An examination of divisive, polarized liberal-side political rhetoric from A.R. Moxon’s @JuliusGoat Twitter account
This piece will explain why I believe A.R. Moxon’s @JuliusGoat Twitter account is a spreader of unreasonable and polarizing liberal-side political rhetoric, and why I believe he’s a contributor to American polarization.
Why did I write this? I’m someone who’s interested in reducing polarization and political anger. I often cover polarization on my podcast, and I wrote a book aimed at reducing American divides.
Recently, I wrote a piece about why criticizing the bad and extreme rhetoric of one’s own political group is hugely important if our goal is reducing political animosity. Sometimes pieces about polarization can be rather academic and theoretical, removed from the real world. So to emphasize the points made in that piece, I wanted to give a concrete example of criticizing someone “on my side” who I think is unhelpful, even quite harmful, and to show what that criticism would look like.
What I mean by “on my side”
This is meant to be an example of me criticizing someone “on my side.” So what does “on my side” mean? When I say that this person is “on my side,” I mean that he is politically liberal, and I also am politically liberal. But “liberal” and “conservative” can be ambiguous and hard-to-define terms, even in the best of times, and especially as our society becomes more polarized and as group stances shift more suddenly, so let me also say that: my working definition of “liberal” is simply someone who is significantly more likely to vote for Democrat candidates than Republican candidates.
I’d also say this person is “on my side” in terms of viewing Trump and Trumpism as very bad things, and viewing Trump’s presidency as a major risk to American stability and safety.
But, at the same time, I can understand why many good and sane Americans were able to support him, or at least weren’t bothered that much by him, and that probably is the key difference between how I and someone like A.R. Moxon perceives our American divides.
An overview of why this person’s rhetoric is unhelpful
I believe Moxon is just as harmful to our country as many polarized and divisive conservative people I could name, and I’ll attempt to make the case for why that is in this piece, using some specific examples. But long story short: his observations are simplistic and good-versus-evil in nature. As one indicator of this, he regularly uses the word “evil” to describe conservatives. He regularly speaks as if conservatives, or Trump supporters, were a monolithic all-the-same group, with all the members being pretty much the same as the worst people in that group (a defining aspect of how polarization psychology works).
And why is this so bad? When it comes to our polarization problems, a core contributing factor is that so many people have emotional, visceral us-versus-them anger. So many people have the perception that their side is pitted in a war with the other side, and the other side’s members are evil and alien and incomprehensible.
And the more people believe and speak as if this is so, the more it becomes so. The more insults and threats are created, the more insults and threats the other side perceives, and the angrier and more scared they get, and the more they throw out insults and threats, which makes the other side more angry and scared, and so on and so on.
People who engage in the most angry and polarized us-versus-them rhetoric are the ones directly contributing to our cumulative anger, the ones who are ramping up the tensions, the ones who are stoking the war. They think they are engaged in a righteous holy war but, in my opinion, their righteousness prevents them from seeing that the other side is human and often has quite understandable and non-evil reasons for their beliefs and actions.
And sometimes those beliefs that we criticize as “evil” or “horrible” on the other side are held by some people who are quite politically similar to us, but we are much more forgiving of those beliefs when they’re held by people on our side (another defining aspect of polarization). Many of the actions on the “other side” that we perceive as so unreasonable and hateful are caused by similar dynamics of those people having exaggerated, unrealistic perceptions of how morally bankrupt our group as a whole is.
In short, while there are important issues to be solved, our conflicts are just not as much about the issues as we tend to think and are much more about our visceral emotions of disgust and anger (again, for more on that, I recommend this interview and the other talks I’ve done on polarization).
Why criticizing divisive people is helpful
Maybe an important point to make here is: when I criticize @JuliusGoat, I believe I’m doing something much more important than criticizing a single person. My goal isn’t to change this one person’s behavior (as I don’t think he’s likely to change) but to help other people see things from a different perspective, and to help show them how righteous us-versus-them rhetoric can contribute to our problems.
And I feel that by attempting to push back against bad, extreme thinking on my side, I am also fighting bad, extreme thinking on “the other side.” Because I believe much of our conflicts are due to the extreme people on both sides essentially “radicalizing each other” (as Anne Applebaum put it), I see my attempt to reduce bad thinking on my side as also simultaneously battling bad, extreme behaviors on the other side.
