things that basically don't exist."
It’s the last Extra Garbage Day of the year! But before we get into the interview, I wanted to thank all of you, my paying subscribers, for supporting this newsletter. It’s been a crazy year and none of this could be possible without you. Literally.
This last interview is with a journalist that I’ve been following forever, Michael Hobbes. He’s a former HuffPost reporter who was co-hosting a podcast called You’re Wrong About up until October. It’s basically one of three shows I’ve listened to without fail for years. I love Hobbes’ macro point of view on big social issues, data-driven investigations, and love of modern history. You’re Wrong About is a massive influence on both Garbage Day and my own podcast The Content Mines. He’s currently writing a newsletter and also hosting a podcast debunking bad weight-loss science called Maintenance Phase.
But beyond just being a fan, the reason I wanted to end 2021 with a conversation with Hobbes is because his writing on cancel culture and American moral panics is, in my opinion, the best around. His Twitter account is a rolling timeline of the latest bull shit from the right-wing disinformation machine and he’s really smart in how he connects hysterical trending topics of our current moment to a years-long radicalization of the American conservative movement.
He was nice enough to jump on a WhatsApp call with me last week from Germany, where he’s currently living. We talked about the exercise in futility that is trying to debunk anything on Twitter, why white guy journalists in their 40s are so obsessed with cancel culture, and whether or not the creator economy is extremely exciting or terrifying. Allegra Rosenberg contributed to the research and reporting for this interview. The following has been edited for pacing and clarity.
So I'm a huge fan of your work, but also, more specifically, I feel like this year has been defined by moral panics and outrage, and you're kind of the expert when it comes to those.
I hate that I have become — I hate that. Being an expert on this stuff has found me. It's the slowly-dawning realization of how much moral panics have overtaken like a cancer all of American political life.
I mean, I'm obviously a biased observer — because I probably seek this stuff out on some level — but there used to be bull shit culture war debate stuff. And then there were real actual debates, right? Now it feels like it's just all moral panic stuff.
There’s not really a debate over like, should there be like a minimum wage hike? Or even like, can we invade Iran or whatever. It’s just like, you know, Section 230 stuff and, you know, Dr. Seuss. It's all moral panic now. So really, everything is the War On Christmas, basically. And it's extremely frustrating that we have completely become unmoored from actual normal political debates.
So what do you think caused the change?
How old are you?
Okay, I'm 39. I feel like it happened definitely in your lifetime. And I feel like, mostly in my lifetime, the biggest political story has been the gradual radicalization of the Republican Party. And I think, especially after 1989, they were sort of casting around for an enemy, like a sort of a big bad that they could focus all their guns on, right? And for a while, it was political correctness. And then it was terrorism for a while. They sort of beta-tested that terrorism stuff for a while. But then slowly, they've kind of drifted back to “the left”. You know, whatever weird definition of that they have. And it's been intensifying. There are milestones along this path, you know, the election of Obama. There's been things that have slowed it down. There have been some other terrorist things that have popped up — there's been some zigzags.
But this path of them redefining the canonical enemy of America as the left has been a gradual process that has taken place over our lives. And we seem to be at some sort of apotheosis of that now, where we had the election of Donald Trump where, of course, all that stuff accelerated. But they weren't really an opposition party. They were winning at that point. And so it was harder for them to whip up outrage. But then now that we have Joe Biden and they're in the opposition again — which is a place that their media loves to be, and they've also become more dominated by media — it's just constant. This is the only mode that they have now. It's just whipping up outrage over mostly low stakes.
It’s oftentimes stuff that doesn't really matter. And I think the Dr. Seuss thing is the perfect example, where it's, ultimately, that some books didn't get published. There's real no policy behind it. There's no real debate there. It's just the kind of thing that you would read in an advice column or like an Am I The Asshole or something. It's these little anecdotes that are really easy to use to whip up emotion, but there's no actual political valence to a lot of this stuff.
How built up by the Internet is this current outrage apparatus? Because, obviously, Fox News existed before social media, conservative media has always existed. But how much has the internet supercharged this?
It's actually an interesting question because in some ways, it's slowed it down because it makes it easier to notice it when it's happening in real-time. Like your newsletter is an example of this, right? You can sort of dissect this stuff. And your podcast too. You can you can analyze this stuff and see it for what it is in real-time without relying on existing media gatekeepers like you would have in the past. Which I think is actually a step forward and actually a sign of progress that people will debunk these silly nothing-burger anecdotes like 10 minutes after they're published.
