Red Scare and Postmodern Politics
I love that I can mention the Red Scare podcast in both traditionalist Catholic and bohemian artsy New Yorker crowds and they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. According to cultural polemics du jour, these groups shouldn’t have much in common. But Red Scare’s iconoclastic hosts, Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova, have little qualms about defying our day’s codes of orthodoxy, and so do their most devoted listeners.
Since their debut in early 2018, Red Scare has amassed over 12,500 paid subscribers, raking them in over $50,000 per month. Their fame has grown thanks in part to big name guests like Steve Bannon, Ross Douthat, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and John Waters; profiles in the New York Times, both New York Magazine’s The Cut and Vulture, Jezebel, and Interview magazine; and a nod from HBO’s The White Lotus, whose creator claims to have based two of his characters on the two hosts.
Some have labeled Khachiyan and Nekrasova “Dirtbag Leftists,” placing them among the likes of other Bernie-supporting, anti-politically correct podcasts such as Chapo Trap House. But their ironic and cynical sense of humor makes it hard to pin down their actual political allegiances.
That’s to say the least—how many podcasts can boast having interviewed the likes of democratic socialist Amber A’Lee Frost and Steve Bannon? But those attempting to put the pair into a political box are missing the point. Their critique of Western neoliberalism and the “woke” cultural phenomena it has spawned is not primarily political.
“I’m not anti-woke, I’m interested in wokeness as a defiance of reality. I’m pro-reality,” said Khachiyan in a recent episode. “I’m not interested in culture war as such, I’m interested in what culture war entails…like, I hope that we reach some slightly greater insights.” Their project focuses on the pre-political and even the pre-ethical. In their eyes, the performative posturing in mainstream media about moral and political causes is a front for aesthetic, psychological, and existential decay.
Red Scare first gained attention after a video of Nekrasova being ambush-interviewed by an InfoWars reporter went viral in 2018. Dressed in a Japanese Sailor Moon-style outfit, and in between slurps of iced coffee, Nekrasova trolls the earnest reporter–who is determined to disprove the viability of socialism in the U.S.–with ironic and sarcastic responses, garnering Nekrasova the nickname “Sailor Socialism.” Thus the shock for some when three and a half years later, “the girls” posted photos on Instagram of themselves shooting rifles with Alex Jones at his home, announcing the release of their interview with the infamous InfoWars founder.
Many commented that this was a “coming full circle” moment for Nekrasova and Khachiyan. The closing of the loop from Sailor Socialism to the Jones interview speaks to the unconventional touchstone the podcast has become for people disillusioned with mainstream narratives fed to them by liberals of both the left and right. Though many dismiss the performative and cynical tone of the podcast as irresponsible, detractors should at least take seriously its capacity to unite people of diverse ideological persuasions who have been pushed to the fringes of “acceptable” discourse.
Their commentary is deeply rooted in their reading of Freud, Jung, and Nietzsche, and makes reference to Camille Paglia, Slavoj Zizek, Michel Houellebecq, and (most frequently) Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. While their critique of global liberalism (and flirtation with Bernie-ite democratic socialism) does indeed borrow from Marxist class analysis, this is only in service of their commentary on the differences between the psychological and spiritual sensibilities of elites (who claim to champion the cause of the oppressed) and actual working-class people.
Having both been born in the USSR, they find laughable the American left’s insistence on identity politics over class struggle. More specifically, they say it’s a mask for the ennui felt by most middle to upper class millennials, whose naive notions of freedom and safety are devoid of roots, tradition, and tools to make sense of the unpredictability of human existence.
After joking about “waging a jihad against body fat at the gym,” Dasha remarks that while she would “rather be a woman in the neoliberal West than in Taliban Afghanistan,” she respects that the young men drawn to the Taliban are willing die for something, whereas stands for causes by mainstream liberals are ploys for attention.
Thus their critique of woke figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (in an episode entitled “Ocasio Crytez”) focuses on middle class millennials’ narcissistic need for approval—ultimately a defense mechanism to stave off existential dread. Their criticism of attention-seeking millennials like Cortez draws heavily on Lasch’s comments about America’s “normalization of pathological narcissism” post-World War II.