It’s all connected, in other words. And I think in order to improve our situation and turn things around, we need more people to see that connection. Because, again, we can really only affect “our side,” even if we believe the other side is much worse. (For more on the philosophy behind this, see my piece on why criticizing bad, extreme thinking on one’s own political side is counter-intuitive but important)
For conservatives reading this: as you’re reading me criticize this person, I hope you aren’t just thinking “yeah, you’re right, what a liberal idiot.” Hopefully you’ll think about how such a piece could easily be written about many conservative leaders and citizens. I think you likely recognize that fact already (as most conservatives I have talked to about this are able to admit), and if you do, I just hope you think about similar divisive behaviors on your side.
Now let’s get to some specific examples of @juliusgoat’s tweets.
@JuliusGoat’s belief that Laura Ingraham purposefully did a Nazi salute
One that recently stood out was his confident pronouncement that Laura Ingraham performed a Nazi salute at the Republican National Convention.
I’m a video/film major and have worked several jobs in video/film, and I’ve also been a forensic video analyst for a short period of time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about photos and videos, it’s that it’s very easy to see what we want to see, and to jump to conclusions. I invite you to watch the video of Laura Ingraham’s wave, which you can see in this Slate article about it, and judge for yourself. To me, considering how briefly Laura was in that pose, it seems like just a pretty normal wave, just with one small part of that wave seeming bad when taken out of context.
After this happened and Laura got many liberals claiming she had done a Nazi salute, Laura defended herself by tweeting stills of Hillary Clinton in the same pose, which you can see below.
It’s very easy to take things out of context (the conservative “gotcha” journalist James O’Keefe made an entire career out of doing this by taking many small statements by liberal people out of context).
If you can see that there is a reasonable doubt here about the meaning of Laura’s wave, which I hope you can, you can start to get a sense of how extremely certain and confident @JuliusGoat’s stances are. He confidently states that it is an “indisputable fact that Laura Ingraham gave a Nazi salute,” and “she did what we all saw her do.” It’s shocking, he says, that people can deny such clear evidence. (If I were on trial, I would not want @JuliusGoat on the jury.)
This overly confident, worst-case-possible framing of one’s political opponents is the very definition of what emotional polarization drives us to do. It’s a good example of how polarization affects our minds, and gets us to filter so many things through a worst-case, us-versus-them lens.
And if you’re politically liberal, and can see how @JuliusGoat might be filtering things in this way, this maybe will allow you to see how there can be many conservatives who do very similar things. In the same way as he is “seeing what he wants,” seeing things that align with his very pessimistic view of the other side, there are conservatives who filter many of the things they see and hear about liberals and Democrat leaders through a similarly pessimistic and paranoid lens.
And, similar to how @JuliusGoat’s takes here would strike conservatives (and many liberals) as outlandish and unreasonable, conservative stances can seem outlandish and unreasonable to liberals. And because those takes seem so outlandish, liberals often believe that conservatives espousing those views are being deceptive, that their behavior is part of some grand hidden plot, because the conservatives couldn’t possibly believe such wild and unreasonable things, could they? But in many cases, people really do believe these things. Because human group psychology and polarization is not something most people understand well or think much about, we tend to underestimate the power of how emotions can influence our thinking.
And yes, there are also cynical political actors who merely pretend to believe such things as they seek to harness polarized anger for their benefit, but I’d argue that it’s much harder to distinguish between cynical actors and genuine believers than we think. Because this is what polarization does to us: it makes us more and more assume the worst about “the other side,” and this is entirely expected and not something to be surprised at.
Some people might take the stance: but what’s the big deal? You might be thinking, “Okay, sure, but Laura Ingraham is horrible and who cares if she gets unfairly roasted or insulted?” You may even think, “Hey, it’s hurting Laura Ingraham and hurting the other side, so I’m okay with it.”
But I’d suggest the reason this kind of stuff is so bad and so harmful is that it is actually helping the other side, not hurting it. It is specifically helping the most extreme people on the other side, the people on the other side who, similar to @JuliusGoat, perceive our conflicts in apocalyptic good-versus-evil terms. And that’s because “the other side” perceives these insults and liberals, and thinks, “they’re calling us Nazis for totally normal things; they’ve lost their minds; they hate us and want to destroy us; this is war.”
In other words, these extreme, simplistic, and anger-inducing narratives are the very things that majorly contribute to our conflicts. I really believe that our extreme us-versus-them anger is directly causing the very things we are most angry and scared about. (And, as I often examine on my podcast, it could be that social media, in being a platform that makes insult-creation and insult-perception so much easier than it ever has been, is amplifying our divides.)
