It’s the day after Super Tuesday, and one of America’s leading young socialist thinkers is having a “horrible sense of déjà vu.”
Nathan J. Robinson, 30, is the founder and editor-in-chief of Current Affairs which, since launching in 2015, has become required reading for a generation of young leftists—“dirtbag” or otherwise—and anyone else who finds mainstream political commentators to be a touch out-of-touch. The Current Affairs media empire exists as a lavishly designed bi-monthly magazine and roundtable podcast, but it’s the frequently updated website that garners the most attention.
From a viral explainer titled “How We Know Brett Kavanaugh Is Lying” to a sincere plea to Meghan McCain to “come and join the left,” many of the most-shared articles come from Robinson's pen. He earned Current Affairs its first viral hit with an early 2016 essay in which he—in hindsight, quite presciently—wrote about why Secretary of State Hilary Clinton would be a weak candidate against Donald Trump, and the Democratic Party needed to rally around Senator Bernie Sanders, who was uniquely suited to counter Trump's populist rhetoric.
After the dramatic resurrection of Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign following his landslide victory in South Carolina, he solidified his lead against the former frontrunner Sanders on March 3, winning the majority of states and delegates on one of the most pivotal days in the primary election. Centrist political commentators who doubted Sanders' ability to beat Trump in the general election could hardly contain their joy. Robinson has written at length (and also taken to YouTube) to argue that Biden is just as vulnerable as Clinton was to any charges Trump (“a champion bully,” Robinson says, “who will run to the left when it suits him”) will make of hypocrisy and corruption. After spending “four years saying ‘don’t fuck this up again,’” he says, Robinson’s beginning to know how Cassandra felt.
“Where do we start?” Robinson says with a nervous chuckle while calling from his office in New Orleans. “Super Tuesday was a punch in the gut in many ways, but mostly I think it’s frightening to me, because my main feeling is not even like a disappointment. It’s kind of terror, right?
“When I see someone like Joe Biden who is, to me, an extremely weak D.C. insider, who has a lot of the same kinds of vulnerabilities, he has the all same bad votes that Hillary Clinton had, he has all the same kind of corruption drama surrounding him. I think to myself, ‘Oh God, this is going to be the same thing. First, it’s tragedy, then it’s farce.’ I just feel like, ‘Oh dear, we're moving towards something that could be truly horrible.’”
A second term for Trump, one in which he’s beaten impeachment and has been possibly vindicated by the popular vote, would be a disaster, for human rights, the environment and basically everything else, Robinson thinks. But he also admits that because of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Biden might be able to “squeak by and become what will probably be an extremely ineffective president,” he says. “If he gets in, my real fear has always been the thing that comes after Trump. And that’s the more competent fascist, someone who comes along with a real hard-right ideology and the know-how. I’m very afraid all the time.”
So he’s redoubled his efforts, writing about the many vulnerabilities Biden will bring to a match-up against Trump. Once again, Robinson’s trying to prevent another tragedy. And once again, judging by Biden’s now all-but-insurmountable lead, not enough people are listening: It’s too late for Sanders to become president. There’s plenty of time for Robinson to be proven correct, again. Just know that he would take no joy in this.
“We’re disaster profiteers. Trump’s election served our interests financially. I would much rather it hadn’t happened, and it did teach me an interesting lesson in the fact that being right about something horrible doesn’t make you feel good at all,” Robinson observes. “You can’t even get the satisfaction of like, ‘I told you so,’ because you just see people suffer.”
“It’s like having pointed out that someone was walking into the path of an oncoming train, and then they didn’t listen, and then it hits them,” he says. “You don’t feel satisfied, you just feel horrified and sad.”
Born in Stevenage, England, Robinson’s family moved to Sarasota, Florida when he was 5. As a teenager, he attended a magnet school and showed a Max Fischer-like zeal for extracurricular projects. He started a public access show called Electric Discourse, that featured panel discussions, his weekly rants and Monty Python-style paper animation that Robinson made himself. “My parents are very indulgent of all my insane projects and schemes,” he says, “so they painted a wall of our garage blue so I could use it as a blue screen.”
