On the menu today: The op-ed page of the New York Times made the deliberate decision to hoodwink America about the identity of “Anonymous”; the sense of guilt that pervades legacy media — a very apt label; and wondering whether or not we will even see long lines on Election Day with early voting being so massive so far.
Anonymous . . . Turned Out to Be a Guy Who Was Pretty Anonymous
“Anonymous,” the unnamed Trump administration official who claimed in an infamous New York Times op-ed that he was secretly trying to “thwart” Trump’s policies, turned out to be . . . Miles Taylor, a former policy adviser and deputy chief of staff to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielson, and eventually chief of staff in the department, although not until after the op-ed was published.
This revelation shouldn’t be a huge deal, and yet it feels like it just broke something important. It feels like the editors of the New York Times chose to play a massive prank on us. They watched the fervent Washington speculation that it was Mike Pence, James Mattis, Jared Kushner, Victoria Coates, and all along they knew it was . . . just some guy. We’ve seen other people conspire to try to pull off hoaxes and stir up frenzies and use the media to do it . . . but this time, one of the biggest voices in the media decided to facilitate the erroneous perception.
I speculated it was Jon Huntsman, ambassador to Russia, many times. I was wrong — wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Sorry, Governor/Ambassador. You seemed like the most incongruous figure in the Trump administration, but from all available evidence, you served professionally and with dignity. I should not have casually suggested you would behave like this weasel.
The New York Times op-ed editors’ decision to keep Taylor anonymous, and describing him, not all that accurately, as “a senior official in the Trump administration,” deliberately created a misleading impression that the author was a much more prominent, much more influential figure than he was. (“Senior”? By my count, he was 30 when the op-ed was published; he was in college when Obama was inaugurated.)
The op-ed appears to have wildly exaggerated what Taylor saw, heard, and did. Did cabinet officials really sit around, discussing invoking the 25th Amendment with Miles Taylor? How much would Taylor be involved in policy regarding Russia?
If the Times wanted to write a news article reporting that a policy adviser to the DHS secretary or a deputy chief of staff had a scathingly low opinion of the president . . . the story would run on, what, page A8? A16? (Those with long memories are probably remembering David Stockman, who was at least OMB director.) By no stretch of the imagination is it a shock when someone at that rank thinks the big boss is an incompetent buffoon.
And if you think your boss is not merely a buffoon but is hurting the country with his policies, the right thing to do is quit and find another job. You don’t stay and try to secretly throw sand in the gears. You’re not a spy or saboteur, working behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. (For starters, no saboteur working against the Nazis wrote an op-ed in Le Figaro entitled, “I am a part of the Resistance inside Hitler’s War Machine.” If you are part of a secret plan, a key element of the plan is keeping it secret.)
Taylor chose to apply for that job and to take that job. No one dragged him, kicking and screaming, to advise on homeland-security policy. Taylor wanted to be a hero of The Resistance while still cashing an administration paycheck.
Perhaps the most perfectly ironic statement in this whole mess came from Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark, who declared back in August, “People should stop paying attention to ‘Anonymous’ and focus on the Trump officials who are willing to put themselves out there publicly like Miles Taylor.” This is like saying we should be paying less attention to Batman and more attention to Bruce Wayne.
In his op-ed, Taylor said he was “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” It seems fair to ask . . . was he really? Because it sounds like one of the big issues on Taylor’s plate was the child-separation policy at the border, an approach that even some staunch conservatives find morally unacceptable.
In his public identity, Taylor said he helped enact a policy he thought was immoral, and wished he hadn’t. “People like me should have done more; looking back, I wish I had laid my body on the train tracks and said, ‘we can’t implement this.’”
Taylor signed on to help the Trump administration, told the New York Times he was secretly trying to stop the Trump administration, and then helped enact one of its most controversial policies. Wait, whose side was he really on, again?
The Old Media World Had Its Underappreciated Strengths
Would the New York Times of a generation ago have chosen to enable a 30-year-old deputy chief of staff’s dream of being misperceived as a top-tier big shot? Probably not. But there are a lot of “legacy” media institutions that are relying upon the stature and reputations of their old selves in this messier, angrier, more financially pressured post-Millennium age — and in the process, they’ve squandered whatever authority they inherited from the previous generation. They’re now writing checks that their past credibility can’t cover.
