Few gambits better illustrate the extent to which American politics has become a giant grift than Steve Bannon’s Mexican border wall-building scheme. According to the federal indictment filed against him last summer, the CEO of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign pilfered nearly $1 million from “We Build the Wall,” a private initiative to fund Trump’s never-completed barrier along the southern border. Among the hundreds of thousands of donors, it was 7-year-old Benton Stevens from Austin, Texas—the kid raised a whopping $22,000 by selling hot chocolate and lemonade—whose predicament tugged at the heartstrings most. Imagine the disappointment that the doe-eyed proprietor of “Benton’s Stand” must have felt, working so hard to keep Mexicans out of Texas, only to discover his efforts were instead keeping Steve Bannon in the black.
Being charged with literally stealing candy from a baby was a humiliating fall from grace for the former Goldman Sachs executive and White House adviser, who—befitting a nationalist populist poseur—was arrested while cruising Long Island Sound aboard a 150-foot yacht owned by an exiled Chinese businessman. Trump rewarded Bannon with a last-minute pardon, a tip of the hat, no doubt, from the grifter-in-chief to one of his most talented disciples. The wall remains unbuilt, and whether young Benton Stevens will ever get his money back remains to be seen. I doubt it.
From his beginnings as an outer-borough slumlord, the man whose name graced an airline, a vodka, a board game, a mortgage company, a pyramid scheme masquerading as a “university,” and the gastronomical obscenity of Trump Steaks, has lived a life best described as a succession of grifts, culminating spectacularly in the greatest grift of all: winning a long-shot bid to become Leader of the Free World. He was not a harbinger of fascism, a Russian “asset,” or the renaissance of George Wallace—the three conceptual frames our country’s elite used to explain him. The best way to understand Trump is instead as the 21st-century political incarnation of a distinctly American tradition: the snake-oil salesman.
Now, with Trump safely relegated to Floridian exile, it is easier to recognize how thoroughly the language, mores, and values of the grifter have permeated contemporary politics. From Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz on the MAGA right to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the woke left, the most popular among the rising generation of social media-savvy congresspeople are influencers more than legislators—quicker with a trite fundraising plea than substantive legislation. Ever since 2004, when the Democratic Party permitted Al Sharpton to use its debate stage as a means of laundering his reputation from a disgraced race hustler into a “civil rights” icon, the presidential primary process has come to resemble a political version of Shark Tank. The Bidens, of course, have Hunter, and vice-presidential niece Meena Harris cashed in on her auntie’s inauguration with a line of children’s books and sweatshirts, one of the tackiest grifts since Billy Beer.
As much as they claim to despise him, only in Donald Trump’s America could a charlatan like Linda Sarsour gain a reputation as a bold advocate for the rights of women and minorities, a serial fraudster such as Shaun King pass himself off as a “humane and passionate advocate for justice and families,” and a coterie of failed Republican “strategists” raise nearly $100 million by convincing the monied Democratic donor class that their get-rich-quick scheme known as the Lincoln Project was some sort of righteous crusade for democracy.
The media discovered that enormous financial rewards awaited those who covered Trump as if he were the ‘heel’ in a professional wrestling match.
But the most enduring grift of all has been the one perpetrated by the mainstream media, which discovered at the outset of the Trump era that enormous financial rewards awaited those who covered the man their audiences loved to hate as if he were the “heel” in a professional wrestling match. For all their warnings about the dire threat he posed to freedom of the press, the media made a fortune off the Trump Show. Reaping the greatest return on their investment were the outlets that decided the president’s flagrant violation of political norms justified their abandoning journalistic ones. The traditional objectivity that most journalists had at least aspired to was replaced with what Wesley Lowery—one of the foremost practitioners of this new form of activism-disguised-as-reporting—euphemistically called “moral clarity.”
Trump’s defiance of the presidential decorum and mores respected by his predecessors, along with his blunt repudiation of several important components of the post-Cold War economic and foreign policy consensus, utterly disoriented the class of people tasked with making sense of what’s happening in our country and around the world. Rather than stimulate a process of humble reflection, his shock 2016 victory caused leading pundits, journalists, political scientists, historians, editors, and nonprofit leaders to abandon their critical faculties. In place of rigorous analysis to explain his rise and continuing popularity, they stuck with three tidy narrative frameworks, each featuring its own key texts, vernacular, story arcs, heroes and villains. From the pages of our most influential publications to the halls of our greatest universities, any account that diverged from the holy trinity—of Trump as fascist, Russian asset, and harbinger of “white supremacy”—was met with a sneer, the author dismissed as out of touch with reality, if not a crypto-fascist or secret FSB operative then at least a closet racist.
