Anatomy of a troll
Why Richard Hanania's "enlightened centrism" is neither
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Not everyone is trying to avoid the grift. Today I woke up to find that the co-founder of this platform, Hamish McKenzie, had featured Richard Hanania on the Substack house podcast “The Active Voice.” Hanania is a political science PhD and graduate of the University of Chicago Law School who left academia to, as he puts it, pursue forms of writing that reach a larger audience. (I think he’s actually pursuing a number of other things, but I’ll get to those in a moment.) The episode promised a discussion of “the origins of wokeness, the long reach of civil rights law, and the future of the culture wars”.
This got my attention because I’m familiar with Hanania’s “work” on social media. He’s the guy who, for instance, wrote in 2022, after a short-lived Twitter ban: “If I owned Twitter, I wouldn’t let feminists, trans activists, or socialists post. Why should I? They’re wrong about everything and bad for society.” After Elon Musk restored his account, he accused Black people of having violently chased white residents out of American cities, in what he termed a “quasi-ethnic cleansing.”
And last month he tweeted this gem:
(Musk replied: “Interesting.”)
I was curious if McKenzie would push back on these, or any of what Hanania himself has called “all the LGBT, black, and women stuff that I’ve posted.” Indeed, in a post promoting the interview, McKenzie said they covered “lots of spicy topics.” So I put on my nitrile gloves and dug in.
In the pod, McKenzie introduces Hanania as someone who seemed “to have kind of come from nowhere” in the summer of 2020. As he puts it, “the pandemic happened and huge numbers of people became addicted to social media and he emerged from his cocoon in academia to start pushing some hot cultural buttons.” Within a year, Hanania had a breakout piece on Substack titled “Why is Everything Liberal?” and made his first appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight. Here’s how McKenzie describes Hanania’s politics, nodding to his affect as a self-identified troll:
Hanania is proudly anti-woke and he’s found favor among a conservative readership. But at the same time, he’s not been scared to go against the preferences of many people who would otherwise be squarely in his political tribe. So while he’s written pieces that attack wokeness and criticize civil rights law, he’s also argued that the mainstream media is good actually, and that liberals are more culturally savvy than conservatives. He’s written in favor of immigration and diversity, while also pushing back against the liberal obsession with race.
He adds: “Hanania admits he’s a bit of a troll, but he also makes a strong case for what he calls ‘enlightened centrism’—people who hold views that can't easily be categorized as right or left.”
There’s a lot to chew on there. But let’s start by complicating the timeline of Hanaina’s arrival in the discourse. On his Twitter page, Hanania identifies himself first and foremost with a credit that neither he nor McKenzie thought to mention: as the president of something called the “Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.” According to publicly available documents filed with the IRS, the center, based out of a private residence in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, was approved for its federal-tax exemption on June 11, 2020 — just over two weeks after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd.
By the end of its first year, 2020, the little organization — with Hanania as its president, and two other right-wing academics, George Hawley of the University of Alabama and Eric Kaufman of the University of London and Hudson Institute — had taken in revenues of over $205,000. The CSPI describes itself on a separate Substack as a grant-giving organization, “interested in funding scholars studying woke attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.” (“We are also interested in work examining the impact of woke policies and practices on organizational culture and performance,” it adds.) But at the end of that first year, the only one for which a tax filing is available, the group had given out just $10,000 in grants and spent $40,000 in other expenses. This left a healthy “non-profit” of $155,100.
There does not appear to be any public information about who CSPI’s donors are. But what they have in mind for the organization is pretty clear. In addition to being a laundering service for handing out money to reactionary academics, it is a paper mill for “studies” that back up reactionary talking points, to be spun into articles and opinion pieces with headlines such as“Social trends causing rapid growth in people identifying as LGBT, report says” (from the ideological astroturfing Sinclair Broadcast Group), “The Lockdowns Weren’t Worth It” (WSJ) and “The new class war is over identity” (Washington Examiner) — the latter being an anti-LGBTQ screed that ended, “My name is Dominic. I’m a trans woman, and my pronouns are me, me, me.”
But let’s get to the heart of Hanania’s argument. In the pod, he states repeatedly that “wokeness” and its presumed evils can be traced back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.1 At one point: Hanina says: “People think of civil rights as basically a thing that got rid of, you know, segregated water fountains and integrated the races. And yeah it did do that. But you know, civil rights law has done a lot more than that. I mean it's forced race and sex consciousness onto institutions.”
That leads to this fascinating exchange:
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