Congratulations, Elitists: Liberals and Conservatives Do Have Common Interests Now
Well done, snobs of the #Resistance. You made the Horseshoe Theory real.
The hilarious headline in the Daily Beast yesterday read like a cross of Clickhole and Izvestia circa 1937: “Is Glenn Greenwald the New Master of Right-Wing Media? FROM HIS MOUTH TO FOX’S EARS?”
The story, fed to poor Beast media writer Lloyd Grove by certain unnamed embittered personages at the Intercept, is that their former star writer Greenwald appears on, and helps provide content for — gasp! — right-wing media! It’s nearly the exclusive point of the article. Greenwald goes on TV with… those people! The Beast’s furious journalisming includes a “spot check” of the number of Fox items inspired by Greenwald articles (“dozens”!) and multiple passages comparing Greenwald to Donald Trump, the ultimate insult in #Resistance world. This one made me laugh out loud:
In a self-perpetuating feedback loop that runs from Twitter to Fox News and back again, Greenwald has managed, like Trump before him, to orchestrate his very own news cycles.
This, folks, is from the Daily Beast, a publication that has spent much of the last five years huffing horseshit into headlines, from Bountygate to Bernie’s Mittens to classics like SNL: Alec Baldwin's Trump Admits 'I Don't Care About America'. The best example was its “investigation” revealing that three of Tulsi Gabbard’s 75,000 individual donors — the late Princeton professor Stephen Cohen, peace activist Sharon Tennison, and a person called “Goofy Grapes” who may or may not have worked for Russia Today host Lee Camp — were, in their estimation, Putin “apologists.” Speaking of creating your own news cycles, this asinine smear inspired serious stories by ABC News and CNN, and when Gabbard denounced it as “fake news,” Politico jumped in with the now-familiar retort:
“Fake news” is a favorite phrase of President Donald Trump…
For years now, this has been the go-to conversation-ender for prestige media pundits and Twitter trolls alike, directed at any progressive critic of the political mainstream: you’re a Republican! A MAGA-sympathizer! Or (lately), an “insurrectionist”! The Beast in its Greenwald piece used the most common of the Twitter epithets: “Trump-defender.” Treachery and secret devotion to right-wing politics are also the default explanation for the growing list of progressives making their way onto Fox of late, from Greenwald to Kyle Kulinski to Aaron Mate to Jimmy Dore to Cornel West.
The truth is, Trump conservatives and ACLU-raised liberals like myself, Greenwald, and millions of others do have real common cause, against an epistemic revolution taking hold in America’s political and media elite. The traditional liberal approach to the search for truth, which stresses skepticism and free-flowing debate, is giving way to a reactionary movement that Plato himself would have loved, one that believes knowledge is too dangerous for the rabble and must be tightly regulated by a priesthood of “experts.” It’s anti-democratic, un-American, and naturally unites the residents of even the most extreme opposite ends of our national political spectrum.
Its only defense is shaming and threats. “You’re a MAGA-enabler!” has become the answer to all challenges. A fascinating recent exchange between New York Times writer and author Barry Meier and Yahoo! chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff showed the reflex. When Meier, who just wrote a devastating book about the pernicious influence of private oppo researchers like Fusion-GPS, pressed Isikoff about his initial credulous reporting of the Christopher Steele dossier, Isikoff replied by asking Meier how he felt about the identity of the people embracing his work:
Your conclusions about the accuracy of Steele’s allegations, which are not very much different than mine… has led to your book being greeted by Trump loyalists and the conservative media outlets as a great journalistic achievements on your part, and pretty much ignored by other media… You’re being embraced by The Federalist and… you’re scheduled to be on Tucker Carlson… does it make you a little queasy?
Follow the logic. Isikoff, who himself denounced the Steele dossier, and said in the exchange he essentially agreed with Meier’s conclusions, went on to wonder aloud how right a thing could be, if it’s being embraced by The Federalist and Tucker Carlson. Never mind the more salient point, which is that Meier was “ignored by other media” because that’s how #Resistance media deals with unpleasant truths: it blacks them out, forcing reporters to spread the news on channels like Fox, which in turn triggers instant accusations of unreliability and collaborationism.
It’s a Catch-22. Isikoff’s implication is a journalist can’t make an impact if the only outlet picking up his or her work is The Federalist, but “reputable” outlets won’t touch news (and sometimes will even call for its suppression) if it questions prevailing notions of Conventional Wisdom.
