Provocateur, website founder and collector of America's largest wads of spittle Andrew Breitbart died last Thursday morning, when some sentient shred of his cardiac organ kamikazed out of an exhausted sense of justice.
The invertebrate response from journalists was exactly to be expected. Breitbart said, like, bad stuff in his lifetime, but he also married someone and fathered people; once he even objected to anti-gay GOP rhetoric. A malicious career and two milquetoast mitigating facts: It all balanced out, really, at least for the purposes of forced, quailing objectivity. To borrow a gross analogy lustily employed on Breitbart's own websites, if today's mainstream media was penning obits on May 1, 1945, they would have summed up with, "Despite initiating the Second World War, the German leader was fond of public architecture and is survived by his beloved dachshunds."
But nothing so generic could be the money quote of this squeamish grudging esteem-a-thon. For that, we have to go to Slate's Dave Weigel, who quoted Breitbart thus: "'Feeding the media is like training a dog,' he wrote. 'You can't throw an entire steak at a dog to train it to sit. You have to give it little bits of steak over and over again until it learns.'" This is just the carrot part of the metaphor. Nobody mentioned the stick.
Breitbart knew the shtick all too well: Accuse journalists of contrived groupthink, partisan deception and indoctrination to needle them professionally, while transmitting that rote accusation to your audience. Insult and demonize them on any available level until they strike back like cornered animals, and—suddenly—there's America's proof: these liberal journo thugs want to silence an honest voice, and, golly, are they ever mad when they try to.
Breitbart trained the media like dogs, and he was still doing so, on Thursday morning, from beyond the grave. People joked that they didn't know if his death was a hoax, and it's a certainty that some asked because they were afraid of telling the truth about someone by then literally incapable of hurting them. It was like watching a sick rerun of a Stalinist apparatchik sitcom, where one functionary was unwilling to believe another that The Leader is really dead, each presuming the announcement might be a trap.
If you beat a dog long enough, it learns to cower before you reach for a switch.
The anemic response wasn't all wariness. Numerous journalists, even ones on the other side of the ideological fence, were quick to note that Breitbart was generous and warm in private. But Breitbart also destroyed a woman's career in public. He destroyed an institution that helps poor minorities in public. He called Occupiers rapists in public. He screamed at strangers and loved to talk about kicking their asses in public. Outside of books written by the Aqua Net-shellacked c-minus Sturmabteilung of FOX News, his stamp on history in 20 years will be a Coughlin-esque paragraph about race-baiting and fraud.
Besides, those latter anecdotes won't ever have much traction for anyone but Beltway raconteurs. The middle-class-and-sinking Tea Party that Breitbart claimed to speak for has little idea who he was sucking scallops with in Georgetown and would likely deny that he did it. Even if they could be persuaded that it happened, it would take the same role as his CPAC story of dining with Weather Underground wash-up Bill Ayers, a tale that elicited a concerned hush when he began it but soon resulted in smug smirking from the clone audience: "Ahahaha, I get it. He ate their good food, but he was trolling them and gathering intel for the coming mission to Galt's Gulch/RAHOWA/etc.!"
But this cynical gadfly behavior presents no aberrancy. What his biggest fans have never confronted, and what the obits omitted, perhaps out of embarrassment, is that Andrew Breitbart was always a creature of the left, accepted by the establishment, nurtured by the American elite. They made him from cradle to grave. He was banal troll indistinguishable from any gin-blossomed paunch of resentment occupying a neighboring barstool and nursing his own sense of denied grandeur—save for the glorious intervention of two cultures he so loudly claimed to hate: The Hollywood madding crowd and, later, the Beltway water cooler.
The Sorrows of Young Breitbart
If, as the Dean from Animal House said, "fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life," Breitbart's is an inspiring story of persistence in spite of the odds.
Andrew James Breitbart was born to hippie parents in the middle of the last American century's prosperous liberal period, then adopted by upper-middle-class restauranteurs in one of the nicer neighborhoods in our nation's blue states. Breitbart, aware that "scion to a Santa Monica steakhouse" does not a man of the people make, attempted to downplay his family's success, allowing only that "My parents granted me a brilliant middle-class life, one that didn't overwhelm and lavish spoils on me to the point of absurdity." Like a great many of the personal-responsibility shitkickers of the right wing's social-Darwinian moshpit, he didn't have to do much bootstrapping to go from a zygote, to Brentwood, to a place like Tulane, where people can drink a lot of beer and wake up seven years later as attorneys.
