Institutional Mistrust: Right-Wing Podcasts Stoke Paranoia
These are tumultuous times for the USA and the world, as paranoia and populism proliferate on both the right and left side of politics. This essay focusses on the former, guided by the view expressed by Irving Kristol that there has historically been a significant relationship between “political populism and political paranoia — the belief that the world is being misdirected by some kind of mischievous conspiracy against the ‘common man.’ ”
Several days ago, a fresh example of right-wing anti-establishment paranoia emerged on the podcast Louder with Crowder, run by comedian and political commentator Steven Crowder. On YouTube, the episode in question is titled “CIA Protected PEDOPHILES?! Why Am I Not Surprised | Louder with Crowder”. The segment which pertains to the CIA is based on a recent report published by Buzzfeed about sexual offences in that agency. That article reveals that there were ten cases that came to light in the last fourteen years in which CIA “employees and contractors committed sexual crimes involving children”.
To clarify, I do not find it unreasonable to criticise the CIA for the facts reported or to demand that it handle such cases better. My point is that Louder with Crowder is blowing the facts out of proportion an peddling paranoia, sensationalism, and unfounded anti-establishment rhetoric.
Early in the segment, Crowder argues that the imprudent way in which one of the perpetrators had acted showed “a lack of fearing any sort of accountability”. Well, maybe. Or maybe the fear was overridden by the powerful compulsion paedophiles tend to experience. Either way, his failure to exercise more caution probably was not based on a sound assessment of costs and benefits, since he was, in fact, caught.
Crowder and his colleagues repeatedly emphasise that charges were brought against only one of the ten perpetrators. They fail to mention that, as described in the report from Buzzfeed, the evidence in several of the cases was weak. The authors do attribute this partly to the ineffectiveness of the CIA’s methods for investigating crimes of this nature among its personnel, but that is different from a claim that cases were deliberately covered up.
The podcast host clarifies that, according to the report, the other cases were left to the CIA, for it to deal with them itself. He explains that, evidently, the CIA is opposed to its workers’ going through the normal judicial processes lest they reveal classified information as a result. For a moment, Crowder and his fellow podcasters seem stumped by this reasoning, then he confidently proposes that the CIA stop “hiring sex offenders”. He says that the sex offenders at the CIA should be prosecuted, as though he had not just himself provided a perfectly good reason why that should, if possible, be avoided. Sure, in a severe case, safeguarding government secrets may not be a sufficient justification. But, as mentioned, evidence was weak in at least some of the cases, and in the most serious case described in Buzzfeed’s article, the one that did involve rape (another was essentially an attempted rape), prosecutors stated that they had not put the offender on trial because of “taint issues” and problems with demonstrating that certain people in pornographic videos were underage. Moreover, one of the ten cases actually was prosecuted in a court of law.
Crowder describes the whole affair as “the CIA raping children and sexually assaulting children”. This is, of course, a gross mischaracterisation. It was not the CIA itself which committed the crimes in question, not all of which involved rape or sexual assault, but, as far as is known, ten employees and contractors over a fourteen-year period. According to an article in the Washington Post, the CIA has an estimated 21,575 employees — and the figure of ten refers, again, to “employees and contractors”. Crowder argues that surely the CIA could vet its applicants more effectively, to avoid hiring sex offenders in the first place. Yet, in light of the above, it seems that their vetting process is likely quite effective.
In an instance of immoderate hyperbole, Crowder rails that, whether the CIA had known beforehand that the aforementioned individuals were paedophiles and had hired them anyway, which seems highly unlikely to me, or it had been ignorant of that fact, the agency “serves no functional purpose”. This is obviously a total non-sequitur. At this point, the discussion degenerates into nonsense. “What do you do when the people in power, who are supposed to prosecute the crimes, are the ones committing the crimes?” asks Crowder. The CIA is not supposed to prosecute crimes; it is not a law enforcement agency.
Crowder then expands the conversation to the supposed “pervasive” “evil […] in all of our intelligence agencies”. This pattern he claims to have discerned is demonstrated by the preceding arguments about the CIA and a few other instances, including a case of just “two National Reconnaissance Officers” reported all the way back in 2012. This case is actually misstated: the text shown on screen to substantiate it says that, while the two cases were reported by the National Reconnaissance Office, one of the two people was a contractor and the other was an officer of the Air Force.
One of the other people in the podcast butts in and argues that the CIA would take legal action against one of its employees if it found out that said employee was working for a foreign country as a double agent, so it should also have the sex offenders referenced in Buzzfeed’s report prosecuted. The problem with this reasoning is twofold. Firstly, the justification for letting the CIA deal with sex offenders in its ranks on its own is based on the notion that protecting government secrets is more important than prosecuting these individuals for their crimes in a court of law. However, in the case of a double agent, this reasoning clearly does not work in the same way, since the crime committed also involved government secrets. Secondly, the argument is based on a false premise. In a 2010 article, Asha Rangappa, a former counterterrorism agent with the FBI, explains that because taking a spy to court reveals information to the public, even putting notorious double agent Robert Hansen on trial came with costs for the American intelligence community. Rangappa elucidates that one reason why the FBI relatively rarely prosecutes spies is to avoid revealing valuable information. Therefore, the American government pulls its punches when it comes to prosecuting spies in much the same way as it hesitates to prosecute sex offenders who work for the CIA. In fact, the CIA has, in the past, been reluctant to find the foreign agent in its midst. While CIA agent Aldrich Ames was feeding the Soviets the names of CIA informers and getting them killed, the agency was issuing reports to government officials based on intelligence provided by informers which it knew were out to deceive it. Historian Benjamin B. Fischer (2016) asserts that this was because the CIA “wanted to conceal from Congress and policymakers the loss of its Soviet agents” (53). It was not strongly motivated to identify the traitor in its ranks because “[f]inding a mole means an arrest, which, in turn, creates unfavorable publicity that undermines politicians’ and the public’s confidence in the Agency” (ibid.: 53–54).
