This Election’s Best Pundit Is a Fake Columnist Named Carl Diggler
You know when you want to tell someone about a really cool podcast or Twitter account that you discovered, but first you have to get through a bunch of background explanation so they can appreciate it in context? And as you’re doing it, you can tell they’re losing interest, so you have to do it as succinctly as possible to make sure the thing you’re going to describe still seems cool? That’s what I’m going to try to do now, so please trust me that the thing at the end is cool.
First, consider an analogy that I’ve been workshopping: doing irony online is like this big river where as you drift deeper into the jungle you see different fun little villages on the shore — the Serious Favstar Guys, the Vodka Moms, the “so cute n sad rn” trash wytches, the Tom Clancy-wannabe “war professor” columnists, the whole bizarre universe of the #HillaryMen, and the rare and beautiful combination of those last two. Of course the Dr. Kurtz of this scenario, the shadowy and eerily relatable madman you meet when you can go no further, is @KattWillFerrell. The most woke of us all…
Interestingly, this mode of thinking is in line with a lot of vague Silicon Valley notions about “mapping the internet” and how in the future instead of countries we will have weird little online tribes. From a 2015 New Yorker profile of (problematic) venture capitalist Marc Andreesen:
We have this theory of nerd nation, of forty or fifty million people all over the world who believe that other nerds have more in common with them than the people in their own country. So you get to choose what tribe or band or group you’re a part of.” The nation-states of Twitter will map the world.
And honestly, this mode of thinking accounts for the rise of Donald Trump at least as well as traditional models of media. So keeping with that metaphor, there is something legitimately, uncannily strange happening in one of these little villages of like-minded nerds. It’s right on the slight sliver of overlap of journalist Twitter and ironydoer Twitter. The niche satirical political columnist Carl Diggler has settled into a fun one-sided rivalry with “data-driven” political analyst Nate Silver — the natural O’Reilly to Diggler’s Colbert — and has actually proven to be a more accurate forecaster of election results than the guy he is making fun of.
Now granted, primaries are not really elections, and ultimately have a limited bearing on the final outcome, but let’s not overthink it. Carl Diggler’s smart-assery is proving to be better, or at least just as good, at forecasting results than FiveThirtyEight’s cold-hard-data strategies — and every other pundit’s, for that matter.
In the interest of context, I should mention that Carl is one of a number of really truly well-done satirical columns in this election. You could almost say that satirical political columns are “having a moment” (if the phrase “having a moment” is still having a moment). PFT Commenter is still very entertaining. Diggler has a few less-active colleagues, like Prof. Jeff Wilhelm, Media Steph, and Marshall Hartford III (the 24-year-old radical revolutionary anarchist who began his last column, “There is a revolving door on my fifth story loft in Bed-Stuy”). These are all pitch-perfect and really fresh character types that are written just so solidly. My other favorite is probably Richard Nixon’s column in Mashable, written by some playwright who is super funny and also happens to know everything about Richard Nixon.
But Carl Diggler is especially satisfying because pundits ostensibly trade in credibility, which is tied to making these concrete, measurable predictions, and Carl is just objectively beating all of them at it. In Iowa, he predicted Clinton over Bernie because (from his column the day before the primary):
Sure, the Bernie Bros make effective attack dogs, but my gut tells me that when it’s time to vote, these basement-dwelling slobs won’t be able to get their moms to drive them to the caucus. These Millennial misogynists have probably squandered their car privileges on too many trips to Best Buy to stock up on Mountain Dew Code Reds and gaming headsets they use to scream slurs at women of color on Xbox. Furthermore, Hillary’s cadre of web-savvy Gen Xers (the much-bandied “Hillary Men”) have been destroying Sanders supporters with logic in full view of everyone thanks to Twitter’s .@ reply function. This is the first election that will mostly be determined by online interactions, and Hillary’s veritable professional militia-style online wing has ruthlessly massacred these terrorists.