These tactics have worked traditionally because for people like Meier, or myself, or even Greenwald, who grew up in the blue-leaning media ecosystem, there’s nothing more ominous professionally than being accused of aiding the cause of Trump or the right-wing. It not only implies intellectual unseriousness, but racism, sexism, reactionary meanness, greed, simple wrongness, and a long list of other hideous/evil characteristics that could render a person unemployable in the regular press. The label of “Trump-defender” isn’t easily removed, so most media people will go far out of their way to avoid even accidentally incurring it.
This fact has led to countless stupidities over the course of the last five years, with no better example than the latest uproar over the “lab leak hypothesis” about the origins of Covid-19.
Without taking any position on whether or not the theory is true, it’s undeniable that media professionals denounced the possibility for over a year largely because Donald Trump happened to believe it. Now that conventional wisdom has shifted gears on this story (the reason for that switch is a compelling mystery in itself, one the press has yet to explain), we have people like ABC’s Jon Karl coming out and saying things like, “Some things may be true even if Donald Trump said them.” The way Karl announced that the concept was now discussable was particularly hilarious: “Now, serious people are saying it needs a serious inquiry.”
Karl’s statement was meant to be profound and bold, but it’s actually a damning admission of incompetence on the part of a press corps that spent years turning hundreds of non-Trump questions into referenda on Trump. Does hydroxychloroquine work? Is it a good idea to have Russian and American troops sitting in each other’s laps in Syria? Did Barack Obama’s FBI send “spies” into the Trump campaign?
The desperation to say “no” on the latter question just because Trump was saying “yes” led to all-time absurd headlines like, “F.B.I. Used Informant to Investigate Russia Ties to Campaign, Not to Spy, as Trump Claims.” As for Karl’s point about Covid-19, if reporters were afraid to go near an urgent science story for fear an untoward revelation might give secondary comfort to Trump, what does that say about how they might have covered a dozen other issues more directly related to the last president, from impeachment to the “insurrection” to Russiagate and beyond?
The consistent pattern with the Trump-era press, which also happens to be the subject of so many of those Greenwald stories the Beast and the Intercept employees are complaining about, is that information that is true but doesn’t cut the right way politically is now routinely either non-reported or actively misreported.
Whether it’s Hunter Biden’s laptop or the Brian Sicknick affair or infamous fictions like the “find the fraud” story, the public increasingly now isn’t getting the right information from the bulk of the commercial press corps. That doesn’t just hurt Trump and conservatives, it misinforms the whole public. As Thomas Frank just pointed out in The Guardian, the brand of politicized reporting that informed the lab-leak fiasco risks obliterating the public’s faith in a whole range of institutions, a disaster that would not be borne by conservatives alone.
But this is only a minor point, compared to the more immediate reason the constant accusations of treachery and Trumpism aimed at dissenters should be ignored.
From the embrace of oligarchical censorship to the aggressive hawking of “noble lies” like Russiagate to the constant humbugging of Enlightenment values like due process to the nonstop scolding of peasants unschooled in the latest academic jargon, the political style of the modern Democratic mainstream isn’t just elitist and authoritarian, it’s almost laughably off-putting. In one moment it’s cheering for a Domestic War on Terror and in the next, declaring war on a Jeopardy contestant flashing the “A-OK” sign. It’s Dick Cheney meets Robin DiAngelo, maybe the most loathsome conceivable admixture. Who could be surprised a politically diverse group finds it obnoxious?
During the Trump years conventional wisdom didn’t just take aim at Trumpism. The Beltway smart set used the election of Trump to make profound arguments against traditional tenets of democracy, as well as “populism,” (which increasingly became synonymous with “the unsanctioned exercise of political power by the unqualified”), and various liberal traditions undergirding the American experiment. Endless permutations of the same argument were made over and over. Any country in which a Trump could be elected had a “too much democracy” problem, the “marketplace of ideas” must be a flawed model if it leads to people choosing Trump, the “presumption of innocence” was never meant to apply to the likes of Trump, and so on.
A turning point came after the death of George Floyd last year. On the one hand, it was understood that the ensuing protests were directed at Trump. Police brutality = institutional racism = Trump: it was all of a piece, hardly needing explanation. But there was another element, turbo-charged by propaganda pieces like the 1619 Project. We now know (thanks to a surreptitious recording of a New York Times town hall that somehow did not become a major journalism scandal) that the Times’s dive into history was part of an effort, following the collapse of the Russiagate story, to “shift resources” into race as a way “to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.”