I was hardly immune from such modes of thinking. After Hillary Clinton made her infamous remark categorizing “half” of all Trump voters as “deplorable,” I smugly asserted that she was wrong: All of them were. In another column pegged to the failed military coup in Turkey, I speculated that our own defense chiefs might feel compelled to act similarly should the American people elect a madman as president. No one who writes about politics for a living can honestly say that there is nothing they regret having written, and I am not proud of these pieces. The most I can say in my defense is that, given the ways in which the Trump candidacy constituted a shock to the system, my reaction at the time was not disproportionate. Nor was it in any way exceptional.
A few weeks after the election that left me, like many other Americans, in a disbelieving stupor, I came across a tweet from writer and activist Leah McElrath that, in retrospect, captured the coming zeitgeist better than anything I read before or since: “What’s happening is NOT ‘political differences.’ What’s happening is a coup by white supremacists backed by a foreign authoritarian power.”
To be sure, this alarmist declaration contains a few kernels of truth. Trump was and is an erratic demagogue with an authoritarian temperament and terrible judgment. He does appeal quite openly to white racial resentment. And his shady business dealings with Russia, along with a studied refusal to utter a critical word about Vladimir Putin, were more than sufficient grounds to render him unfit for the role of commander in chief.
All this is a far cry, however, from claiming that the 2016 election amounted to “a coup by white supremacists backed by a foreign authoritarian power.” And yet this is essentially what the mainstream media adopted as its narrative.
With Trump now out of the Oval Office, it is long past time for the country to engage in a grown-up discussion about the serious issues confronting it (tech oligarchs permitting, of course). But so far it seems as if our elites have learned nothing. The daily news cycle, the bestselling books, the viral videos, the cable news monologues, the major nonprofit initiatives, the academic trends—everything is still dominated by the right-wing threat to democracy, by Russiagate, and by “white supremacy,” narratives that have been hyperbolized and monetized to such an extent that we ought to appreciate them for what they really are: grifts.
It was just a little over a week after the 2016 election when a Yale history professor put up a post on Facebook that became the ur-text of the Trump-as-fascist genre. Facebook is where it should have stayed. “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism,” warned Timothy Snyder, a specialist in 20th-century Central and Eastern Europe. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” To this solemn pronouncement he appended a list of 20 easily digestible banalities (“Be calm when the unthinkable arrives,” “Believe in truth,” “Give regularly to good causes, if you can”) interspersed with the kind of stuff you’d find in a Sunday supplement advice column (“Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.”) Basically, Chicken Soup for the Would-Be Park Slope Dissident’s Soul.
A prescient New York editor, anticipating the fortune to be made peddling paranoia to the bourgeoisie, seized upon Snyder’s social media missive, and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century was published within weeks of Trump’s inauguration. Almost immediately, it hit The New York Times bestseller list, where it has intermittently occupied a top spot ever since. The Fried Chicken Brownshirt Rebellion of Jan. 6, 2021, with its legions of deranged, costumed selfie-takers, has ensured that Snyder’s book delineating the perils of an American Hitler will enjoy popularity for the indefinite future.
What’s striking about Snyder’s homilies, however, is how much they apply not only to Trump’s depredations, but also to those of his most obsessive critics. “Establish a private life” is good advice for those who feel the need to announce to the world via Facebook that anyone who does not endorse the teachings of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is a terrible human being. “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does” may be the sort of thing to consider the next time you feel pressured to nod along with the assertion—granted the imprimatur of The New York Times—that “men menstruate,” or that the American penal system constitutes “the most sprawling gulag known to man,” or that “peaceful rioting” is anything other than an oxymoron. The opinion sections of the nation’s leading newspapers, the pages of its intellectual journals, and the faculties of its humanities departments would be enlivened mightily if more than just a handful of columnists, essayists, and professors heeded Snyder’s observation that “It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different.”
“If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life,” Snyder wrote in Lesson 12. “Make eye contact and small talk.” We have indeed witnessed the onset of a nationwide “culture of denunciation” over the past year, with the “show trials” Snyder predicted in his pamphlet. But they have nothing to do with the ex-president, his since-deleted Twitter feed, or attempts to pervert the justice system. Like many of the intellectuals who imagine themselves to be brave truth-tellers standing athwart the Trumpian terror, Snyder has been noticeably silent about the myriad intimidation campaigns, efforts to quash open discourse, and politicized acts of retribution sweeping through American universities, not least at his own.
