In a recent tweet, David Frum wondered why cable-news host Tucker Carlson, mega-podcaster Joe Rogan, writers at the Federalist, and (now independent) journalists Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have all thrived in the Trump era, drawing large, devoted audiences in spite of their many ideological differences. Frum described the group as a “coherent and cohesive faction in American politics” of people who “share more than just the same dislikes.” In addition to the people on Frum’s list, one might include Eric Weinstein, host of The Portal podcast, former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, and author and former stock trader Nassim Taleb.
This loosely knit group shares its hostilities, no doubt. One such hostility is its distaste for, and suspicion of, America’s elite institutions. These would include traditional media outlets, Big Tech, and Wall Street. But more important, the group shares a roughly similar diagnosis of America’s social and economic problems.
For these idiosyncratic thinkers, it was not the dreaded “-isms” Frum and co. have incessantly carped about — racism, sexism, authoritarianism, fascism, etc. — that led to our current level of civic division. It was not explicitly Trump, either, though he consistently poured, nay, dumped salt on the real wound throughout his first term. Rather, it was that in the past two decades members of America’s elite institutions bungled far too many decisions, the consequences of which harmed ordinary citizens far more than the elites who made those decisions. Ordinary citizens then became sufficiently frustrated at the contemptible lack of accountability in the towering heights of elite institutions to resort to Trump, a political opportunist, to send a message.
The first glaring example of elite misguidedness — one that should be quite familiar to Frum — is the misreporting on the Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction story, the gung-ho media hype of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the danger it posed, and the debacle of the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Taibbi notes that, overall, the Iraq War has cost American taxpayers upward of $2 trillion. Operation Iraqi Freedom left over 31,000 American soldiers maimed, while over 182,000 Iraqi civilians have died in war-related events since 2003. Public approval for the war dipped after the post-9/11 “rally around the flag” effect wore off, and it became fashionable as the war itself flagged to begin opposing it. Yet Taibbi writes that a “business-wide consensus” in the media concerning Iraq helped to enable the war in the first place. This consensus enjoyed the “enthusiastic participation of a blue-state intelligentsia.” He notes pieces written by David Remnick of The New Yorker, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Ezra Klein, and Jonathan Chait, all of whom were pro-war. Many feel differently now, but when groupthink prevailed, they did not noticeably dissent. And now their complicity in that groupthink largely gets forgotten.
The second example of elite failure came during the 2008 financial crisis. Nassim Taleb argues that elite misguidedness and blasé detachment ruled the day then, even as six out of ten Americans opposed government intervention to save failing banks. In March, Taleb compared the COVID stimulus package to the $700 billion dollar bailout (known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program) and quantitative easing undertaken during the last decade’s financial crisis. The latter primarily benefited wealthy elites while shifting a burden — in this case, higher taxes and lower wages — onto ordinary citizens. Taleb writes, “Remember that bailouts come with printed money, which effectively deflate the wages of the middle class in relation to asset values such as ultra-luxury apartments in New York City.” There is also, he argues, an elitist “asymmetry” inherent to bailouts: “Corporations are lobbying for bailouts, which they will eventually get thanks to the pressure they can exert on the government via lobby units. But how about the small corner restaurant? The independent tour guide? . . . These groups cannot afford lobbyists and will be ignored.” To a considerable extent, the main effect of both bailouts has been to subject ordinary citizens to severe economic pain, while well-connected institutions and individuals manage to skate by.
In addition to bungling the WMD story, legacy media institutions have made a spate of poor decisions very recently, further eroding their credibility as papers of record. The Washington Post and the New York Times covered the Trump administration with unrelenting fervor and overplayed their bias by daily casting his presidency as racist and fascist. These charges are patently false.
For the media, as Eric Weinstein notes, pressing the right buttons — playing up xenophobia and white supremacy when discussing immigration and police reform — results in better business (in the short term, of course). Media outlets also mishandled the Russiagate story, while hoping still to take down the president much in the way Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took down Nixon. Their recent collective censorious decision to bury the Hunter Biden laptop story and the Biden family scandal, and their dishonest coverage of riots, has further underscored their political bias.
Glenn Greenwald, writing about his resignation from the Intercept and, more broadly, about the media’s incompetence, points out the “undeniable truth that journalists with national outlets based in New York, Washington and West Coast cities overwhelmingly not just favor Joe Biden but are desperate to see Donald Trump defeated.” Many journalists do not try to hide their bias; instead, they “make little secret of their eagerness to help Biden win.” The same can be said of Twitter, which joined legacy media in suppressing the Hunter Biden story by locking the New York Post’s account after the paper published it in the first place.
For members of Frum’s group, the final straw might have been the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Drastic lockdowns proved largely ineffective in curbing the spread, while wrecking the economy. Very few in the mainstream media, however, save for Alex Berenson and Tucker Carlson, sounded the alarm on unintended consequences of lockdowns, which might persist under a Biden-Harris administration. Nassim Taleb has criticized governments’ lack of preparedness and inability to move fast and decisively at pandemic’s onset. “Governments did not want to spend pennies in January,” Taleb told Bloomberg. “Now they are going to spend trillions.” He was right.
Over the summer, Joe Rogan invited Elon Musk, himself a lockdown skeptic, onto his popular podcast. As early as May, Joe Rogan expressed concerns over the lockdowns in his home state of California and seriously considered moving due to the Draconian measures. “If California continues to be this restrictive, I don’t know if this is a good place to live. . . . If they really say we can’t do stand-up until 2022 or some [expletive] like that, like, I might jet. I’m not kidding,” Rogan said. “I’m not kidding. This is silly. I don’t need to be here.”
American elites are not, of course, directly responsible for every blunder, though they have played a large part, to be sure. Yet despite their obvious and manifold errors, elites continue to blame America’s divisions on racism, sexism, Trumpian fascism — anything but their own missteps. In 2016, Trump exploited the moment and channeled legitimate frustration to recast the Republican Party’s agenda as something seemingly populist. But even if Trump is a political unicorn, the likes of Taibbi, Rogan, Taleb, and Weinstein — and the large audiences they attract — are not themselves fleeting unicorns. This loose movement will persist long after Trump is out of office. Frum may be waking up — finally — to the prevalence of very formidable, engaging thinkers who do not share the same credentials and politics but are no less enraged by the woeful incompetence of American elites.