Theory of Change #071: Phil Christman on Rod Dreher and Christian radicalization
How an oversharing Christian blogger acquired a leftist anti-fandom by inadvertently documenting his own radicalization
Everything we do, think, or feel is based 100 percent on rational thinking. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
The truth, however, is that we humans often act based more on psychological impulse than on intellectual reason. That underlying reality is one of the main reasons why so many Americans who adhere to strict religious belief in their own lives have been willing and even happy to support Donald Trump, a man who is as amoral as he is irreligious.
We’ve talked many times here on Theory of Change about the polling and the interest groups behind how and why this happens, but sometimes it’s important to delve to the personal level to further our understanding.
And if you ask me, there is almost no one in American political life who exemplifies the radicalization that’s happened among many Christians than Rod Dreher, a veteran conservative writer who for many years wrote a blog for the American Conservative Magazine and is now doing an independent newsletter on Substack. As I hope to show you during this episode, Dreher’s story is an incredibly personal one, but it also says a lot about the American right, and some about the American left as well.
I’m pleased to be joined to talk about all of this today by Phil Christman. He is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and the author of several books, including most recently How to Be Normal. But most importantly for this conversation, he recently wrote an article for Slate about Dreher’s life and how it’s become an object of fascination for more than a few people on the left wing of Democratic politics.
In the interests of full disclosure, I was a former cybersecurity contractor at the American Conservative magazine where I occasionally dealt with Dreher. We never met, however.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Phil.
PHIL CHRISTMAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
SHEFFIELD: Before we get into why a lot of leftists are fascinated by Rod Dreher, let’s maybe give an overview to people who haven’t heard of him. Tell us uh, about Dreher give us the background on Rod, if you could, please.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, yeah, in the kind of broadest strokes, he is a fairly well known and long-standing conservative writer, blogger. I think the blog form is– it’s not incidental to the way he writes and what is distinctively horrifying about him as a writer. He’s most associated in most people’s minds with the American Conservative where he was blogging from the early part of the 2010s, up until just a few months ago.
Now he, I think has a Substack. And the type or flavor of conservative that he is, is the sort of traditionalist conservative ,which is the person who, Is mostly at home on the right, but occasionally feels the need to perform a certain amount of hand wringing about the effects that capitalism has on quote unquote, deeply rooted communities or traditional ways of life, whatever that might mean in a young and recently colonized country, like the United States.
But nothing I just said does any justice to how weird he is, particularly the intense oversharing quality of his writing that can make him really hard to look away from.
SHEFFIELD: And I guess we should mention also that Dreher is one of the original internet bloggers out there. There were a few people who had really gotten started, in their early 2000s and he’s one of almost the last left, frankly, of people who are literally posting every single day on the internet.
And I think that’s notable in and of itself. And it matters to this idea of oversharing, I think, because, for Rod, he literally did have it as a goal, and eventually I think it became sort of an obsession, it’s fair to probably to say, of posting every single day, no matter what, even if he was on vacation.
And I think one of the qualities of when you are in that type of writing habit is that after a while, you kind of run out of things to say. And so you have to start talking about the things that people said to you, or things that just randomly happened, and begin to sort of imbue them with more significance than they might otherwise add to someone else.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, when I was writing this piece, I kind of, I thought about what the mid-2000s and early 2010s internet actually looked like. And the blog era was really this process of being operantly conditioned to check whatever your round of like five websites was.
You checked them every day and you checked them multiple times, not because you knew that something was coming, right? It was the, what is the term in behaviorist psychology, the type of reinforcement?
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, positive reinforcement.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah. Yeah, it was positive reinforcement, but not on a strict schedule.
It was unpredictable, which is the most addictive. Like that’s the kind of reinforcement that will cause the rats to push the little lever the most obsessively. That, that was the relationship that, back in the mid-2000s, I had to whatever blogs I was reading, Atrios and Bookslut, and I don’t know, I don’t know what you were reading, but those were mine, and for other people it was Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, and Rod.
