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"This is about violence and chaos. It is not a political movement. It does not have a political goal."
Every so often in this life someone comes right out and says they don’t care if their political enemies get murdered. This week that person is comedian Tim Dillon, who declared in a new episode of his podcast that he doesn’t have “any love lost” for the victims of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Trump supporter who allegedly killed two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “These protestors are anarchists, they want to burn down the city,” he went on, in a characteristically rambling monologue disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement and offering generous sympathy to Rittenhouse, whom he described as the inevitable product of left-wing activism. “When you defund and abolish the police, you will have militias,” he said, skipping right over the fact that the Kenosha police department both exists and is funded. “This is what’s gonna happen. It’s predictable.”
Dillon, a Long Island native who sold subprime mortgages before the financial crisis, exists somewhere between comedy’s liberal mainstream and its seething conservative underground. He’s an edgy contrarian free thinker-type, a friend of the Legion of Skanks who came up in the New York alt scene. While he’s a mainstay at the Comedy Store and the Stand, in pre-pandemic days you could still find him at indie venues like the Virgil, Union Hall, the Bell House, and UCB, which serve decidedly different audiences than comedy clubs. He was a Just For Laughs New Face in 2016 and had both a Comedy Central half-hour and a Netflix quarter-hour in 2018; he appeared regularly on Lights Out with David Spade and more recently on TBS’s Tournament Of Laughs. Politically, he positions himself as a nonpartisan man of the people, a pro-worker populist with equal vitriol for the left and right, unafraid to call balls and strikes wherever he sees them. And the people indeed flock to him. The Tim Dillon Show’s YouTube channel has 132,000 subscribers; its Patreon has almost 9,000, earning Dillon more than $48,000 each month. Joe Rogan’s had him on three times; Vulture profiled him just a few years ago. He’s a very funny guy, with the appeal and acumen to find success in comedy’s traditional institutions as well as its DIY fringes. That’s no small feat.
Dillon’s also a right-leaning paranoiac who uses his platform to disseminate fear-mongering propaganda that would be perfectly at home on Fox News. He frequently trashes the Black Lives Matter protests and seems to see Antifa as a much greater threat to American life than domestic right-wing terrorism. For a comedian, he often sounds no different than conservative commentators like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, or even more unabashed reactionaries like Ben Shapiro. You needn’t look any further than his Twitter timeline to see this, though we will in a moment. First, a brief selection:
(Ed. note: “destroying the family unit” is not “a stated goal” of the Black Lives Matter movement. He seems to be mischaracterizing this: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”)
As you can see, what we have here is a cursed marriage of Fox News Brain and Libertarian edgelord irony poisoning. Dillon holds simultaneously that the state is the enemy of the people, and that people taking direct action against state violence are illegitimate insurgents; that the left is somehow both the impotent Democratic establishment and a hopelessly radical mob; that things are so bad people have no choice but to take matters into their own hands, except for the violent LARPers who aren’t actually protesting police brutality, but who are asking to have their rights violated with each statue they tear down. Oh, and the Proud Boys are morally equivalent to anarchists.
None of this makes any sense—until you realize who Dillon sees himself as speaking to and for. When he talks about people abandoned by the government and failed by the left, regular people who need to arm themselves for their own safety, thinking people who recognize that Black Lives Matter protests have nothing to do with police brutality, he’s talking about white Republicans. He’s harkening to the conservative ideal of normal, diner-going Americans who love Thomas Jefferson and don’t understand your pronouns; hard-working, cancel culture-hating folks looking innocently on as their beloved nation descends into chaos. People who might reasonably see no alternative but to grab a gun and go stand up to the leftist mobs burning down America.
This is all made very clear in Dillon’s monologue about the Kenosha shooting, in which he implicitly identifies with Kyle Rittenhouse and addresses his audience as though it does too. (The segment starts around seven and a half minutes in.) “As a general rule, when there is going to be civil unrest, I tend to go the other way,” he advises. “Now, some people like to go into the eye of the storm, so to speak, with a weapon. Now, that is your prerogative. But when you do that, you understand that things are going to happen. Many of those things are predictable and unfortunate.” If this leaves any ambiguity, he clarifies a few sentences later what exactly is the unfortunate thing that happened when Rittenhouse went to Kenosha. “Now, you can go in and march with a weapon, I just find it to be probably not too smart. And now this kid’s got a first degree murder charge. That’s what I’ve got to say about that.”
Dillon’s telling of the story situates Rittenhouse as both protagonist and victim. He grants that the kid was probably misguided, sure, even a bit “off,” but still sees his actions as an understandable reaction to events. “When you have chaos, riots, looting, you will have people, some of them children, picking up weapons for no reason,” he says. “Some people will defend their businesses. Some people just like chaos. Some people like violence. Some people are quite bored… They don’t have any jobs. They’ve closed down the movie theater so you can’t go see Fast and Furious 27, okay? You can’t meet a nice woman and try to get a handjob by the popcorn machine. You have to try to overthrow the government now if you want any fun. If you want to get your jollies, you’re leaving your house.”