And then, of course, a step back is that you can find and amplify these low-stakes anecdotes and find a huge audience for them. I, also, think a really big thing is that we tend to group together social media [platforms]. I think Facebook is a huge driver of it for, you know, reasons that you've explored, that a lot of other people have explored. [But, also, there are] specific structures of Facebook groups and people being able to be in these private groups and these things that just exist only to feed you outrage.
You're in an immigrant crime group. And, every day, there's a new story because we live in a big country. Statistically speaking, an immigrant is probably going to commit murder every day in the United States — [there’s] a lot of murders. And you just get this drip, drip, drip of outrage, when, really, there's no statistical trend behind it. But it's just this engine that just feeds you emotion all day.
I think, for the left, Twitter has been a de-accelerant. And I think for the right, Facebook has been an accelerant. Facebook is just a lot bigger and skews, of course, a lot older. And voters are old. The turnout of people over 65 — I think it's like three times higher than people under 24. So, of course, the people who kind of matter to the electoral system, who wins and loses, those people are all on Facebook and they're all getting just absolute garbage in their feeds all day. And, in a way, because journalists are all on fucking Twitter, I think we all discount the effect of so many people looking at Facebook all day.
You do a lot of this work, where you dig through the numbers of something that's going around, and you're like, “Okay, look, this is actually not what you think it is.” And you've got this a really great handle on how this stuff looks really bad, but, actually, when you pull it apart, it's not really as sensational as it seems. Do you think, more broadly, that trying to debunk this stuff actually works? Or is it like pissing into the wind?
It's 100% pissing in the wind. It’s me — not even in a rowboat — like in a cruise ship with a bucket, bailing out water. Because another one of the structures of social media is that you're talking to people who agree with you. Twitter, especially, is a terrible format for persuasive communication. It's a terrible format for talking to people you disagree with. And so, for most people on there, it's like a water cooler. It functions much more like a water cooler than then an actual place for debate. And so I'm really only speaking to people who follow me on there. So whatever message I have, like whatever debunking I do, it only really goes to people who follow me, right? I get the impression that it goes further than that. But it really only goes to people that are already kind of on my side on these things. What we need is a national media that is willing to describe this stuff as what it is. And so, a lot of what I ended up doing on social media, which is probably a huge waste of my time, and very bad for my mental health, is just like calling out the establishment. You know, conservative/liberal media that ends up, I think, inadvertently laundering this stuff into mainstream conversation.
My friend Charlie Warzel has coined the term “grievance blogging,” which is a new, interesting development in all of this. The intellectual dark web types. I'd love to get your thoughts on that wonderful group of people. Because I feel like you sort of zeroed in on their whole bull shit thing a while ago.
What can I say? I mean, I don't think there's anything unique about Substack. I think it's just a blogging platform. There's this extra thing of newsletters on top of it, but whatever. They're basically just blogs, right? So it’s going back to the blogosphere of the early 2000s, which, I think was probably better than social media we have now. So as a technological shift, I'm actually totally fine with it. The problem is that now that you have this crowdfunding element on top of it, you have this incentive to just write about the same thing over and over again and to deliver the kind of the emotional responses to your readers that they want and that they respond to because you have these numbers, right? You not only have click numbers, but you also have subscription numbers.
There are certain types of posts that will get them subscription revenue and there are other types of posts that will get them clicks, but not subscription revenue, right? And my understanding is that it's things that are kind of in your wheelhouse. And they're delivering that kind of dopamine hit of like, “you'll never guess what this sophomore at Evergreen did this week.” That's the kind of thing that drives subscriptions. And so I don't actually think that anybody on Substack — even people that disagree with — I don't think that they're cynical operators. I don't think that this is operating at any kind of deliberate level like, “lol I'm gonna whip up an anecdote to get some more subscribers.” I think it's that human beings do more things that they're rewarded for. And we're attuned to numbers and we like it when people like us. We like it when we get positive feedback. And if you're in one of these structures, where your only real feedback is your crowdfunding numbers, you're going to lean towards doing more of what the crowdfunding numbers do. Whereas, you know — I don't want to glorify the establishment media — but your editor at a newspaper, your editor would theoretically go, “you know, you've written about this three times in a row. I'm not sure we need another story like this.”
Whereas on Substack, it's exactly the opposite. It's like, “no, feed me more. What's the next thing that happened at an elite private school in Manhattan?” People have a bottomless appetite to be told what they already believe. And this isn't actually a right-wing thing, particularly, but if you're able to deliver people that emotional sustenance, you're going to want to do it more and more in an escalating fashion.
So that's actually a really good transition into a less journalistic question, I guess. You're one of the journalists who has been operating in the “creator economy” for a while now. Your podcast You're Wrong About ran for many years. And now you've jumped fully into the creator world, but you've also stopped doing the podcast. So I guess, what do you think of the creator economy landscape at the moment?