And yeah, he still writes in that way, he still finds just thousands of words of content, but to share about small things that happened in his life, or I think sometimes things that didn’t happen in his life that he’s claiming happened, or stories shared by his commenters that I also sometimes raise certain skepticism in me.
Yeah, I mean, I got to give it to him. He is an indefatigable poster.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah. And I guess, and then the other thing about Dreher that I think is notable is that he’s kept this traditionalist Christian perspective, but he’s also kept it across multiple sects of Christianity, so he has been an evangelical, he’s been a Catholic, and did he ever describe himself as non-religious? I don’t, I don’t recall that, but now he’s most identified with Greek Orthodox now.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, I think, I think he alludes to a pre posting period in his life when he went through some level of agnosticism and then moved back toward faith. Which, if we had had blogs during that period, I can only imagine what Rod in his atheist phase would have sounded like.
But we have no records of that, unfortunately. You’re right. I mean, he has moved, he has made fairly dramatic shifts while occupying this position of one’ must be a Christian in the way that I am a Christian with total fealty to the rules and none of this watery, modernist questioning of the pope,’ while making shifts that should be epistemologically impossible for a person who has those positions.
If you actually think those things, then you shouldn’t be able to just say that you’re going to leave the Catholic Church because it happens to be extremely institutionally corrupt and ridden with pedophilia.
If you have a premodern attitude of submission toward the pope, that shouldn’t move you off your square. And to his credit, I mean, he did leave the Catholic Church partly because of the clergy molestation scandal. And he moved to the Eastern Orthodox Church. So yeah, that’s one of many ways that, and you could say this about a lot of people who were invested in ideas of tradition.
In the way he lives, he’s a modern, but he kind of doesn’t want to acknowledge that.
SHEFFIELD: Well, and another way in which that’s true is that he exemplifies why I think it’s not helpful when a lot of people refer to a lot of this Christian extremism that we see currently in the U. S. as “fascism.” Because these are traditions that are older than fascism, that they predate fascism they’re pre democratic, they’re anti-democratic, they are suspicious of these things, they’re suspicious of capitalism, which, because again, they’re older than capitalism.
These are attitudes that are far older than a lot of people give them credit for on the political left.
SHEFFIELD: And he’s at varying points in time written a number of books as well in addition to blog posts, and one of those that he was writing during the time that I worked with him was a book called The Benedict Option. And it was an interesting book to me because, as somebody who had at that time was identifying as a non-religious conservative, I saw that as a healthier form of religious conservatism because the thesis of that book was basically: ‘Look, Christian conservatism is over. The public doesn’t agree with it. They keep voting against our ideas. We can’t persuade. So, let’s just focus on kind of withdrawing from politics and being like a Benedictine monk. And do our own thing and build up our own institutions.’
But he’s drifted away from that.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, yeah, I remember, I’m trying to remember which of… Because in addition to being an indefatigable blogger, Rod is also just a Twitter warrior, or has been for many years.
And I’m, the way we’re talking about him as an interesting figure is maybe not fully doing justice to the fact that he’s, It’s horrible. I mean, we’ll get into the reasons why he can be fascinating and why sometimes against my own inclinations I have sympathy for certain experiences that he’s seen.
I will feel bad for him at times, but a lot of what he writes is incredibly mean spiritedly toxic, nasty, and racist, sometimes in ways that I don’t think can be chalked up to pre-modernity, sometimes in ways that feel like this is a mind that has seen 18th and 19th century race science.
I can’t remember which of his horrible opinions my friend was reacting to, but I remember may have been after the murder of George Floyd when he wrote an absolutely appalling post vindicating the police, et cetera. And kind of heaping dishonor on this dead man. And one of my friends said something like ‘why don’t you retreat from society a little bit more, Mr. Benedict Option?’ And, yeah, that’s, I’ve often thought of that.
SHEFFIELD: Well, and one of the other aspects about him is that he’s got all these different sort of personality traits and personal histories.
