Updated: Feb 22, 2021
It’s hard work keeping up with the Megyn Kelly Show, which churns out a podcast – “no agenda no bullshit and no fear” – every two to three days. I began listening after she guested on another of my favourite podcasts, The Irish Times Inside Politics. I’m fairly hooked as the show gives me real insight into the, to me, unfathomable mindset of the American right wing. Podcasts have been a blessing of lockdown, making a daily and repetitive, inclement daily seafront walk more palatable. Since my normally peripatetic lifestyle is severely curtailed, podcasts are a way to travel to other places and other mentalities.
As the US Senate impeachment trial against former president Donald Trump began, Kelly interviewed two “titan” constitutional lawyers: Alan Dershowitz – familiar on British TV screens as a Democrat who has nonetheless supported Trump on legal grounds – and Laurence Tribe. The list of notorious characters Dershowitz has defended includes OJ Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein, Julian Assange and Harvey Weinstein – not a dinner party I or any woman would want to attend.
You know Megyn Kelly – she’s the Fox journalist President Trump referred to as having “blood coming out of her eyes, out of her whatever” after she challenged him during a presidential debate in 2015 on the misogynistic, sexist comments he had made. She left Fox News and went to NBC but was fired in 2018 for defending dressing up in blackface for Halloween, taking with her the $30 million owed on the remainder of her contract. She argued the practice had been acceptable when she was a child. It really wasn’t: over fifty years ago, my New Yorker mother would not allow the Black & White Minstrels to be shown on our TV; gollywogs and Robertson’s marmalade, with its Golly logo and badges, was banned from our home. It was an early and effective lesson on systemic racism.
Dershowitz argues that Trump’s behaviour comes nowhere near incitement to insurrection; Tribe takes the opposite view. Megyn Kelly, a trained lawyer, is in her element. She and Dershowitz agree that Trump’s statements prior to the riot are protected by the first amendment on free speech. My question is never asked or answered – even if it were the case that a former president cannot be put on trial, surely the fact that he was president when the insurrection took place has to be taken into account? I find it alarming to think that a president can do whatever he or she wants including, or perhaps particularly during, the strange interregnum between the election and the inauguration and not be made accountable for it. This podcast gave me genuine insight into the constitutional and legal factors in play during the trial and helps to explain the reasons for and significance of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s vote and final statement.
To be fair to Kelly, she is not an uncritical supporter of Trump or his more extreme followers. She accepts that he lost the election, and that the legal case is over but she believes the debate over whether the election was fraudulent should be allowed to continue because “this is America”. 6 January was “just, like, a three to four hour breach of the Capitol.” No big deal then.
She has many bees in her bonnet; the most insistent being freedom of speech, the right to say whatever one likes because “this is America”, dramatically intoned in bold italics. On the of Trump from Twitter and the removal of Parler from its platform by Amazon, she is incandescent with rage. And when outraged, a frequent event, Kelly employs an emphatic, sometimes hysterical tone, punctuated, when she agrees with her guest, by “one hundred percent”, “absolutely”, “totally”, “absurd”. Quite tiring to listen to. In her interview with John Matze, then still CEO of Parler, she does acknowledge that there is a line to be crossed; the unspoken assumption seems to be that she and her guest know where that line should be drawn. There is something, she says, that is “dangerous speech”, but the standard has to be “pretty broad” because “this is America”.
Many of her concerns are about the defence of individual rights; on the right wing there is short shrift for a vision of equality, justice or hope. The left are almost always referred to vaguely as “they”, demonised as “other”. Without an unidentified “they” arriving near the start there would be no Megyn Kelly Show. This othering is a recognisable echo of the sectarian demonising ubiquitous in Northern Ireland, accompanied by its close ally “whataboutery”, or, in America, “whataboutism”. For Kelly and her interviewees, the events of 6 January and its aftermath are not a violent assault on democracy in the seat of American democracy inspired by the very person who is meant to be the embodiment of that democracy but a crisis of free speech and civil liberties. Kelly draws continual direct parallels between the insurrection and the Black Lives Matter protests. “They” cannot accuse Trump of insurrection after the levels of violence during the BLM protests last summer. In fact, and Kelly frequently claims to represent the facts, data has shown that BLM protests were overwhelmingly peaceful and that when violence did occur it was generally aggravated by intervention from government forces and other perpetrators such as the KKK.
Watch her – either courageous or foolhardy – 2018 interview with Vladimir Putin and you will see that Kelly accuses the Russian president of “whataboutism”. Sometimes I feel embarrassed and uncomfortable for her; she shows up for an interview with Putin wearing a slit to the thigh, black spaghetti strap dress, mouthing excitedly, “are you ready for me”? “You’re gorgeous”, he replies. That it was the Russians who released the full interview, not NBC, gives a clue that it was not an unqualified success.
The first Megyn Kelly podcast I listened to was an untypical woman-to-woman interview with Bridget Phetasy, a comedian, writer and Tweeter. Gently massaged by Kelly, often a skilled interviewer, Phetasy, also a free speech advocate, tells the brave and moving story of her recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. She cries several times, although she and Kelly agree that due to their Irish Catholic upbringing they never cry. Despite that upbringing, Phetasy has both written for and been photographed for Playboy, and as Kelly wraps and slithers around her like a boa constrictor, and squeezes ever so gently, out pops the shocking revelation that Phetasy is not posing topless quite so often because she is – gasp – married!
