The Rod Dreher Reality Show Is Hard to Look Away From
Following every juicy, unhinged twist and turn of Rod Dreher’s writing is trash TV for leftist intellectuals.
For some time, I have been trying to figure out exactly how to describe the quality of horrified fascination that the right-wing writer Rod Dreher evokes for so many of the people I know — many of them the same sorts of people that the reactionary writer would happily see gulaged, or perhaps “helicoptered,” to adopt the image more appropriate to his increasingly openly fascist sympathies. The man cannot so much as announce his divorce, or cause a minor diplomatic scandal for the regime he now serves, without it becoming a shared joke in any of several group chats I belong to, or a forty-five-minute riff on multiple left-wing podcasts. We all know we’d do better to just ignore his existence, but we can’t stop watching The Rod Show.
Why him? There are lots of crazy, silly, harmful people in the media. Indeed, the one advantage that the era of social media and personal branding offers, entertainment-wise, is that you can basically spend your whole life doing “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” over any number of would-be discourse warriors, life coaches, #successwin guys, memesmiths, shams, and scolds. But Rod keeps himself at the center of attention week after week. How does he do it?
Is it his inability to leave anything to subtext? Is it the way he immerses himself in contradictions so profound that one feels one has entered a strange new post-hypocrisy era, in which the concept itself has somehow lost coherence? Is it his versatility, the way he can scale new heights of both pitiability and loathsomeness, with barely a pause for breath in between, like a man running back-to-back marathons?
It’s all these things. And yesterday, when the news broke that he had to walk back a blog post that embarrassed his far-right Hungarian paymasters, I finally figured out what specific type of spectatorship he evokes from me.
I figured this out thanks to my mother-in-law. She watches a bit of TLC occasionally, and since I enjoy her company and she lives with my family, lately I have found myself lingering downstairs over a bottle of Coke and a repeat of “90 Day Fiancé,” or “1000-lb Sisters,” or the one with the little people who run the farm. As I do so, I am always asking myself what on earth I’m doing, since I have cordially despised reality TV for as long as it’s been a nameable genre. I think there are ways that it’s wrong to exploit people even if those people agree to it. But approval-disapproval has nothing to do with it. If you’re in the room and one of these shows is on, you watch.
Moreover, you watch in a way that you don’t really watch other TV shows, at least not anymore. Much has been written about the moralistic turn in recent cultural criticism and, following from that, in culture — the ways we are enjoined to withhold our sympathy from sinful protagonists, to tell only the stories of the deserving, to make our protagonists relatably imperfect but never really bad. Reality TV has completely escaped these mandates.
Everybody who watches “90 Day Fiancé” hates, for example, a certain gentleman known as Big Ed, who demands outsized displays of fealty and deference from the far-younger and usually far-poorer women he dates, but who appears incapable of even the smallest and most commensensical displays of compassion or thoughtfulness. Every so often, Big Ed gets caught in a really bad lie and realizes how much everybody hates him and has a big cry about it.
The show presents these moments as though they will still evoke our sympathy and interest. Generally, they do; humans just don’t like to see other humans cry. The raw power of the image overcomes, if only for a moment, our abstract knowledge, based on previous episodes, that a good dose of shame may be the only thing that could save this guy’s soul (not to mention his poor fiancée). Two commercial breaks later he’s back to being a raving misogynist — in, somehow, the most passive-aggressive, feline way imaginable, as though he were trying to imitate the worst stereotypes of the gender he hates and desires.
We respond to that, too, and most importantly, we don’t try to square one response with the other. Is he a Sympathetic Protagonist, a Lovable Antihero With a Heart of Gold? We don’t give a shit. It’s the and, and, and of parataxis — TV is a secondary oral medium, after all — rather than the hypotaxis (this because of this because of this) of the novel.
In terms of the cultural space he takes up, the kind of spectation he provokes, Rod Dreher and his whole mediated existence is the greatest reality TV show of all time. I can’t take him seriously as a writer. His biggest ideas, Crunchy Cons and The Benedict Option, just boil down to “sometimes conservatives like organic and natural things” (duh, that’s why there’s a short pipeline from “food co-op shopper” to “Q-pilled antivaxxer”) and “sometimes Christians have to reject their culture and its folkways” (duh, that’s why I, a Christian, used to give money to panhandlers despite the street signs telling me not to when I lived in South Carolina). He did important work forever ago on the clergy-molestation scandal, but by allying with the same political movement that enables school officials to track girls’ periods and regularly throws its energy behind open pedophiles, he has implicitly disclaimed the principle that seems to have motivated him at that time. (He hasn’t said shit about the allegations against Florida congressman Matt Gaetz of sex with an underage girl that I can find.)
And like any great reality-show personality, he practically dares us to ask whether he’s kidding or not. “Does Rod realize how he sounds?” I have asked myself time after time. One may as well ask whether Big Ed knows he shouldn’t have asked for his ring back — or whether Ronald Reagan meant it when he claimed not to remember authorizing Iran-Contra. Dreher means exactly what his character needs to mean in that moment.
There’s no there here, just spectacle — not so much an incoherent spectacle but a spectacle of incoherence, an entertainment that mostly derives its value from its continued refusal to make any sense, or even to seem as though it hails from a universe where making sense is a thing people ever do. It maintains an innocence of the expectation that one might try.
The genius of the Rod Dreher Show, the thing that pushes it beyond the competition — beyond the ninety days — is that it imitates something else: it imitates a public intellectual and prolific poster in free fall. It hides out in the sorts of media that people who don’t think they watch reality TV consume instead — as a novel might pretend to be a monologue.
But the (shallow) pleasures and (anxiety-inducing) dramas that we’re being offered are pure TLC. Rod is the best reality show on earth. He’s a messy bitch who loves drama.
Hopefully someday, he will be a person instead. I don’t know if it will happen in this life. But I have to hope for that for everybody, even my enemies.
Having said all this, I will try, in the future, to tune the show out. I don’t think it’s good for anyone, and when it comes to bad culture, silence is often the best option. I’ll ignore nonsense whenever it pleases me to do so, thank you. You can’t ignore some shows when they’re on, but you can just leave the room for a bit.