With its ominous portents, vague prescriptions, and high-minded tone, On Tyranny created the template by which every Trump administration personnel decision, policy initiative, or regulatory modification—practically any grinding of the bureaucratic gears, no matter how mundane or innocuous—was portrayed as ushering in the next phase of fascist tyranny. When Trump ordered a few tanks to roll past the National Mall on July 4th, 2019, it was not enough for some critics to state that this was an unnecessary use of public resources designed to boost the ego of a sad, pathetic, and empty man. No, charged Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Tribe, once considered one of the nation’s preeminent legal minds. It bore a “chilling” “resemblance” to “Tiananmen Square.”
The mindset that endorses serious comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler—the theme of a television advertisement aired last year by the Jewish Democratic Council—might have something to do with the startling finding that nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 39 are unaware that 6 million Jews died during the Holocaust, and that 23% believe it to be a myth altogether. If Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and “America First” slogans could so casually be likened to Nazism, to blackface, and to Charles Lindbergh’s smearing of Jews as disloyal warmongers (something that, if true, would give whole new meaning to Democrat Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential rallying cry, “Make America First Again,”)—or if allegedly serious people could assert that Trump’s family separation border policy was the moral equivalent of Auschwitz—then it’s hardly surprising that the rising generation would be confused, skeptical, or just plain ignorant about the actual Hitler who actually put people in actual gas chambers and committed actual genocide. When Ocasio-Cortez referred to illegal immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps,” (tastefully adding, “‘Never again’ means something,”) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reissued its standard statement rejecting the use of Holocaust analogies, it was professor Snyder who organized a protest letter signed by 400 historians and wrote a long piece for Slate accusing the museum of “provid[ing] moral cover for ongoing and oppressive American policies.”
A more intellectually rigorous contribution to the dictatorship narrative was How Democracies Die, published by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in 2018. While On Tyranny was hortatory, How Democracies Die offered readers the feeling that they’re engaged in a scholarly pursuit, parsing through case studies of democratic countries that have reverted to authoritarianism. But it too was ultimately unconvincing, and for similar reasons. According to the Danish political scientist Jørgen Møller, by focusing almost entirely on the experiences of a few, struggling new democracies that collapsed in Central Europe during the 1930s, both books “base their arguments on what happened in a set of democracies that bear little resemblance to the democracies we know today, in a period that was characterized by crises of a completely different magnitude than what we have seen in recent years—the Great Recession included.” Levitsky and Ziblatt did offer at least one pertinent lesson from history to illuminate how contemporary actors are degrading our republic. Democracy begins to die, they argued, once political rivals refuse to recognize each other’s legitimacy; when, for instance, they “suggest … rivals are foreign agents” or speak of them as “treasonous, subversive, or otherwise beyond the pale.”
This obviously applies to Trump and many of his supporters, some of whom allege that his reelection was stolen by Democrats in cahoots with Venezuelan and Chinese communists. But it applies as much to Trump’s highbrow enemies, such as David Rothkopf, author of Traitor: A History of American Betrayal From Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump. Indistinguishable in tone or content from scores, if not hundreds of other books published over the past five years, Rothkopf’s book leads us to the second narrative delusion of the Trump era.
The scandal broadly referred to as “Russiagate” had two major components: Kremlin influence operations designed to disrupt American politics, and the purported involvement of Donald Trump and his associates in said activities. The former is a genuine problem that requires bipartisan cooperation to counter, but which is rendered more difficult due to the reckless politicization of the latter.
Aside from the Kennedy assassination, it is hard to think of a matter to which more investigatory resources have been devoted by government, media, civic institutions, and armies of amateur obsessives than Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. The investigation by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, which failed to discover evidence of conspiracy or “collusion,” ought to have put an end to the frantic speculation that the 45th president of the United States was, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called him, “the Siberian candidate.” But as the publication this year of American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery (from the author of House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia) suggests, spinning baroque tales of Trump-Russia malfeasance is the grift that keeps on giving.
