Democratic presidential candidates who survive the first primary contests will soon face fraught decisions about whether to embrace support from controversial endorsers, as Bernie Sanders did when the comedian Joe Rogan announced that he would likely vote for him, or to maintain their distance to avoid running afoul of the Great Awokening. As some progressives tell it, Democrats are divided between consequentialists, who favor accepting endorsements that expand their coalition, and deontologists, who think it is always wrong to accept a bigot’s endorsement.
But the more consequential disagreement concerns what renders someone verboten. Most agree that, say, Richard Spencer—a white supremacist—warrants stigma and exclusion from polite company, even if he would expand the coalition. Controversy over the Rogan endorsement revealed stark disagreements about who counts as a bigot, how this standard is set, and why.
Some believe that Rogan, a public figure in his 50s, should be judged based on his prevailing beliefs, characteristic actions, and overall comportment across his career. They perceive in Rogan a general commitment to equal rights, to the proposition that all groups deserve equal dignity, to encouraging tolerance, and to discouraging hatefulness. And they note guests on his program as mainstream and varied as Robert Downey Jr., Cornel West, Chelsea Handler, Malcolm Gladwell, Dr. Phil, Elon Musk, Lawrence Lessig, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. If associating with him is now verboten, then standards have suddenly and radically changed.
Rogan critics tend to cite the most offensive statements that he has ever made and to judge him on their basis, no matter how anomalous or unrepresentative they are of his typical words or stated beliefs. A Vox article by the progressive writer Dylan Matthews is illustrative of this “rap sheet” approach:
Rogan’s popularity is owed in part to his vocal rejection of “political correctness,” which can take the form of transphobia (he once called trans woman mixed martial artist Fallon Fox “a fucking man”), Islamophobia (hosting guests like the far-right Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, who used his appearance to argue that Muslims are too inbred for the US to accept as immigrants), and racism (he once compared a black neighborhood to Planet of the Apes).
Of these allegations, the one based on Rogan’s Planet of the Apes comment is perhaps the most straightforward because it was indisputably racist. Rogan was speaking off the cuff about going to see a movie in a black neighborhood. “We’re going to go see Planet of the Apes—we walk into Planet of the Apes,” he said. “We walked into Africa.” Moments later he said, “That was a racist thing for me to say.” It was! Then he explained “what a ‘positive experience’ it was to see a movie in a black neighborhood,” as a Mediaite summary put it, “and did impressions of some of the people he met. Rogan went on to decry the lack of black representation in films—including in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’—and criticized a trailer in which Jonah Hill was ‘talking black’ to a black character.” The segment reflects poorly on Rogan.
The charge of transphobia concerns a segment about a mixed-martial-arts fighter who transitioned from male to female and wanted to fight women. Rogan believes that should not be allowed, because people who are born male have physical attributes, such as greater bone density, that persist after transition and would, he thinks, disadvantage and endanger female fighters. “She calls herself a woman but ... I tend to disagree,” Rogan said.
“She used to be a man but now she has had—she’s a transgender, which is [the] official term that means you’ve gone through it, right? And she wants to be able to fight women in MMA. I say no fucking way. I say if you had a dick at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a dick. You have bigger hands; you have bigger shoulder joints. You’re a fucking man.”
I would agree that it is disrespectful to tell a trans woman, “You’re a man,” but Rogan was arguably trying to say something more benign: For the purpose of MMA fighting, a person born a biological male should count as a male. An observer might contest the latter statement without concluding that anyone who utters it is “transphobic” or warrants shunning.
The charge of Islamophobia is different in kind in that Rogan critics ground it not in his words, but in the words of guests he has hosted on his podcast. “Rogan has made his show a safe space for anti-Muslim bigotry,” Matthews writes. “Islamophobia, like transphobia, has a history of being more tolerated in mainstream media outlets than other forms of bigotry, and the backlash against Rogan reflects frustration over that double standard.” In Slate, Aymann Ismail laments that
in one episode, his guest Gad Saad floated the debunked myth that the term Islamophobia only exists as a political ploy to give cover to dangerous foreign Islamist groups. In another, Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, a violent far-right gang, uses bogus statistics to argue that the Muslim world, where my family immigrated from, is too inbred for the West.
Notice the standard: that to interview someone who says something offensive or wrongheaded is to create a “safe space” for expressing that belief. By that logic, every journalist who interviewed Michael Bloomberg during his mayoralty created a “safe space” for supporting stop-and-frisk policing and warrantless spying on Muslims, and every journalist who interviewed Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential run created a “safe space” for voting in favor of the Iraq War and opposing marriage equality.
Later, in summing up the position of those who think Sanders should have rejected the endorsement, Matthews writes, “Accepting the endorsement… was wrong because it is wrong to coddle and amplify bigots, full stop.” He characterizes Sanders as having made an “accommodation with bigotry.”
The impulse to use a “rap sheet” is understandable. Those who deploy it see value in highlighting transgressions that once would’ve been unjustly ignored or forgotten. It’s easy to find an example of when that approach might have produced a favorable outcome: Bill Cosby’s undeservedly positive reputation never would have survived a more methodical examination of his past.
In most cases, however, judging people by their rap sheets is reductively misleading. Imagine that Barack Obama endorsed Elizabeth Warren. It would be ridiculous to describe the endorser this way: “Obama is known as the first African American president of the United States, but he partly owed his political rise and later success to patronizing a church where the preacher thundered ‘God damn America,’ to support from a former domestic terrorist, and to the extrajudicial killing of Americans.” And I say that as someone who is highly critical of some particulars alluded to there.
What’s more, rap sheets shrink in importance for those who have sought and achieved redemption for bad deeds, or who are open to dialogue, to their own fallibility, and to self-improvement; engagement can be a more constructive social response than shunning.
As things stand, Democratic candidates can’t reliably predict how they or their endorsers will be judged. Are people to be judged for their overall record or for their worst moments? If a public figure makes an off-the-cuff comment grounded in a pernicious stereotype, generalization, or internalized bias, then quickly and publicly regrets it, where does that leave him? Irredeemable? Forgiven? Toxic for a year? Should Democratic candidates reject endorsements from anyone who believes it is unsafe for trans women to fight women in MMA? Or is it okay to express that position as long as one’s tone is polite? Should interviewing someone with bigoted views one doesn’t share trigger shunning? Is any association with a person who has uttered a bigoted view the “coddling” of a bigot and an “accommodation” of bigotry? Does failing to shun a bigot render someone a bigot?
Those who want more endorsements rejected ought to clarify where they stand on such questions, distill the new standards they have in mind, and explain how tenable it is to apply them. If Democrats are going to fight, they should know the rules.