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When the issues matter far less than brawling for your team
Politics is a team sport these days, or so they say. Our polarized environment has rendered politicians and their partisan supporters as little more than competing teams with their own fan bases. Our media takes a gamified approach to politics, seeing political contests as sports matches made up of polling races, PR maneuvers, and individual skill. Nothing matters so much as beating the other side, and one’s own jersey is all that counts. This is true even for Republicans who disdain Trump and his movement but can’t imagine casting their presidential vote for anyone but their party nominee, even if that means the very man they so revile. Or, maybe you’ve had the chance to hear Jonathan V. Last’s hilarious, and frankly elegant, gangland analogy: once you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet, even if your fellow Jets keep attacking you and threatening to kill you.
The idea that our politics are not only deeply tribal but fundamentally about hurting the other tribe is a point of analysis that now borders on common sense. Adam Serwer’s “The Cruelty is the Point” neatly distills lib-owning and bullying of weak opponents as the animating forces within Trump’s GOP. And Charlie Sykes has recently elaborated on this thesis, arguing that Trump’s rage-fueled style has metastasized to an increasingly violent one where “brutality is the point.”
An analogy that captures these dynamics and underlines the way politics is increasingly dislocated within our tribalism can be found in soccer hooliganism.
(Anyone with a rich understanding of the array of varyingly organized firms, supporters, ultras, and collections of lads and louts that mark this deeply complex social phenomenon will note that I’m treating hooliganism quite broadly here. I’m including both tightly structured and sometimes sophisticatedly criminal firms as well as the bands of boys engaged in disorderly conduct and goonish behavior.)
For many, including those who primarily see politics as a sport, political support is barely even about politics in the first place. That is to say, it barely matters what is happening on the field except insofar as it affects the energies of the hooligans. Sure, ideology sometimes matters to people operating under this conception of politics. But what really matters is the hooliganism itself, the sense of pride in being part of the gang, and the excitement of those moments that allow you to cheer or to clash. Perhaps that sounds as if I’m repeating the team sports view outlined above. But there’s a key difference. And if you’re a student of the beautiful game and its fan dynamics, forgive me a few generalizations and over-extended metaphors. Hooliganism is a richly varied thing, in fact, but here I’ll largely treat it as a whole.
One error sometimes made by casual observers is to assume that hooligans care predominantly about football, that it’s just a heightened expression of fandom. In truth, hooliganism both is about the game and not about it at all. It is expressed in the event of a match and in the support for star players, but it also exists well outside of the typical minutiae of fan culture. And in fact it can often be more about the tribal affiliation of the club in a way that has little to do with sports fandom per se.
In his study of the ultras of Italy, Tobias Jones notes that members speak of their dedication to and affection for “the shirt” and “the colors.” As Jones puts it upon visiting an ultra headquarters in Cosenza:
The most striking element is the chromatic fundamentalism. … It’s the colors, you realize, that create the tribe. It’s the colors that create the deep bonds. They’re what you live and die for. As one of their songs goes “When I have to die, I want to bring my colors to paradise.”
This is often only passingly related to the professional players who don the official jerseys for their side. As Jones writes, “An insult to the red and blue is as intolerable as an insult to your mother or your sister. And yet no one mentions the football. There’s never talk of any player. ‘Cazzo,’ says one guy. I don’t even know who we’re playing on Saturday. I don’t really give a fuck. The important thing is that we carry our colors there, that we make ourselves heard and make ourselves respected.’”
See the by-now thoroughly documented examples of key GOP figures like Mitch McConnell and Bill Barr saying that they will support and vote for the 2024 nominee, no matter who that nominee is. Of course, the meat of those comments are about Trump. But the wider point is that the candidate that’s running is utterly irrelevant. And so is whomever they’re facing. What matters is the colors.