He also began volunteering for his local Teen Court, a program in which high-school students serve as defense and prosecuting attorneys for juvenile defendants. “One of the things I noticed was that the kids that we were getting through as offenders were disproportionately poor and disproportionately black. Things that would never have gotten you arrested in my school, like throwing a tantrum, were getting kids arrested,” he says. “We had 10-year-old black children coming to the court, it was quite disturbing. So that affected me a lot. I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer for a long time, and I did indeed go to law school, though I have never ended up practicing law.”
He was once the sort of Democrat that was teased in high school for wearing a Kerry/Edwards button. But he’s come quite a ways since. Last year, he complained on Twitter when The New York Times referred to him as liberal, calling it “a grotesque slur.” (It was later amended to his preferred term, “leftist.”) His political evolution began as he started studying Marxism, anarchism, and Noam Chomsky in college (“Most of what I write is just recycled Chomsky in one way or another”) and became disillusioned with President Barack Obama.
“I think you’d get a common story from a lot of people who are my age, which is everyone being excited by Obama, and then you’re realizing that a lot of the things that they saw as problems were not being confronted with the same level of passion that they were hoping for out of Obama,” he says. “And Occupy Wall Street began happening under Obama, where all these young people who are massively in debt knew they could never have a house or have kids and didn’t see that getting better any time soon, and didn't see there being a political route to making it better.
“So that was a very radicalizing experience, and it didn’t really produce a political organization that lasted,” he says. “I think after Bernie Sanders is when a lot of us started really embracing the term ‘socialist’ and ‘democratic socialist’ to describe something that had been amorphous up until then.”
While attending Harvard, Robinson began writing freelance opinion pieces for The Washington Post and The New Republic, while also writing “radical children’s books,” such as his anti-authoritarian parody of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! called Don’t Let the Pigeon Question the Rules. “I’m still technically a PhD student, though I think they’re probably going to kick me out in like 10 minutes, because I’ve gotten so distracted with other projects that I fall behind on my academic life,” he says. He grew frustrated with The New Republic, as their new owner, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, had instituted a word-count policy centered around his tendency to get bored by any writing over 500 words.
Frustrated by journalism and bored with academia, he decided to make his own magazine, and set about figuring out what that meant, exactly. He spent September of 2015 in a “blitz where I didn’t sleep or eat, I just made an 80-page magazine called the Navel Observatory.” Encouraged, he and his roommate began a Kickstarter campaign to launch Current Affairs. (Robinson has since become an outspoken critic of Kickstarter's attempts to block their employees from forming a union.) In fact, he was so encouraged that, in a bit of pre-emptive legend building, Robinson impishly emailed now-former Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter.
“I said, ‘Our magazine is going to come and destroy your magazine. Watch out.’”
To his surprise, Carter invited him to his office to discuss the magazine, and quickly informed Robinson that “You’re going to fail. Print is dead,” he remembers.
“But I took that as a challenge, and we made the no advertisers pledge very, very quickly, because I think that actually having advertising is one reason that people don’t want to get print magazines,” he says, ”because who wants a brick of ads in the mail?”
In a difficult time for the digital media landscape and a dire one for print, Current Affairs has achieved things that seem all but unheard in the modern age. It balances take-no-prisoners leftist political writing with a whimsical, often militantly silly sensibility reminiscent of Dave Eggers’ Generation-X touchstone Might, Carter’s own ’80s satirical staple Spy, and every website you once loved that has gone out of business in the past five years. It has achieved this while exhibiting a Fugazi-level dedication to independence, as neither the magazine nor the website accepts advertising, though the magazine is littered with faux ads and public-service announcements, including pleas to not put an octopus on one’s head. While Robinson is unfailingly polite, he sounded a bit offended when asked if he thought that policy would ever change. (It seems unlikely.)
Current Affairs runs on a “very lean” two-person staff, along with a part-time administrative person, as well as a full-time podcaster, and a recently hired business manager who is set to start in the coming weeks. The magazine survives and pays their freelancers due to subscriptions, “which add up fast if you keep them fairly pricey. Ten-thousand subscribers at $60 a year, it’s $600,000 a year. You don’t need that many people to do it.”
