Mickey Kaus was sitting at Superba Food + Bread in Venice Beach, California, an expensive coffee place where an expensive-looking person was yelling at the counter staff about a housefly on a cookie.
Kaus was sorry about the location, and that he’d had to walk east from the small apartment where he parks his battered white Nissan Z, to find a suitable location for us to talk. But it was unavoidable. Snapchat's headquarters now occupy the beach, turned it from the province of older, wealthy, quietly intense entertainment types to young, wealthy, quietly intense tech kids.
“They’ve pushed all the old-time Venice people out,” he explained.
I wrote a blog every day, more or less, from 2004 to 2011. Mickey Kaus was an old-timer when I started, and he was still going when I stopped. A pioneer of the platform, he is one of the handful who can lay claim to inventing the political blog — though he would never claim it, and indeed goes to great lengths to argue that he didn’t.
Kaus helped introduce elements of blogging style that still endure in online writing: the breathless, stream-of-consciousness style; the informal, self-referential voice; the disdain for the mainstream media. I used to imitate the mock editor's notes he regularly dropped into the text. [ed.: He says he merely stole this from the British biweekly Private Eye.] And I used to send him my items in the hopes that he’d link me, if I provided evidence, say, that John Edwards was a slimeball; or raise a linked eyebrow at me, in ways that are now incomprehensible out of context. For instance: “Update: I'm now having mild, but gnawing, doubts as to the epistemological status of that Obama quote. Politico reports it (twice). It seems to come from the real time Twitter feed of a rabbi who was in on the phone call.”
Kaus mostly stopped blogging this year when he broke with the Daily Caller after criticizing Fox News — from the right. And while his old friends from top New York and Washington publications are now Top Thinkers and People Who Run Things, he is sitting in a coffee shop in Venice, talking about how he's going to light up the congressional switchboard with calls about immigration. He now lives off his savings, and writes mostly on Twitter, where he has emerged as an unlikely man of this political moment: a Democratic intellectual who thinks that Donald Trump is the “most credible” candidate for the presidency. This is based on what Kaus sees as the central issue of our time: immigration ("I am not as worried about immigration and terrorism ... as immigration and wages") — an issue that polling suggests is the original core of Trump's angry appeal.
"The hope, maybe even Trump's hope, is that by going 'too far' Trump may push us to go 'far enough'" in limiting immigration, said Kaus in a recent email. A total outsider, seen by even his close friends as a bit unhinged, Kaus offers a glimpse at how we got to the ugly place in which we find ourselves at the end of 2015.
That’s why I emailed him this fall, at the urging of an old friend. “Mickey Kaus. What’s the deal?” the friend emailed out of the blue, after seeing some of those early-morning tweets. “It’s amazing. He's gone from quirky TNRish contrarian dem to nativist activist, tweeting out US Capitol switchboard and imploring people to call in to Stop Ryan and Stop Amnesty.”
Indeed, Kaus had been up early all week, rallying the troops. On a Tuesday morning in late October, well before 6 a.m. Pacific Time, he was pleading with his followers, attacking Democratic sacred cows, organized labor, in particular: “Every vote against Ryan weakens him on amnesty ... Let your Rep know what you think of eager amnesty-pusher Ryan,” he said, urging them on in a last-ditch, hopeless effort to derail the incoming speaker of the House. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, he just fought with his editors, and developed a reputation as a Democrat who would take on his own party.
Kaus’s bad attitude would make him a natural for the blogosphere. For a moment in the 1990s, it made him a natural for The New Republic, which then styled itself the inflight magazine of New Democrat Bill Clinton’s Air Force One. Kaus was, in particular, a vigorous advocate of requiring that welfare recipients work, which is at the heart of his one book, a quixotic 1992 polemic called The End of Equality. The book suggests Democrats stop worrying about income inequality and instead focus on creating a society in which wealth matters less — through national service, national health care, and a national jobs program that would absorb traditional welfare.
Today, he says, he faces questions every day from friends, old readers, strangers on Twitter about what the hell happened to Mickey Kaus. “I wish, like a lot of his friends, that he would just move on and do something else,” said Slate Group Editor-in-Chief Jacob Weisberg, who hired him in 2002.
Kaus delights in the pity and disgust he detects from his old friends’ view that he has joined a band of kooks and racists. It’s the surest sign that his work matters. “I don't know who's reading me, but every now and then I get somebody who has influence calling me a jerk, and it's like, ‘Yes!’” he remarked over coffee and doughnuts. “Maybe I'll collect all those tweets and hang them on the wall.”
