Making the click-through worthwhile: the New York Times takes what’s left of its credibility and sets it on fire, burning it to ashes; how well-off politicians are adapting to our era of stylish populism; an old parody with new relevance; and the new public service announcement that the country needs, not the one that it wants.
The New York Times Throws a Bonfire of Its Credibility
Conservatives have complained about The New York Times for a long time, but now the newspaper’s increasingly slippery standards for reporting and verification are getting so glaring, even its own former staffers can’t ignore it. Joe Pompeo writes in Vanity Fair:
Sources say Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly initially pitched their reporting to the news side, but top editors ultimately felt that there wasn’t enough juice to warrant a story there—punting the scoop to the Sunday Review section. “In today’s journalistic world, the conversation is a bit irrelevant,” one source said. “Your average reader is not gonna really know or care where it is.”
Similarly, in the words of a former high-ranking Times figure, “In today’s journalistic world, the conversation is a bit irrelevant, because for most of the people who read the New York Times online or on their phones, it doesn’t matter. It’s all the same. Your average reader is not gonna really know or care where it is. They played it up pretty big, and I have to tell you: When I first read it, I had no idea it was in the Review. I tapped on a link, and at the top it said ‘News Analysis.’ And I also didn’t know it was a book adaptation, because I didn’t even get to the end. I get the point of view of the activists. They want the Times to further their agenda, but that’s not the Times’ job.”
Wait, it gets worse! Pogrebin and Kelly told MSNBC last night that the qualifier about the other alleged Kavanaugh accuser not remembering an incident at Yale was included in the initial draft but removed. And then this morning, Pogrebin started describing the woman who said it didn’t happen in not-so-flattering terms: “She was incredibly drunk at that party . . . Memory here is really a questionable issue.”
The article — er, pardon me, “book excerpt” that ignored the alleged victim saying the event didn’t happen — did its job, by one measure: House Democrats are now beginning a push to impeach Justice Kavanaugh. Senate Democrats, who realize they don’t have the votes to impeach Trump, never mind Kavanaugh, are calling the effort unrealistic.
Our Kyle Smith makes the compelling argument that this is battle-space preparation for upcoming Supreme Court decisions that progressives won’t like. The Left knows they’re going to lose a lot of 5–4 decisions, and if Trump gets the opportunity to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, maybe a bunch of 6–3 decisions, too. Because progressives believe they can never legitimately lose a battle over what America’s laws ought to be, they need to lay the groundwork for the argument that any decision that involves Justice Brett Kavanaugh (and maybe Clarence Thomas, too) shouldn’t “really” count because one or both should never have been appointed to the court in the first place.
There’s one other point, though. The election of Donald Trump really shocked America’s progressives (and a lot of other people, too) and stands as a global disaster on par with 9/11 or the rise of Hitler. (Jonathan Chait declared Trump’s election is the “worst thing that has happened to the world in my life.” He was alive during 9/11!)
If you could go back and time and falsely report things that would lead to the early and abrupt end of a brutal dictator’s rule, would you do it? Most people would make that trade; a bit of dishonesty to prevent widespread injustice and misery. The end justifies the means. Once you see Trump as history’s greatest nightmare, every action taken in opposition to him and those allied with him is justified. This kind of thinking is how you get people trying to shoot up a baseball field full of Republican congressmen.
Our Populist Era of Faux-Downscale Politicians
Quite a few people — including quite a few Joe Biden fans — liked yesterday’s column, “Inside the Mind of the Biden Voter.” Part of understanding politics is understanding the thinking, values, and priorities of people who aren’t like you, and I’m trying to be better at that.
Many contend we’re in a populist moment; some might argue this is a new populist era. Part of populism is an inescapable awareness of and focus upon who society’s big guys and little guys are, and a seething distrust and even contempt for those at the top. Back in 2008, Robert Reich talked about four classic narratives in American politics, and one of them was “the rot at the top.”
