Regrettably, I cannot give credit by name to “Yup yup yup,” a Twitter user with the handle of @Hi_individual1, but I was inspired mentally to append my own assenting “yup yup yup” to his or her succinct summing up of American political life in the twenty-first century: “One side thinks it’s war; the other side doesn’t know there are sides.” Like most such sententiae, it is true in essence, though of course there are lots of people on the one side who don’t think it’s war—even as they routinely lend their automatic support to those who do—and at least a few on the other who do know that there are sides, though they may not admit it, even to themselves.
As anyone who remembers the happier days of “Bushitler” fifteen years ago will agree, this unacknowledged rhetorical “war” long antedates the Trump administration, but under Democratic presidents the war party tends to play it down, as they are already beginning to do in the first weeks and months of the Biden administration. Having waged their war of words with scorched-earth ruthlessness between 2016 and 2020, some of these combatants, now that their active “Resistance” to the party in power is no longer required, appear to be allowing for the possibility of a more conciliatory approach, if not to the hated Mr. Trump himself then to a select few of his defeated followers—especially those who might be the more willing to switch sides if they don’t know that there are any.
Even The New York Times, for four long years and more the standard-bearer of the war party, has lately been finding it politic, not, of course, to retract a syllable of its Trump-era scandal-mongering, but to acknowledge handsomely that its righteous and continuing wrath against the former president might have obscured the odd bit of scandalous behavior on its own side. Here’s what no less a Times eminence than Maureen Dowd wrote about this at the end of February:
For the left, over the past four years, a reporter has been an ally and a superhero comrade in the epic mission of destroying Donald Trump. Liberals lionized any cable hosts and runaway Republicans who blasted Trump, even if they had previously been on the g.o.p. payroll, selling the Iraq war and Sarah Palin. Let’s be honest. It’s a lot more pleasant to be hailed by the left than demonized, as you are during periods when you’re holding a Democratic president to account, because the left can be just as nasty as the right.
Just as nasty, eh? That must be pretty nasty then! But can we take this as a promise from Maureen and/or The New York Times for “holding a Democratic president to account” with the same sort of campaign of vilification they waged for four years against Donald Trump? I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Ms. Dowd obviously takes it as much for granted that our elected officials are accountable to herself and her Times colleagues as that they themselves are not accountable to anybody. That’s why their pronouncements as to what is “truth” and what are “lies” can be treated as apodictic and no more open to question or debate than the media’s self-appointed “epic mission of destroying Donald Trump.” “Truth” in the Trump era was whatever they thought would serve that mission, no matter how implausible (like “Russian collusion”) it might be on its face. Thus in her column Ms. Dowd gives thanks to the Times’s Trump-haters with higher pay grades than her own for finally licensing her to call the president a liar after unaccountably withholding such permission during the George W. Bush years. “Some of the new assertiveness,” as she now calls the media’s constantly repeated use of the old duelist’s mentito, or “thou liest,” against Mr. Trump, “was good and should continue,” wrote Ms. Dowd.
Do you sense a “but” coming on? “But the role of the press in a functioning democracy,” she writes, assuming that there was no functioning democracy in Washington between January 20, 2017 and the same date this year, “is as watchdog, not partisan attack dog. Politicians have plenty of people spinning for them. They don’t need the press doing that, too.” Actually, I think she’ll find that the politicians of the Biden era do very much need the press “doing that too”—as of course they are doing, which is the reason why Ms. Dowd now feels it necessary, perhaps as a relief to her conscience, to warn her fellow journalists against the lefties in power who are already “working the refs.” Relieved of the necessity of being a “partisan attack dog” under President Trump, the press might allow truth to reclaim at least a portion of its formerly non-partisan quality—so long as it doesn’t seriously interfere with the Democratic exercise of power.
Nor can such non-partisan truth be allowed to threaten the imposture that the media still are the impartial “refs” that Ms. Dowd affects to believe them to be and not fellow combatants, alongside the progressives in government, in the undeclared war mentioned by Mr. (or Ms.) Yup yup yup. That imposture is necessary to the new one here heralded by Maureen Dowd that, having slaked their lust for partisan battle for the last four years, the media can and will snap back to being the even-handed, non-partisan observers they haven’t been since the 1960s. I suppose it’s something, if only a curiosity, that she still thinks it is worth paying lip service to this long-out-of-date journalistic ideal.