Meeting the afternoon after Super Tuesday Part Two: The Reckoning, Current Affairs managing editor Lyta Gold is also not having a good day. Biden had run the table the night before, all but ensuring his nomination, in large part, she says, because “Obama arranged the three-centrists-in-a-trenchcoat maneuver.” When asked if Current Affairs would be willing to urge its readers to vote for Biden to prevent a Trump re-election, she made a full-body cringe before answering.
“It’s a tough question,” she says, pointing out that she's only speaking for herself. “Personally living in New York State, I was going to vote for Bernie because it doesn't matter. But honestly, Biden is such a terrible candidate, do I want to make sure he wins a state?”
The pseudonymously named editor is a former Marvel Comics employee and Library Sciences graduate who burned out on the nonprofit world when she learned her boss was making half-a-million a year while she struggled to pay for her student loans, and became disillusioned with Obama after the infamous drone strike that resulted in the death of a 16-year-old American boy in Yemen.
She understands the despair progressives are feeling. She respects it. “The left loses a lot,” she says, but Current Affairs isn’t giving up. She says that socialists need to shift their focus to down-ballot local and state elections in order to start consolidating power, and the magazine has been trying to boost the visibility of promising young leftists candidates such as Rebecca Parson and Shahid Buttar.
Gold joined the Current Affairs staff after submitting “a dumb little play” mocking Elon Musk and Silicon Valley. One of her goals was to make sure the workaholic Robinson would have a little more time to himself (and to make sure he at least occasionally took time to eat), though he uses any free time to continue to pump out subscription-driving website articles. He also seems to publish at least one book a year, and last year he did his first for a mainstream publisher, writing Why You Should Be a Socialist for Macmillan.
Gold and Robinson feel that the main problem is that the Left still has a problem making its arguments on a large enough stage. “My parents watch MSNBC, and they get a very dim picture of reality. People thought Mayor Pete won Iowa. They still think that,” she says. “People don’t really know who Joe Biden is. They think he’s the guy from The Onion articles.
“If you look at polling on issues, Bernie’s issues are very, very popular. People want Medicare for All. It polls like crazy. People want the Green New Deal, when you explain what it is. They want what he’s offering and they want his policies, much more than Biden’s policies, because Biden doesn’t have any,” she says. “But for three years, MSNBC has been poisoning brains with ‘Trump is the worst person who has ever existed,’ forgetting the Bush era entirely, and convincing people that he’s a Russia puppet and everything was fine before he showed up, and everything will be fine once we get rid of him. So all they care about is the electability question, and they’re scared. And electability is like high finance. It’s as real as you want it to be.”
So the obvious solution, to them, is to beat MSNBC at their own game. Like it or not, in the past several years, political arguments have moved from the editorial pages to YouTube, as voices ranging from Contrapoints author Natalie Wynn to populist news outlet The Hill to podcasting giant Joe Rogan have been making left-wing, right-wing, and sui generis arguments to large audiences. Current Affairs have gotten into the game with explainer pieces defending safe spaces and socialism itself.
The next step, per Robinson (who was recently invited and then disinvited to appear on Real Time with Bill Maher), is: “We need our own news network, which is the project I’ve been thinking about recently.”
Pointing to the large pool of leftist political talent and the decreasing cost of producing high-quality content, Robinson has begun testing the waters to see if he can get enough donations to start his own alternative to MSNBC. “We don’t know if we’re going to go forward with this yet, because it’s such a huge undertaking, and we’re still struggling to get our print magazine out on time. And it would require millions of dollars in initial donations,” he says. “You’d have to start online and work your way up. You start with a few shows that are probably weekly, and then you get closer and closer to daily, and then you try and expand your distribution channels. It’s just a giant undertaking that I’m daunted by.
“But it’s something that I increasingly feel that unless we do, it’s going to be a problem. If we believe that the things that we stand for are urgent and necessary, and I certainly do, then we need to figure out how to win the majority of people over to them,” he says. ”I don’t think we’re going to do that without a powerful media apparatus.”
While getting the message out and conquering MSNBC are long-term projects, one of the left’s most immediate concerns is that it has an image problem.
On the day of the South Carolina primary that turned the election on its head, The New York Times wrote a piece highly critical of the influential “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House, which has rallied its listeners to campaign for Sanders, but also to digitally harass his opponents. At their urging, fans of the podcast flooded the Twitter accounts of rival candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg with emojis representing, respectively, snakes and rats. After dropping out of the race, Warren criticized Sanders for not doing enough to curb “online bullying.”