That is part of what makes him fascinating to people is that so his father apparently was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. And so Rod was born and raised in rural Louisiana where of course the KKK was, that was kind of the last public bastion of the KKK. David Duke, of course most famously running for a Senate seat there in Louisiana and got a pretty sizable percentage of the vote in the Republican primary.
But let’s maybe then get into– so a lot of the writing that he does, and I think especially in his most recent years, it tends to be extremely sort of sex-focused. And spirit-focused as well. So you had mentioned that he will repeat things that his commenters or his readers tell him.
And I think one of the things that kind of made him initially internet famous was this idea that his somebody was possessed by a demon, he was talking about exorcism. Was that where that all began, kind of?
CHRISTMAN: I don’t think that’s where it all began. Yeah, it’s kind of hard to say where the legend of Crazy Rod began.
I think for me, the point where he became something, like, both more dignified than a pundit and also worse than a pundit was when he– he has a sister who died in, I want to say 2012 or 2013, and he wrote some very poignant pieces about her on his blog, and he ended up writing a book about her, where he basically outlines the history of conflict between himself and his family where they look down on him for leaving the town in which he grew up and for being nerdy and into reading books as a kid and as a teenager and giving himself airs.
And he basically over the course of his sister’s illness and early death, he convinced himself that as a traditionalist conservative, he needs to live out his values and go back to the place in which he grew up. Because of course, deeply rooted traditional ways of life are just better than living in a city. Which is something that you’re supposed to say as a conservative. You’re not supposed to do it because like–
SHEFFIELD: You’re supposed to talk about “real America,” but not actually go and live there.
CHRISTMAN: No, because, like, one all the money is in DC. And two, there’s a reason you don’t already live there. Like, a number of reasons.
And this experiment ended up being totally disastrous for him and for his family. So I think for me, that was the moment where he kind of separated himself from the pack of conservative opinion mongers. Because I respected that he was willing to put his money where his mouth is, and I also thought it was really tragic that he didn’t realize that he had upended his life based on a very silly theory. I mean, you can have a very deep and rooted way of life living in a city, and you can have a very transient and alienated life living in a small town, and most of us who grew up in small towns, I think can testify to plenty of examples of the latter.
It was, it’s just a silly theory. But yeah, he is very sex obsessed, he has a Tobias Funke from “Arrested Development” knack for saying things that feel like him basically announcing things about his own sexuality and then pretending not to recognize it.
He has a horrifying obsession with transgender people. And his blog has for years been a, just a place to really just gossip and pass on totally unsourced and unvetted rumors about what those awful trans children are doing, and what’s going on in our bathrooms. And you can see how that, that fear of boundary crossings or of people being altered very deeply could, could kind of bleed into an obsession with the idea of the demonic or of people being possessed by alien intelligences.
SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Yeah, and that, that’s something that really became much bigger of a focus for him over time, because, he wouldn’t want to be called a fundamentalist, but, he’s a Orthodox version of a fundamentalist. If you are a fundamentalist Christian, one of the things that seems to be a common belief is the idea that homosexuality is satanic. That being transgender is a satanic idea.
CHRISTMAN: Whereas my faith life has been immeasurably improved by the witness and work of gay Christian priests.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly, yeah. And nothing in the Bible explicitly makes these claims. But nonetheless, they have kind of evolved upon themselves, especially in the 20th century.
I mean, because before, there wasn’t even the idea of a sexual orientation. Nobody even had that idea in the ancient world. There was no such thing as sexual orientation.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, and a really common argument that I certainly heard growing up that I would actually really be interested in tracing where this comes from because it feels distinctly extra biblical is the trope that ‘no society that has accepted homosexuality has ever survived.’
I think that I feel like that is the missing or suppressed premise behind a lot of what gets said about sexuality in those circles. That it’s not just like, oh, this is a sin that like other sins we might disagree on, but I’m not going to like, police you in public about it, for example, we don’t have we don’t have folks whose job it is to police whether someone tells little white lies, for example.
