The era of Trump has been as hard on the mind as it has been good for the muscles in the chest. Ours is a moment in which millions rush breathlessly to exclaim. In defense! In resistance! In bloody-minded persistence! “I will not back down!” we are told, by people who have not been asked to, and could not be compelled to. They won’t be “intimidated” either, nor “silenced,” nor “bullied” nor, it seems, pushed to any form of self-reflection. Indignation, not analysis, is the perennial order of the day, and the tone of our debates is ineluctably Twitteresque. Retweets are points on the board, and hyperbole gets you oodles of them. The worst. Ding! Insane. Ding! Crisis. Ding, ding, ding! Congratulations, you have been promoted to the next level. Time for some game theory . . .
From this self-laudatory funhouse has emerged a host of cynical entrepreneurs, each with the same approach to our dismal, fractious moment: Take no prisoners, brook no opposition, and never, ever step away from the umbrage. These people end their sentences with “Really.” or “In 2017.” or “Let that sink in”; they pepper their analyses with eschatology; and, as is apt for a cult, they are promiscuous with their accusations of heresy. Like Lewis’s busybodies, they are convinced to a man that they are saving the country, and insistent that the dissenters are miscreants or weaklings. They have little sense of history, no instinct for context, and no meaningful faith in the system they want to save. They are marching in an army, and damn does it feel good.
Which brings us to Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post’s ostensibly conservative blogger.
Rubin is not the only example of this president’s remarkable talent for corrupting his detractors as well as his devotees, but she is perhaps the best one. Since Donald Trump burst onto the political scene, Rubin has become precisely what she dislikes in others: a monomaniac and a bore, whose visceral dislike of her opponents has prompted her to drop the keys to her conscience into a well. Since the summer of 2015, the many acolytes of “MAGA!” have agreed to subordinate their true views to whatever expediency is required to sustain Donald Trump’s ego. Out has gone their judgement, and in has come their fealty; where once there were thriving minds, now there are just frayed red hats. During the same period, Jennifer Rubin has done much the same thing. If Trump likes something, Rubin doesn’t. If he does something, she opposes it. If his agenda flits into alignment with hers—as anyone’s is wont to do from time to time—she either ignores it, or finds a way to downplay it. The result is farcical and sad; a comprehensive and self-inflicted airbrushing of the mind. How, I have long wondered, could Trump’s unprincipled acolytes do what they do and still sleep at night? How can Jen Rubin?
If Trump is indeed a tyrant, he is a tyrant of the mind. And how potent is the control he exerts over Rubin’s. So sharp and so sudden are her reversals as to make effective parody impossible. When President Obama agreed to the Paris Climate Accord, Rubin left her readers under no illusions as to the scale of her disapproval. The deal, she proposed, was “ephemeral,” “a piece of paper,” “a group wish,” a “nonsense” that would achieve “nothing.” That the U.S. had been made a party to a covenant so “devoid of substance,” she added, illustrated the “fantasy world” in which the Obama administration lived, and was reflective of Obama’s preference for “phony accomplishments,” his tendency to distract, and his base’s craven willingness to eat up any “bill of goods” they were served. At least it did until President Trump took America out of it, at which point adhering to the position she had theretofore held became a “senseless act,” a “political act,” “a dog whistle to the far right,” and “a snub to ‘elites’” that had been calibrated to please the “climate-change denial, right-wing base that revels in scientific illiteracy” (a base that presumably enjoyed Rubin’s blog until January 20th, 2017). To abandon the “ephemeral” “piece of paper,” Rubin submitted, would “materially damage our credibility and our persuasiveness” and represent conduct unbecoming of “the leader of the free world.” One is left wondering how, exactly, any president is supposed to please her.
Or, rather, one is left concluding that Rubin doesn’t have policy positions so much as she has protean cheerleading instructions, the details of which are set by whoever happens at that moment to be her coach. Take Jerusalem, a subject on which Rubin has rather run the gamut. In 2010, she praised Marco Rubio for arguing that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, as the U.S. Congress has repeatedly recognized” and lauded the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 as the concrete on which Republicans should walk. Two years later, in the midst of her self-appointed tenure as the president of Mitt Romney’s fan club, she reversed herself, hitting Newt Gingrich for holding precisely the view she had previously recommended, while endorsing Romney for his relative “judgment, restraint and . . . good sense” in opposing her. “It really is time,” she submitted, “to stop promising something that the U.S. can’t and shouldn’t deliver unilaterally.” A few weeks later, when Romney began to sound more hawkish, she endorsed his new position, too, holding it up as “a blow to the Obama campaign’s frantic efforts to defend the president’s hostile stance toward the Jewish state,” and insisting that,
Of course, Jerusalem is the capital. It was declared so in 1948. The Knesset is there. The disposition of its borders is a matter for final status negotiation, but only an uninformed or virulently insensitive administration would be unable to distinguish the two.
This stance lasted into the Trump era. In June, Rubin complained angrily that the White House was “delaying its move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” a delay, Rubin wrote, that was not only pointless—“presidents come to believe that the move would somehow prejudice peace talks (of which there are none presently) or inflame Palestinians, perhaps causing an increase in violence,” she caviled—but that was indicative of Trump’s tendency never “to keep his word.” “The world,” Rubin advised, “is learning to disregard everything this president does and says” — a habit that “will adversely affect everything from the war against Islamist extremists to trade opportunities.” Trump, she concluded, “looks buffoonish in his hasty retreat.”
Last week, Trump announced that the United States would finally be recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and, in time, moving its embassy there. And what did Rubin say? That it was “a foreign policy move without purpose,“ “indicative of a non-policy-based foreign policy.”
What, one wonders, happened in the interim? Did the benefits of the president’s keeping his word — so lavishly and hyperbolically outlined just a few months earlier — disappear upon the instant? Did a president’s view on this question cease suddenly to serve as a proxy for his “stance toward the Jewish state”? Or was it more simple than that: Was it that, just as Rubin couldn’t bring herself to criticize Mitt Romney, she cannot bring herself to praise Donald Trump? As an affect, Jennifer Rubin writes as “we.” Has there ever been a more appropriately schizophrenic pronoun?
The illustrations are endless. In two years, Rubin has gone from arguing that the “ludicrous,” “absurd” Iran deal “has to go” — and, indeed, that John Kasich was a fool for contending otherwise – to praising those who believe it must remain in place as “reasonable” “experts,” and predicting that even to decertify would put “American credibility” at “risk.” In 2015, she wrote that “if you examine the Iran deal in any detail, you will be horrified as to what is in there.” In 2017, she characterizes this position as the “emotional” “temper tantrum” of an “unhinged president.” A similar metamorphosis has sullied her views on tax cuts, welfare, energy, and gun control (before, after), as well as her attitude toward Jews and anti-intellectuals, which once led her to defend Sarah Palin, but which now leads her to condemn Trump on almost all of the grounds she once dismissed.
The descriptions above Rubin’s byline have come to seem tragically misleading. Contrary to popular myth, she is not in fact writing from a “conservative perspective,” but as just one more voice among a host of Trump-obsessed zealots who add nothing to our discourse. In so doing, she does conservatism a sincere disservice. Whatever its shortcomings—and they are many—the American Right is too complicated and too interesting a force to be ruined or consumed by a single preposterous president. Conservatism in this country long predated Trump; for now, it is tied up with Trump; soon, it will have survived Trump. Rubin’s Jacobin willingness to throw the baby out with the bathwater suggests that she, like so many others in the conservative-nay-resistance does not much understand the philosophy at all. What, one might ask, separates her from possessed apologists such as Tomi Lahren? We deserve better critics than this.