Written by Lex Villena & Christian O’Brien
Reliability is a universally beloved idea. Employers love a dependable worker, friends love dependable friendships, and voters love a reliable source of news. If something is reliable, you feel you can depend on it. It roots you in a constantly changing world that only seems to be getting more and more hectic.
But at times, some strains of reliability can bog down constructive discourse. In the case of political commentary, it’s much, much easier to represent a dependable — reliable — strain of thought. If your readers approach your material with the expectation of a given opinion, they’re immediately satisfied. It puts an end to the messy and alienating process of pursuing the truth wherever it may lead. Sadly, politics, and humans, are almost never that simple. Certainly, a President such as Donald Trump is no creature of predictability. With his many erratic and oftentimes self-contradictory comments, it’s virtually impossible to always take a stance that will satisfy both his diehard supporters and eternal critics. And thus, those who strive to evaluate his actions are bullied into the margins.
This schism is best illustrated in the war of words between National Review’s Charles C W Cooke and The Atlantic’s David Frum. This difference was catalyzed when the National Review editor detailed the unabashed flips and flops of The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin.
In normal circumstances, the basic idea of flip flopping is thought to occur when a given position becomes un popular. However, for Rubin and those like her, it’s much more cynical — she’ll hold a position and make a fairly reasoned and compelling case in its defense. Then Trump will come along, take on that same position, and suddenly they’re rallying for the opposite position. This routine amounts to a relinquishment of one’s autonomy over a personal distaste for one man. By now, we all know the Trump supporter who will bend over backwards to excuse any sudden change Trump makes on the basis of it being a part of some long-term master strategy, or 4D chess. Now, this is nothing new. This cult of celebrity was part and parcel of the suave and polished character of Barack Obama. He relished in the celebrity, the late night circuits — it fit naturally for him. Obama became not just a politician, but a cult of personality, which could not translate into success for the Democratic party as a whole. To his supporters, it didn’t matter that he frequently missed the high bar he set, and the same can be said of many of Trump’s.
Meanwhile, Rubin represents the inverse of this dynamic, and it’s equally irrational and cultish. They both follow a cult of personality, by which their thoughts are held captive by one man, stopping at nothing to either support or oppose him. They willfully ignore that Trump, like any other president or human being, is sometimes going to take a position they like or oppose, respectively. That doesn’t mean he now “owns” that position and that you’re forced to assess it according to his whim. Stalin, after all, was an avid fan of American western films. Does this mean that anybody who likes The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is murderously Stalinistic? Obviously not, but this is what that kind of lazy thinking inevitably amounts to.
Rubin, who is the Post’s so-called conservative contributor, has taken every position there is in opposition to Trump — oftentimes in a matter of months. Cooke notes, for example, how she was in favor of moving the United States’ embassy to Jerusalem up and until Trump made the decision to do so. Rubin’s bizarre inconsistency reached laughable heights of hackdom when she even went so far as to criticize Trump for not yet fulfilling his campaign promise of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. She used the fact that Trump hadn’t yet done so to lampoon him as looking “buffoonish” in his “hasty retreat” — going off to write that the world is learning not to take him seriously, and that this damages our global influence. The very moment Trump decided to pull the trigger on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, she lambasted the decision as having “.” It did have a purpose, however, but don’t take our word for it — after all it was plainly obvious to her that “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.” That is, unless it’s the Trump administration, which she says is “misguided.” If her erraticism is any indication, she knows a thing or two about being misguided.
This cartoonish image of a self servicing pundit is made all the more naked when Rubin went on to cuttingly dismiss the Paris Climate Accord as merely a group wish — nonsense, only to embrace it and deride its critics as ‘climate-change denialists’ merely “dog whistle”-ing to pander to a “right-wing base that revels in scientific illiteracy.” It’s unclear whether or not Ms. Nonsense counts herself and her readers among that class.
To add to this reliability crisis, David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, lashed out that the National Review editor had lost his faith for not being a reliable comrade resolute in their unflinching and ‘obviously’ moral opposition to Trump — no matter the policy. This is damaging for two reasons: it’s obviously thoughtless to suggest that your policy objectives can’t align with someone you find personally distasteful. But this sort of reflexive anti-Trump cultism also only manages to provoke his diehard supporters to react in likewise fashion: if Rubin, Frum, etc. are criticizing him for positions they supported just five seconds ago, Trump is the martyr he’s always portrayed himself as, and therefore we, too, have to double down in our unthinking support. The crux of Frum’s argument is that Cooke views Trump with a “blank slate” without taking into consideration Trump’s past actions when evaluating the President. Therefore, we should be able to make categorical claims about the man. This is the same mentality that drives the impulse to dismiss him as a “racist”, and therefore anything he advocates for is racist. Tax reform? Racist. Immigration? Very racist. As with all things, the truth is never so simple. Of course it can be helpful to look at a person’s character and past conduct when trying to get a glimpse at his motive, but it can never be used as a shortcut for careful consideration of any given policy or investigation — even though it often is. But this isn’t an easy route to take, because along that path you’ll find yourself both criticizing the President and praising him, depending on the circumstance. This ultimately means that you don’t get invited to either club — the club that either consistently hates or loves him regardless of what he does. Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert, Bill Mitchell, Breitbart, etc. all know their words will be met with at least one side’s chorus of agreement. Their viewers and readers already have their opinion, they’re just waiting for it to be validated.
The most obvious example of this would be the Russia investigation. To many, the immediate rush to verdict and vitriol is just ridiculous and conspiratorial. To Frum and his readers, it’s plain to see that Trump colluded with Russia given the “damning” evidence that’s surfaced — often latching onto the Trump Tower meeting between Trump Jr. and Russian attorneys. Frum’s readers know what his take on this will be because it never changes. Because of this, the impeachment trials should already be underway, and there is no reason on the planet they aren’t. This mentality totally erases one of the most cherished pillars of western society — the presumption of innocence and due process. You can’t just do-away with these norms because it’s expedient, and it’s decidedly undemocratic to get upset at those who still want to uphold basic evidentiary standards — both in process and in discourse. The tactic of only feeding your audience what they think they know makes sense as a business strategy — but not so much in the pursuit of often uncomfortable truth. To a wide array of political observers, their viewpoint is simply obvious truth and all that’s holding us back is the unwillingness to admit it. As though we’re all engaged in a grand charade, tiptoeing around the self-evident.