With President Trump’s disapproval numbers for his handling of the pandemic in the mid-60%, with states that pushed his early opening — Florida and Texas — now the hottest of hot spots, with the economy going in the wrong direction, and with polls showing Biden opening a double-digit distance on Trump, you would think that Trump’s defeat in November is a done deal. Not so fast.
In his 4th of July speech at Mt. Rushmore, Trump previewed his new strategy and message. Drumming up fears of “left-wing fascism” and “attacks” on our nation’s heritage and heroes were his themes. You might be inclined to dismiss all that as simply more of the same-old Trump divisiveness and fear-mongering — which it is.
But a string of recent events in the world of journalism indicate that the charge of “left-wing fascism” has enough basis in reality that it could be a way Trump changes the subject from his handling of the pandemic, rallies his troops, and recaptures some who are waffling.
Last month the distinguished and eminently decent editorial page editor of The New York Times, James Bennet, resigned amid a storm of protest from Times staff members for his publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton. The Arkansas senator advocated the use of military troops to quell civil unrest. Such views, according to Times staff members, should never have seen the light of day, at least not on the pages of the New York Times.
Then this week another member of the editorial staff of the Times, again a distinguished author, Bari Weiss, called it quits. She cited a hostile work environment, bullying and on-line attacks by her own colleagues from the Times. Here is how Weiss’s work and outlook were characterized in a recent Vanity Fair profile.
“Broadly speaking, Weiss’s work is heterodox, defying easy us/them, left/right categorization. Since getting hired at the paper in the spring of 2017, she has focused on hot-button cultural topics, such as #MeToo, the Women’s March, and campus activism, approaching each topic with a confrontational skepticism that until recently had a strong place within the liberal discourse. Her basic gist: while such movements are well-intentioned, their excesses of zeal, often imposed by the hard left, can backfire.”
In her lengthy letter of resignation to Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger, Weiss wrote (referencing the 2016 election),
” . . . the lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”
Weiss gets right to the nub of it there. “Truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job it is to inform everyone else.” A deficit of epistemological humility that.
This is the Achilles heel of too many liberals and even more so of progressives and the Woke. We know the truth. We have the truth. We’re here to tell you the truth. You who don’t see things as we do are simply unenlightened, deluded and, well, “deplorable.”
The third strike in this trifecta of Bennet and Weiss is Andrew Sullivan, again an excellent writer and analyst. He has been a regular columnist for New York Magazine. Sullivan has resigned for reasons and experiences similar to those of Weiss, though at a different New York publication. He will say more about this in his final regular column this Friday.
Bennet, Weiss and Sullivan, while spanning three generations (Millennial, X’er and Boomer), represent an older liberal tradition which argues the importance of hearing viewpoints with which we do not agree and with raising questions about any received orthodoxy, no matter how well-intended.
As Weiss suggests in her letter of resignation one of the problems with the Times becoming so ideological is that as the house organ of America’s cultural elites the NYT then merely confirms their prejudices and insulates them from other Americans. So instead of building bridges of understanding into Red or Conservative or “deplorable” America, liberal elites are siloing themselves in a way similar to those who watch only FOX News.
The truth, which Trump knows, is that there are many Americans out there who are terrified of what they perceive to be left/ progressive/ Woke agendas, and it is not because they are all right-wing fascists. They worry about memorials to Washington and Jefferson being torn down, as one NYT op-ed recently advocated. They worry about their children being taught that gender is merely a social construct. They worry about their churches and clergy being required to perform weddings they don’t support. They worry about having all public restrooms turned into “uni-sex” facilities. They worry about blanket indictments of “white culture.” They worry that all forms of traditional masculinity are now labelled “toxic.”
While some of these fears have little basis in reality, the drift of the New York Times and the saga of Bennet, Weiss and Sullivan — as well as arrogance on the left evident in varied settings, from academia to the Seattle City Council — suggest that there is enough basis in reality that Trump has material to work with and exploit.
Two rhetorical questions in the Headline?
Neither answered in the article?