What strikes me and, I learn, is characteristic of Kelly’s style, is the sensation the listener gets of eavesdropping on a private conversation. I feel I am bugging a kitchen table confessional, perhaps just next door, between an older and younger woman, best friends or sisters. Kelly can give the impression, whether conscious or deliberate I am not sure – as when she refers in another episode to vice president Kamala Harris poisoning Biden’s soup, ha ha -- -- that she doesn’t think anyone is actually listening.
I do agree with some of what Kelly says. The mainstream media (MSM) both here and in the US have too narrow a view of what is of interest to their constituencies and do not interrogate their own biases enough. I agree that the rise of independent media is a good thing – but there needs to be accountability there too. I also agree that the arrogance and power of the tech giants such as Facebook and Amazon is alarming, and the jury appears still out on whether the Biden administration has hitched its wagon to their horses or whether it will rein them in. In this country there has not been nearly enough challenge or holding to account of the government by media of the unrolling of the Brexit debacle and the botched handling of the pandemic. The BBC's blanking of the High Court ruling against Health Secretary Matt Hancock is just one example of an unquestioning, propaganda approach to Covid 19 that has been allowed to dominate the news agenda over what may be the more serious impact longer term of Brexit on the economy.
The most recent Megyn Kelly Show I listen to is on masks, vaccines and lockdown in the US. While US Covid deaths approach the half million mark, there is a muddled discussion interspersed with heavy doses of “this is America” rhetoric from Kelly. Kelly refers to the mental health and suicides of young people, telling the story of a nine-year-old who shot himself during a Zoom class, as a reason for schools to be reopened. But this doesn’t lead her to question US gun laws, a sure-fire way for her to lose half her audience. Fact: in 2017 there were almost 40,000 gun deaths in the US. Of these, 3,410 were teens or children, and 1,296 of those were suicides. She believes lockdowns and masks have made no difference to rates of Covid. Fact: of 2 November 2020, Stanford University studies had estimated that President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies “resulted in 30,000 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19, and likely led to more than 700 deaths overall”.
Another episode features an interview with Spectator associate editor Douglas Murray, the author of The Madness of Crowds. Cuddled by the boa constrictor, Murray shares his visceral dread as a white male of being accused of racism. He recalls sharing a platform for a series of debates in Australia with Professor Cornell West of Harvard: “some people would think that I was in the position of power and Dr West as being in some sort of unpowerful position.” Really? Who would be the “some people”? And what would the others be thinking? That by definition these two must be of equal stature? Or that Dr Cornell West is certainly the most eminent and therefore the most powerful? Murray goes on “There is a gun on stage and which can be fired and the only person who can fire it is him.” In most public arenas, “the white male can be taken out by the other person making an accusation of racism.”
Megyn Kelly sympathises with the “dynamic of fear, that people will be attacked as one of the ‘ists.” The problem I have with all of this is the notion that white conservatives are as vulnerable and frightened as other groups which is, to use Kelly’s language, patently absurd. I had my own career seriously derailed by an online right wing attack on the basis of my being a feminist, an attack that was full of entirely false but undefendable accusations.
We will make no progress until we accept a both-and rather than either-or approach. The root problem is paranoia and demonisation of the “other”. Murray seems sometimes to acknowledge that: “The left doesn’t trust the right that the right wing isn’t going to reopen Auschwitz.” Really? I google “is the right wing going to reopen Auschwitz”? and come across an illuminating long-read article by Daniel Trilling: “Why concentration camps are still with us”. Read it and make up your own mind. This is the kind of mental peregrination we can engage in during #lockdown. And, says Murray, the “right don’t trust the left not to start communism”. Well, no news there.
Douglas Murray’s bee-in-the-bonnet is “wokism”, discussing at length the Bret Weinstein Evergreen State College Day of Absenteeism case. Coincidentally, I am listening at the same time as if in stereo, left and right, to the How to Change the World podcast with Krishnan Guru Murthy of Channel 4 News’ relaxed and engaging interview with Sathnam Sanghera, the author of Empireland. Sanghera admits that ‘wokism’ can go too far, and KGM asks him: how can you tell when it’s too far? And Sanghera replies – by listening to the examples quoted by the right wing.
Murray laments the “embittered trapdoor culture of America” but himself has an embittered, scathing and wounded tone which is pretty hard to listen to, even when I am somewhat in agreement with his final advice: “don’t join the mob, because you don’t know what the mob is going to do. Everyone can be better than membership of a crowd.” Indeed, even a US president.
Overall, my big question to Megyn Kelly is: “Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” She is firmly placed on the problem side of the equation at the moment. She claims “no agenda, no bullshit and no fear”. I don’t detect any fear or reason for fear in her podcast but there is a fair amount of bullshit and a colossal agenda in the Megyn Kelly Show. For an example of a truly balanced, unruffled and enlightening discussion of and insight into the contemporary United States I would direct her to another favourite podcast of mine: CBS’s Intelligence Matters with former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell.
Meanwhile, here is a teaser-trailer for where my reflection takes me next: Adam Carter, the producer of the extraordinary Can't Get You Out Of My Head documentary series, currently available on BBC iPlayer, in conversation with Blindboy says this: I think that what has happened in the West, especially with the emergence of social media, is that society is managed by creating a complete, continual sense of hysteria. The social media corporations have discovered that high arousal emotions create profits, because they keep people clicking, and the primary emotions are outrage and anger. Donald Trump was the most high arousal figure; with his tweets people got locked or frozen into a feedback system of high arousal. This was true of Brexit too. (And, I wonder, Covid, too, except the high arousal emotion that is being managed is fear.) It's not a conspiracy, it has just happened in the absence of other ideas ...