Much as On Tyranny did for the narrative of Trumpian dictatorship, the “Steele dossier” served the purpose of scripture for the Russiagate narrative. First published by BuzzFeed during the presidential transition, this report, full of salacious and unverified gossip, was only later revealed to have been an opposition research product purchased by the Clinton campaign. It now seems entirely clear that, far from being the Rosetta stone of presidential perfidy, the Steele dossier was itself an instrument of Russian disinformation, a cheap farrago of airport spy fiction and micturition porn cooked up by some inventive FSB officers in the hope that it would be inserted—via a British spy more Inspector Clouseau than James Bond—into the American political bloodstream to drive us all mad.
Thanks to the Steele dossier, new grifting opportunities were created for those with the right combination of shamelessness, pedantry, and ability to stoke that old American standby, paranoia. Such attributes enabled Seth Abramson, a former public defender and assistant professor of communication arts and sciences at the University of New Hampshire—clearly someone qualified to break down for the American public a complex tale involving, among other abstruse topics, the Russian mafia, the 1990s New York real estate market, digital influence campaigns, and international financial flows—to become a bestselling author. All he had to do was repurpose his interminable Twitter threads into books like Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America, Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump’s International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy, and Proof of Corruption: Bribery, Impeachment, and Pandemic in the Age of Trump.
Meanwhile, Sarah Kendzior, an anthropologist whose Ph.D. dissertation concerned exiled opposition activists from Uzbekistan, was designated an “expert in authoritarianism” by major media outlets eager to lap up her musings on the bureaucratic struggles within the Trump administration, the history of special counsel investigations, and the white working class. Like the rest of her comrades in the Resistance Industrial Complex, Kendzior spent years promising that the Mueller investigation would confirm her claim that Trump “has been a Russian asset” for three decades. But when the inquiry concluded without furnishing evidence for this, she pirouetted effortlessly and denounced the official probe as “a fake.”
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, spent much of the first three years of the Trump administration in cable news studios assuring the American people that he possessed evidence of collusion. Government classification rules forbade him to share this information, he gravely intoned, but it would all be revealed in due course. Like the legislator who recklessly brandished an infamous and constantly fluctuating “list” of supposed government traitors in the 1950s, Schiff knew all along that the evidence he claimed to possess was nonexistent. But ethical considerations were an afterthought for the California Democrat, who netted an astonishing $41 million in campaign contributions in the 2020 campaign cycle, an unheard of sum for an ordinary congressman.
Another baleful consequence of the Russiagate narrative has been the rapidly expanding definition of the term “disinformation,” and the censorious purposes to which it has been put. Once used within the highly specific context of authoritarian governments and their attempts to divide and distract Western publics with misleading or false information, “disinformation” now enjoys a status on the left comparable to that of “fake news” among the MAGA right: a cheap catchall to dismiss anything that puts a dent in its preferred narrative. If the primary purpose of Moscow’s influence operation was, according to the intelligence community’s initial assessment released in January 2017, to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process,” then those who persisted in claiming that the 2016 election was “stolen,” and that the duly elected president of the United States was therefore “illegitimate,” furthered that Russian objective.
Consider the bipartisan 2018 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which found that 30 of the 81 Facebook pages created by the St. Petersburg, Russia-based Internet Research Agency to influence the 2016 presidential election targeted African American audiences. These websites pushed messages primarily designed to depress turnout for Hillary Clinton, while on Twitter, Russian bots echoed the most extreme and incendiary claims of Black Lives Matter. Exploiting American racial divisions for propaganda purposes is nothing new for the Russians, who have been at it since at least 1928, when the Soviet Union promoted “self-determination for the Black Belt.” Of course, cynical attempts by our adversaries to manipulate domestic grievances do not necessarily negate the legitimacy of those grievances. What is relevant, however, is the speed with which hyperbolic rhetoric regarding American race relations, amplified by Russia, has now become conventional wisdom. Which brings us to the third and final narrative misconception of the Trump era, and probably the one with the longest legs: that America is a land awash in “white nationalism” and “white supremacy.”
It was not long ago—2015, to be exact—that “white nationalism,” “white supremacy,” and “racism” were widely understood to be three distinct concepts. In descending order of the immediate threat they posed to the public, a white nationalist was someone who believed not only in the superiority of the biologically discreditable concept of “the white race,” but also that whites needed an ethno-state to survive. Bringing such an ambitious and terrifying political project to fruition in a country as big and diverse as the United States would require the forced expulsion of over 100 million people. As this is utterly impractical, those most seriously devoted to this mad scheme have opted for self-segregation in the form of small, separatist communities in the rural interior West, particularly northern Idaho. It is these people, probably numbering in the low thousands, who came to mind whenever the term “white nationalist” appeared in the newspaper, which was extremely rare. As for what used to be called “white supremacy,” its last gasp was in the 1960s, when the federal government enacted a series of laws smashing the triple-headed hydra of racial segregation, voter disenfranchisement, and customary discrimination that ruled the Jim Crow South.