Honestly, I have no idea. I mean, it's totally capsized by the fact that we're in a pandemic, too. I mean, so much of my decision to leave You're Wrong About was also part of being in a pandemic and, theoretically, coming out of a pandemic — and then I moved to a different country — and it's like a bouillabaisse of all this political stuff and personal stuff and emotional stuff.
I really can't separate my own decision from all of those factors, I think. I actually think all this creator stuff and crowdfunding — I actually think like, as a technology, it's really exciting. I think it's great that you can do things like you can have a newsletter without any gatekeepers. I actually think that, ultimately, this is a positive move. I just think that the sort of economies of scale that flow to that tend to be to established writers and tend to be to particular kinds of messages. And so I don't actually have a beef with any of these platforms. It's more about the people that are using them. And the kind of understandable, normal human biases behind how people choose to write about it.
It's funny how a lot of people have very rose-colored glasses for the blogging days, but we totally forgot that there was just constant drama.
People would get invested in it it it was like rap beefs or something! It's like, “oh, like Juan Cole is fighting like Robert George this week,” and everybody would get super invested. But it's the same. I mean, it's all just kind of like the soap opera of it. I mean, most of us like normal stuff, right? We're just in such a different political and technological environment now.
Do you see outrage culture getting worse or mutating? Is it slowing down? Where are we on the doomsday clock right now?
I'm genuinely extremely pessimistic about the United States. I think the combination of Trump and sort of the resistance to Trump — it's like we've perfected this model where we've got the right freaking out about things that basically don't exist, right? It's immigrant caravans, it's cancel culture, it's critical race theory, it's almost completely unmoored from any actual political issue or anything substantive. And then we've got the sort of establishment media broadcasting this message that we have to hear them out. And we have to take it seriously. And it's for political reasons.
Like, “isn't it really the leftists’ fault for wanting to say ‘latinx’,” and like, “isn't that really what's driving this?”
I think we have this class of aging, mostly white straight cis journalists in these in these journalistic institutions that are just kind of annoyed by the things that are happening to their left in a pretty fairly standard way. Like this is what happens as you age, right? You're like, “oh, The Beatles hair is touching their collar.” These people are all very entrenched at journalistic institutions. So instead of describing what's actually going on in the country and the radicalization of the right, they do this kind of poking at “both sides are polarizing,” and, “there's hyperbole on both sides,” and, “aren't the woke people really the threat of authoritarianism?” And I think it's being driven by ordinary human impulses. Social change becomes more threatening as you get older.
I don't think that people are aware of that. And I don't think that editors are putting a check on this. And saying, you know, again, like, “you've written about this three times,” like, “Bret Stevens, this is your sixth column in a row about college sophomores, like, maybe write about nuclear proliferation or something.”
The thing that makes me the most pessimistic is the flattened response from liberal institutions that really should know better about this stuff and should be describing what's going on with a lot more clarity. Whereas, you see this kind of prevaricating like, “well, I guess the Republicans are trying to take away voting rights, but, also, you'll never believe this thing that happened at Oberlin,” right? It's this kind of vague acknowledgment that things are much worse on the right, but there's no kind of passion behind it. You can tell that this isn't what's driving people, lighting a fire in people's bellies in the same way.
When the Mark Meadows texts were released, there was a political reporter who outed himself and was like, “oh, yeah, that's my text that I sent a year ago and didn't tell anyone about.” And it's like, “oh, you're covering the government, acting as if both sides need to be treated equally and you were literally begging for your life from one of those sides last year, and you didn't tell anyone about that!” That's fascinating.
I mean, you're saving it for your book deal eventually, or something like that.
It's this total refusal to suspend the rules of “normal journalism.” I think there's a lot very tetchy defenses. I actually think that social media — I have no actual, like direct evidence for this, by the way, this is purely my own theory — but I think social media is actually a big part of it. Because journalists spend all their time on Twitter. And if you're a center-left journalist on Twitter, like on the conservative end of liberalism, you are going to spend a lot of your time on Twitter getting yelled at by people to your left. And it's really frustrating to get yelled at all the time and scolded for your language. People making deranged accusations, but also some kind of true ones. But if you're of that ideological ilk, you are getting yelled at a lot. And it's really easy to sort of start to think the people yelling at me aren’t just a problem for me, but a problem for the country. Aren't these aren't these authoritarians? Aren't the people who are yelling at me, aren't they really nefarious?