SHEFFIELD: And then also, I mean, even just if you look at the Hebrew Bible like, there’s nothing in there about women having sexual relations with women. So that just shows you how totally incomplete the theology of homosexuality was. It didn’t exist, really, other than that some of the Exodus authors didn’t like men having sexual relations with each other.
Overwhelmingly, it wasn’t something that they really thought of. And then, of course, some people point to the characters of David and Jonathan as being in some sort of gay relationship. And there’s, I think there’s some credibility to that as well.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, well, and yeah, they had to kind of fill in a lot. And because, yeah, I mean, the New Testament in Romans has prohibitions, but yeah, like, I’m Episcopalian. We have ways of responding to that text from a gay affirming perspective.
But I feel like the even if you don’t, even if someone is more conservative than I am, I mean, I don’t think there’s anything in a high view of scripture that would ever inspire the level of obsession that you see in someone like Rod that I think kind of makes his position really what it is.
SHEFFIELD: I think a lot of that boils down to that in, in some regards, sexuality is kind of the most visible representation of morality. So in other words, seeing two men holding hands with each other on the street is a visible representation that I am in an area where people do not take the Bible literally that this is sinful behavior.
And so, in that sense, sex is kind of, sort of like a sign of what you believe or don’t believe. And the way you live it out.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, yeah, and I mean, it’s something deep and personal. And, yeah, something that can feel just sort of nuclear for people in the sense of how central it is to their identity.
I mean, I understand being obsessed about it, but yeah there’s like, there’s not scriptural sanction for the idea that if your society fails to harass gay people enough, it will civilizationally fail.
Like, that is a weird extra biblical trope that all those guys seem to strongly agree on, which is why it becomes something that they have to fight legislatively rather than through persuasion or example.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Right. And when, of course, actual history shows that they’re pretty much every ancient civilization had homosexuality in it.
CHRISTMAN: And they all fell, didn’t they?
SHEFFIELD: That’s right. See, that’s right.
CHRISTMAN: If you wait around long enough, I guess, I guess that’s one of those arguments that you can always make if you just wait out the clock.
SHEFFIELD: That’s right. Because studies show that everyone who breathes dies.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, civilization.
SHEFFIELD: Therefore, breathing causes dying.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, dude.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well.
CHRISTMAN: Breathing’s not in the Bible. I mean, it’s in the book of Genesis, actually. Breathing into Adam’s nostrils.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, but just that one time. Just that one time. That was the only one. And only God can do it not the humans.
But yeah, and I should say, in my own background as a former fundamentalist Mormon, very traditionalist Mormons are also similarly obsessed with sex, and it got so annoying to me. One of the reasons I originally stopped going to church was I was sick of hearing about pornography. In every single Sunday meeting, they would talk about porn and sex and I’m just like this is a church, why am I hearing about sex and porn in a church?
CHRISTMAN: I wasn’t even thinking about porn when I entered this building and now I am, thanks.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that was something that bugged me. But I guess one of the other kind of weird dynamics about Dreher’s writing besides his hatred of trans people in particular, but gays and lesbians as well, is that a lot of people seem to detect a lot of latent homosexuality in his writing, and the way that he will often give very graphic descriptions of gay sex or at least how people imagine it to be like.
Because reading four paragraph long descriptions of anal sex, is that what somebody’s coming to the American Conservatives to want to read about? No, I’d rather think not.
And one of the other things that was kind of interesting is that he had this column or blog a number of years ago in which he kind of talked about that heterosexuality was something to be achieved. Did you catch that one? Let’s maybe talk about that for a sec.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, he ended up in the same way that sometimes the right-wing proponents of a hyper masculinity can end up saying things about masculinity and men that Andrea Dworkin would be like, ‘Yo, that is, that is too misandrist. Like, you’re being, you’re, you’re making men sound like too bad.’
Rod ended up making this argument about heterosexuality as something that is actually terrifying to boys, and that they kind of have to psych themselves up to. Which you could read that as a very sympathetic sort of account of the way that young gay guys will sort of succumb to what’s called compulsory heterosexuality. ‘Everybody else is like this so I better pretend I am too.’