The Trump presidency is another key part of the Red Scare girls’ commentary on generational divides. “You can say a lot of bad things about Donald Trump, but you can’t say the man is boring,”says Khachiyan. The ladies rave about the aesthetics of his presidency, often citing the comic genius of his tweets and press conference appearances.
“Trump Derangement Syndrome,” is, according to them, how boomers transfer their guilt for spawning the culture that produced Trump. “The whole Rachel Maddow and the NBC crowd have infected the minds of boomers with this dystopian narrative…There’s some kind of Freudian, masochistic thing [Democrats] have where they get off on publicly humiliating themselves.”
Their “Kanye 2020” episode affirmed the spiritually nuanced vision Kanye had for empowering black communities (while chuckling at his viability as a presidential candidate). They went on in the same episode to call out figures like Jeff Bezos, not just for monopolizing markets and depriving workers of fair wages, but for the metaphysical implications of Amazon’s scope of power–which they compared to biblical warnings about the Antichrist.
Red Scare’s treatment of religion is markedly unconventional. Nekrasova considers herself a practicing Catholic (though she abstains from receiving the Eucharist) and sees organized religion as something that grounds people in community and spiritual ideals. Khachiyan, on the other hand, calls herself a secular Jew (though she “believes in God and says a prayer every day”) and has no intention of championing religion as an antidote to the failures of Western neoliberalism. She is also quick to point out that she is not conservative and is certainly not a “trad.” But she is not shy to assert that the lack of boundaries afforded women by liberal feminism leaves them less happy.
As much as they don’t favor the repeal of Roe v. Wade, they are critical of the mainstream left’s glorification of abortion, with Anna going as far as revealing that the abortion she had earlier in life was a heart wrenching experience she would never wish on anyone. Anna also spoke in graphic detail about her experience of giving birth, and brags constantly about the joys of motherhood.
Their religious commentary ranges from citing the mystical saints who experienced “dark nights of the soul” to Christopher Dawson’s critique of American secularism in “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind,” and criticizing the “boomer capitalist Catholicism” of the Novus Ordo Mass after attending a Tridentine Latin Mass.
After Bannon praised freedom fighters in totalitarian China, they questioned whether anyone is “truly free” in a liberal democracy. One can detect that the metaphysical bent of their critique of liberalism has more in common with the position of Catholic integralists than with other Bernie supporters.
In their commentary on the recent Atlantic interview with Cornel West, they bemoaned secular Democratic Socialists of America members whose “care” for the oppressed is based more on self-serving interests than on love, while commending Christian leftists like West and Dorothy Day who lived their faith as a call to love and serve the vulnerable.
“That’s what real Christianity is about,” said Khachiyan, “self-effacement without the expectation of anything in return. Unlike the cynical style of martyrdom you see all over the place now, where people go the extra mile and seethe when it’s not recognized.”
“What I love about Cornel West is that he doesn’t strike me as a miserable person,” she continued, contrasting him to young coastal elites whose political beliefs and lifestyle choices are “conformist” and whose “priorities are misaligned,” and who “go home and privately agonize and seethe.”
“It’s hard to be an integrated person,” replied Nekrasova. “[West] definitely is capable of love, through…the grace of God.”
Along with Red Scare’s growing fan base is a growing faction of detractors. Some say it’s overly ironic and amoral, others that their mocking of politically correct culture overlooks their white privilege. Even more people fear that it breeds cynicism and nihilism. While I concede that all of those critiques hold some grain of truth, I think above all, Red Scare highlights something deeply essential that is absent from mainstream discourse.
Their hot takes on aesthetics, psychology, and metaphysics—which for them take primacy over politics and morals—make a powerful statement: namely, that we cannot arrive at an authentic understanding of politics without a strong grasp of the pre-political. Secular liberalism’s reversal of the platonic assertion that contemplation of truth precedes action has only led to ideological stalemates that stifle authentic social progress.
The fact that Red Scare draws in such a diverse audience, from democratic socialists to right wing populists, and trad Catholics to “based” queers, testifies to a possible coalition amongst disillusioned youngsters who feel themselves pushed to the margins by the mainstream left and right. While we might not all agree on what a post-liberal future ought to look like, Red Scare provides the tools to return to what’s most basic and forge a substantial path forward.
The New York Times recently published a feature on Nekrasova. Could this be a sign that Red Scare’s discourse will gain currency in the mainstream? Either way, I doubt the ladies would care.