Politics & Policy

What Rick Perlstein’s Embarrassing New York Times Essay Gets Wrong

Outside the New York Times building in Manhattan. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
Perlstein’s essay offers a really good insight into how the Times has jettisoned so much credibility in the age of Trump.

If you’ll forgive the self-indulgence, let me start by sharing a few things about my professional life since Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, in no particular order. Every day, on social media, I am attacked, dismissed, or otherwise declared an illegitimate analyst or fake conservative because of my criticisms of President Trump, even if I include praise or beneficial context.

During the election season, I lost large sums of money — large to me, anyway — because I had to turn down speeches in which I was expected to be a de facto surrogate for the Republican point of view. My appearances on Fox News have dropped precipitously. It’s not a ban or anything like that. It’s just an unavoidable fact that the way a lot of cable news works is you have a person defending the incumbent administration and a person criticizing it. I’m ill-suited for many of these debates, because I don’t fit in the obvious grooves. Some friends of National Review complain about me, including donors. Just a couple weeks ago, a prominent Republican politician chewed me out for the better part of an hour because of my criticisms of President Trump.

I could go on like this for pages, but you get the point. Or maybe you don’t. So let me explain. I offer this seeming tale of woe not out of self-pity or a desire for yours. This is the life I’ve chosen, to paraphrase Hyman Roth in The Godfather II. Indeed, I should add that I’ve also heard from hundreds of readers, peers, friends, colleagues, and more than a few politicians thanking me for my efforts to combat the attempt to redefine conservatism as mere nationalism or Trumpism.

I have written literally tens of thousands of words explaining that I will criticize Trump when I think it warranted and praise him when warranted as well. I won’t let him make me a hack or a liar. I think I’ve done a pretty good job sticking to that policy (and so has National Review).

Which brings me to the left-wing polemicist Rick Perlstein. He has a big essay in the latest New York Times Magazine. It begins with some typical bragging about his role as a historian of conservatism and some table setting about how conservatives tried to stop Trump. He then quotes me:

Then the nation’s pre-eminent birther ran for president. Trump’s campaign was surreal and an intellectual embarrassment, and political experts of all stripes told us he could never become president. That wasn’t how the story was supposed to end. National Review devoted an issue to writing Trump out of the conservative movement; an editor there, Jonah Goldberg, even became a leader of the “Never Trump” crusade. But Trump won — and conservative intellectuals quickly embraced a man who exploited the same brutish energies that [William F.] Buckley had supposedly banished, with Goldberg explaining simply that Never Trump “was about the G.O.P. primary and the general election, not the presidency.”

Perlstein doesn’t explicitly say that I (or National Review) “quickly embraced” Trump, but the insinuation is (Perlstein has a gift for snotty insinuations) that I am emblematic of this sudden, hypocritical transformation. For the reasons stated above, this came as news to me.

Now I’ve never taken Perlstein very seriously and I see little reason to start now. I’ve long known he dislikes me (he recently whined on Facebook about the outrage of NPR having me on), but he’s known for disliking conservatives generally and letting that tribal partisanship infect almost everything he writes (which is why he’s so popular with the Left). In short, who cares?

But Perlstein is writing this for the New York Times, and I think it offers a really good insight into the way the Times — and much of the mainstream media — has jettisoned so much credibility in the age of Trump.

For starters, Perlstein’s insinuation — that my declaration that “Never Trump” is over represents some kind of “embrace” of Trump — isn’t just wrong, it is breathtakingly dishonest. The very article he’s quoting from has the sub-headline: “The Never Trump movement is over, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop criticizing Trump when he deserves it.”

I also described precisely what Perlstein is doing in his embarrassing essay:

The thing is: Never Trump is over. Never Trump was about the GOP primary and the general election, not the presidency. The Left wants to claim it must be a permanent movement, denying the legitimacy of Trump’s election forever, or we were never serious. Well, that’s not what we — or at least I — signed up for.

I then go on to criticize the Trump-can-do-no-wrong crowd, which I’ve been doing since Election Day. Not only that, I’ve attacked the tendency of many people on the right to fall back into the political safe harbor of anti-anti-Trumpism. I’ve also been criticizing Trump. A few headlines:

Trump Is Taking the Bannon Way, and It Will End in Disaster

Trump’s Rhetoric on Russia Throws the U.S. under the Bus

The Right Can’t Defend Trump’s Behavior

The False Prophecy of the Presidential Pivot

The President Is This Presidency’s Worst Enemy

I could go on of course. But there are three points worth making. First, Perlstein’s essay is titled, “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong.” The funny part is he can’t even figure out why Trump proved him wrong. He entirely misunderstands — either out of blinkered partisanship, personal animosity, simple obtuseness, or all three — my own position, even when he quotes from articles that describe my position. He started with a thesis and then went rummaging about for random sentences that would support it. He then uses this misunderstanding as a window on the American Right generally. It’s like he confused a clock for a compass and for the life of him can’t figure out why he’s walking in circles.

Perlstein started with a thesis and then went rummaging about for random sentences that would support it.

Second, there’s Perlstein’s larger “argument” — which prattles on about how the modern Right is descended from the Klan, blah, blah, blah. It’s mostly so much indictment-padding and guilt by tenuous association. I particularly love his insinuation that Father Coughlin was a right-winger (a topic I’ve written about at length). In brief: Coughlin supported FDR, saying the New Deal was “Christ’s Deal,” and the Roosevelt administration welcomed his support. It was only after FDR moved too far to the right that Coughlin broke with Roosevelt.

Now, I do think Perlstein has some points on his side when he says that Trump has tapped into various streams of American nativism — a point I’ve actually written about and a practice I’ve condemned. But Perlstein, whose whole career amounts to little more than “discovering” new evidence of conservative racism, is a poor source to rely on when he — once again — discovers new evidence of conservative racism.

Lastly, there is the matter of the New York Times. I actually got a call from their fact checker for this article. It was a strange conversation because all he seemed to want to confirm was that I had written the quotes Perlstein used. Since I knew Perlstein was writing the essay, and knowing of his animosity toward me (which I informed the fact checker about) and Perlstein’s general dishonesty, I went on to explain what I meant by Never Trump being over. He listened for a few moments and then informed me that this call wasn’t really about fact checking; it was just a “courtesy call.”

That’s weird, I thought. Weirder still, the fact checker did not ask me if I actually “embraced” Trump or if Perlstein’s spin about my position was remotely accurate. Apparently confirming that someone didn’t steal my byline was all the “fact” checker needed to do. (I sent him an e-mail this morning asking if he had recorded the conversation and if I could have a copy. He said he didn’t, which is unfortunate.)

Of course, one can make too much of this. But I do think it’s remarkable that Perlstein’s editors and the fact checker never bothered to figure out if the example setting the premise of the whole article was actually, you know, a fact — or even a remotely reasonable interpretation. My only conclusion is that confirmation bias runs so strong at The New York Times Magazine (and journalistic curiosity so weak) that they didn’t see the need.

There’s an irony to Perlstein’s title: “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong.” No, Perlstein proved that all by himself, Trump just put fresh light on that fact. More to the point, Perlstein and his editors seem remarkably uninterested in actually figuring out why he — and they — were wrong. They’d rather peddle the same self-serving story they’ve been telling all along.

I’d demand an apology and a retraction, but that would require the Times to understand a perspective outside their bubble. They’ve already demonstrated that’s too much to ask.

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