Sure seems like clickbait and reader-trolling to me, and as such antithetical to our chaotic collective community at Post Alley.
What Rev. Robinson’s complaining about here is a real problem for American journalism just now, but hauling out the Fascism boogeyman is distinctly unhelpful to reasoned discourse about how to solve it.
What has happened at the NYT can better be described as the abandonment by its editors of the old-time distinction between objective reporting and opinion. It’s gone a lot further in other comparable media: at the WaPo the tag “Opinion” has become vestigial as a pig’s tail. The Times’ drift is more noticeable because we old-timers remember how much more the distinction used to matter in the House of Rosenthal.
If I’m right about the diagnosis, the remedy is to bring back genuine editorial oversight, to insist that writers no longer puff and pan, schmooze and smear in news coverage. This would be damned hard to do, but it can be done, whereas storming out on the cloudy plains to joust with tendentious abstractions like Fascism and Woke and %MeToo can only make the problem even worse.
I would love to see a return to questions from editors like “Is this true?. What’s your evidence?” “Is it temperately expressed? Is the context clear?” Above all, “It is it fair to the subject? To the reader?” Even contributors to a writer-oriented site like should try to live up to such standards, and be rebuked by their collective fellowship if they fail to.
But you are wrong in your diagnosis. There is no such thing as objective reporting – only fair reporting. The landscape looks different depending on your place in it, and it’s important to acknowledge your place in the landscape. That you frame the problem as a choice between “reporting or opinion” is to put it in its most naive, simplistic and outdated frame. Cotton’s fascist (and yes, let’s call it what it is, particularly in light of reports of the unidentified federal government gangs abducting people off the streets of Portland in the past few days) proposal is as wrongheaded as it gets. He’s a Senator with a platform, so why should the Times give him more space? But he’s being touted by some Republicans as a presidential candidate in 2024, so let’s read his terrible ideas. And call him out.
The Times has found itself in the Cotton and Bennet and Weiss difficulties because it clings to framing issues as if there are but two sides — particularly when it comes to politics. Sometimes there are many sides, sometimes only one credible side. Thus the problem of finding Trump defenders who can’t pass the fact-checkers. Surely the most basic test. The reason to not publish the Cotton piece was not for its fascist (that word again) ideas, but because it rested on untrue premises. Bennet, as Times keeper of the editorial page, has been at pains to find defenders of the indefensible.
As for the two questions in this headline – the “left-wing fascism” is, as Tony writes, a charge Trump and his supporters are increasingly turning to, and perhaps it’s worth examining where it is coming from, as Tony has attempted to do here. As for the “which opinions allowed” question, that is clearly related, and Tony tries to make a connection between these journalism events.
I don’t happen to agree with Tony’s conclusion that these recent events may justify or give lift to Trump’s fascism charges. The Times has tied itself into uncomfortable knots not because it won’t allow opinions that don’t align with its editors’ own ideologies, but because it insists on sticking to old journalistic notions of defining debates in narrow either/or oppositions that sometimes aren’t tenable.
I get that you are uncomfortable with question headlines, particularly when they don’t hammer down a conclusive answer that satisfies you. But these are issues for which there may not be conclusive answers. Thus the questions and Tony’s attempts to pose them in as fair, temperate, and clear a way possible.
Even commenters to a writer-oriented site like Post Alley should try to live up to such standards, and be rebuked by their collective fellowship if they fail to.
I hope that readers of Doug’s rebuttal will consider going back to my original comment to see how well his response corresponds to its content. You only need to read as far as the third paragraph to see the mismatch.
Beyond that, thanks to Kathleen Cain for reading and responding to what I wrote.
I would argue that there was nothing wrong with the Times’ decision to run that Cotton op ed, which was apparently solicited by Times editors. It expressed a widely held view and, given the rules of opinion journalism, it seems reasonable that opinion page editors thought it was worthwhile that NYT readers be exposed to it.