Second to those attacks, in giving Kaus joy, are complaints from Republicans that he, a Democrat, is spending too much time on their internal politics.
“That’s great, because nobody's really called me a Democrat in years,” he said. “I'm a concern troll with concerns for all the parties.”
Mickey Kaus has always been like this. The son of a prominent Los Angeles lawyer — his late father, Otto, went on to serve on the California Supreme Court — he attended Harvard and Harvard Law, clerked for that court, and did a stint on Fritz Hollings’ 1984 presidential campaign. Then he followed the path of his generation’s top political writers into the roiling Washington magazine scene. His first job was at Washington Monthly, the neoliberal cradle for a brilliant, if homogenous, generation of young men in media: Michael Kinsley, Jim Fallows, Joe Nocera, David Ignatius. Its founder, Charlie Peters, has been quoted saying Kaus was the most brilliant of them all. Peters told me he wasn’t sure about that, but Kaus was “the one who was most fun to argue with.” Peters once broke a phone hanging up on him.
Kaus emerged from the Washington Monthly as a kind of extreme of the contrarian, self-critical Democratic ideology it embodied. Most of his enthusiasm, indeed, was for that particular element of the publication. He recalls stalking the halls of Congress, trying to persuade staffers to move commas around in the 1996 welfare bill.
Kaus’s first real blog item, published June 28, 1999, was an attack on “those sophisticates at Salon” (“Smug, horny, unedited panderers!”), now of course a well-worn genre. Kaus spent most of the 2000s blogging for Slate, a job he’d taken after sending Weisberg a list of “absurd demands” insisting on his total independence, which the editor promptly agreed to.
Kaus stayed in Venice, in his cluttered apartment — the classic lone blogger. He was, by the Bush years, iconic. The Observer, of London, visited him in September 2003:
An inveterate controversialist, Kaus lives the quasi-troglodyte existence of the net-head amid a surging sea of newspaper clippings and fast-food debris. Kaus's web-log is sponsored by Microsoft's online magazine Slate and provides an idiosyncratic running commentary on the vicissitudes of the election, a wild guide to the wilder shores of an already wild election. Less scurrilous than the Drudge report, with which Kaus collaborates informally, and forever hovering on the brink of libel, the Kausfile has become the indispensable source for the sharpest and most damaging tales from the campaign trail.
There Kaus was among the first to realize that the internet had rendered journalists’ attempt to filter damaging rumors from the public mostly pointless. He helped drive stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger's sexual past in 2003; in 2007, he kept what was for a long time a lonely drumbeat on the sex scandal that ended John Edwards’ career.
Kaus also helped found the debate platform Bloggingheads with his old friend Robert Wright. (A Kaussian digression: I once debated Glenn Greenwald on Bloggingheads, on the proposition that my employer, Politico, was a right-wing proxy. The figure at the center of Greenwald’s theory was Joe Albritton, who he said owned Politico. I countered that the man was dead, and that his son Robert — without the CIA ties — ran the company. That turned out to be wrong — Joe was then alive, and in fact my boss's boss; Greenwald very kindly allowed me to delete that portion of the audio, and save my job, and I’m reminded that he shares with Kaus [though being different in every other way] the quality of being a huge asshole on the internet but astonishingly gracious in person.)
Kaus never cared much about prose style. (“My goal is not to write good journalism or to entertain people, my goal is to stop comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.) He started blogging in 1999, and you could call him the first political blogger if you wanted to argue about it — with, among others, Kaus.
“He sort of invented this style [and] wrote the first blog anybody read,” said Weisberg, warning that Kaus would deny it (he did, noting both an earlier generation of tech bloggers and “proto-blogs” like Peters’ and Jonah Goldberg’s). “He's so perverse that he'll apply his perversity to creating novel arguments for why he's not as successful as he appears to be.”
In the ensuing 15 years, most of his peers dropped out or went bigger. “Andrew [Sullivan] collapsed, Josh [Marshall, of Talking Points Memo], exploded his thing into a much bigger thing,” Kaus says. “All these guys were much more successful than me.”
Another, somewhat later group of bloggers — those of us who were less in love with the medium, and perhaps more opportunistic, people like me and Ezra Klein and Nate Silver — either made their way into the hated mainstream media or tried to create a new mainstream at places like BuzzFeed and Vox and FiveThirtyEight.