Hillary did beat Bernie in Iowa. Probably just because Iowa democrats turned out to be a little too conservative to take a chance on Bernie, but indulging the insane BernieBro narrative, it turns out, is no less reliable than the most data-driven, PhD-analyzed political sabermetrics that money can buy.
In the Iowa GOP caucus, Carl predicted a Cruz-Trump-Rubio-Carson finish because (from that same post):
Although he’s been leading in most Iowa surveys, Donald Trump has a similar turnout problem as Bernie, as most of his support comes from first-time caucus-goers who are normally legally barred from going to the polls. His campaign will be aggressively lobbying parole officers to ease off the ankle monitors and let Trump’s fanatical supporters vote. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio has been surging in the polls, which nets him a respectable third place not far behind the two frontrunners. Finally, Dr. Ben Carson, who was challenging Trump for the lead not too long ago, will get fourth place with about 10-12% of the vote from his hard core of supporters who believe him to be the reincarnation of the blind prophet Eli.
The casual comparison of Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump is something Carl Diggler does a lot. And maybe there’s something to it, as that turned out to be the exact order those candidates finished in in Iowa.
A few days later he called the New Hampshire results almost perfectly too: Bernie over Hillary because, “While harassment may fail you in Iowa, it will bolster you in New Hampshire. This state is practically built on the idea of filming police officers and pestering them about maritime law, so they see the harassment Sanders’ campaign is built on as inherently patriotic.” And even the unexpected Trump-Kasich 1-2 finish in the New Hampshire GOP contest, reasoning that, “I toured New Hampshire with John Kasich last month, and there I saw that this plucky vagrant’s momentum is for real. [His] copious tales of being thrown out of department stores and gas stations by security guards are truly connecting with rank-and-file Republican voters […] In this crowded field Kasich manages to keep his campaign going with a huge second place finish.”
And Carl came through again in the Nevada GOP with a column called, “Rubio Will Finish Within 15 Points of the Winner Again, Thus Locking Up the Nomination.” Rubio did finish 7 points behind Trump, reinvigorating his whole campaign (and giving him the confidence to double down on Trump in Thursday’s debate).
So although Carl did wrongly predict Bernie would take Nevada, he has a considerably better batting average than most real pundits/bloggers. It’s like watching a bunch of grown adults fouling off a pitching machine and then this guy steps in and connects right in the sweet spot, swinging with one hand. How did this happen?
Carl, or “The Dig” as his editors have conveniently branded him, is written by two guys you may recognize from Twitter. Or you may not; I have no idea. The first, Virgil Texas (@VirgilTexas) probably has the more polished, literary style and a knack for capturing the exact tone of political and journalistic touchstones like Hunter S. Thompson. Felix Biederman (@ByYourLogic) is the young international studies major/MMA enthusiast who moved to Brooklyn after demonstrating a preternatural ability to observe and exploit the tiny absurdities of online behavior. If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably as @SwarthyVillain, although that account was mysteriously shut down by Twitter (after pressure from the Saudi royal family??) in early 2016.
So when you see a Carl Diggler story, it was written by those two guys. But Carl himself is the brainchild of Cafe editor-in-chief Blake Zeff. Without Zeff, there would be no Dig. He came up with the initial idea for Diggler, then hired Virgil and Felix to develop it with him and write the stories. He also ran Carl’s Twitter himself in the beginning. These days, Zeff tells me that he still helps come up with ideas for Carl’s stories, but he mostly supervises and edits. And gets in on a little bit of the action of running Carl’s Twitter account.
At Cafe, Biederman and Texas write one to four columns a week and keep up an active social media presence for Carl, live-tweeting campaign events, feuding with other writers, and sustaining the multiple behind-the-scenes storylines in Carl’s personal life. They both clearly care about this just as much as the many pundits who voluntarily spend hundreds of extracurricular hours each month quibbling on Twitter. Carl also spends a lot of time quibbling on Twitter, and you can’t really fake that. As of February 24, his account has amassed 2,613 followers in 1,614 tweets over roughly four months — not earth-shattering, but certainly nothing to scoff at. Especially since a lot of those followers are hip media figures who are part of the establishment, but in on the joke. You might even say they are woke. (For the record, Carl Diggler does not follow back.)
