The Corner

Politics & Policy

Rules of Engagement

(Leah Millis/Reuters)

So, I owe an apology to Sean Trende. Last week I posted a response to his Tweet thread about the Bulwark. And while I still stand by everything that I wrote substantively, I misunderstood what Sean was actually responding to. The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins wrote a piece about the Bulwark and I only read some snippets someone sent me. I didn’t realize the real thrust of the article — and what Sean was responding to — was the Bulwark’s purported policy of going after “Trump-friendly politicos by name — often in witheringly personal terms.”

Why didn’t I read the whole Coppins article or Sean’s tweet thread a bit more closely? Because I made a mistake on a very busy day. My apologies.

Anyway, I discovered the scope of the mistake when I read this piece by Melissa Mackenzie:

Here’s the question another way: Why does opposing Trump mean that one must be nasty to Trump’s more respected and erudite defenders? What purpose is there, for example, in trying to destroy Victor Davis Hansen? When Trump gets out of office (and it will happen, if not by the glorious swan dive of impeachment or by rotting away his dotage in prison as the Never Trump wing hope), how will attempting to destroy someone personally influence the post-Trump party? What place will the most vociferous anti-Trumpers have once they’ve alienated everyone with whom they disagree?

That’s what Trende is getting at. Jonah doesn’t answer that question.

She’s right — because I didn’t realize that was the question. I like the Bulwark and many of the people who work there (I also like Melissa). But I’m perfectly comfortable saying that I don’t see eye-to-eye with them about this editorial policy, even if I often agree with many of the criticisms that they’ve leveled against Trump boosters so far (I’m also not convinced that this is actually the editorial policy of the Bulwark). And it should be fairly apparent that I don’t follow the same editorial approach (indeed, my initial post in response to Sean made it clear I was talking about policy differences). Sure, I’ve disagreed with my colleagues at times, and they with me, about Trump and a host of other matters, (just search for my writings about nationalism of late). But I’ve always tried to do it respectfully.

But since we’re clearing the air, I find much of Melissa’s larger argument to be very unpersuasive and more than a little thin-skinned at times. She assigns views and attitudes to me I don’t hold or share and that are not reflected in my writing. It’s a lot of guilt by association.

She also writes:

Back to the strategy question Sean asked. How does demonizing one’s ostensible allies help? How likely are those who’ve been sprayed with venom for four (or eight!) years to want to work with self-described vanguards of True Conservatism™?

I find this rich. In the piece itself, Melissa runs through many of the usual tropes that Trump boosters use to demonize people that they call “Never Trumpers” (never mind that this is not a label I use for myself). Moreover, the American Spectatorand similar outlets, do this kind of venom spraying all of the time. Why isn’t that a bad idea, too? What I think many pro-Trump folks don’t realize is that the Trump critics are often just returning fire.

And, just to cut to the chase, Trump Apologists Against Demonization is pretty much a null set. If your policy is to say that personal attacks from the Bulwark are bad but personal attacks from Trump’s biggest boosters — and Trump himself — are fine, or even great (or simply not worth condemning because it’s more important to be a team player) then you’re not really against venom-spraying, you just think it’s unfair when anyone other than Trump & Co. are “counter-punchers” or you care more about political maneuvering than truth-telling.

Also “returns fire” or “counter-punching” really aren’t the right phrases, because what often passes for “personal attacks” or “demonization” is just pointing out what people said and wrote in the past and how hard it is to reconcile that stuff with what they’re saying in the present to defend Trump’s behavior, policies, rhetoric, etc.  And, for Trump himself, simply taking him seriously or literally can qualify as an unfair attack.

Meanwhile, so-called Never Trumpers — again, not my label — can never win. They’re irrelevant, meaningless, specks being swept into the dust bin of history by the great MAGA tide and they’re to blame for Trump’s problems. Their views don’t matter and Oh my God why are they so mean!? They’re servants of the Deep State or the Establishment using their power to constrain Trump and they’re powerless hacks with no constituency.

I wish the Trumpists would pick a lane.

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Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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