So far, Breitbart's story lacks an essential tragedy, the sense of loss that conservatism mourns. Horatio Alger never wrote the story of a well-heeled Californian nearly failing out of his American Studies program because he tried to drink the Southern Comfort equivalent of Lake Ponchartrain. And so like Rick Santorum, who transformed the dull meathead reality of his Penn State days into an epic, dark struggle against the oppressive forces of cultural studies, Tulane provided Breitbart a key thing: An excuse to break from the vague liberalism of his youth. His later accounts of the fateful moment of realization varied; historians will determine whether it was indeed during a concert by The Cure at the Hollywood Bowl, or while watching the public grilling on C-SPAN of a "dignified" Clarence Thomas, America's pube-bequeather.
What is beyond question is the critical role his Tulane professors played in crafting "Breitbart: Bubba Avenger." Their attempts at "brainwashing" had, instead, created a fighter. Repudiating liberal indoctrination by failing to meet even the shabby standards of the apparently predictable and sclerotic left is a familiar hero's journey for the right. Breitbart slouched, eked out a pathetic GPA as an American Studies major, then tried to exonerate his failure via a baseless indictment of "Marxist" scholarship: He didn't fare poorly because of innate failures but because he rejected the school's terms. ("Dude, I woulda done waaay better on the SATs, but I took 'em drunk, because fuck that.")
It's a familiar conservative refrain, and a familiar origin story, because nothing propels you toward the modern GOP's welcoming counterfactual bosom like finding your mediocrity disdained by institutions relying on historicity, evidence and peer review. Conservatives know why conservatives test badly: The tests are rigged commie bullshit. Conservatives know how conservatives are smart: They agree with other conservatives. There's even a publishing structure for this.
He Is Heavy, He's My Brother: Drudging His Way To The Top
From Tulane, Breitbart took the well-worn route of many a conservative before him: To Hollywood, where he took a job with E! Entertainment Television, helping to develop their online presence. But as vital as were Breitbart's efforts in writing synopses for last week's episode of Party of Five, he was still destined for bigger and better things.
The 1990s were a very special time for conservatives. Due in no small part to Breitbart's efforts, during the Clinton years, the right wing merry-go-round broke the sound barrier. Breitbart made friends fast, introducing himself in 1995 to bilgewater Beltway rainmaker Matt Drudge, for whom he came to work as assistant and night editor. In 1997 he began working as a researcher for union-busting gadfly Arianna Huffington; it was Breitbart who helped break the story of chickenhawk Clinton donor Larry Lawrence's improper burial in Arlington. Nevertheless, as late as 2007, Breitbart remained relatively unknown-his own independent website functioning as little more than a Drudge clone, a drab link aggregator. It took the rise of Obama for Breitbart to spread his wings and fly.
The Bully Pulpit
ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, was a community-based nonprofit founded in 1970 devoted to issues of poverty, housing, wages, voter registration, education, labor and social justice. Very active against predatory lending, ACORN consistently delivered a commodity liberal groups generally eschew: victory.
But in 2009, "whey-faced little shit" James O'Keefe and Florida dumbbelle dropout Hannah Giles went around the country to ACORN offices, playing dress-up, and talking with low-level representatives about their plans for illegal behavior, mostly relating to prostitution and sex trafficking. The videos, released on Breitbart's new website, Big Government, were heavily edited, and O'Keefe never appeared on camera, raising questions as to the veracity of Breitbart's claim that ACORN was facilitating crime in poor communities.
O'Keefe further fostered the idea that he was dressed as a fanciful, 1970s-era pimp in the meetings, appearing on cable news in the get-up and playacting as Iceberg Slime. This was a lie, confirmed several times by Giles herself, but elided by Breitbart as he pushed his dittohead rendition of Harlan County USA. His article was definitively debunked on factual grounds several times over.
But when it was all over, ACORN was bankrupted, targeted by Congress, roasted by the talking heads. A good organization was taken under by a massive series of lies given life by a media that, rather than interrogate the obviously baseless accusations made against them, uncritically accepted them.
