When the story broke last weekend about a document circulating at Google that suggested gender imbalance in tech industries is due not to ingrained sexism but to lady brains that just aren’t suited to tasks like engineering, it was easy to simply chalk it up as another addition to this summer’s bumper crop of aggrieved white guys. After all, it’s a familiar story in Trump times: From Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller to Sean Hannity and Alex Jones—to say nothing of 45 himself and his army of online MAGAs—we’re inundated with the rage of men who are shocked, furious, and certain that granting rights and liberties to others robs them of their rightful authority.
And like the countless sympathetic profiles of and calls to understand Trump voters with which we’ve been bombarded since November, the news media now brims with interviews and hot takes about the hucksters, cynics, bad actors, and garbage humans who make life under 45 the round-the-clock shitshow it is. From interviews with “alt-right” trolls to deeply researched takes on the most prominent villains in 45’s White House, every day is a new chance to understand the racists, sexists, Islamaphobes, homo- and transphobes, and all-purpose bigots who are making life worse for millions of people every day.
Take Steve Bannon, chief White House strategist and former Breitbart chief who was the architect of Trump’s spectacularly ham-fisted Muslim Ban. Bannon is the subject of a new book called Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, which explores how Bannon rode a wave of animus toward foreigners, progressives, status-quo Republicans, and more from the conservative underworld to the White House. The book’s author, Bloomberg Businessweek correspondent Joshua Green, went deep on Bannon to find out how a man who resembles nine desiccated hams stuffed into a stained Oxford shirt became the power behind the throne.
Then there’s Mike Cernovich, the Infowars contributor and YouTuber who’s among a small group of trolls that the Southern Poverty Law Center identified as “responsible for a disproportionate amount of conspiratorial political messaging pushed by Donald Trump’s campaign.” Cernovich is best known as the alt-right troll who advanced “Pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory suggesting that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were running a pedophile ring out of a Washington D.C. pizza joint. (When a man sympathetic to this theory then rocked up to Comet Ping Pong with a gun and unloaded, Cernovich was quick to distance himself from the conspiracy, telling 60 Minutes that he never actually named the pizza place, so, y’know, no harm no foul). Other turgid campaign-trail narratives fluffed by Cernovich included Clinton supposedly suffering from Parkinson’s disease; #HillarysHealth trended nationally when Clinton collapsed at a 9/11 memorial ceremony at Ground Zero. (Cernovich also recently threatened to release a “motherlode” of compromising dirt on unspecified Trump-administration figures if Steve Bannon was fired.) And, of course, there’s been plenty of coverage of other people who cast their lots with 45, from a Vanity Fair profile of dead-eyed soon-to-be Communications Director Stephen Miller to a deep dive into what makes Kellyanne Conway run to an appearance by shit-talking trainwreck Anthony Scaramucci on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert scheduled for next week.
It’s human nature to be fascinated by people who indulge their darkest, most fearsome impulses—serial killers, totalitarian dictators, Mel Gibson—as well as those who simply cash in a bit of their souls for access to power. But asking us to care why people do and believe terrible things suggests, even obliquely, that knowing the answer is more important than addressing the actual harm such people perpetuate. Do we really need to know the history of and justifications for someone’s beliefs or actions to understand that those beliefs and actions are objectively bad?
The unfortunate fact is that, as profiles and interviews suggest that those of us appalled by these figures aren’t seeing the whole picture, they themselves fail to offer a 360-degree view. Bannon, for instance, is generally acknowledged as a white nationalist whose editorship at Breitbart stoked fearmongering about Islam, feminism, and “white genocide.” His feelings toward Jews came to light via documents related to his divorce. He is open about his admiration of antisemitic French philosopher Charles Maurras, who edited France’s early-20th-century version of Breitbart and ultimately went to prison for colluding with Nazis. And then there’s his stance on not just illegal immigration, but perfectly legal immigration as well.