Also, such extreme and hysterical takes result in the other side being less willing to see any valid points you might make. When conservatives see liberals calling people Nazis for no good reason, it understandably makes them less likely to take liberal concerns seriously. For conservatives who are largely consuming pro-conservative-biased and pro-Trump-biased news to begin with, when they see such hysterical takes from liberals, it will be easier for them to think, “Well if they’re this hysterical about that stuff, they’re probably hysterical about all the other stuff they’re upset about.” (And obviously these things go both ways: when conservatives freak out about totally standard or one-off events, it makes liberals less likely to think there’s anything of value to listen to on that side.)
(Maybe of interest: the paranoid conspiracy-theory-esque certainty that Laura Ingraham performed a Nazi salute is similar to the strangely certain beliefs that many people had that the conservative CPAC event had a stage purposefully shaped like an obscure Nazi symbol.)
@JuliusGoat says that “the Republican party is a hate group”
In a recent tweet thread, he said that the “Republican party is a hate group” and that “membership in the Republican Party carries the same moral weight as membership in the Ku Klux Klan.”
As someone who has a very, very low estimate of Trump and many GOP leaders and who believes they have much to answer for, I see no legitimate reason to call the GOP a “hate group.” And even if I strongly believed that they were, I would see no practical benefits to promoting that view and would see it only as being destructive and inflammatory.
One of the major reasons @JuliusGoat believes the GOP is a hate group is because he believes they are, to a large extent, racist.
As someone who has studied this issue a good amount, it’s not at all clear to me how racist the Republican party, as a whole, is. Clearly there are some racist conservatives (and I’ve written about some), but as someone who has delved into these issues a good deal, I think confident assertions that assign racist beliefs to a large number of conservatives are overstated. For one thing, one can look at the number of racial minority Trump supporters:
- Black voters: between 8–12% in 2020 election, with an increase of a few percentage points since 2016. This support was higher amongst the young: 21% of black voters aged 18 to 44 supported Trump.
- Hispanic voters: roughly 40% voted for Trump in 2020, up from around 33% in 2016. A Wall Street Journal poll found that if Trump were to run again in 2024, he’d have around 50% of the Hispanic vote.
- Muslim American voters: about 30% voted for Trump in 2020, up from 13% in 2016.
- Asian American voters: about 30% voted for Trump in 2020, up significantly from 17% in 2016.
- Navajo Nation: 14% voted for Trump in 2020.
Presumably, these people don’t find Trump, or support for Trump, to be racist. Or, if you prefer a more cautious framing: these people don’t see Trumpism as sufficiently bigoted to be harmful to themselves or the people they care about.
If liberals can understand how these people can be relatively unbothered by Trump and the GOP, it can become easier to understand how it is that many white conservatives, including white GOP leaders, do not perceive Trump or Trump support to be associated with racism. They view such accusations as, at best, deluded and, at worst, part of a malicious smear campaign by liberals to get votes.
Some conservatives’ stances that are often interpreted by liberals as “racist” can be explained by conservatives’ genuine belief that Democrats are wrong and divisive on issues of race and racism. And this view doesn’t require bigotry. To understand that better, I’d recommend reading the writings of John McWhorter, who is liberal and black, and who often critiques liberal-side stances on race and anti-racism (here’s one example of him critiquing liberal-side stances on police violence, and here’s an interview about his book about the badness of some anti-racism philosophy and activism).
When it comes to immigration, liberals will often interpret conservative stances on immigration as being racist. But there are many understandable reasons why one might be against high levels of immigration that don’t involve racist or xenophobia. (Did you know that Bernie Sanders had long been for drastically reducing immigration until recently?)
More broadly, I’d say that: even if you very much believe that Trump himself was a hardcore racist, it’s possible to see how many conservatives, including conservative leaders, just wouldn’t see things in the same way. (To take one of many examples I could give, the “Mexican rapists” statement from Trump was not perceived as racist by many conservatives, including some Mexican voters.) Our political groups are, after all, polarized and self-sorted, with different news sources, and it shouldn’t be surprising that our perceptions of events and political figures will be hugely different. In polarized societies, we’ll often be thinking, “But it’s so obvious, they have to see x.” But of course it’s not obvious. Our perceptions are not others’ perceptions.