Finally, there was the word “racism,” which could accurately describe the attitudes of a wide variety of people regardless of their own race, religion, sex, gender, or sexual orientation, including the late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, Congressman Steve King, Louis Farrakhan, Meir Kahane, possibly a number of your own relatives, and, by my estimation, Donald J. Trump. The former president engaged in racially inflammatory rhetoric and has done so for a long time. But this is a very different category of sin than that of a “white supremacist” implementing “white nationalist” policies. Indeed, it is a strange “white supremacist” or “white nationalist” who not only presided over record-low African American unemployment, but constantly boasted about it.
Nonetheless, for the people who produce what we used to call news, the accuracy of a story matters less than its political impact. Once Russiagate lost its usefulness as a narrative that could hamper the Trump administration, room for a new one opened up. In August of 2019, five months after Mueller delivered his report to Congress, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet addressed employees at a town hall meeting. That week, the paper had published its hugely ambitious (and deeply flawed) “1619 Project,” which revised and reduced the history of America to that of an inherently racist country founded primarily to protect the institution of slavery.
Leading off the discussion with an acknowledgement that the “story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice” had reached its end, Baquet spoke as if he were delivering a pep talk to a demoralized army defeated in battle yet still vying to win the war. “Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story,” he said—that story being race. “Race in the next year—and I think this is, to be frank, what I would hope you come away from this discussion with—race in the next year is going to be a huge part of the American story,” Baquet not so much predicted as declared. He proved to be right. By that October, according to its own media columnist, the Times was “in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives.” And the juiciest of those narratives is “white supremacy,” a term that, in 2010, the Times printed fewer than 75 times. By October of 2020, the paper had already used it 700 times.
Has there been a tenfold increase in the prevalence, salience, or impact of “white supremacy” over the past decade to justify such a massive expansion in coverage? An explosion in the number of avowedly white supremacist state legislators, municipal ordinances, films, or books? The answer is obviously not, but this is the wrong question to be asking anyway, because the aim of those who traffic in the narrative of “white supremacy” is not to provide Americans with an accurate accounting of the state of American race relations. The people who claim that Trump’s presidency was the result of a “white supremacist” America understand that language is an extremely powerful tool, and that by collapsing the distinctions that, just a few years ago, were widely accepted to have existed between “white supremacy,” “white nationalism,” and “racism,” they can justify a sweeping set of radical changes across every sector of American society. If standardized tests are a manifestation of “white supremacy”—to take but one of many ways this term is used to effect the sort of “structural” changes those who flippantly toss it about demand—then we cannot complete the necessary work of “dismantling white supremacy” without eliminating the exams that have allowed generations of poor and minority children to succeed.
The poverty of “white supremacy” as a conceptual framework for understanding every single thing about America has been most conspicuous in those who assert that the phenomenon of African Americans assaulting Asian Americans is the fault of a “white supremacist ruling class.” Likewise, the media attempted for weeks to distort a shooting rampage at Atlanta massage parlors in which six of the eight victims were Asian women, but for which no evidence has been produced to indicate race as a motive, as a function of “white supremacy.”
As with the threat of fascism and Moscow’s capture of the White House, the facts about “white nationalism” and “white supremacy” tell a different story. According to a study published last year by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, “via most measures, white Americans’ expressions of anti-Black and anti-Hispanic prejudice declined after Trump’s political emergence” (emphasis added). Meanwhile, according to Pew, 88% of American adults view “the prospect of a nation in the next 25 to 30 years in which Black Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans make up a majority of the population” as either a positive or neutral development—hardly fertile ground for a white supremacist insurgency.
Trump was the perfect springboard for every pundit on the make.
When future historians look back upon this crazy time in American history, they are unlikely to interpret it as the result of a desire for one-man rule among half of the electorate, meddling by Vladimir Putin, or a resurgence of Jim Crow racism after the election and reelection of the country’s first Black president. Rather, what they are likely to see is that a giant, bombastic, vulgar, shiny object—yarkii, as Putin called him, meaning “colorful” in a gaudy way, though Trump characteristically misinterpreted it to mean “brilliant”—caused our elites to lose their minds.