So it looks like Diggler’s star will only rise as the election heats up. And indeed, like any serious Washington insider hack in an election year, Carl has headed out to the campaign trail. Well, his column has. From New Hampshire, Virgil and Felix filed their own reports under Carl’s byline, in Carl’s column, in a somewhat confusing instance of breaking the fourth wall. Carl himself spent the time sulking in his Park Slope apartment, frustrated that his “editor sent the two young reporters instead of himself, the respected veteran journalist.” Oh, and he was also frustrated about an ongoing custody situation, but that’s a minor background detail. Besides the day-to-day political news cycle, Carl fleshes out his columns with a continuous run of multi-week story arcs. In one, nobody invites him to Thanksgiving, so he goes to cover the war in Syria and ends up kidnapped by Russians. Here is a video of him the Russians made:
In another, Carl meets a girl on Tumblr and becomes woke after moving into her NYU dorm.
But lately the storylines seem to have taken a back seat to the serious business of handicapping this presidential race. And the fact that Carl has actually started covering these events on location may seem irrelevant, but I mention it because it’s that level of commitment that makes Carl work not merely on the level of a political cartoon or an SNL sketch with really sharp jokes in it, but also on the level of an offbeat “dispatches from the campaign trail”-style book in the tradition of Hunter Thompson or Matt Taibbi. Like those two, Carl’s writers are just as unironically invested in being proven right as any other of these pundits, even if that enthusiasm is obscured by this weird hall of mirrors of irony. It still comes across. And maybe that’s why it’s so satisfying when Carl owns pundits, because he’s taken all the trouble to beat them completely at their own game, on their own terms, and is doing it as a joke.
Now sure, this is to sooome extent dumb luck. And sure, it’s a liiittttle hard to get into all the narratives if you don’t want to read all of Carl’s columns from the beginning, (not to mention his Twitter timeline). And sure, there might be a feeewwww inconsistencies in the world he’s creating. But when Carl is good, he’s really good.
Consider this passage from Diggler’s January 22 column about the “highlights” of Jeb Bush’s freshly suspended campaign:
5. Accidentally Flushing Glasses Down Toilet In Front Of Media Scrum
Jeb, who is one of the most notorious “nervous sneezers” in politics, ripped a classic sneeze while The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro was asking him about his use of the video app Vine. Jeb’s glasses flew off his face, and he attempted to catch them. However, instead of securing his trademark frameless glasses, the Floridian ended up batting them into the toilet. Assuring reporters “everything is fine, this is why I love campaigns, it’s all unexpected, I love it brother,” Jeb made his way into the bathroom to fish his lenses out. Unfortunately, an errant Zune hanging out of his pocket dropped hit the “FLUSH” button on the airline-style toilet, causing Jeb’s glasses to be evacuated into a bag of human waste in the undercarriage on the bus. Frank Luntz says that focus groups saw Jeb as “less confident” since this incident.
It seems like it could almost be a real life gaffe at the beginning, the tone is realistic enough — he references a specific reporter and also Frank Luntz — and it ends with this visual of Jeb’s glasses in a vacuum sealed bag of shit in the bottom of a bus. What more do you need?
Yes, somewhere between bad faith antagonism and good faith spirited competition, Carl Diggler has accidentally delivered the ultimate satirical own: proving the complete frivolousness of his targets without even really trying. It might be unsettling to accept that when it comes right down to it, the establishment media is really no more authoritative than so many broken clocks are right twice a day, but Carl Diggler is making a pretty good argument for it. Even if his name is a played-out-ass Boogie Nights reference.