Perhaps no one recently has better embodied the farcical nature of partisan politics and the utter meaninglessness of the actual politics at play than New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. During the primary, Sununu was harshly critical of Republican senatorial candidate Don Bolduc for his election-denier views on 2020. But, eventually, with Bolduc on the ballot in the general and some polling putting him within range of an upset victory, Sununu came around to support the Spartan-shield toting, coup-supporting former general. Of his endorsement, Sununu said that people should be “one-issue voters” and that his disagreement with Bolduc was not the totality of their political relationship. One has to wonder how many issues he had to find objectionable about Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan. I suspect he never considered it enough to know. His more recent turnaround on Donald Trump is even more laughable. After promising he would support the 2024 GOP presidential nominee no matter what, even if it is again Donald Trump, Sununu referred to his previous statement that Trump is “fucking crazy” as an obvious joke. As to the hypothetical nominee’s competition, well Sununu expressed confidence that any GOP standard bearer, even Trump, would be “better than any of the Democrats that would likely sit in that presidential seat.” Who are we playing? Cazzo. I don’t even know.
Politics itself both matters and doesn’t at all. Ideology can be a key dynamic or even an organizing principle, but it can also be subsumed or washed away in the wider waters of tribalism and conflict driven identity formation. And of course the fighting and tumult itself can be the whole point for many.
“There for the Tear-up”
As The Times’s Matt Lawton has noted in his reporting on England’s new wave of hooliganism, a good many offenders are there only for the promise of violent confrontation—they’re “there for the tear-up.” He observed that one police action in Nottingham involving Leicester City supporters determined that 25 percent of around 100 individuals detained were found not to even have tickets for the match. The conditions of one train car that carried Grimsby supporters to an away game against Notts County also attests to this: broken glass, urine-soaked seats, and significant amounts of stray booze and illegal drugs left the car in an unusable condition.
This last image harkens to the many accounts we have of the January 6 assault on the Capitol. While a lot of excellent investigative work has since been done detailing the organized and deeply ideological nature of the event and the extremists groups that helped to foment it, there is also a sense that many others participated out of more banal desires to engage in disordered, anti-social behavior. The property damage done and the use of the Capitol as a giant latrine leave little doubt that for some involved the day was largely about the opportunity to hit someone, break things, and smear their excrement on hallowed ground.
And many carry this kind of mentality as the primary raison d’être and modus operandi of their political engagement—both online and “in the real world.” This is a baser, more visceral impulse than even mere tribal loyalty to one’s “color.” This is disordered violence and untamed aggression–bullying, brutality, and bare-knuckled nastiness. One wonders if politics is even a primary mover at all. Here I want to highlight people who might once have been simply categorized as liberal or progressive agitators but now are more or less equal opportunity vandals, happily stoking conspiracy, injecting venom, and ruthlessly mocking their critics however they see fit.
Matt Taibbi has done some valuable reporting in his career, but it’s his penchant for pithy, acerbic criticisms of his subjects and more boorish put-downs that has often been his signature. More recently, however, he seems happy to punch in any direction, regardless of just how deserving the recipient of his blows happens to be. In 2022, Taibbi joined Megyn Kelly to deride the January 6 commemorations, taking easy aim at a saccharine performance by Hamilton writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and oozing what can only be described as a palpable disdain for the very notion we should have any compassion for the politicians whose lives were threatened on that day.
Taibbi’s entire career, notwithstanding his very real contributions to investigative journalism, is littered with ad hominem dressed up as analysis. It presents like the young lad looking for a bit of a ruckus. It can even seem a bit cheeky at first. He called Rick Santelli “a douche wad,” famously dubbed Goldman Sachs a “vampire squid” and got his very start running a boorish, take-no-prisoners alt publication in post-Soviet Russia that took the piss out of everyone, especially women, and may or may not have been a den of criminal loutishness and sexual misconduct. You realize that the inevitable window-smashing and punch-throwing aren’t incidental; they’re the object. Taibbi went on Ben Shapiro’s podcast in December to mourn the lack of humor among liberals and the left and to call Matt Walsh’s anti-trans hate film a good piece of comedy. End of the day, the game is just about the chance for a good punch-up, innit?