This was already ethically questionable, committing to a massive quasi-historical project framing the United States as a nation built around the institution of slavery as, essentially, a plan B for covering Trump after the collapse of Russiagate. Would the Times have run the 1619 Project under President Hillary Clinton? Doubtful, but whatever: let’s stipulate for a moment that Trump deserved to be described as the historical by-product of our slave-owning legacy. What about the rest of it?
By last summer, after the patriotic mania of Russiagate receded, the newest moral panic that the kente-cloth-clad Schumers and Pelosis were suddenly selling, in solidarity with famed progressive change agents like Bank of America, PayPal, Apple, ComCast, and Alphabet, was that any nation capable of electing Trump must always have been a historically unredeemable white supremacist construct, the America of the 1619 Project. The original propaganda line was that “half” of Trump supporters were deplorable racists, then it was all of them, and then, four years in, the whole country and all its traditions were deemed deplorable.
Now, when the statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt came down, there was a new target, separate and apart from Trump. The whole history of American liberalism was indicted as well, denounced as an ineffectual trick of the oppressor, accomplishing nothing but giving legitimacy to racial despotism.
The American liberalism I knew growing up was inclusive, humble, and democratic. It valued the free exchange of ideas among other things because a central part of the liberal’s identity was skepticism and doubt, most of all about your own correctitude. Truth was not a fixed thing that someone owned, it was at best a fleeting consensus, and in our country everyone, down to the last kook, at least theoretically got a say. We celebrated the fact that in criminal courts, we literally voted to decide the truth of things.
This new elitist politics of the #Resistance era (I won’t ennoble it by calling it liberalism) has an opposite view. Truth, they believe, is properly guarded by “experts” and “authorities” or (as Jon Karl put it) “serious people,” who alone can be trusted to decide such matters as whether or not the Hunter Biden laptop story can be shown to the public. A huge part of the frustration that the general public feels is this sense of being dictated to by an inaccessible priesthood, whether on censorship matters or on the seemingly daily instructions in the ear-smashing new vernacular of the revealed religion, from “Latinx” to “birthing persons.”
In the tone of these discussions is a constant subtext that it’s not necessary to ask the opinions of ordinary people on certain matters. As Plato put it, philosophy is “not for the multitude.” The plebes don’t get a say on speech, their views don’t need to be represented in news coverage, and as for their political choices, they’re still free to vote — provided their favorite politicians are removed from the Internet, their conspiratorial discussions are banned (ours are okay), and they’re preferably all placed under the benevolent mass surveillance of “experts” and “professionals.”
Add the total absence of a sense of humor and the inability of “moral clarity” politics to co-exist with any form of disagreement, and there’s a reason why traditional liberals are suddenly finding it easier to talk with old conservative rivals on Fox than the new authoritarian Snob-Lords at CNN, MSNBC, the Daily Beast or The Intercept. For all their other flaws, Fox types don’t fall to pieces and write group letters about their intolerable suffering and “trauma” if forced to share a room with someone with different political views. They’re also not terrified to speak their minds, which used to be a virtue of the American left (no more).
From the moment Donald Trump was elected, popular media began denouncing a broad cast of characters deemed responsible. Nativists, misogynists and racists were first in line, but from there they started adding new classes of offender: Greens, Bernie Bros, “both-sidesers,” Russia-denialists, Intellectual dark-webbers, class-not-racers, anti-New-Normalers, the “Substackerati,” and countless others, casting every new group out with the moronic admonition that they’re all really servants of the “far right” and “grifters” (all income earned in service of non-#Resistance politics is “grifting”). By now conventional wisdom has denounced everyone but its own little slice of aristocratic purity as the “far right.”
They’re wrong on the ideology, but right about one thing: they’ve created a brand of imperious elite politics so revolting that it has the potential to unite even this Balkanized wreck of a country. If they keep this up, liberals and conservatives may start talking for real, and maybe even fix a thing or two.
“If they keep this up, liberals and conservatives may start talking for real, and maybe even fix a thing or two.“. Well said Matt. I’m of a conservative bent; and I love reading what you have to say. I know we would absolutely not agree on a lot of things, particularly when it comes to specific policies; however, we do have common cause on this recent journalistic absurdity! We SHOULD talk and maybe fix a thing or two 🙂
What a thought provoking, brilliant framing of our current horrendous clusterfuck. I love supporting you here on Substack, but it sure seems like this would do a lot of public good if it were more widely disseminated.