But he kind of falsely he falsely universalizes it. He says some things about just how hard and scary it is to think about sex with a woman when you’re a young guy that overstate the case.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and also, his writing about homosexuality, it’s exclusively focused on men. Because, I mean, if you read pretty much any gender studies psychological study or feminist philosophy, the idea of compulsory heterosexuality, that is a fundamental concept for cisgender women that, when you look at the research, bisexuality, or sort of a continuous spectrum for sexuality for women, that’s the norm. But Rod doesn’t, I mean, you’ve read him a lot more than me, so I don’t recall ever seeing him talk about any of that.
CHRISTMAN: No, it’s like he backed into it just by looking at his own experiences. And assuming, oh yeah, all guys feel this.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, and–
CHRISTMAN: Bless you, buddy, but no.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, to that end though, so his propensity for writing these strange sex obsessions and demonic possession stories of tales whatever combination it was, it gradually drew him sort of what you called an “anti-fandom” of people on the political left who basically have decided that they enjoy reading him because he’s so absurd and so ridiculous, so much more so than anything Stephen Colbert could have ever done. And so now he’s the figure of many episodes of the “Chapo Trap House” podcast. And he has a whole Reddit mostly dedicated to him as well.
And these are, and these predominantly are people on the left. And what’s kind of interesting to me as somebody who is a podcaster, is that when you look at the most popular podcasts that examine right wing viewpoints, they tend to be overwhelmingly ones that are like, ‘ha, ha, ha, look at these guys.’
It’s the point and laugh rather than, ‘holy shit, what are we going to do about it?’ I mean, would you agree with that or what’s your take?
CHRISTMAN: I mean, I think that sometimes the point and laugh is offered because you can’t think of what to do about it. I mean, because I think my article falls into the pointing and laughing to some extent and also observing just out of interest.
But yeah, I mean, if I knew strategically what to do about the fact that this guy has unironic readers who actually, like, agree with him and think he’s right. God, if I knew what to do about that I would be doing it.
But unfortunately, yeah, that is not in my gifts. But yeah, I and he is a natural target for that kind of laughing and pointing and also just that kind of fascinated repulsed attention because like you said before, Stephen Colbert couldn’t have come up with him. I mean, Stephen Colbert is a really funny guy. I mean, I enjoyed that show back in the day. I thought he did a good job of parodying the Bill O’Reilly character. But the Rod Dreher character is so much weirder than any other, sort of TV conservative that I can think of, conservative media person.
He stays a little bit beyond what I can parody. So I think for people who are also just naturally kind of smart asses, when you encounter that person who, like, you could almost make fun of them, but there’s just something about them that is a little too strange to fully fall within the grasp of your satire.
I mean, yeah, I think there is, when you encounter something so weird you can’t quite satirize it, like, yeah, that does become fascinating. And so especially for people like the Chapo guys. I think of Chapo in particular at its best as basically like a version of the old “Mystery Science Theater 3000” show, except instead of laughing at the worst of pop culture, they are laughing at the worst of political media. And, yeah, I mean, Rod is like a guaranteed hour of content.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And just, I’m going to read one of his posts that he wrote. And this was actually one before he was at the American Conservative that the title of the post was, “The Devil We Refuse to See.”
And I’ll, it starts off, I’m not going to read the whole thing: “You don’t expect to see stories about demon possession in the pages of a mainstream newspaper, but that’s what readers of the Indianapolis Star got in late January.”
And it just kind of goes on. I mean, he’s got a flair for language. It’s very melodramatic, often these satanic encounters that he describes. And it’s like there’s a quality to the writing that it’s you know, it’s almost like somebody who won’t go see “The Exorcist” or watch it because it’s too real and in fact, if you actually, look at news accounts from 1971 when it came out, there were people who said that when they were in the theater, they felt demonic presences in the theater while they watched it.