On the same day and on the same page that her column ran, Ross Douthat was harping on the same string but on a lower note with “The Twilight of the Anti-Trump Idols.” Said idols with feet of clay (to change the figure) were, so far as he could see anyway, five in number and designated by him as “the Good Republican, the Heroic Whistleblower, the Beleaguered Expert, the Tough Blue State Governor, [and] the Wise and Sophisticated Europeans.” For some reason he has nothing more to say either about the Heroic Whistleblower or the Beleaguered Expert (I wonder whom he could be thinking of there?), but the “Tough Blue State Governor” was specified as Andrew Cuomo, “the Good Republicans” as the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, and the “Wise and Sophisticated Europeans” as the EU bureaucrats whose botching of the continent’s vaccination campaign was, at the time of writing, almost making poor abused Mr. Trump look wise and sophisticated by comparison.
Mr. Douthat’s mention of the Lincoln Project had been anticipated ten days earlier by his Times colleague Frank Bruni under the headline “When You Don’t Have Trump to Hide Behind,” the sub-head of which read: “There’s now space for other scandals. Witness the Lincoln Project.” So, you see, it was a space problem that had kept the Times’s investigative sleuths from being more even-handed in their sniffing out of scandal. The paper’s pages were necessarily so chock-full of Trump scandals that there can’t have been a column-inch spare to devote to alleged pedophilia and self-dealing at the Lincoln Project—or, no doubt, to other trifling matters such as allegations of bribery and influence-peddling on the part of former Vice President Joe Biden through the agency of his ne’er-do-well but obviously well-connected son Hunter.
As for Governor Cuomo, it can’t have been a space problem, given the amount of space the Times, along with the rest of the media, had found only a few months earlier to cast him as “a Resistance hero” (as Michelle Goldberg, also of the Times’s op-ed page, describes him), though it was obvious even at the time that he had made a catastrophic blunder in ordering covid-positive old people back into nursing homes, where thousands contracted the coronavirus and died. Now that it had become known that he lied about this by claiming the number of dead to have been far fewer than they actually were, Governor Cuomo could be treated as a wounded animal cut from the herd and left to became the prey of his numerous critics—now augmented by several allegations of sexual harassment against him.
Just last July, commentators were tripping over themselves to praise Governor Cuomo’s coronavirus news conferences. “No one does it like Andrew Cuomo,” fawned Jennifer Rubin in the headline to an op-ed for The Washington Post. “For nearly an hour, he went on,” she wrote, “brutally honest and entirely pragmatic. Now imagine we had a president who talked and governed that way.”
What a difference a year makes. “Cuomo’s dark side was already obvious. Just look at his news conferences,” or so wrote Kate Cohen in an op-ed for the same newspaper on March 4. Yet it couldn’t have been entirely coincidental that the obviousness of his “dark side” was only noticed by the media after he was no longer needed as a party leader in the grand alliance of media and Democrats bent on their “epic mission of destroying Donald Trump,” as Ms. Dowd called it. Not that Governor Cuomo didn’t still have his defenders on The New York Times op-ed page, if only such a lukewarm one as Ms. Goldberg, who felt it incumbent on her to explain to readers “Why Democrats Aren’t Asking Cuomo to Resign.” I don’t know about you, but, back in the Trump time, I would have thought the answer to that question a lot more obvious than the governor’s dark side.
In war time, at least, Democrats don’t attack or criticize other Democrats, still less ask for them to resign—not unless they are easily replaceable foot-soldiers like the former Senator Al Franken, who is now regretting (as, I infer, is Ms. Goldberg) that he was persuaded to take one for the team ahead of the midterm elections in 2018. But now that Mr. Trump’s departure has freed up scandal space in the pages of the Times, we might otherwise have expected some of it to be filled with further coverage of the state’s newly scandalous governor if not for Ms. Goldberg, who tells us that, “after the killing of George Floyd and last summer’s protests, the locus of our culture wars shifted from sex to race.” This, along with the fact that Tara Reade’s story was allegedly “full of inconsistencies,” was also what, so Ms. Goldberg says, caused the media to downplay Ms. Reade’s allegations of sexual assault against Joe Biden.