There are other reasons @JuliusGoat calls the Republican Party “a hate group,” and I could keep going on in a similar vein about how it’s possible to view other topics in that area in a more nuanced and less divisive framing, but hopefully this is sufficient for now to show that there can be different perspectives on all sorts of topics, and this hopefully makes the case for why “The Republican party is a hate group” is a very certain, black-and-white statement to make about such a complex topic and about such a large group.
I’d also say that, even if one fully believed that that was true, what benefit is there to promoting that view? What benefit is there to promoting a view that the GOP is a hate group? In @JuliusGoat’s view, there is benefit to “bearing witness”: he seems to think that maybe some conservatives might “see the light,” and see the errors of their way. But with all you’ve seen in the past few years, do you really think such moral shaming is effective in these areas? Do you really think that telling conservatives “you’re in a hate group” is likely to make them rethink things?
Or do you think (as I do) that telling conservatives such things will just confirm their beliefs that you and liberals generally have gone off the deep end, that you’re being histrionic and hysterical? Because many conservatives already believe that liberals are the true source of hate and division, and such beliefs are a big part of why they dislike liberals so much and why some are able to make peace with voting for someone like Trump. So in that sense, you’d just be confirming their already held beliefs: that liberals are deranged, that liberals hate them, that liberals will call conservatives evil for the slimmest of reasons (like how a conservative person happens to position their hand for a moment when waving).
This is the “Laura Ingraham is a Nazi” tweet writ large, to cover the entire other political group, and hopefully it’s easy to see how these kinds of “they’re evil” communications can be playing a role in our divides. The role of hurt feelings and emotions are, in my opinion, under-appreciated when it comes to understanding our divides.
It may also be worth remembering that some Republicans played a major role in ensuring that Trump did not overturn the election (Pence, for example, and Dan Quayle, and others). And it’s clear that there are many GOP leaders who, even if we greatly disagree with them, are not nearly as polarized in their behavior as Trump or the more extreme elements in the GOP.
Personally I fully believe that many GOP leaders are honorable, decent, and fair people, and I think we should be glad those people are around. My interest, our interest, should be in finding common cause with the more reasonable people on “the other side,” and showing that we appreciate when they do good things, and not seeking to lump them all in a single basket.
(In case some people at this point think I’m avoiding the obvious badness here: that Trump and some Republican leaders attempted to overturn a legitimate election, I have a lot to say on that topic and how it relates to polarization psychology. If you’re curious, I recommend these two podcast episodes of mine.)
@JuliusGoat’s simplistic, us-versus-them narratives around police violence issues
As is his modus operandi, @JuliusGoat’s tweets about the police violence issue were simplistic and divisive. He summarized the police issue to be about paying people to “kill three people a day.” And “if you still defend cops, your soul is corroded.”
There was no effort made to examine the complexity of the issue. And by complexity, I mean things like the strangely overlooked role of America’s huge number of guns, which sets us apart from most nations we are compared to, and could be seen to explain much of our police violence in how it understandably makes police more scared and paranoid, and makes them arm themselves more and train themselves in more aggressive ways. (In an interview for my podcast, crime researcher Eric Piza said he believed that our huge number of guns was the main factor in our high rate of police violence, and there are other studies and writings you can find on that topic.)
I’d also recommend John McWhorter’s Time article about police violence, to see some of the complexity and nuance in this area, especially around issues of race. On the topic of race and police violence, did you know that 81% of black Americans want the same or more police presence in their area? I mention this because it points to the complexity of these topics, and how there are no easy answers, despite many simplistic “the answer to police violence is obvious” framings.
Similar to much of his other simplistic, us-versus-them communications, @JuliusGoat seeks to use one-off incidents to establish grand narratives. In the second tweet above, he seems to attempt to communicate an idea of (to paraphrase) “because of this incident where cops did something bad, it’s now clear that you should no longer support police.” But clearly we live in a huge country, and all sorts of bad decisions are made, and all sorts of bad things are constantly happening. The decisions of people in one place, or even many groups of people, don’t necessarily tell us much about big, complex, national topics, not in a country our size. (And this is even assuming something bad was happening at all here; I don’t know anything about that actual story, and there are a lot of simplistic framings of events on social media about all sorts of things.)
Attempting to build dramatic “with us or against us” narratives by picking and choosing events is the same thing that many polarized conservatives do, and we should all want to push back on these kinds of simplistic, divisive narratives that seek to obfuscate the true complexity and nuance of problems.