CHRISTMAN: The history of people’s responses to that movie has always kind of, has always really interested me. Because I have seen I mean, without getting into an argument about the ontology of the demonic, which, I don’t completely reject the possibility of evil spiritual entities. I mean, that’s part of the tradition of Christian theology. I do think it’s really, really dangerous to get in the habit of seeing him around every corner. I mean, that’s also part of Christian theology that these guys ignore. But yeah, with The Exorcist I have seen, like, really conservative, really kind of demon obsessed, demon focused both Catholic and Protestant people treat it as a dangerous movie that is, is like a vector for hostile spiritual powers.
No, it’s a three-and-a-half-star horror movie is what it is. It’s pretty good.
SHEFFIELD: 30 minutes too long.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah. Yeah. True fact.
But then other people treat it as like, the exorcist is really a spiritually discerning film because it shows us how evil evil really is.
And it’s interesting to me that I’ve seen those two diametrically opposed responses from people who are really hanging out on the same block, theologically and politically. Like, get your story straight, guys.
SHEFFIELD: Well, and the other thing about it, though, is that this sort of demon obsessed Christianity, and this, type of thing exists in Islam as well. Not so much in Judaism because they don’t really believe in Satan, but this was something that I personally experienced was that, in a lot of ways, Satan has more of an impact in your life than God.
Satan is there every day of your life trying to stop you and do nefarious things and lose your car keys, or whatever. Satan’s always doing things to you, whereas God, it’s almost like you’re kind of begging God to pay attention to you and feel sorry for you and I don’t think that the people who have these perspectives realize that they’re actually undermining their own theological position because they literally are encouraging people to have more of a relationship with Satan than with Jesus.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, yeah, and that paranoia mindset, things stop being inconveniences or minor hurdles in life or ideas I disagree with, or a person I don’t quite get along get along with at work, they all become manifestations of the single horrible evil intelligence that’s going after you personally.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. It’s just, it’s not a healthy way to live.
SHEFFIELD: No. And so, alright, so, I’m just curious though, you did you pitch this article to Slate or did they ask you to write it?
CHRISTMAN: They contacted me, because this gets into another really primo Rod story that we haven’t talked about.
But I didn’t actually intend to write this much about the guy, but I wrote an piece in my Substack a few months ago talking about the parallels I noticed between the way certain reality show actors, performers, characters, whatever you want to call them perform villainy and the way that Dreher writes. The quality of ‘I know how terrible I sound, but I’m just going to keep going and I I do not have any memory of what I said five minutes ago and if you point out that I’m contradicting myself, I will be honestly upset because five minutes ago doesn’t exist anymore.’
And that got picked up by Jacobin. And then, Rod’s many years of blogging for American Conservative came to an end, because it turned out that– I mean, he disputes the details of this, but not in a way that I find convincing.
It turns out that his position at TAC was apparently being funded by one big donor named Howard Ahmanson, like his family fortune is definitely, like, Google him after you’re done listening to this show, reader, or listener, because it’s, it gets very interesting. But he was being funded by Howard Ahmanson, who was apparently a big fan.
And the idea that one donor was keeping this writer afloat was just– you can imagine that that made kind of a big stir in the media reporting world. And so, Slate wanted to do something on that, kind of something retrospectively looking back on that period of–
SHEFFIELD: Because, hell, every one of us who’s a writer–
CHRISTMAN: Where’s my patron? Yeah, yeah. Well, what was entertaining for me was reading up on Ahmanson a little bit. I mean, one, it turns out that he had been an important presence that I didn’t know about in my own history and education. Because I went to a Christian college. And, if your Christian college has a decent-ish arts program, you probably got money from the Ahmansons. They’re really into promoting sort of, great books Christianity. They’ve actually funded one or two things that I think are great. But then they also, like, really, really push economic libertarianism and cultural conservatism.
