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‘An Endless Cycle of Asininity’

Kevin Williamson is terrified of Harvard's first female professor of color, but not the lizard-man who runs the world economy.

Left: Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). (By Maverick Pictures/Shutterstock) Right: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (By lev radin/Shutterstock)

Former Atlantic staffer Kevin D. Williamson, the lower-right quadrant’s most literate troll, took some potshots at my senator this morning for her modest attempts to put an irksome galactic hegemon in his place. Civic duty, mild boredom, and feudal loyalty oblige me to respond.

Poor old beleaguered Lizzie Warren, everyone’s favorite punching bag, is just trying to do her job. Williamson thinks the job has gotten to her head, and so he opens his weekly newsletter—it’s worth a read and a subscription, by the way—with a string of Williamsonian insults capped with the accusation that Warren “is getting a little full of herself, and believes that as a senator, she should be above the petty ‘heckling’ of the little people. You know, peons. Like you.”

There’s a hell of an elision here. Williamson has one particular peon on his mind: Amazon founder Jeffrey Preston Bezos, of “richest person in the world” notoriety. Good old Jeff, just a peon like me. Unless Kevin is pointing out Bezos’s petite frame—it would be kind of mean, but I wouldn’t put it past him—I think he might have spelled “lizard people” wrong.

Because Senator Warren is not particularly nice to Mr. Bezos or his megacorporation, Williamson decides to hit us with a classic:

This isn’t North Korea or Venezuela or East Germany — not yet! — where people have to be afraid of criticizing those who hold government office. The fact that Senator Warren so obviously wishes that it were so is a real good reason to retire her pronto.

This is a tired line, the kind that ought to have been put to sleep by a decent high school English teacher or—at the very least—a young conservative journalist’s first professional editor. And yet it remains a staple of the lower-right repertoire. Williamson trotted out a particularly outrageous example last year when he accused Sen. Marco Rubio of sliding into “the familiar moral basis of fascist economic thinking” for…referencing Pope Leo XIII? (Funnily enough, Williamson also compared Rubio to Warren in that piece; at least he’s consistent.) The idea that any attempted assertion of political power puts us half a step away from Berlin or Caracas or Pyongyang is not a very bright one, but it seems to be convincing for a certain kind of audience.

Why, in Kevin Williamson’s Manichaean world, is Senator Warren flirting with Maduro? Two reasons. First, she suggested pursuing legislation that would raise the effective tax rate on Amazon and other massive multinationals like it. Second, she promised to “fight to break up Big Tech so [they’re] not powerful enough to heckle senators with snotty tweets.”

For folks of a particular worldview, there are two sides to every story: public and private. (Private good, public bad.) You and Jeff Bezos both fall on the private side, so any distinction between the two is one of degree and not of kind. He’s still a peon—just the biggest peon, with more peon-ness than all of the other peons put together. So when a senator—government, public, bad—squares up against a poor peon like Amazon, it is incumbent on all people of good will to speak up in the megacorp’s defense. A threat to peons anywhere is a threat to peons everywhere.

I’m not going to defend the particular wording of Warren’s tweet, which I’ll admit is infelicitous. But the point that the unelected representatives of the colonizers from Alpha Draconis should not be able to rival—and, if we’re being even a little bit honest, decisively outbox—the elected representative of the citizens of the greatest state in the Union is well taken.

There is a difference between wanting to take some power away from people who hold absurd amounts of it, and have not shown themselves to be particularly conscientious in its use, and wanting to take all power away from everyone. It’s pretty clear which one of these Warren is proposing, and it’s not the one Kevin Williamson has decided to take aim at.

Like Kevin, I dislike concentrated centers of power that run the risk—or, at the very least, have the ability—of crushing the little people with impunity. Unlike Kevin, I’m consistent about it, and if a little old lady “from Massachusetts from Oklahoma” wants to devolve one of the most massive concentrations of capital and power in the history of the human race, I’m not going to tell her “no.” You know who I’m not afraid of? The fake-Indian former schoolteacher who bluffed her way to the U.S. Senate. You know who I am afraid of? The Lex Luthor knockoff who operates perhaps the single most powerful non-government entity ever.

Williamson does mockingly invite Senator Warren to use the power of her office to address the problems that concern her. He suggests that she and her Democratic colleagues could pass “a big fat progressive tax-reform bill that raises corporate taxes and capital-gains taxes to 65 percent.” The suggestion obscures the fact that what Warren actually proposed during the exchange in question was bringing the effective tax rate on Amazon’s profits up to 7 percent—admittedly, a sizable increase from the modest 1.2 percent it paid in 2019. Seven percent taxation of a company with 11-figure profits? Karl Marx himself could hardly have dreamt so ambitiously.

Williamson doesn’t see it happening, and thinks he’s figured out the game:

We see this year after year after excruciatingly stupid year: Somebody with big ideas about spurring blue-collar employment proposes a tax subsidy for politically connected manufacturers, and then two years later bitches that tax subsidies are being used by politically connected manufacturers. Because we tax businesses on their profits rather than on their cashflow, ordinary expenses are deducted from taxable income — and politicians bitch about businesses getting to deduct expenses resulting from business decisions the politicians don’t like. An endless cycle of asininity, over and over and over.

I see the scene from a rather different angle: At the end of the day—not just in 2021 but for a long, long time—American oligarchs like Jeff Bezos have a lot more power than peons like us, even those with “Senator” prefixed to their names. So the system is set up in their favor—sometimes by the Senator-prefixed, sometimes just by steamrolling them. And year after year after excruciatingly stupid year, conservative commentators toe the company line, because government is invariably the bad guy and anyone who’s not elected must be just like us. To borrow a phrase from Mr. Williamson, it’s “an endless cycle of asininity, over and over and over.” At least it’s familiar territory.

about the author

Declan Leary is The American Conservative's editorial fellow and a graduate of John Carroll University. His work has been published at National Review, Crisis magazine, and elsewhere.

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