But as Green does the promotional rounds for Devil’s Bargain, one of his talking points is that, in fact, we just don’t get Bannon. When Pod Save America’s Jon Lovett bluntly asked Green if Bannon is a racist, the author—who had averred seconds before that his subject “will tell you exactly what he believes, no matter how upsetting it might be to mainstream discourse”—hemmed and hawed before saying that Bannon is “motivated more by religion than he is by race,” although “the end effect” is…you know, racism. To Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, Green said something similar: “A lot of media people…like to portray him as white nationalist and racist and all that, and I understand why people would do that. I personally think that’s the wrong vector or the wrong strain of bigotry through which to analyze him. I think that it has much more to do with religion.” (Later in the interview, he notes that he “never heard him say anything that was personally racist.”)
Likewise, Olivia Nuzzi’s New York magazine interview with Mike Cernovich, supposedly about his “pivot” from MAGA troll to outsider journalist, glosses over a key part of Cernovich’s online popularity: He initially achieved notoriety as a blogger who wrote frequently about pickup artist (PUA) technique, a stomach-turning amount of which focused on teaching other guys to ignore sexual consent. His tweets fizzed with disdain and hatred toward women (“While I hate women, I love pussy”), making him a natural ally and eventual figurehead to the GamerGate crowd. And since the identity of James Damore, the author of the Google memo, became public earlier this week when his employment at the company was terminated, a predictable glut of “Let’s hear this guy out” articles have popped up in prominent places to paint Damore as a brave figure who was fired for the crime of “wrongthink” and a symbol of political correctness’s chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas. And because “political correctness run amok” is a sexier, less complicated headline than “guy who lied about having a PhD makes assumptions that the very scientist from whom he cribbed his talking points asserts are actually incorrect,” the prevailing narrative of Damore as a victim will likely be the one with the most staying power.
The most common defense of articles about and interivews with nationalist figures like Bannon and Cernovich is that it’s important to “know your enemy” or, less charitably, that dissenters just can’t handle any opinion that doesn’t conform to a progressive worldview. It seems not to occur to them that we already know these enemies; that these belagured souls simply trying to counter an epidemic of PC groupthink are just new mouthpieces for of age-old prejudices. Bannon and Cernovich and Google Bro, as well as their lesser-known brethren, are parroting lines used for centuries in pseudosciences like craniometry, phrenology, and evolutionary psychology to justify denying rights and autonomy to anyone who isn’t a white man. Women’s brains are unsuited to hard sciences. Black people are inferior to whites. Jews are money-grubbing and untrustworthy. Immigrants threaten the American way of life. Etc.
And yet, we hear far more calls to understand what drives these supposed ideological underdogs than we do to understand the harm their beliefs actually cause, as though the bigotry they espouse is a cool rhetorical exercise detached from everyday reality, rather than prejudice that is already woven into our societal fabric. “As a political magazine writer, my fascination has always been with very ambitious, driven, slightly crazed, interesting people,” Joshua Green told Vox in July, tracing how a 2015 interview with Bannon inspired the book. “It was clear to me pretty much from the get-go that Bannon was a guy I needed to add to my collection.” Numerous people who should know better, meanwhile, argued that Damore’s memo would only be dangerous if he acted on his ideas—as though writing a 10-page memo suggesting that none of his female coworkers are fit for their jobs is some wacky, harmless thought experiment.
A person who is either naïve or disingenuous enough to believe that you can’t call someone a racist unless they’re an actual member of the KKK is not someone who can be trusted to paint a full picture of the danger posed by that person. The onus should not be on the people who are targeted, threatened, or harmed by “ideas” of men like Bannon, Cernovich, and Damore to understand where they come from and why, and people who push back on them aren’t just refusing to engage with ideas they don’t like. It’s not fascinating that white men think these things, or build platforms from which to shout those things, or collect millions of followers who also believe those things. It’s not controversial that they say or tweet them out loud. It’s common as dirt. And handing them highly visible platforms from which to continue belching out their prejudices isn’t edgy or unexpected.
It’s fucking boring.