I do not wish to downplay the reality of fascist violence as a reaction to material conditions, but I also cannot help but notice how Dillon leaves out the much larger reality: that this was fascist violence. Absent from his analysis is any mention that Rittenhouse was a cop-loving Trump supporter patrolling Kenosha with other gun-toting vigilantes who explicitly threatened to kill people. “I don’t know what this was, maybe they thought it was gonna be just a show of force, they were gonna march around with the weapons, I don’t know,” he says. He does not seem to consider that armed white men counter-protesting the Black Lives Matter movement might have some racial motivation. Nor does he offer any concern for Rittenhouse’s victims. Here’s his description of the shooting, which you will note (as Dillon does not) starts after Rittenhouse already shot someone:
I watched the video of the kid. He’s being chased, he has a gun, he’s being chased, somebody kicks him in the head and then he gets up, he sits up and he starts shooting, firing. And then after that I think he runs towards police, and people are angry that the police gave him a bottle of water, and they patted him on the head, and they didn’t shoot him. Well, let’s be a little consistent, folks. Do we want the police shooting people or not? How do we want this to play out? Do we want the police to just knee-jerk reaction, start shooting people as a general rule? I don’t think we do, right? That’s not what we want. In fact I believe we’re campaigning to reverse that behavior.
This is appalling stuff, even before we get to his complete erasure of the dead. After adopting the mendacious “self-defense” framing of Rittenhouse’s actions, Dillon erects a straw man version of the Kenosha protestors, characterizing “wanting the police to not coordinate with white paramilitaries” as “wanting the police to shoot our enemies.” In other words, he pretends the victims of gun violence responded to gun violence by calling for gun violence, just so he can call them hypocrites and make fun of them. If you are shocked by his contempt for the Black Lives Matter movement, wait until we get to his contempt for Rittenhouse’s victims, Anthony Huber and Jacob Rosenbaum. Here’s all he has to say about them:
I don’t know the kid [Rittenhouse], I don’t know the family, all these people are—I mean, I feel like they might be a bit off. But I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s not like I have any love lost—these protestors are anarchists. They want to burn down the city. They’re not getting anything out of this. This is about violence and chaos. It is not a political movement. It does not have a political goal. It does not have points. It does not have a leader. There’s no attempt at negotiations, there’s very few demands that are realistic other than, like, “eat the rich” or “end capitalism.” Which seems, as a demand, to be a bit lofty of an ideal, per se.
That’s it. That’s all. They’re anarchists. They want to burn down Kenosha. How does he know this? He doesn’t say. Did he see them setting fires on video? Who knows. Is it perhaps a tad disingenuous to declare so blithely that their lives didn’t matter? You’d best not ask. Gone is the intellectual energy Dillon spent rationalizing Kyle Rittenhouse traipsing over to Kenosha with a gun. If he has any sympathy left for poor working people fed up with a country that wants them dead, he reserves it for the ones weighing and committing domestic terrorism. “As a general rule, it’s probably a good idea to stay the fuck away when things go haywire and not try to make sense of it, and not show up to defend the local gas station,” he says. (What a tortured interpretation of white men terrorizing antiracist protestors: trying to make sense of it.) “I don’t think anything’s worth losing your life over or losing your freedom over. Obviously if they’re attacking your home or your family, it’s a different situation. But to just walk into the center of town and go, let’s figure this shit out—this is the job of the police. This is why you have a police force. This is the job of the police. And if the police aren’t gonna let them do their job—this is also the job of actual legitimate activists to constrain these movements and make them productive.” His message is crystal clear: Left-wing activists are simply too dangerous for you to face yourself. Leave them to the state.
I find it very amusing when people who fancy themselves enlightened social commentators come down with debilitating cases of naiveté. Show of force? Defending local businesses? Figuring shit out? I don’t know what this was, I don’t know the kid, I don’t know the family? These are conspicuously minced words for a man so eager to condemn the largest social movement in American history as goalless and bloodthirsty. Could the armed cop-supporting anti-antiracist protestors have some sort of racial politics? The possibility does not arise. I suppose it might be difficult to reach that conclusion if you don’t believe the antiracist protestors are legitimately antiracist. Perplexingly, Dillon’s analysis is dotted with moments of short-lived lucidity. At times he seems to recognize not only that rioters and looters might have legitimate reasons to riot and loot, but also that they don’t represent the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. “When something goes down in Kenosha, Wisconsin, how many of those people are just trying to grab some stuff because they’ve been unemployed for three months?” he asks. “How many legitimately agree with the movement? How many of those people are fuckin’ bored and just want to go out and light shit up? Because you know what, after four months of not working and the government gives you twelve hundred dollars, watching shit burn is funny.”