It was the first major hit in Breitbart's short but brutal career, and the media's reaction was pure delight. The right-wing blogosphere and FOX News unsurprisingly went balls-to-the-wall about the perfidious black slavers at ACORN. But if Breitbart's most-consuming hatred was that of the irredeemably corrupt, exclusionary media, the reaction to his ACORN muckraking presented a quandary: The drive-by media ate it up. As the story brewed and steamed in the echo chamber, Politico's Mike Allen, a Drudge-baiter afforded remarkable influence among the DC villagers, whined that ACORN's purported crimes weren't being covered enough in the media. As it became a bigger and bigger story, media outlets were accused of bias for not covering it. And so it was that no less a "liberal" media titan like the New York Times itself laughed alongside Breitbart several times over. Upon pushback, the Times refused to retract their incredibly flawed reportage, even though a series of successive investigations had found ACORN a largely innocent party to a malicious, fabricated hoax.
The fact was, there was no "there" there, as the New Yorker documented:
The hidden-camera footage, which Breitbart has called "the Abu Ghraib of the Great Society," did not expose endemic corruption at Acorn: though O'Keefe and Giles induced employees to coöperate with an appalling scenario, they did not dig up evidence of any actual wrongdoing by those employees.
In anything other than a throughly beshitted republic, Breitbart's shamelessly pimping a false exposé like this would have seen him broken on a rack. That same magical land of justice and proper incredulity would at least have addressed itself to the quality of investigation brought by an accuser, rather than running like pageload mercenaries and buzz merchants to update their sites' banner headlines. Instead, Breitbart's allegedly sworn enemies did his work for him. They weren't his antagonists: They were his accomplices. When Andrew Breitbart mounted the head of a community organization onto his wall, it was the liberal media that had hoisted it into place.
Mr. Breitbart's America
Breitbart is another sign of American decline. He's what happens when even the ratfuckers have lost all subtlety to their art. When the far-right is bad at dirty tricks, and can't even frame up some black activists without a messy, drawn-out pushback, it's time to fear for the state of the union, because their every success is indication that they've had help. Donald Segretti and G. Gordon Liddy plotted to kill Jack Anderson and firebomb the Brookings Institute. Breitbart's "Little Rascals" targeted mid-level black female USDA officials and got arrested playing "Plumbers" in Mary Landrieu's office. Nixon couldn't have used these punks as anything but Cambodian cannon fodder.
It was not any remarkable skills on Breitbart's part that got him where we was, beyond a certain animal cunning about the currents of new media. And for all his whining about the corrupt, decadent, "Democrat Media," it was those same outlets that made him. For all the posthumous tributes to his "fearlessness," it remains unclear what exactly he needed to fear. He was accepted! As labor journalist Mike Elk recalled, having crashed a fancy DC cocktail party, he was shocked to find Breitbart "chatting up some black woman, making her laugh, and I was in a state of shock. Here was this man who had done so much to flame racial hatred, hitting on a black woman… hanging out with fancy liberals instead of poor, redneck Tea Party guys." How was Breitbart able to inflict a critical hit on ACORN? A truly subversive journalist diagnosed the means years ago: "It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place." Breitbart snorted out those blind spots like a truffle pig.
The Beltway Village is a dull place, full of boring people. Breitbart stood out, and in an elite culture that worships savvy and confidence, he was destined for stardom. Sure, he'd play rabblerouser to the Tea Party cheap seats, but he always remained insecure enough to drop terms like "the Frankfurt School" or "cultural Marxism." He wanted to be taken seriously by those liberals, a weakness that might have been endearing, were his unregenerate viciousness not routinely employed in racist whistleblowing and character assassination.
An Atlantic article published in the wake of his wake commemorated him as a "punk rock Republican." Please—George Wallace was more punk than Breitbart. He wore his execrable racism pinned through his nostril, a DIY fascist scaring all the straights in America, hissing tribal exhortations as low and fast as a two minute Black Flag song. Breitbart craved that liberal respect, wanted to still go to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and so angrily denied the obvious truth: That he relied on the dog whistle as his go-to mobilizing cry. Such race-baiting constituted some of Breitbart's last writings, alleging Obama marched with the Black Panthers in 2007, with black militants constituting the driving force behind an Obama Adminstration settlement with black farmers for decades of financial deprivation. Nope, no racial tropes here.
Breitbart, like that acid-filled tear duct Glen Beck, knew that the blatant, unconcealed racism of Wallace was now beyond the pale, and both devoted themselves to the same project—appropriating the mantle of "civil rights" for white conservatives, and labeling blacks, Muslims and liberals as the bigots and aggressors. And in spite of his professed hatred for the media, it was the mainstream's myopic acceptance of buzz that allowed such McCarthyite fairy tales to gain traction. So it was with ACORN, and its black staffers: A race-baiting frame job receives mainstream suction and puts a tough-minded advocate of social justice into Chapter 11. And USDA official Shirley Sherrod, whose speech to the NAACP about overcoming bias and helping indigent white farmers save their livelihoods was twisted into "video evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee and NAACP award recipient." The accusation was obviously false, but the NAACP, the Department of Agriculture and the Obama White House all threw her under the bus. Sherrod lost her job, and was well on her way to winning a defamation lawsuit against Breitbart before he croaked.