Many of us also fled a blogosphere that we felt had both curdled and professionalized. The toxins bled in from the comments section. The amateur trolling turned professional. The campaigns blasted out our blog items, and then our tweets. It stopped being fun. But Kaus — always a little toxic, always with a strong stomach for trolling — never felt that way. He’s still alone, at home, pissing people off on the internet. He just wants to move the needle.
“I'm the only sucker still doing it,” Kaus said.
Kaus had not spent much time thinking about immigration; it’s barely mentioned in his book. But as the 2000s wore on, the subject slid right into his wheelhouse. As a matter of domestic policy, Bush’s second-term push to naturalize millions of undocumented immigrants was simply, in his view, the biggest thing out there. Kaus says he’d always believed that elites were too quick to ignore unskilled American workers whose wages depend on a tight labor market. Immigration reform, in its various forms, was the product of an unusual truce between Chamber of Commerce Republicans and Democrats sympathetic to undocumented immigrants — an issue all right-thinking people could agree on, and thus a perfect one for Kaus to attack.
And so he emerged as a leading foe of Bush’s attempt to overhaul immigration, which he referred to in 2007 as “Bush’s domestic Iraq.” He took what was once a common labor-Democratic position: That new workers would drive wages down. That position has, though, almost vanished from the political landscape— in part as openly xenophobic voices drowned out legitimate ones and angry outbursts at Mexicans became harder and harder to explain in policy terms.
“I saw a vacuum,” Kaus recalled. “I would’ve have had to take whoever was on my side; they could've been horrible racists.” He associated himself with Roy Beck, who runs Numbers USA, and Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies and “a very civilized, wonderful man. None of them are racist. So they were convenient to work with.” (Both groups have roots tied to the activist John Tanton, whose racist views have become an embarrassment to each; their current advocacy is, however, mostly on economic issues.) And their movement, whose ties are largely to conservative Republicans in the House, was glad to have a well-known Democratic intellectual on their side.
“There’s nobody on the left articulating their interests as Democrats — we need a lot more people like that, but for now Mickey’s one of the few,” Kirkorian said.
Kaus tells a complicated story, set in 2009 in the office of his dermatologist, about when he came to believe that there was a real opening in Democratic Party politics for an anti-immigration campaign. “I've been a good liberal all my life, but I don't agree with the party on immigration,” the dermatologist told him.
"He lit the spark," Kaus told Los Angeles Weekly the next year.
And so, in 2010, Kaus announced a Senate campaign against Barbara Boxer. It was, in retrospect, doomed “performance art,” he later said; he was trying to see what would happened if he ran a campaign solely on the web. He also decided not to write about the campaign for Slate, and quit. It was “the classically Mickey mistake,” Wright later told him in a quite intense Bloggingheads episode. “You wanted you to blog the campaign.”
Kaus also went back to his dermatologist, who told him, ”I never said that, and I'm a Republican.”
Slate offered to hire him back, but “they adjusted [his salary] downward to what the market rate was for blogging.” Kaus went looking for “people who didn’t have such a realistic view of the value of bloggers,” doing a stint at Newsweek and then the Daily Caller. He finally quit there earlier this year, after the editor spiked a column in which he’d criticized Fox News for focusing on ISIS instead of immigration. It was a fairly direct demonstration of how dangerous the issue is for a pundit trying to make a living: Fox proprietor Rupert Murdoch is an advocate of immigration reform, and so the right’s most strident megaphone has always been oddly muted on the issue.
And there is Kaus, 16 years later, still in Venice, earning basically nothing, and both totally isolated and deeply in tune with an angry national moment.
Anti-immigration forces “don't have business, we don't have the media, we don't have the presidency, we don't have the Senate, we don't have leadership in the House — and we're still winning,” he said a few days after having failed to torpedo Paul Ryan’s speakerhood. “So why is that happening?”
Kaus pauses. He’s voted for Barack Obama twice, and the place this is leading may make him slightly uncomfortable.
“The answer is that no one is speaking for the actual voter — except, it turns out, for Donald Trump.”
CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS
Kaus quit the Daily Caller, he was not fired, as one mention of the incident in this article said. He also hasn't entirely stopped blogging, but has "twitterized" his blog. We met at Superba Food + Bread, not Superba Snack Bar. He said Donald Trump is the "most credible" candidate for the presidency on the issue of immigration, but has not decided whether or not to vote for him. And he says he used to care about prose style, just doesn't any more.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at email@example.com.
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