Culture

A grifter walks into a hipster coffee shop

In October, professional Trump supporter Jacob Wohl’s spectacular meltdown exemplified the hollowness of online punditry.
Culture

A grifter walks into a hipster coffee shop

In October, professional Trump supporter Jacob Wohl’s spectacular meltdown exemplified the hollowness of online punditry.


A series reflecting on our memories of 2018, one month at a time, as we head into the new year.

This year, nothing summed up the Kafkaesque, never-ending shittiness of the political drama more than the rise and destruction of Jacob Wohl. Here’s a very quick rehashing of the Wohl saga: On October 19, Jacob Wohl, post-pubescent son of a conservative radio pundit and prominent Trump supporter, teased a big announcement about Robert Mueller, the independent counsel investigating Donald Trump for treason. On October 30, the conservative outlet The Gateway Pundit published a story saying that they had a credible witness for sexual assault charges against Robert Mueller.

Then, they retracted the article. Then, it was reported that Jacob Wohl was being investigated for false claims. It became clear, via crack reporting, that Surefire, an alleged organized group of ex-Mossad super spies who’d compiled the allegations, was a hilariously fraudulent front for Wohl himself. What was originally pitched as a scandal bringing down the most visible emblem of the #resistance against Trump was, instead, the conspiratorial fuck-up of a Gen Z grifter. On November 1, Wohl held a press conference where he claimed he had extensive investigative experience and was an appropriate CEO for Surefire, despite all the evidence painting him as someone who was steadily making this all up.

Conservative lobbyist Jack Burkman said he was a virtuoso on the level, or perhaps surpassing Mozart, even as many of his supporters backed off. No one really knew what to do with this, but it was all very, very funny and insane.

Past all of the easy jokes, Wohl spoke to a very pervasive phenomenon, as one of those insufferable people who’s made a political career out of posting a lot. It’s important to note that Wohl did literally nothing of merit to find himself in this position of prominence: He just automatically replied to all of Trump’s soggy dispatches with a message of undying support. His peers, from the liberal Krassenstein Brothers to the hyper-conservative Jack Posobiecs, all embody Wohl’s odd pathology. They immediately respond to any Trump tweet with some variation of “You’ll be saying something similar when you’re in jail! #Mueller” or “America is with you Mr. President! Best President of all time! #Trump2020” and proceed to have the odd remora accounts of Twitter retweet and like them until they have millions of followers who, ostensibly, just love watching this odd anti-dialogue unfold.

Wohl is what happens if you introduce Inspector Clouseau or Gob Bluth into a John le Carre novel and change nothing else. The taut web of lies and intrigue of contemporary politics stays the exact same, and all of the deeply untrustworthy and dynamic players are ready to cross and doublecross each other in the pursuit of patriotism, cynical gain, or both. But also there’s some guy who loudly screams that he’s in a coffee shop where someone’s saying Trump is “actually very good” and registering his own spy agency’s wix dot com website under his mom’s email.

And just as Wohl is Clouseau, stumbling into a game of high-stakes international chess with a guide to checkers and a cheat sheet, the rest of the repliers are lesser versions of the absolutely tone deaf incompetence that Trump’s presidency has brought screaming into existence for 2018 and for 2019 to come. While Wohl’s November collapse was truly one for the ages — only a master bungler could manage to get fired from the almost-not-a-real-website Gateway Pundit for bad reporting, and only a true savant would hold a press conference about his recently-debunked accusations and insist that he was an expert spy — he’s really only different in kind, not type. The Krassensteins praise the FBI despite having been investigated by them in the past. Seth Abramson is a “professor” whose tweet storms are barely Freshman composition-level robust. Jack Posobiec is a pompous Eagles fan — something you can only be if you are truly disconnected from reality, trust me. Beside them are a pantheon of opportunists, posting all day every day: Louise Mensch, Eric Garland, TrueFactsStated, TrumpTrains 1-201, Katie Hopkins, Scott Dworkin, Sally Albright, probably at least one of your uncles, and many more.

What Trump revealed about politics, Wohl and company are revealing about punditry: that it is, at core, a hollow and empty series of brand-building paper tigers, intellectualism without content. Trump is aberrant, but part of his aberration is that he refuses to say the quiet part quiet and act the role of President. What Trump repliers have taken from this cue is that punditry need not be any more complex. You are always welcome to just say “go Trump!” or “boo Trump, go Mueller!” and the same people will cheer you.

These opportunistic posters will live long into 2019, and even past the inevitable McRib-related infarction that saves us from Trump’s fifth term. They will justify their role by claiming odd, clearly outdated concepts like “love of country” and “patriotism” and “the will of the people” whenever people nudge their friends and say “hey this guy isn’t wearing any clothes, someone should say something.” Even Wohl, who would’ve been a literal snake oil salesman in a past life, is probably planning a comeback; we are potentially weeks away from “Jacob Wohl: cyber security expert” or “Jacob Wohl: brain-power juice salesman.”

All because it doesn’t matter if Wohl is a laughing-stock so long as he is a laughing-stock with a bunch of followers and subscribers. He’ll be the butt of a few jokes and everyone, or at least the people sucked into following the daily embarrassments of this regime, will remember his press conference debacle. But he’ll also probably carve out some profitable little niche hawking shit to paranoid doomsday preppers convinced the government is going to jail them and their guns the second they let down their guard.

It’s a more likely trajectory than CEO of a crackshot spy firm, and it’s why he was perfect for the shallow dynamics of online. This is a 21-year-old kid who could pursue literally anything else, and is instead a professional Trump cheerleader, his few brain cells ping-ponging around his skull as he looks for the next way to stay ahead. It’s lonely and depressing to consider, of course, but there’s no law against being a punchline. No matter how often you aggressively own yourself, people will gladly stick around to make sure they’re there to see if you can somehow top it next time. It wasn’t good that I, and people like me, knew who Wohl was. But he refused to go away, and so we followed along, fascinated by whatever came next.

It Happened 2018

Waiting for Day Zero in Cape Town

The Countess returns

Stormy Daniels takes control

Melodrama rules our lives

America has royalty, we just don’t admit it

The good tidings of solidarity

Welcome to the walled garden, we’ve got phones and games

Good riddance to terrible trolls

How Zendaya became Meechee

A grifter walks into a hipster coffee shop

Goodbye stress, hello duck

Trevor Strunk is the host of No Cartridge, a podcast about video games and aesthetics; he also teaches and holds a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He previously wrote about Fortnite for The Outline.