Besides, she writes,
many Democrats are sick of holding themselves to a set of standards that Republicans feel no need to try to meet. Twitter is full of people demanding that the party not “Franken” Cuomo, and pointing out that Republicans are taking no steps to investigate alleged sexual harassers in their own ranks, including the freshman congressman Madison Cawthorn. At a certain point, making sacrifices to demonstrate virtue, in the face of an opposition that has none, makes a lot of Democrats feel like suckers.
So it turns out that it was really themselves that the Democrats were being so tough on during the Trump years. Now that the Bad Orange Man is fading into the sunset they figure it’s time to give themselves a break from setting such a good but unheeded example for Republicans. Not, of course, that they are in the least prepared to give up their Trump-obsession or their now sky-high hopes that prosecutors for the Southern District of New York may finally be able to get him on a tax rap.
At the time of writing, Governor Cuomo is still clinging to office, and the media appear to be unable to make up their minds as to whether or not to make him a sacrifice to their new and allegedly non-partisan—or at least less partisan—approach to political scandal. Perhaps it would be enough for them just to nod along with the lesson that Ross Douthat seeks to teach with his Nietzschean pronunciamento, mentioned above:
This twilight of the anti-Trump idols should be a teachable moment in two ways. First, it’s a reminder that the problem of media failure in the Trump era does not begin and end with the conservative bubble. As my colleague Frank Bruni wrote last month, Trump’s outsize awfulness often worked as a “concealer” over sins and follies not his own. But there should have been more scrutiny for what lay underneath: The issues with Cuomo were always apparent, the issues with the Lincoln Project somewhat so, and the fact that America and Europe were never so very far apart in their Covid response was discernible as well. Yet anti-Trumpism frequently produced narrative conformity in media outlets that congratulated themselves on not being like those sycophants at Fox.
As I recall it, that’s a slightly inaccurate description of what “media outlets” were doing up until very recently—and what some of them are doing still. The self-congratulations may have been implicit, but explicitly they weren’t so much taking glory to themselves for being unlike Fox as they were damning Fox for being unlike them—and so successfully that, according to some in “the conservative bubble” anyway, it has lately ceased to be quite so unlike them as it was before. Formerly, however, even so much of a hint of their own self-righteousness as this would have been unthinkable on the part of the media. Now the herd mentality can be abandoned, or so we are meant to suppose, like the herd’s own forsaken members—sufficiently, at least, for so independent an observer as Mr. Douthat to discern a trace of the self-congratulation on his own side that he finds so conspicuous on the other.
He mentions in connection with the latter the late Rush Limbaugh, who appears to represent to him what he calls “the conservative media’s retreat into a dream palace,” which, in turn, is said to have “made portions of the mainstream-cum-liberal media stupider.” The reasoning here, so far as I can make it out, seems to be that the Limbaugh Right, by being so stupid, inconsequential, and wrong, could pose no serious challenge to the smart, influential, and correct people on the “mainstream-cum-liberal” Left with whom he identifies himself and who, no longer kept on their rhetorical toes by a cogent and responsible opposition, have been left to grow a bit—only a bit, mind you—sloppy and careless about their own cogency and responsibility. Once again, that’s not quite how I remember it. The supposed “dream palace”—cognate, presumably, with the “conservative bubble”—was never besieged or even assaulted in any substantive way by the forces of reason or argument or debate but simply ignored, as Mr. Douthat continues to ignore them here by assuming their divorce from reality.
It must appear to him to be worth his while, however, to throw up such skeins of ratiocination as this in lieu of any serious engagement with those who disagree with him. Could this be so as to hide from the other side the fact that it is a side? Or else to hide, from himself as much as from them, the fact that the state of war which has existed between them for the last four years is by no means over just because Mr. Not-Trump is sitting in the White House? In war, you don’t argue with the enemy; you can only defeat him or be defeated by him—the latter eventuality being much less likely if the enemy doesn’t know there’s a war on. If the attack dogs now want us to think of them as watchdogs, it must be only in order to uphold for a bit longer the still comfortable illusion of the other side that there are no sides.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 8, on page 62
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