There are more crimes—his incoherent defense of Tea Partiers caught shouting "nigger" at civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis and "faggot" at Rep. Barney Frank, his repeated assaults on working people and labor unions, his final appearance at CPAC 2012, which the thoroughly shitfaced bullfrog concluded with the pre-coronary warm-up of hollering at the "rapists" of Occupy Wall Street.
Hell, for all his machismo, he was a cold sweating skink when trapped in a corner. Blogger Mike Stark bent Breitbart into a stuttering wreck over the ACORN vids, leaving the clam belly to sputter that he couldn't "legally" discuss his starmaking moment, like some mob snitch bombing on the stand. Even a milquetoast like George Stephanapoulos shamed him on air like a tongue-tied toddler over the Sherrod story. His crew of flunkies is a menagerie of some of the most hideous detritus collected around a political figure since the Gaddafi family fled into the four winds.
Inherit the Windbag
Who will be heir to Breitbart's proud legacy? James O'Keefe is by now an oft-arrested Alfalfa lookalike who still lives with his parents, was brutally humiliated at Columbia University in the middle of his own ambush, and was most recently accused of drugging and sexually harassing a female blogger. One wonders if Andy ever yelled "stop raping people" at him. Ex-Saturday Night Live star Victoria Jackson has shown an impressive capacity for producing music that even the most die-hard Bircher might find cause for involuntary detention in a state-funded facility. The two leading lights of the anti-Muslim movement, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, can only improve upon their records of inspiring mass murder in Scandinavia. Then there's Big Journalism editor-in-chief Dana Loesch, reliable dispenser of Nazi analogies and state-mandated rape apologetics, who got punked by Roland Martin on the confrontation-allergic CNN and whose husband is accomplished at rapping a word that sounds like "nigger."
Regardless, whoever replaces him will work with the same gamed system that made him. Breitbart rode to prominence on the toadying of a media wary of being called liberal and petrified by conservative outrage. It was his winning formula: Keep beating the dogs until they start preemptively terrorizing themselves. Like any good bully, Breitbart picked his targets well, exploiting the existing insecurities of an institution that could be beaten further to the right by its own complaisance. After a decade of keeping his foot on the throats of fellow journalists, it never occurred to them to kick his bloated wineskin around the Beltway the moment they learned he'd died. Instead, they warily asked one another, "Is it for real? Is he really dead? Can the creature come back? Can he hear us talking about him?"
There's a more generous interpretation, one echoed by a lot of comments made in hasty obituaries, that a wife has been widowed and four children left fatherless. And perhaps for some that's enough reason to whitewash a career richly studded with racism, hatred, and contempt. Perhaps that's enough to turn honest evaluations of a life riven with opportunistic malice into mealy-mouthed encomia about "a provocateur" and a "punk rock journalist."
Of course, nobody was asking fretful hand-wringing questions about children when it was time to throw a sop to conservatives and pillory ACORN and Shirley Sherrod. Nobody asked how many children had been given a better life for having their parents rescued from predatory lending. Nobody asked how many children's lives were improved by the good offices of Shirley Sherrod. In the last few days, nobody's asked how many lives will not be affected for the better because we've lost their contributions. And for all the talk of his children, nobody's asked what kind of America they stand to inherit from their father—whether black kids on the playground with them will endure a wider world of fear, wary of a country so easily whipped into a furor of suspicion of them, their motives, their peer groups, their voices.
There wasn't time to ask those questions, not when one needed to labor to find a plausible compliment for someone who luxuriated in poisoning the racial discourse and raining abuse down on colleagues in a crass endless hump for pageloads and ad revenue. There wasn't time, and in any event, they were still afraid—checking the thesaurus for words of praise that seemed acceptably sincere, instead of taking up a spade to help bury him deep in the earth, not merely to put greater distance between him and humanity but so that Hell does not have to reach so high to claim him.
Image via Getty.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? and a former political blogger for Vice.com. He has also contributed to GQ.com and SomethingAwful.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and email him here.