The Cautionary Tale of Mickey Kaus, Contrarian Liberal Blogger Turned Trump Fan

Anti-immigration activist Mickey Kaus: What a long, strange trip his career has been! Photo: Stephen Kaus

The first time Mickey Kaus entered my awareness, it was under the byline Robert M. Kaus. A former staffer in the very brief 1984 presidential campaign of Fritz Hollings, he published a hilarious piece for The New Republic entitled “The Dog Ate My Candidate” (here is evidence it existed, but I cannot find the text). Among other things, Kaus revealed the closely guarded trade secret that writing political speeches doesn’t take all that long. 

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s, when I was working on welfare reform at the Progressive Policy Institute, better known as the think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council. I soon encountered Mickey as a writer for the selfsame New Republic; he could best be described at that time as a commissar for the work-based approach to welfare reform, determined to keep the pressure on Bill Clinton and folks like me not to “cave” to traditional liberals trying to preserve a permanent personal entitlement to public assistance. Mickey’s fierce demeanor was reinforced by his steadily increasing resemblance to Frank Zappa, or so I recall.

Kaus eventually left the Emerald City of Washington, spurred by allergies, and after a stint with the new online periodical Slate, started his own website — or to use the newfangled term, “weblog” — called Kausfiles, in 1999. I remember seeing the site and thinking: Oh, no, what’s happened to Mickey? This is so embarrassing! Why would he think anyone would want to read his random comments on random subjects? This was five years before I started blogging myself, and the “blogger’s voice” Mickey pioneered by then seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

Without adult supervision, however, Kaus began to grind axes more regularly, mostly going after the political left — in the cause, of course, of a reformed progressive movement. For a while there, every time I read Kausfiles it spent an inordinate amount of time criticizing unions or liberal journalists — particularly the L.A. Times — for their baleful effect on the Democratic Party and its paleolithic attachment to causes that were no longer progressive. When Mickey returned to Slate in 2002 and brought Kausfiles with him, he did not seem any tamer, or more edited. By the time his obsession with immigration policy emerged during George W. Bush’s unsuccessful second-term reform push (a natural for Mickey since it enabled him to insult both Democratic and Republican elites), he was at best hovering over the fine line that separates the gadfly from the crank.  So it didn’t surprise too many people when Kaus left Slate to run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2010, flying the freak flag of internal opposition to corrupt and sclerotic liberalism. While the 94,298 votes he received are a lot more than any other blogger I can think of has harvested (and he was identified as a “blogger” on the June 2010 primary ballot), he and other minor candidates — an unknown got about three times the number of votes as Mickey — only held Barbara Boxer to 80 percent. 

After that performance, and a brief tenure with Newsweek, Kaus finally jumped the partisan barriers entirely and began blogging for the website of the conservative Daily Caller, where his anti-liberalism found its natural, ultimate home. But his passions got the best of him again as he was censored — and then quit — after attacking Fox News from the right on immigration reform. 

I’m taking you down this extended tour of an obscure memory lane thanks to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, who tracked down Mickey in his long-time home of Venice Beach:

[W]hile his old friends from top New York and Washington publications are now Top Thinkers and People Who Run Things, he is sitting in a coffee shop in Venice, talking about how he’s going to light up the congressional switchboard with calls about immigration. He now lives off his savings, and writes solely on Twitter, where he has emerged as an unlikely man of this political moment: a Democratic intellectual who thinks that Donald Trump is the “most credible” candidate for the presidency.

Aside from Mickey’s apparent belief that this is the latest issue on which liberals have sold out their progressive birthright for a mess of votes, you have to figure he delights in his lonely stature as a Democrat for Trump, and perhaps has thoughts of vengeance toward his ancient foes on the left and the right should the Donald win. 

But for me, and perhaps for others, Mickey Kaus represents a cautionary tale of what might have happened to any of us had not a sense of perspective, an understanding of how coalition politics work, and yes, strong-minded editors kept us off the crazy train to Cranksville. Every political writer hears that lonely whistle now and then, and it’s best to lie down till it fades into the distance, headed toward Venice Beach.

The Cautionary Tale of Proto-Blogger Mickey Kaus