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The Conservative Columnist Conundrum

On Kevin D. Williamson and the mainstreaming of the reactionary right.


Kevin D. Williamson once recommended that women who get abortions be hanged. He once compared a black child to a primate and argued that we should strip rape victims of their legal anonymity. And last Thursday, it was announced that he is leaving his long-time platform at the conservative National Review, where such ideas are welcome, for The Atlantic, a venerable political magazine with a large audience.

Williamson’s elevation to mainstream credibility comes amidst a rolling debate over the role of conservative columnists in political discourse, one that has largely focused on the op-ed page of The New York Times, which is run by the former editor of The Atlantic, James Bennet. This debate normally revolves around an aging chestnut: ideological diversity. Williamson’s case, however, presents different questions: What is the line between provocation and genuine extremism? Between iconoclasm and mere trolling? And when it comes to conservative thinkers in the Trump era, is it possible to parse these differences?

Williamson’s ideas may be new to The Atlantic, but not to the conservative movement. He isn’t the first person to think abortion deserves capital punishment, or that rape culture is a fiction. He’s not the first white writer to compare a black human being to an ape. National Review’s founder, William Buckley, supported segregation. As recently as 2014, authors have praised Camp of the Saints, a white-supremacist book, in its pages. National Review didn’t fire John Derbyshire until 2012, despite his long, well-documented track record of spewing white-supremacist rhetoric. It regularly publishes Jason Richwine, who has argued that there are racial differences in intelligence.

On race, Williamson was a natural fit for the magazine. But it’s hard to imagine the following passage published in The Atlantic, which recently released a special edition on the legacy of Martin Luther King and boasts Ta-Nehisi Coates on its masthead:

East St. Louis, Ill. — “Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka! White devil! F*** you, white devil!” The guy looks remarkably like Snoop Dogg: skinny enough for a Vogue advertisement, lean-faced with a wry expression, long braids. He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge. Luckily for me, he’s more like a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, a few inches shy of four feet high, probably about nine years old, and his mom—I assume she’s his mom—is looking at me with an expression that is a complex blend of embarrassment, pity, and amusement, as though to say: “Kids say the darnedest things, do they not, white devil?”

Is this provocation? Or is this … something else? The use of African-American dialect, the stereotypical invocation of Snoop Dogg, the positioning of Williamson himself as the victim of racialized abuse, and, of course, the simian metaphor—these are designed to antagonize, to push buttons, surely, but does that mean the passage as a whole is any less racist? As much as Williamson might wish it, it is not ameliorated by his conclusion, which is that Democrats, not Republicans, have failed black voters by blocking school choice, among other sins. It’s an old inversion, the idea that Democrats are the real racists.

This passage is representative of Williamson’s work. Why be merely socially conservative when you can be gratuitously cruel as well? In laying out his case against trans people, Williamson said that the actress Laverne Cox had “amputated” her genitals and that she is “an effigy of a woman.” He won’t even do her the basic courtesy of using the pronoun she prefers. “For a combination of smugness, banality, and towering ignorance, it is difficult to top Terry Gross,” he once sniped. (He also called Gross a “feckless peon.”) “Feminism,” he has asserted, “began as a simple grievance, mutated into a kind of conspiracy theory (with ‘patriarchy’ filling in for the Jews/Freemasons/Illuminati/Bohemian Grove/reptilian shape-shifters/the fiendish plot of Dr. Fu Manchu/etc.), spent the 1980s in grad school congealing into a ridiculous jargon, and with the booming economy of the 1990s was once again reinvented, this time as a career path.”

Williamson’s antipathy toward feminism extends to rape victims. In 2014, he argued that rape accusers should be named, because giving them anonymity “creates a poisonous asymmetry and a powerful temptation: One can ruin a life while remaining comfortably cocooned in anonymity.” But he didn’t stop at implying that rape victims were out to ruin lives, going on to indict feminists for being “not very much interested” in preventing actual rape: “The distasteful but undeniable fact is that organized feminism is not very much interested in rape as a crime; organized feminism is interested in rape as a metaphor, which is why the concrete problem of rape has been displaced in our public discourse by the metaphysical proposition of ‘rape culture.’”

When his powers of insult fail him, Williamson relies on pseudo-contrarianism. Price-gouging, he declared in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, is good. If you don’t like it, he argues, maybe you should’ve stocked up on supplies. No word on how the poor should have better planned for catastrophic natural disaster, but Williamson is not a friend of the poor, either. He’s bragged about evicting people from a home he owns, thinks that people in low-income communities should simply move to improve their lot, and regularly insists that the main problem of the working class is that it just isn’t working. Appalachia, he wrote, is “a white ghetto.”

Wiliamson has different opinions from liberals, yes, but so do most conservatives. So what distinguishes Williamson from the pack? One is the sheer extremism of his positions: not even pro-life groups endorse capital punishment for women who have had abortions, and few people seriously believe that feminism—a movement intended to achieve equal rights—is driven by conspiracy theories. Another is his anti-Trumpism, which he shares with other conservative writers at mainstream perches, like Bret Stephens of the Times. And a third is Williamson’s venom, his evident relish in antagonizing for the sake of antagonism.

The left, he once claimed, wants a “kind of state-sponsored Wahhabi progressivism enforced at the point of a bayonet: Bake that gay-wedding cake, buy those birth-control pills, subsidize that abortion—or else.” The word that would work here isn’t “Wahhabi,” which is nonsensical paired with “progressivism.” “Authoritarian” does the job quite well on its own. That word does not, however, invoke Islamic extremism, so “Wahhabi” appears instead. This sentence is a word salad designed to ratchet up the hyperbole, until it crosses into the realm of untruth: The Affordable Care Act didn’t actually require anyone to “buy” birth control or subsidize abortions.

Put another way, Williamson excels at the sort of reactionary meanness that has long dominated conservative punditry. Donald Trump successfully channeled that spirit in 2016—just without the usual scaffolding of conservative principles and paeans to Ronald Reagan. Trump openly ran on a platform of white resentment and triggering the libs, appalling writers like Williamson who saw their shtick performed in a way that was more vulgar, but also more forthright. Trump, more than anyone before him, exposed the intellectual barrenness of conservatism’s appeal in America.

Like Trump, Williamson works in a predictable pattern. He gleefully says something horrific; the left reacts; the outrage cycle churns onward. This, too, marks him as a typical conservative commentator. Outlets from Fox News to Breitbart to The Federalist all practice the same basic habits. Of late, the provocation of choice has been to attack the Parkland shooting survivors for their gun control activism. Actually, says The Federalist, it’s a great idea to arm schoolchildren with buckets of rocks. March For Our Lives is a “moral panic,” says National Review.

This isn’t an intellectual exercise, not really. It’s equivalent to a middle school boy snapping a female classmate’s bra strap. In a perverse fashion, then, Williamson may be the perfect conservative columnist. His excesses are the excesses of a movement, and conservatives fawn over his attacks because they think he’s targeting the right people. Conservative media is in shambles, and the fact that Williamson is being elevated shows that the extent of the damage hasn’t been fully appreciated by mainstream media organizations.