The Times isn’t much of a “gray lady” at this point. The Pentagon Papers were published almost a half century ago, and it’s not the newspaper of record, featuring the likes of A. M. Rosenthal and R. W. Apple and William Safire anymore. The Washington Post isn’t the paper of David Broder and Robert Novak and Howard Kurtz; CNN isn’t the network of Bernard Shaw and Jim Clancy and Crossfire anymore; and NBC News isn’t the channel of John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw, and Tim Russert anymore.
After each Republican presidency, the people who work in these once widely revered institutions concluded that what they perceive to be bad things — Clarence Thomas’s confirmation, the Republican Revolution of 1994, the Iraq War, the rise of the Tea Party movement — wouldn’t have happened if they had been tougher on the GOP. Members of big media institutions blame themselves for policy decisions and outcomes they abhor and conclude that the way to prevent bad things is to shoehorn the news into a simpler narrative — Democrats good, Republicans bad.
Four years ago, we lived through these folks’ greatest miscalculation. When Donald Trump appeared on the scene, really running for president this time, the Jeff Zuckers and Phil Griffins of the world thought they could pull off a perfect bait-and-switch: build up Trump during the primary, and then once he had the nomination, stop the soft-focus can-you-believe-this-guy amused tone and shift the focus to Trump’s myriad epic flaws, ensuring Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide. But they never expected enough of the electorate would ignore the shift in coverage, and Trump would get just enough votes in just enough states to win.
Why do the media hammer Trump every day, on issues where he deserves it and issues where it’s kind of silly or irrelevant? Why did they need to treat the tax cuts, the slaying of Qassim Soleimani, and the Supreme Court nominations of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett as monstrous crimes? Because on some level, they belatedly realized they’re the Dr. Frankensteins who created this monster.
Now major media institutions try to persuade the public that Trump is a racist, ignorant, power-hungry monster. But racist monsters don’t get invited to host Saturday Night Live, joke around with Jimmy Fallon, get profiled by Barbara Walters, sit and chat with Larry King about every conceivable topic, and call in or hang out with Joe and Mika all the time, to say nothing of hosting a prime-time reality show for years. Racist monsters don’t get Bill and Hillary Clinton to attend their wedding. Why did Americans think Donald Trump was a fascinating, shrewd, decisive, larger-than-life leader when he descended that escalator in 2015? Because the media and most of America’s economic and political elites treated him as if he was one for about three decades before he ran for president.
It’s almost comical. Almost every time the media try to shoehorn the news into fitting a narrative, it backfires. They generate a lot of short-lived, intense flurries of attention for causes such as “abolish ICE” or “Medicare for All” or “abolish the police” or impeaching Trump or “Trump is stealing our mailboxes,” but they tend to burn like Roman candles — brightly but fading quickly.
When Miles Taylor showed up at the New York Times’ metaphorical door, offering an op-ed revealing the existence of “the Resistance inside the Trump administration,” the editors could have and should have said, “Talk to our news reporters. They’ll see whether what you’re saying checks out and they’ll decide whether it’s news. At first glance, the deputy chief of staff to the DHS secretary being deeply disgruntled by the president’s approach to the job is not, by itself, a huge deal.”
But instead, the editors who agreed to work with Taylor saw it as a way to “get” Trump. They tweaked the facts to create a more dramatic narrative. And putting a narrative over truth in order to “get Trump” . . . is ironically, how you get Trump.
Will We See Long Lines on Tuesday?
As of this morning, 77.4 million Americans have cast ballots. A bit more than 136.6 million people voted in 2016, so we are at 56 percent of the total vote last cycle.
Early voting ends in most states two days before Election Day; polling place workers need a day or two to wrap up all early voting activities and prepare for the expected influx on Election Day. The irony is . . . with so many Americans voting early, maybe there won’t be such an influx on Tuesday!
ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, here’s a detailed dive into Trump’s share of the vote compared to the GOP Senate candidate in every state that had a Senate race in 2016. Trump could lose and still have a major impact on how the Republican Party defines itself moving forward. But if Trump’s share of the vote is less than that of the Senate candidates — as he did in 23 of 33 states last cycle — Republicans will fairly ask, “Wait, why should we be more like the guy who wins fewer votes than that allegedly boring, old-style Republicanism”? (“Senate Republican candidate” and “non-Trump-y traditional Republican” aren’t quite synonyms, but it seems safe to conclude that the Toomeys, Grassleys, Portmans, and Thunes of the world do not have the kinds of larger-than-life personas that would fit in with professional wrestling telecast.)