Two 'brothers on the left' dive into conservatism to 'know your enemy'

When Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell sat down in the spring of 2019 to launch the “Know Your Enemy” podcast, all they had was a microp...


When Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell sat down in the spring of 2019 to launch the “Know Your Enemy” podcast, all they had was a microphone, a cheeky title, and the vague hope that “yet another podcast where two brothers on the left guide you”. through the swampy quagmire of the American right,” as they put it, might be something other people would actually listen to.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Adler-Bell, 31, said in an interview last month at Sitman’s Manhattan apartment, groaning at the mention of that first episode, which featured lots of groping and goofy jokes about Sitman’s Leo Strauss. tattoos.

Sitman, 40, a self-proclaimed “recovered conservative” (without tattoos), offered a slightly more charitable take.

“We love talking to each other,” he said.

Almost three years and 100 episodes later, “Know Your Enemy” has gone from a cult favorite to something of a staple for the kind of person who is as interested in the internal politics of National Review, circa 1957, as the current contests on Capitol Hill.

The podcast contextualizes today’s burning debates like the battles over critical race theory in schools. But mostly it offers deep dives into conservative intellectual history, going into the weeds of the weeds armed with playlists, footnotes and archival documents.

Its audience of around 25,000 to 50,000 listeners per episode (depending on the hosts) may be tiny by the standards of Joe Rogan, or even the socialist podcast “Chapo Trap House.” But in our hyper-polarized age, “Know Your Enemy” has become something middle-aged liberals, young Democratic socialists and Gen Z conservatives crave for a deeper perspective on the Trump-era turmoil can all love.

“They really do their homework,” said Nate Hochman, a 23-year-old writer for National Review who described himself as a “before it was cool” fan. “They read more conservative political theory than most conservatives.”

While “enemy” may juice the title, the key word is “know” – and, possibly, imitate?

Young progressives “don’t understand why the right keeps winning,” said Sam Tanenhaus, a former New York Times Book Review editor who works on a biography of William F. Buckley.

“What Sam and Matt are saying is seeing things in a different way,” Tanenhaus continued. “Don’t see the right as the outright enemy. Think of them as brilliant – and possibly smarter than you.

The podcast started at a fortuitous time in 2019. First bursts in the restless (and difficult to decipher) the debate between conservative writers David French and Sohrab Ahmari had begun to illuminate the conservative sphere of pundits, and the first National Conference on Conservatismwhere a right-wing Who’s Who was trying to hammer out an ideologically coherent version of Trumpism, was just months away.

“By then most of the right-wing magazines, think tanks and funders had started pivoting Trump,” said Sitman, who is leaving his job at the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal later this month. to write and podcast full time. . “As the dust settled, you could see where things stood.”

A few months later, the democratic socialist magazine Dissent became a sponsor, as the audience steadily increased. (The podcast currently earns about $17,000 a month from subscribers, who sign up at levels ranging from “Young American for Freedom” to “Unreconstructed Monarchist.”) The “breakthrough,” Sitman said, came in January 2021. , with an episode on the heated debate if President Trump is a fascist.

The Jan. 6 insurgency, Sitman said, felt “very vindicated” of the “penchant for authoritarian minority rule” on the right, which the podcast had noted from the start.

The (relative) calm of the first year of the Biden presidency left more room for scholarly explorations, such as episodes on the friendship between Allan Bloom and Saul Bellowand on Frank Meyerthe former editor of the Communist National Review and creator of “fusionism,” the marriage of free market economics and social traditionalism that defined postwar conservatism.

And in one particularly puzzling episode, the hosts, joined by Tanenhaus, examined the conservatism of Joan DidionWHO contributed regularly at National Review early in his career (and who in 2001 writes that she would have voted for Barry Goldwater in every election after 1964, had she had the chance).

These biographical dives explore favorite “Know Your Enemy” themes of mentorship and friendship, conversions and trajectories, with a rich sense of psychology and literary surprise. Sitman likes to quote a former professor: “The relationship between gossip and philosophy is tenuous but real.

As for his own trajectory, Sitman grew up in a working-class fundamentalist Baptist family in central Pennsylvania, steeped in “God and gun conservatism,” as he put it in a test 2016. He graduated from a small Christian college and, after an internship at the Heritage Foundation, enrolled in graduate school in Georgetown, studying political theory with the conservative scholar George W. Carey.

What drew him away from conservatism, from his twenties, he said, was a disgust with conservative support for torture, as well as the growing embrace of class politics, which drove him towards democratic socialism.

He converted to Catholicism in 2015. His faith and his way of seeing human vulnerability as central to politics, is a touchstone of the podcast.

“I feel guilty for making Sam learn so much about the Catholic Church,” Sitman said. Adler-Bell fired back, “I’m going to have you read Freud sometime.”

Adler-Bell grew up in a progressive, secular Jewish family in Connecticut. He was active in a student-worker alliance during his undergraduate studies at Brown, then worked for the advocacy group Demand Progress and interned at The Nation.

He said his immersion in conservative thinking “defamiliarized the left,” forcing him to think more about why he believed what he believed.

“A lot of people on the left only come into contact with the dumbest versions of right-wing arguments — the least sophisticated, the least interesting, the least literary,” he said.

On the podcast and in person, Sitman has a great professorial vibe, dominating his scholarly explanations with anecdotes about prominent figures, some of whom he knew personally. Adler-Bell is saltier, always eager, as he half-jokingly puts it, to highlight the more “sinister and lustful” aspects of the right.

Sitman said the podcast damaged some “already frayed” relationships with former mentors and friends. But he stressed that, unlike other right-wing apostates, he was not “embittered”.

“I am!” Adler-Bell intervened by hitting his knee. “That’s why it’s good to have me, an argumentative Jew.”

Not all conservative listeners are hardcore fans. Matthew Schmitz, 34, columnist at The American Conservative and former editor of first things, said Sitman and Adler-Bell were “extremely good at their jobs”, calling the podcast “better than almost anything on public radio”. It wasn’t quite a compliment.

“‘Know Your Enemy’ falls into a kind of ideological orientalism, presenting right-wing ideas as a mix of backward, regressive and decadent,” he said.

Which raises an unanswered question for the animators: how much to talk with the conservatives, instead of just talking about them?

So far, only a handful of ‘enemies’ have appeared as guests, including Ross Douthat, opinion columnist for The Times. All of the conservative guests are “a little heterodox,” Sitman conceded. Adler-Bell added, “We have a ‘no hacking’ policy.”

Yet after an episode with Hochman (one of the young conservative radicals featured in a much-discussed recent article by Adler-Bell in The New Republic), some listeners wrote with concern that the animators had “platformed” him without pushing him hard enough.

The hosts say they thought they were being harsh, pressing him, for example, on the role of white racial backlash in fueling post-war conservatism. “We trust the intelligence of our listeners,” Sitman said. But they also acknowledged that, “as two white men,” they are less likely to feel some things that conservatives call “deeply offensive or dehumanizing.”

Their goal is not spongy mutual understanding or bipartisan compromise, but clarification – and the sheer pleasure of conversation. “It’s great to have the ability to talk to people you disagree with, without thinking that the project is about finding common ground,” Adler-Bell said.

Sitman, again striking a more professorial note, paraphrased British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, from his essay “Be conservative.”

“The purpose of going fishing is not to catch fish,” he said. “It’s being on the water.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Two 'brothers on the left' dive into conservatism to 'know your enemy'
Two 'brothers on the left' dive into conservatism to 'know your enemy'
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