But one of the fun parallels is that Howard Amundson is also a blogger. Like, one of the first things that popped up when I googled him, was his own website with his own blog posts, which absolutely do not have Rod’s flair. So, yeah, it was just too perfect, because the middle picture is of,
SHEFFIELD: Well, you’re forgetting one other part though, which is he wasn’t allowed to be edited. That was part of the funding stipulation. No one could edit him.
CHRISTMAN: Yes, which explains so much. Yeah, that’s, that’s a good point. But yeah this writer who’s found his one perfect patron and finally managed to alienate him. The Vanity Fair story that covers this suggests that the blog post in which he describes classmate’s penis, that he saw when they were children peeing together, as a “primitive root wiener” or–
SHEFFIELD: A black classmate.
CHRISTMAN: Yes, not unimportantly.
This was kind of the blog post that ended everything. So on the one hand, you have the writer who has the perfect funding setup and blows it up by just being too shamelessly weird at himself. And on the other hand you have the patron who’s like the frustrated blogger, the frustrated artist who just doesn’t have the juice.
So that was a lot of fun to discover. So yeah, Slate wanted a piece that kind of talked about that kind of further wrinkle in the Rod’s story. And they had seen that piece, that other piece and asked me to do it.
SHEFFIELD: Okay. Yeah, and I guess one of the other wrinkles is that and this is another way in which Dreher is emblematic and a synecdoche of Republican politics is that he’s also taken a turn toward Putin toward Eastern European authoritarianism, particularly Viktor Orbán, where he seems to be living through funding from Orbán, at least his government, right?
CHRISTMAN: Yes. Yes. He’s like this very, very sad nth-generation Ezra Pound in that he’s gone to live as a propagandist for a wildly authoritarian government.
SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Well, and he perhaps one of the other reasons he may have been fired from TAC was that he seemed to have caused an international incident as well.
CHRISTMAN: A minor, teensy, teensy, teensy international incident, yeah, in which he didn’t realize that Orbán was not expecting to be quoted directly. And basically, like, how was it he leaked that Hungary kind of wanted–
SHEFFIELD: To turn more toward Russia in a way.
CHRISTMAN: Turn more, yeah, yeah. And Orbán didn’t realize that Rod so fully agrees with him that he would just undiplomatically publish this.
And then his excuse for having done so was so transparently dishonest. He said, ‘oh, yeah, no, Orbán didn’t say the things that I just said he said.’
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, but you know what but that it’s so emblematic of his own writing that he’ll just write whatever comes into his head or whatever he hears. So this is an example of him doing it because you know like that it’s something that and I think the other part of why Dreher got a leftist fandom was that much of people talk about Donald Trump as he’s removed the filter for Republicans to say what they really think, but of course the reality is that Trump’s not religious, he doesn’t give a shit about Christianity, or the Bible, and so he can’t really actually be a full, -bore advocate for these Christian right beliefs, because he doesn’t hold them.
And whereas with Dreher, he does hold them and he has no filter and so in that sense, this abject love of Putin and Orbán as, who, neither of whom is religious either, but who have positioned themselves as these sort of avatars for Christianity against what the reactionary right is now calling “globohomo.”
And they really do see Putin and Orbán as protectors against this. And Rod, I think, is really a great proponent and window into that, window to the soul, if you will.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, I mean, he, his lack of filter gives us a much more detailed and more contoured map of that kind of mind than Trump’s does. Because not only does Trump not actually hold any of those beliefs, but Trump barely, Trump has no mind. He reminds me of a busted TV channel tuner that just sort of is cycling through things. Whereas Rod has a mind. He’s wasted it in a really depressing way, but I mean, he’s read Dostoevsky, he’s read Dante, he’s read a lot of good books. When he writes about his own life and tries not to draw cultural conclusions, like, I will forget I hate him for pages at a time.
Because he’s capable of being really, at the very least, moving and sometimes even bordering on insightful in a kind of cracked way. And then he’ll get back on Twitter and talk about how that poor man who got killed on the subway by that the guy doing the 15-minute chokehold, totally had it coming and this is good.