The situation in the YouTube comments looks no better. The segment has been uploaded as a stand-alone video on the secondary channel CrowderBits, and one of the top-rated comments there boldly asserts that the CIA clearly employed the sex offenders discussed in the video because it considered them easy to manipulate. This seems, to put it mildly, rather unlikely. An article by Steven Aftergood states that one of the most frequently occurring rationales that justify refusing to allow a person to access classified knowledge is that the person in question has a high level of debt. This is essentially because such circumstances reflect poorly on a person’s character and may force him or her to commit undesirable acts. The same is surely true, and probably even more so, of sex crimes involving minors. Yet this commenter assumes that a history of such offences in an applicant for a job at the CIA would be viewed as an advantage instead of a liability.
This segment on Louder with Crowder looks like part of a trend of anti-establishment rhetoric from right-wing podcast hosts. This is not to imply that left-wing podcast hosts are any better, but they are not the subject if this essay. A few days ago, I outlined the weird, evidently paranoid and ill-informed tweets of social conservative Matt Walsh, who truly seemed to believe that the State Department (!) would send American troops into Ukraine.
An even better example may be the numerous clips on YouTube from Tim Pool’s podcast which discuss the workings of shadowy élite groups. In addition to his podcast episode with Jack Posobiec, whom I hesitate to call a conspiracy theorist without knowing his work intimately, but who certainly appears to cater to the paranoid, we see a clip from Pool’s podcast uploaded to YouTube and titled “The Great RESET Is Happening, People Own Nothing And Liberals Are Happy About It”.
The video essentially notes that cryptocurrencies are becoming more popular, whereof Pool and his co-podcasters actually approve, that the economy has slowed down, and that certain outdoor sports have gained popularity because many people have less to keep them busy than they used to have. Of course, one could argue that the U.S. Government would have imposed fewer pandemic-related restrictions if it placed more value on people’s financial well-being, but that is a far cry from suggesting that the general public is on the road to “[o]wn[ing] [n]othing [a]nd Liberals[, not even ‘leftists’,] [a]re [h]appy [a]bout [i]t”.
Tim Pool also seems to speculate that prices for oil, meat, lumber, and steel have been driven up intentionally to further an environmentalist agenda. This, from the sound of it, is pure speculation. Furthermore, while I can understand in theory the environmentalist rationale for making oil, meat, and steel more expensive, why lumber? The clip is from June 2021. The previous year, the American left-wing publication Vox had put out an article that seemed to make an environmentalist case for using lumber as a construction material. The article is subtitled: “The many, many benefits of using wood in place of concrete and steel”. The author notes that “Nationally, forests are so overstocked that the Forestry Department is giving out $9 million in grants for new ideas for how to use wood” and suggests that the International Building Code’s 2021 iteration will likely be adapted to allow the construction of relatively big wooden buildings. It therefore appears that both the powers that be in America and the American left are fairly pro-lumber. Once again, the substantive, factual foundation of the video seems sound enough, but hyperbole and conjecture make it, on the whole, rather unreasonable.
Even Michael Knowles, Matt Walsh’s colleague at the Daily Wire who generally carries himself with a more intellectual manner and style, and is usually a thoughtful, insightful commentator, has made a light nod or a few to the populist right. Not long ago, he included a segment about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s position on immigration in Episode 903 of his show. According to Knowles, the fact that, unlike Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is comparatively pro-immigration means that she is a “tool[…] of the establishment” because immigration suppresses wages. Maybe immigration does suppress wages, and maybe the establishment does favour immigration for that reason, but it does not follow from that that the establishment is using Ocasio-Cortez, or that she is intentionally complicit in the establishment’s designs, so Knowles’s reasoning for using the language of “tools” is unclear, unless it is to project the populist image of seeing through the murky interconnections and hypocrisy of the ruling class.
What should be the takeaway from these few case studies? Surprisingly, maybe the best conclusion is that things are not as bad as they seem. While there seems to be a certain niche for right-wing podcasts that appeal to populist and paranoid instincts, the examples we saw did not seem, with the obvious exception of Matt Walsh, to be irremediably wrong-headed. In many aspects, the podcasters in these cases seem to be on to something. They just need to hold themselves to higher standards of intellectual rigour.
Fischer, Benjamin B.. 2016. “Doubles Troubles: The CIA and Double Agents during the Cold War.” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 29 (1): 48–74.