That’s exactly right. Just as the people responding to artificial scarcity by taking up arms against the vulnerable have real material grievances, so do the ones setting fire to police stations and correctional facilities and car dealerships. (Not that this makes those actions morally equivalent, to state the obvious.) What could possibly distinguish one group from the other? Again, Dillon doesn’t consider the question. What he does consider is the possibility that state actors have infiltrated Black Lives Matter in order to delegitimize it, just as they’ve delegitimized social movements throughout history. “You have to take a step back when you see these protests,” he says. “You go, who are they? Is that Antifa? Is that—are they people that are looking to burn down this building as a diversionary tactic to go do something else? To go loot, to go steal, to go rob? Are these undercover FBI, CIA people that just wanna take peaceful protests and turn them into something that everybody’s against? Which is very easy—a peaceful protest of 100,000 people is very powerful. You start breaking windows and burning things down, all of the sudden that very powerful political statement now becomes something that most people are against. And they go, what is this? So I don’t know who’s doing what.”
This would all be very funny if it weren’t so dangerous. If there are indeed covert agents working to turn people against Black Lives Matter, Tim Dillon’s the one falling for them! Earlier in the monologue he observes that “Antifa” has become a uselessly broad catch-all for left-wing bogeymen. “When you see all those Antifa people or whoever they are, I don’t even know who they are,” he says. “I would imagine this is—we’re just calling everyone wearing black Antifa now, which, there probably are large numbers of them.” Then, without skipping a beat: “But they're yelling at this woman who's eating in Washington, DC. There's all of them, and they're screaming, and they're getting in her face. And they're going, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I mean, I'll tell you right now, that is a Trump campaign ad. It is a Trump campaign ad. To be honest. When you see things like that and you go, is the other side just pure chaos? Is the other side pure chaos? And are they excusing chaos? Are they telling police to stand down, and are they not prosecuting people who are destroying your property, your business, your way of earning money?”
Whatever you think of yelling at diners as a protest tactic, one thing is indisputable: The people yelling were not “Antifa.” They were just protestors. By placing them in the same rhetorical category as Antifa, and Antifa in the same category as looters and rioters, Dillon does the state’s work for it. The Trump Administration has already used the specter of left-wing violence to paint anti-police protests as illegitimate and to justify brutal crackdowns on nonviolent demonstrators. So have many Democrat-led local governments. Attorney General Bill Barr equated Black Lives Matter with Antifa last month. Earlier this week, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Tucker Carlson that Barr is “working on” finding a way to prosecute Antifa and Black Lives Matter leaders. This morning, Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley told CNN in response to a question about Kyle Rittenhouse, “If you don’t allow police to do their job, then the American people have to defend themselves some way.” Huh, where else have we heard that?
Dillon is trafficking in propaganda—deadly propaganda. Trump’s reelection bid depends in no small part on the lie that leftist violence is destroying America. This lie in turn depends on the equation of the entire Black Lives Matter movement with occasional rioting. Its success depends on the erosion of public support for Black Lives Matter, which itself depends on commentators like Tim Dillon actively eroding public support for Black Lives Matter. Which is indeed eroding: recent polls show declining support for the movement among the white suburbanites Democrats see as crucial to retaking power. Perhaps this is why Joe Biden appears to be trying to outflank Trump by promising he’ll do a better job cracking down on violence. Despite his insistence on the legitimacy of nonviolent demonstration, this is a hugely damaging concession that grants the right’s framing of antipolice protests as the cause of social unrest. But they’re not the cause. They’re the effect. The cause is police violence.
This is a recipe for disaster. Both political parties have coalesced around a racist narrative that these protests—righteous, necessary protests—have been corrupted by illegitimate violent actors. This narrative, bolstered by witting and unwitting propagandists, is little more than a racist panic that places property damage in the same moral dimension as cops murdering Black people. It distracts from the movement’s urgent goals and encourages additional state and paramilitary violence against all protestors, no matter who wins the election. I will now note that at no point does Dillon condemn Kyle Rittenhouse on the most obvious of moral grounds, that murder is bad. He simply repeats that it’s probably unwise to go to a protest with a gun, because you might end up with a murder charge. “No matter what happens, the media’s not gonna have your back,” he says. “And I’m not saying the media should have your back—I’m not commenting on this particular situation. I’m just saying, when things go haywire, when society collapses, you don’t go try to figure it out. You don’t go to the middle of the town square and go, what’s going on here? You leave. You go. People can become animals very quickly. You ever try to reason with a bear? What are you doing? This is not what you do.”
Let’s be very clear about who Dillon is describing as animals: not the white people taking guns to Black Lives Matter protests, but the Black Lives Matter protestors they’re shooting and killing. It’s tempting to write this all off as the inconsequential ramblings of a comedian trying to make people laugh, but we cannot ignore people with large platforms who use them to rationalize fascist violence. The grift people like Dillon run is to corrode their audience’s trust in traditional authorities and consolidate it in themselves. Then, whenever they face criticism for saying evil things to suggestible masses, they insist that they’re just comedians. They’re jesters, podcasters, entertainers. Only fools would take them seriously.
Which is exactly what makes them so dangerous. Lots of fools do. And some of those fools have guns.