Similarly, Glenn Greenwald was once reviled on the right as one of the journalists who broke the Edward Snowden leaks—a bulldog with little respect for authority. But if his choice of targets seems increasingly confused, his pugilism is as pronounced as ever. Now, he lashes out at liberals as simpering, oversensitive hypocrites and constantly punches down at journalists and commentators who question his acerbic style. Frequently, it's women like Taylor Lorenz who, whatever you might think of her opinions, receives an astounding amount of online abuse—abuse that Greenwald and others seem happy to fuel with no hint of shame. The Discourse is for the lads—don’t be such a girl. Literally, don’t be a girl. Greenwald is at his most vicious when he believes himself to be punching back. I can’t know the inner workings of Greenwald’s psyche, but one has to wonder what the point of all this unfiltered aggression is beyond the sheer pleasure of mixing it up. And he has a knack for doing so in ways that have baffled those who mainly think of him as a dogged champion for the little guy.
A whole cast of self-styled progressive or leftist pundits reflect this style, from Jimmy Dore contributing to the Paul Pelosi conspiracy mongering to the toxic swirl of Chapo Trap House and the “dirtbag left” politics they helped to mainstream. Of course, the right is littered with similar figures; and Serwer, Sykes, Last, and countless others have documented their nastiness with insight and charm. But I am hoping to nuance the point a bit. Unlike the deeply troubling political views of folks like Matt Walsh or Rod Dreher, there are those for whom the bloodsport seems to be the thing in itself. Milo Yiannapoulos certainly embodies this, as does Steven Crowder and his traveling “change my mind” hostility table.
There’s a sense that their greatest thrill—and, indeed, their whole goal—is to land a punch. After all, these are folks who have spent the last few years pursuing a losing politics. That’s not to say that there’s never merit in fighting uphill battles. Rather, I’m suggesting that winning does not appear to matter as much as the fighting.
One Way Or Another, Someone’s Getting Owned
That who is actually contesting an election is so utterly irrelevant to many party leaders in the GOP is no surprise, as it’s been documented and picked apart time and again. But I think there’s room to nuance the team sport and even Last’s wonderful gangland analogies in favor of a kind of tribal warfare wherein the thrill of dominating one’s opponents and of representing one’s side against the enemy is not only possible but entirely unmoored from the thing that your club/firm/party is even organized around. It’s the colors only. Who cares or even knows who is playing.
As for the rest, it’s hard to avoid how much of this is about on-air and online behavior. But that makes sense. We live a lot of our lives on Twitter, chat threads, in comments sections, and watching what happens on cable and streaming news opinion shows. That these individuals are not literally engaging in the violence of hooliganism doesn’t mean they are not invading our social squares with hostile, threatening, boorish, leering, jeering, and outright confrontational behavior. And of course that’s fitting, as these are also arenas of often narcissistic self-regard. And this is also true for many a firm. As Jones puts it of Italian ultras, “Being an ultra isn’t about watching the football but watching each other, admiring the carnival in the cuorva not the game on the grass.” He later adds, “There’s a never-ending mirror stage in which the group studies itself and its moves. The incessant photographing of the terraces, of each other dressed up in the colors, is an attempt to understand itself.”
It’s also akin to the behavior of those who used the George Floyd protests of 2020 for mere vandalism and outright theft. I’ve commented a lot on the complex dynamics of anti-liberalism and extremist politics. But, for some, political fights and The Discourse™️ are nothing more than a chance to break some glass, throw a punch, and smear their excrement around. And for others, they’re an opportunity to support and protect the colors—albeit mindlessly, with no thought for the ideas and candidates actually in the arena. Football violence in the UK is typically addressed under the umbrella of disorder and antisocial behavior. And this is useful for us now. Of politics as a contest between ideas, groups, candidates, is a fundamentally social endeavor, these political hooligans twist and distort it. If the contest matters, their commitment to the most deleterious elements of it makes it all that much harder to attend to what is important.