And to kind of upscale from your own sense of just irritation to this, this is a threat to the country. Because you're not really getting yelled at by right-wing people on the internet, in general. If you're a mid-40s straight white liberal columnist, like right-wingers are not the ones in your mentions shouting at you. So it's on a sort of academic level. You're like, “yeah, and they're overturning a bunch of voting stuff and, yeah, they're doing these fake audits of votes,” but it doesn't hit you on a gut level. It doesn't annoy you on a day-to-day level.
I was actually talking about this with a friend earlier today. It's really funny that the professional class is so enamored with Twitter. And they don't think of themselves as an internet community. Like, Twitter doesn't think of themselves as Twitter, the same way 4chan or Reddit users do. Imagine if a Twitter user in their mid-40s was like, “Oh, wait, I'm just really addicted to posting on a message board,” and understood that. But instead of understanding that they’re just part of a really toxic internet community, they're viewing it as this anonymous mob that is somehow separate from them that is coming after them, who, in their mind, is a serious person.
There's such a fascinating thing too in the sort of cancel culture Harper’s letter discourse that we've had in the last couple years because there's also a very human tendency to create a slippery slope argument. So if people are yelling at me, a New York Times columnist with 300,000 followers on Twitter, and I'm in danger of losing my job for my political opinions, what about a random waitress out there in Kalamazoo, Michigan? Isn't she also in danger of being fired for her political opinions? And it's like, no, she's not. Having good political opinions is not her job.
These grand defenses of James Bennett and Ian Buruma and these other extremely high-level journalists, who were, I guess, if you want to cast it this way, fired for their political beliefs, these are editors of political publications. Meaning having good political beliefs is their job, right? We don't see airline pilots being fired for their political beliefs. We don't see Amazon warehouse workers being fired for their political beliefs, unless they want to join a union, of course.
I mean, I think another thing that the internet has done is blur the line between public figures and private figures. A lot of people who are fairly prominent political journalists still think of themselves like, “oh, I'm a normal, you know, middle class guy who lives in Park Slope. I don't think I'm particularly rich. I don't think I'm a celebrity on the level of Justin Bieber or Julia Roberts.” But, also, they don't see themselves as public figures. So they think that the fact that they spend all their time online getting yelled at by leftists, they're like, “well, everybody, you know, anybody could get yelled at by leftists,” right?
I think you hear in the cancel culture discourse a lot, like, “we're all one tweet away from getting fired.” And it's like, no, my roommate is an architect. He has 61 followers on Twitter. And he doesn't tweet under his real name. He can literally tweet fucking anything. And no one would ever know it was him and no one would ever notice. That's most people.
Yes, if you are a really famous YouTuber or something, yeah, you're one tweet away from getting canceled. But a normal person really isn't. And most people aren't on Twitter anyway. So it's a very limited problem in the country. We're not going to pretend it's not a problem, but the number of people who are actually affected by “internet pile-ons” is extremely small. And the actual cases of that happening to randos, to non-public figures is really, really, really rare.
I got one last question for you. This is from Allegra, who wanted me to ask you: What is your dream alternative to Twitter?
Oh, that's a good question. This is like such a hot take and I may take this back. What was it called? The Google Facebook-competitor that went out of business? Google Wave? Where you could do circles? Where people could set it for only my friends? Or only my work?
Wow. Uh, Google Plus?
Yes! I mean, I guess you can do that on Facebook now. But you have to make the groups yourself. The only good thing about Twitter is talking to smart people. And whenever you have a tweet — you know this — whenever you have a tweet that goes beyond your own followers, it gets retweeted by a big account, and the IQ of your mentions drops by like 30 points immediately. And it’s just the dumbest fucking people and immediately you're like, “this isn't fun. This isn't fun water cooler talk at this point. It's just like people yelling at me.”
Twitter is actually very good for finding out what smart people are saying about the news of the day. But that's not really a way to do it. I think when you're on Twitter, it feels like you're talking to your friends, when potentially you're talking to everybody. And that's how one of these tweets goes viral. And everybody shouts at you all day, right? So something where you're actually able to do that would be a much better version of Twitter. I just want my friends to see this, basically. And like no one else can shout at me about it.
If you’ve been forwarded this email, welcome! You can check out a full list of the previous Extra Garbage Days here. And here’s a short list of who I’ve interviewed recently:
Nat "LeftAtLondon" Puff, former Vine star and current TikTok creator
@extaltiora, the author of the 11,000-tweet Tumblr screenshot thread
And, lastly, I think Jack Dorsey helped build a machine that is unraveling the fabric of human society, but also, this is a very funny way to respond to getting blocked by Marc Andreessen (I am also blocked FYI).
***Typos in this email aren’t on purpose, but sometimes they happen***
Great interview. Ryan, happy new year may 2022 be the year you cross over to writing the word as “bullshit” and not the dignified but perhaps outmoded “bull shit” 😘