I’d also ask, “What does ‘support police’ mean in this context?” Is it “supporting police” if I view the issue of policing and police violence as a complex, nuanced topic that many people could have legitimate disagreements on? Is it “supporting police” if I take the stance that police are something that all functioning and stable societies require, even if I think we should do much more to reduce police violence? I know from experience that these kinds of nuanced questions, the fact that I don’t see things in the black-and-white way he does, would result in @JuliusGoat viewing me as the enemy, as someone with a “corroded soul.”
Defenses for this type of behavior
When I and others have criticized @JuliusGoat’s tweets, he would often say things like, “Yeah, sure, I’m the divisive hateful one, not conservatives.”
But this is a weak defense. One can fully believe that the other side is bad, even much, much worse than your group, while also recognizing how it is that one or one’s group may be contributing to our us-versus-them divides.
Another defense from @JuliusGoat to such criticisms would look something like, “You fail to understand the badness of these people. In your bridge-building and empathy, you are helping the other side.”
But this is also a weak defense. Because I’m not saying that we can’t criticize people or groups. I often criticize conservatives and I don’t feel restrained in any way. I’m simply arguing for more nuanced and exact language. I’m arguing for directing criticism at specific people or specific leaders who do the things that upset you, instead of acting like tens of millions of people are just as equally to blame, instead of acting like your views and moral judgment on all these topics should be completely obvious to all.
I’m arguing for using better, more persuasive language, and not just basing your statements on assumptions that the other side are all or almost entirely unreasonable and bigoted monsters.
I’m simply arguing for a reduction in simplistic us-versus-them language, because us-versus-them language will amplify our divides and our problems and make worst-case scenarios more likely.
Thinking about our own behaviors and language
To me, when I consider the messages I’ll put out into the world on the subject of politics, it all comes down to the simple question of: what do I think I’m accomplishing?
Am I simply speaking to the choir? If so, considering how firmly our political lines are already drawn, am I maybe not accomplishing anything at all?
Are my words insulting a wide swath of the other side and just increasing simplistic, un-nuanced anger in a way that may actually be adding to our problems?
Is it possible that I might be able to criticize someone or something, but phrase my criticism in a way that might actually be appealing and persuasive to people on the other side?
Am I more interested in finding an eloquent, witty zinger to insult the other side, and in getting validation for my wit and morally righteous anger, than I am in doing something that might actually be helpful?
Am I simply venting and not accomplishing anything? Might my time be better spent doing almost anything else? Is it possible that the hours I spend per week or month insulting people and fighting online might be better spent volunteering for a local political action? (In Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, one recommendation he has for combating our problems is to focus more on local events and politics.)
We have to face the fact that our moral righteousness, however certain we are that it’s right, simply isn’t perceived by the people on the other side. And, unless we want war, we have to recognize that our way out is more bridge-building, more talking, more attempts at understanding.
And we need to recognize that there are people on both sides of our divide who are amplifying our divides (even if we think the problem is much worse on one side). @JuliusGoat strikes me as someone who desires war. He seems to have no interest in understanding what drives conservatives. He seems to have no interest in seeing how some conservative concerns are not really that alien and incomprehensible but are actually shared by some liberals (for example, John McWhorter’s criticisms of liberal-side stances on race and anti-racism, or Bernie Sanders’ stance that high immigration was bad for American workers, or the fact that a majority of Democrats support the ideas in Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, or the fact that a majority of Democrats are supportive of requiring ID to vote).
It is the path of least resistance for us to think and to say, “the other group is bad people.” It’s easier morally and intellectually: it saves us a lot of thinking, a lot of internal introspection, a lot of work trying to see the humanity in people who strike us as difficult to understand. Going with the flow and taking a “they’re all bad” stance also saves us from the fear that seeing the other side as having understandable qualities could threaten our place in our tribe.
But that is how polarization works: it’s easy. It’s the path of least resistance. We are like planets circling a black hole, drawn closer and closer to our own destruction by psychological forces that are as primal and natural as gravity. We convince ourselves that we are fighting a holy war with clearly defined sides, but it’s our own zeal and anger that are themselves the very fuel of our battle. We are not at war with other people: we are largely at war with our inner psychology. And maybe we need more people to see things in that way.
Just a reminder that this piece is a follow-up to this piece about why criticizing unreasonable and divisive rhetoric in our own political group is helpful.
If you’ve enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy some of the political-focused episodes of my podcast here.