Though not a fan of either candidate, Gold can still relate—a bit. A Michigan native, her grandparents were Jewish socialists who belonged to the activist organization the Workers Circle (formerly called the Workmen’s Circle). During her first week at Oberlin University, she went to a socialist alternative meeting, “and there was a fucking brocialist guy with long blond hair yelling at us for not caring enough about the Iraq war. And I’m like ‘I just got here.’”
No one likes being yelled at, and Robinson’s guiding statement for Current Affairs is to get people into the movement by being “the socialist magazine for non-socialists,” Gold says. ”We encourage people to think about things they haven’t thought about before. So much of it as an easy sell. It’s about fundamental kindness, and fairness.”
One of the long-standing slogans of the socialist movement, one you see online whenever the left triumphs or faces a setback, is “a better world is possible.” But you can’t get to that better world without knocking down a few obstacles. Robinson understands the need to strike at one’s perceived enemies. He’s done it several times himself.
“I’m not just an incredibly hostile person, I pick targets because I think people are going to do real harm and it’s not being noticed,” Robinson says. “The reason that I do those is because often a person will be really hyped up in the press, and I will be worried seriously that person is going to really become popular, and that their ideas and their role is very dangerous, and they need to be exposed.”
He’s written very lengthy takedowns of right-wing “thought leaders” like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson, and publicly challenged them both to debates. (Neither of have accepted, though Robinson plans to publicly debate Dinesh D’Souza, author of United States of Socialism: Who's Behind It. Why It's Evil. How to Stop It, in the near future). He also wrote deeply researched takedown pieces, looking into the voting histories and on-record policy views of what he views as the empty politics of most Democratic candidates, including Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bloomberg and Buttigieg.
The latter takedown, Gold adds, helped turn the left against the Mayoral Boy Wonder right as mainstream media began to swoon over his campaign. “It’s going to sound like I’m insulting him, but anybody could have done that research. It’s publicly available, it’s not genius reporting. MSNBC could have done that, easily,” she says. “But they’re owned by Comcast. We don’t have corporate sponsorship or ads, but we’re able to do things that MSNBC can’t do, because they have corporate bottom lines.”
In many ways, Robinson seems like a man outside of time. A teetotaling vegetarian, he favors dandy-ish, Jay Gatsby-style suits, and is seemingly never photographed without a cravat. His musical tastes seem to run exclusively to Motown and hot jazz, though it’s hard to imagine him ever taking the time off to enjoy dancing. He tends to like the “long-dead cultural things,” he says, that have been swept aside by late capitalism.
And perhaps there’s nothing he likes more than kindness and empathy. He’s a deeply idiosyncratic man ever-vigilant against empty suits on all sides. But in his own way, perhaps, he’s also secretly the left’s answer to Fred Rogers, willing to give his readers a pep talk and “consensual hug,” doing his best to make people feel less alone in a dehumanizing world, extolling against the dangers of giving in to despair.
“When we started Current Affairs, literally the motto that we had was, ‘Making life joyful again.’ It’s actually ironic that I have become known for these negative articles, because the print edition of Current Affairs really tries to bring a sense of joy and delight to reading about political and economic and philosophical issues,” he says. “I am actually a very cheerful person.”
He says that last week he received a letter from a former libertarian that ended with, “On a very personal note, I was anxious for a very long time and felt very powerless, believing my unhappiness was only my fault,” Robinson says. “Realizing I was not alone, and that there were others like you who care about people and real problems helped me more than I could put into words. I don’t feel afraid of the darkness anymore, thank you for writing and helping me understand how a better world is possible.
“That’s a handwritten note I got, and that’s not the only one. I’ve had probably a dozen like that over the course of the last couple years, and that's actually how I feel, what I want to do,” he says. “I want to reach out to people who are alone and afraid and scared, and tell them not that everything is OK and going to be OK, but that there are people on their side with them and they’re not crazy, and help them feel understood.”
The articles that spawn those thankful letters, Robinson knows, “unfortunately, never get as much publicity as like, ‘Why Kavanaugh is Full of Shit,’” he chuckles. “But what can you do?”