In other words, while both stupid and wrong, there was nothing out of bounds in terms of the views Cotton expressed in that piece. He’s allowed to think that the military should be deployed to shut down protests, or that antifa is a menace to orderly society. That said, it’s perfectly valid to question or criticize the editorial decision that was made to solicit and publish Cotton’s piece. Was that the best use of that real estate on the opinion page? Maybe not, but you could make similar sorts of arguments about a lot of what they decide to publish on that page.
But disagreeing with their shot selection decision regarding a single opinion piece should not be grounds for terminating an editorial page editor. And once the piece was published, repudiating the decision on the flimsiest of pretexts (after first standing behind it) and firing the editor in charge to appease the newsroom mob inevitably creates a huge chilling effect for opinion editors. That was a terrible day for American journalism, and would have been unthinkable at the Times even a decade ago. The problem here, imo, was the Times’ craven ex post facto repudiation of the decision to run the op ed, and then firing Bennet in order to offer a head to the wokescolds who now widely populate the Times’ newsroom.
Here’s the Andrew Sullivan “farewell address” to his readers in New York Magazine. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/andrew-sullivan-see-you-next-friday.html?
I would just note that my headline on this blog at my website was “Trump Could Win: Here’s Why?” The headline that appears here at Post Alley was composed by an editor. They were not questions I set out to answer.
Sorry, should have “Trump Could Still Win: Here’s Why”
Roger Downey’s comment above is exactly on target about what is wrong with journalism right now. There is too much sloppiness, too much whining, too much self-righteous and too little editorial rigor. There’s a difference between journalism and twitter posts, but writers on both sides of the political spectrum are having a hard time figuring that out.
And “fascism” is not a word that can accurately be appended to every part of the political spectrum because it is particularly associated with right-wing notions of racial and national superiority. If you want to call out left-wing extremism, that’s fine, but it is more effective when it’s done with precision and accuracy.
There are enough examples of the cancel culture at universities, the Twitterverse (and now in journalism and some on the Seattle City Council) to be worried it could come to dominate the Democratic Party (if it’s taken over by its left wing). Joe Biden does not show any indication he’s infected, nor did any other 2020 Democratic candidate. Nor, with a few exceptions, are Democrats in Congress. Still, Trump will accuse the party of being dominated by it (and by radical left wing policies and ideology that will destroy America). So it’s important for Democrats to have an answer. As to policy, the polls indicate that a majority of Americans favor higher taxes on the rich, universal health care (though not single-payer), a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (but not open borders or dismantling border controls), gun control and police reform (but not defunding). Some Democrats are playing into Trump’s hands by advocating the last and they can’t become dominant. If Trump accuses Democrats of being left-wing fascists on race, it’s up to Democrats to point out that what they’re really advocating is overcoming centuries of what amounts to right-wing fascism (as in slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, denial of voting rights and continuing institutional racism) and historical public toleration of it–which Trump continues to represent. Democrats need to say (in MLK terms) blacks have been systematically denied the American Dream of equal opportunity to rise and the Democratic Party is dedicated to righting the wrong, while Trump is dedicated to perpetuating it.
The Democratic Party will never be dominated by cancel culture or police de-funding. Mostly because the people who run it are so preoccupied with apologizing for and backing away from any point of view or policy stance that might deviate from what the polls advise that it has barely managed to be dominated by its own center.
But Trump will accuse the Dems of being run by cancel culture anyway, and of course the Dems will have an answer for that but it won’t matter because the people who believe everything Trump says won’t care whether there’s an answer or not.
The question that really needs an answer is why the Dems keep allowing Trump to set the terms of the debate by dignifying every false accusation he makes and responding to every asinine rhetorical question he poses, as if they had any basis in truth. When the Dems take the bait and start denying an invasion of cancel culture because he has made the accusation, then that’s what some people will begin to believe. And Trump will have made them jump again.
It would be so refreshing if the Dems stopped frantically taking the temperature of their constituents to determine what they believe in (now known in my family as The Hilary Mistake), abandoned their unattractive defensive crouch and started leading from the front instead of from behind.
As for so-called “police reform,” there’s an idea that’s been tried for at least 50 years and look where we are now. We need to try something that will actually work this time.