Watching the Sean Hannity show the other day, I heard four giddy words I can’t say I expected: “Up next, Piers Morgan!” Only a few days prior, after all, Morgan had been involved in one of his trademark Twitter spats — with Hannity mainstay Sebastian Gorka, no less — and it had ended with Morgan declaring America’s contribution to World War II overrated and unhelpful.
“Where would Britain be without you & your massive GUNS?!” Morgan had snippily tweeted at an American. “Speaking German,” replied Ben Shapiro, retweeted by Gorka. Morgan’s comeback? “It was really good of America to join WW2 two years later, after millions had died. Many thanks.”
That tasteful comment did not come up during the Hannity interview, which was instead a chummy exchange of shared disgust at the Mueller investigation, James Comey, and the latest dumb thing Joy Behar had said.
Morgan would have made a curious guest for a conservative talk show even without his recent foray into historical revisionism. To the extent he’s made any political brand for himself in America, it’s been as a hectoring anti-gun fanatic and generally condescending anti-American scold. Yet because Morgan has had some mildly sympathetic things to say about Donald Trump as of late (or at least hates some of the same people as the president) all is forgiven, and he’s now understood as “one of us” to some corners of the conservative base.
It was the same phenomenon that saw Kanye West’s remarkable rebranding last week. A tweet or two in the president’s favor and the man previously best known for calling George W. Bush a racist sociopath on live television and contributing such immortal lines to the canon of American music as “eatin’ Asian p***y / all I need was sweet and sour sauce” was reborn as a conservative folk hero. Perhaps West was taking his cue from Roseanne Barr, whom many on the right have given a similar mulligan for decades of far-left lunacy on the grounds she kinda likes Trump.
Conservatives are at their worst when they obsessively internalize leftist critiques, and no criticism has proven a greater font of conservative insecurity than liberal teasing that the Right is crotchety, backwards, and unhip. Much anxious effort has been exerted to prove these critics wrong, yet desperation rarely produces flattering results. The hurried search for conservatives with some progressive cachet — black, gay, famous, young, etc. — often manifests as low standards and embarrassing self-delusion, as the intellectual talents of various B-rate minds are inflated to heroic status the moment their public rhetoric drifts even the teensiest bit rightward.
It’s even worse than usual these days, given the very definition of “rightward” has become hazier than ever amid the rise of a fairly unideological Republican president and an increasingly visible fanatic far Left.
Since Trump plays his partisan role awkwardly, and is on the receiving end of a hysteria that often has little to do with politics, the president can come off a sympathetic figure, even if — perhaps especially if — one’s understanding of politics is fairly shallow. People who imagine themselves to be outspoken or uncouth outsiders with stylistic similarities to Trump can easily empathize with him, regardless of their policy opinions. This makes Trump a celebrity president who is often judged on celebrity terms, where arguments like “I just can’t stand him!” or “Show those haters!” are considered sufficiently full opinions.
Meanwhile, the cultural crusades of the far Left have become more conspicuous than ever through endless media coverage of language and thought policing at college campuses, newsrooms, and elsewhere. Again, regardless of the politics involved, this sort of thing is quite easy to engage with at a cultural level alone. Americans don’t like being told what to do or what to say, and there will always be a great deal of contempt leveled at anyone who affects the personality of a scold or busybody — and support for those who resist.
Conservatives can claim some degree of common cause with anyone who feels that Trump is being given a hard time and thinks the colleges are going nuts, but this isn’t much. Identifying political allies exclusively on such thin criteria will invariably require turning a blind eye to all sorts of other deranged opinions, and redefining conservatism into a temperament of shallow irritation with some characteristics of American political culture circa 2018, as opposed to anything resembling a timeless or coherent philosophy.
An obsession with building up superficially cool but intellectually preposterous right-wing celebrities has already led to disasters such as Milo Yiannopoulos, and one can’t help but feel a grim sense of déjà vu as an ever-growing parade of semi-coherent supposed conservatives from Hollywood, pop music, and YouTube are hyped by conservative media outlets desperate for validation by young, hip audiences.
That said, critics do run the risk of snobbery. Conservatives have to be open to newcomers, and ideological newbies — particularly those who were on the left until five minutes ago — will inevitably spout opinions that are one-dimensional, badly articulated, or half-formed.
The key is sizing up the motive animating the alleged new right-wing personality. Does the rhetoric of the nouveau-conservative appear to be coming from a place of genuine political interest? Do his opinions reflect a desire to engage in arguments beyond the present moment? Or has he simply discovered a new way to get in front of the cameras and exploit the wishful thinking of a uniquely desperate audience?
One of the few benefits of growing older is the realization that you longer need to follow pop culture, or often care what other people think. I can express that with a sentence, or two words.