The last story concerns the malevolence of powerful elites. It’s a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places–of conspiracy against the common citizen. It started with King George III, and, to this day, it shapes the way we view government–mostly with distrust. The great bullies of American fiction have often symbolized Rot at the Top: William Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, Willie Stark as the Huey Long-like character in All the King’s Men, Lionel Barrymore’s demonic Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the antagonists that hound the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Suspicions about Rot at the Top have inspired what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in U.S. politics–from the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements through the Ku Klux Klan and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. The myth has also given force to the great populist movements of U.S. history, from Andrew Jackson’s attack on the Bank of the United States in the 1830s through William Jennings Bryan’s prairie populism of the 1890s.
You don’t have to look far in post-2000 America to see why millions of Americans not only believe in “the rot at the top,” but are driven or even consumed by the thought of it. The housing bubble, the Wall Street collapse, the bailouts and the Great Recession, and the sense that no one was ever held accountable for reckless decisions. Enron. Federal bureaucrats at the General Services Administration enjoying a lavish taxpayer-funded party in Las Vegas. Executives at nonprofits making a half-million a year. At least two separate waves of abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. GM’s cars not being safe, Boeing’s planes not being safe, one database breach after another. Bernie Madoff. Harvey Weinstein. #MeToo. Jeffrey Epstein. A giant, far-reaching bribery scandal to get dumb kids of rich and famous parents into top schools.
There are enough egregious examples of bad behavior by powerful people to convince the masses of two powerful conclusions. The first is that the people currently in charge of American society should not be in charge, that they did not earn their positions of power and authority fairly, that they frequently and shamelessly abuse their power and betray people’s trust, and not only does the cream not rise to the top, but the scum does. The second is that the reason they don’t feel as powerful and successful in American life as they wish they were is that they weren’t willing to cheat, lie, steal, and be as immoral as the powerful people were.
That first conclusion is an exaggeration, and that second one is a soothing explanation that hand-waves away anyone’s individual mistakes, bad judgments, attitude, ability to work with others, etc. But it’s easy to see why people believe them.
One of the points of yesterday’s column is that Biden voters and Trump voters see their guy in a similar way: “Sure, maybe he’s technically one of the elites, but he’s always been on the side of the little guy.”
This is why Joe Biden insists everyone calls him “Middle-Class Joe” even though the only person who’s ever been quoted calling him “Middle-Class Joe” is Joe Biden. He was elected to the Senate at 29 because his birthday was before the day of his swearing-in ceremony. He may well have been “poor” by the standards of the U.S. Senate, but every senator is wealthy by the standard of the average American.
This is why Elizabeth Warren frequently tells the story that “at 19, I got married, dropped out of school, took a minimum wage job, thought my dream was over.” Okay, but she was an associate dean of a law school by the time she was 31. By 1998, Harvard was paying her $192,550 in salary and an additional $133,453 in “other compensation” — which included a faculty mortgage subsidy, housing allowance, moving expenses, and imputed interest.
This is why Bernie Sanders talks about “growing up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an immigrant who came to this country without a nickel in his pocket.” You could argue Sanders’ first regular job came with his election to mayor in 1981. But that job paid $33,824, the equivalent of more than $100,000 in today’s dollars, and money went pretty far in 1980s Burlington. As many know, Sanders is now a multimillionaire.
None of this means these figures were never poor or of modest means, or that they don’t remember what it was like to be that way. But every major presidential candidate in either party has been living, at minimum, an upper-middle-class lifestyle for many years. A populist mood in the nation forces politicians to pretend that they’re poorer than they are, that those hard times weren’t as long ago as they were, and that they still share or at least freshly remember the economic anxiety that stresses so many Americans.
Perhaps in the often sordid and shamefully dishonest realm of politics, a candidate downplaying his wealth and how long he’s lived comfortably is a small sin. But this sort of thing caught up to Hillary Clinton — “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.”
I recall years ago watching prominent liberal journalist lamenting the greed of millionaires on television and the roughly $200K-per-year magazine columnist referring to “ordinary people like us.” To paraphrase that slang term of incredulous skepticism, “rich, please.”
An Oldie but a Goodie
This old Onion parody of Vox has never seemed more accurate.
ADDENDA: Finally, the public service announcement about mono that the country always needed.