In an era of declining attention spans and social media-driven news coverage, Trump was the perfect springboard for every pundit on the make. They could wrap him in whatever heuristic they felt most comfortable with—democracy experts explained him as a democracy story, Russia experts as a Russia story, and race experts as a racial story. If Trump’s influence on the country and its politics has been disastrous, and it has, his effect on our elites was that of a chemical bath on a photo negative: He exposed their parochialism, laziness, and stubborn refusal to admit fault.
Unfortunately, many of our elites are predisposed to the unproductive habits of mind that led them to so seriously misread the national mood in 2016 and again in 2020. As to why, I can only surmise. The desire to lead a meaningful life is universal. But among many of those engaged in political life there also exists a deep, psychic need for relevance, to believe that the times in which one lives are as world-historically consequential and perilous as any period in the history of mankind, thus requiring reserves of courage and the same “moral clarity” shown by those who resisted Hitler, waged the twilight struggle against communism, and fought valiantly against the evil of Jim Crow. To believe this, it helps to believe that one’s political adversaries are literal Nazis, Russian agents, and white supremacists, a vainglorious delusion that, for those laboring under it, the events of Jan. 6 seemed to confirm.
With Trump defeated, and thus her apparent fear of being forced to broadcast from a different safe house every night averted (at least for now), MSNBC host Joy Reid demanded the “de-Baathification” of the Republican Party. In a piece for The New York Times titled “How to Defeat America’s Homegrown Insurgency,” a former CIA station chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan likened Trump to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Like these two mass-murdering psychopaths, the ex-president has the ability to incite his most unhinged followers to commit “endemic political violence of a sort not seen in this country since Reconstruction.” Excepting, presumably, the 18-month period from 1971 to 1972 when radical leftists set off over 2,000 bombs.
Demonstrating the same sobriety and careful judgment that characterized their handling of Russiagate, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing this year on domestic terrorism to which they welcomed as their star witness a former army intelligence officer and media pundit who was one of the Russiagate theory’s most reckless propagators. Malcolm Nance has speculated that Russia recruited Trump as an “asset” in 1977—a full decade before New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait believes Trump first met his “handler” Vladimir Putin. (Chait’s cover story outlining this hypothesis featured the sort of convoluted diagram that a hyperventilating Glenn Beck used to illustrate the sprawling perfidy of George Soros). Nance was nonetheless more charitable toward the GOP than Joy Reid. The Republican party, he said, less resembles the Iraqi Ba’ath than it does Sinn Fein, which merely provided political cover to thugs who shot people in the kneecaps.
In 2017, a French journalist interviewed two of the greatest American storytellers of the 20th century. Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe knew America better than pretty much anyone writing today. As journalists, they took their time—“the fine art of hanging out” is how Talese described the reporter’s task. They never wrote a “take.” They submerged themselves within the institutions and environments they covered, whether the Cosa Nostra, the American college campus, the sex industry, or the space program. They never tweeted. This contributed to a gift for spotting bullshit a mile away, and early in Trump’s term, both men called bullshit on American journalists, intellectuals, and other elites who cast themselves as intrepid protagonists in a daily drama of saving democracy from the man the American people, however rash or unwise, had elected to lead them.
“It’s not like the Dreyfus affair is happening every day in the United States!” Talese sighed. “Most American intellectuals think you can only be profound if you’re outraged,” Wolfe added. “So they’re perpetually outraged. It’s rather amusing to watch. Wasn’t it Marshall McLuhan who said that moral outrage is a common strategy for endowing idiots with dignity?”
During the Trump years, the incentive structure for journalists, authors, editors, activists, analysts, and socially engaged academics—basically anyone who makes a living in the wide realm of public affairs—rewarded moral outrage, hyperbole, and dogmatism. In this land of punditry without consequences, moderation, humility, nonconformity, and an appreciation for life’s manifold complexities are no longer just undervalued; they are actively ridiculed, if not condemned outright as traits intrinsic to the retrograde and the just plain nutty. For all the good it will do, Trump’s defeat is likely to embolden those grifters who prospered most in this corrupt intellectual environment—and not only the deluded Trumpists who cling to his political carcass like barnacles on a shipwreck, but also his most zealous foes who stand to profit. The moment of our deliverance from one long national nightmare may only have been the beginning of something worse.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.