And then I’ll remember why I loathe him, which he always does, he always reminds you.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. All right, well, is there, I mean, what’s the overall takeaway though that you would have for people in terms of, what should people think? Is he worth thinking about as somebody, if you don’t know who he is? Is he worth continuing to read or not really anymore?
CHRISTMAN: I don’t think he’s worth continuing to read. Once I was asked to write this piece, I had some ideas for it and so I was like, ‘okay I’m going to do this, and the lady I’m talking to at Slate seems really nice. I’m going to do this.
But probably not, if asked write about him again, I already feel like a little conflicted about how much attention I’ve turned toward him. I think he is kind of fascinating in himself, just because anyone who overshares that wildly almost can’t help being, he definitely as we talked about earlier, I think is kind of a reminder of what was distinctive about blogs and how blog blogs worked.
I think he’s in some ways a pretty perfect distillation of what was dysfunctional and what was interesting about the blog economy. I think if you want to have a sense of how beliefs that do not fit together are kind of hammered together in order that someone can be a religious reactionary, any random 30 pages of Rod will give you a pretty good picture of that, but don’t go subscribing to his Substack. Don’t encourage him.
We don’t need, I don’t think we need more of the now that we’ve had a good look and a, maybe a good laugh. I’m going to try not to interact with anything the guy writes and just, roll my eyes and say a prayer when I’m reminded of his existence.
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, what do you think? I mean…
SHEFFIELD: Well, I agree with you that he’s said everything that he possibly could say. So reading him anew, there’s nothing really to be gained from that.
CHRISTMAN: He’s never going to surpass Primitive Root Wiener. (laughter)
SHEFFIELD: But, but I do think his body of work is actually important for people who don’t have a personal contact with Christian reaction. Because for a lot of people, it’s not real. Like if you’re somebody who lives in New York City, you’re born in Manhattan or Queens or wherever, none of that stuff is real to you. You don’t see it, even though, in fact, those people actually live among you as well, but they don’t show it.
So, in that sense, he’s important to look at if you don’t have a contact with this. So for people who haven’t, and they’re asking me, well, what is this? I would be like, well, just go read this guy.
CHRISTMAN: I’d agree with that. And I think it would be a more interesting experience than other writers that you could also use in the same diagnostic way. Because if he had only written autofiction, like, he if he had not seen himself as someone who has something to contribute to the political discussions in this country, I think he actually could have been pushed in a valuable direction yeah, his neuroses can be interesting.
So, yeah, I would agree, like, his existing body of work for someone who is unfamiliar with that way of thinking. Yeah, it’s worthwhile.
SHEFFIELD: And it’s worthwhile also because he is more articulate than your average evangelical, Southern white evangelical. And this is a problem that a lot of journalists, news reporters have is that they’ll go and parachute into a diner and be like, okay, so tell me what you think.
And, then people will– why would they even talk to this joker? Like, and so like they’re not even asking them the right question, but even if they were, why the hell would they tell you what they think for public consumption, they wouldn’t!
And so, so that’s the other way that he’s valuable, and that’s part of why I wanted to do an episode of looking at his
CHRISTMAN: Yeah, I agree. I agree with that.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Well, so with that in mind, I will commend people check out his old work. And invite people to do that, and of course we’ll have a bunch of links including to some of the more stranger things as well. Of course primitive root wiener post as well, which is still published, so you can check that out.
All right. Well, I appreciate you being here today, Phil and where can people follow you on social media if they choose to?
CHRISTMAN: I’m trying to wean myself off of Twitter. Because it’s just so terrible these days
SHEFFIELD: What’s your website then?
CHRISTMAN: Philipchristman.substack.com. One L in Phillip.
SHEFFIELD: All right, great. All right, well thanks for being here so much.
CHRISTMAN: Thank you.
SHEFFIELD: Okay, so that’s the program for today. I appreciate everybody who has watched or listened to it. Remember to go to theoryofchange.show to get all of the episodes. We’re doing them every week now, so I appreciate your support for doing that.
Thank you very much. I’ll see you next time.