Episode 33: Liberals’ Obsession with the Phantom Reasonable Republican

Citations Needed | April 11, 2018 | Transcript

Citations Needed
33 min readApr 11, 2018


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you for joining us this week everybody. Of course you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod. Share us, like us, say nice things on Facebook at Citations Needed. You can of course help out the show, help us do more research about more of this wonderful content by supporting us through Patreon.com, Citations Needed Podcast, we’re the ones with the black and gold logo, says with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson right on there, can’t miss it.

Adam: We will not do what the NPR does where we have, like, episodes dedicated to begging you where they’re like-

Nima: No, we’ll just do that every episode.

Adam: (Laughs) Yeah. Well a two-second beg is better than what NPR does where they were like, they do the little telethon and they’re like, ‘Oh, here’s Garrison Keillor to tell you a five minute’ quote unquote-

Nima: Yeah ,that’s a promise to you all: we will never have Garrison Keillor on this show.

Adam: Yeah, if we get support on Patreon, we will not play Garrison Keillor clips.

Nima: (Laughs) That’s right. So that’s like a hostage scenario.

Adam: Its blackmail, yeah, its a blackmail situation.

Nima: So, this week we are going to be talking about one of our very favorite topics. What it is, is this obsession, primarily with more centrist media, more mainstream outlets, magazines, TV, newspapers. This obsession with what we are calling the ‘phantom Reasonable Republican’.

Adam: Yeah. This is what I generally consider to be the Ainsley Hayes character in The West Wing, which is the like moderate, reasonable, good Republican that we need to prop up and be friends with-

Nima: That’s right. ‘There’s a way to disagree. This is how. We don’t all have to agree.’

Adam: Right.

Nima: And this is the reasonable rational explanation of why conservative-ism is not purely just race-baiting.

Adam: Yeah, just cynical shitheads. This obsession has gotten more and more goofy as the party itself moves further to the right. The irony is, is that The Ainsley Hayes character in The West Wing was based on Ann Coulter who Aaron Sorkin knew at the time and Ann Coulter is now a pretty much straight out white supremacist.

Nima: Definitely.

Adam: So I think that’s a sort of delightful irony. But this obsession in the age of Trump, because I think Trump really, he heightened the tensions in a way because he got rid of the subtextual; he got rid of the veneer.

Nima: Right. There’s no more veneer of that this is just an ideological divide, but all based on the same good intentions, good faith.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Um, we really just all want everyone to succeed. Its just policy that might be different.

Adam: They’re not just nativist racist assholes.

Nima: Right, but now it’s really just been shown to be what it’s been all along.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: So, um, there’s a lot to talk about on this topic, what are the forces pushing this kind of denial of Donald Trump as actually and accurately representing the GOP as it exists today. And as we always ask on the show whom does this most harm? This narrative and this need to present a Reasonable Republican as the face of the party, uh, in mainstream outlets. And of course whom does it benefit? So later in the show will be speaking with Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at Slate.

[Begin Clip]

Osita Nwanevu: Democrats, mainstream liberals, their ideal political situation is one in which they’re able to share power with people they see as reasonable on the other side, and they could work together to reach common sense solutions in a bipartisan fashion. Right? Like that is the ideal. I think that is true at The Atlantic. I think that is true at the DNC. The ideal political situation for the right is complete hegemony at all levels of government. You don’t hear people on the right looking for reasonable liberals or reasonable leftists.

[End Clip]

Adam: The corollary rise of Trump has introduced this thing called the NeverTrump Republican, which is held up as the sort of principled, good, patriotic conservative. Now NeverTrump Republicans in reality, or I should say Republicans who don’t support Trump, are more or less four to six percent of the population.

Nima: Right. Based on polling, right.

Adam: About five percent of the population, so there’s five percent of the population is a conservative who doesn’t like Trump. The reality is the vast majority of polls have, poll-to-poll, shows conservatives love Trump. The rates of conservatives who love Trump is roughly the same rates of liberals who liked Obama. His popularity in Republican Party is almost uniform. And this is representative of course, by how the Republican brand markets itself. It routinely highlights things Trump has done. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, they piggyback off Trump on many things. They, you know, they’ll issue some mild criticisms around the margins, but mostly they’re all lockstep.

Nima: Oh, absolutely. When I was in Tennessee recently and saw, um, a campaign ad run on TV, by Diane Black, who is a congresswoman for Tennessee’s sixth district and is now running for Governor, and the whole premise of the ad is how influential Diane Black was for the Trump tax bill. And that she was like a major guiding source for this bill shows her, you know, being praised by Trump, standing next to Trump in like tax heaven with this, you know, shoveling all this money to more wealthy people.

Adam: Right.

Nima: So there’s certainly a lockstep-ism within the party.

Adam: However, the media representation of conservatives is overwhelmingly anti-Trump in a way that is wildly disproportionate.

Nima: Exactly, totally unrepresentative of the actual party. So like major outlets like The Washington Post, The Atlantic, New York Times employ roughly twenty NeverTrumpers among them are the obvious, uh, old guard of like George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Thiessen, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, Kathleen Parker, Radley Balko, David Frum, Connor Freidersdorf, Ross Douthat, and of course like David Brooks, and this is even more reflective in recent hires by a number of these outlets including Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, uh, Megan McArdle, and of course Max Boot, you know, these are people who have espoused really terrible points of view, obviously consistently anti-Arab racism, climate change denial. And yet they get these platforms at these, at these major outlets.

Adam: Yeah. The major criteria to be a Reasonable, capital ‘R’, Republican, capital ‘R’, is the major criteria is to be anti-Trump and you can have the most vile opinions you can think of as long as your generally pro-Israel, anti-Russia and anti-Trump. Those are the kind of three major criteria.

Nima: That kind of does it, yeah.

Adam: And as long as you satisfy those, you can be pretty racist, very anti-woman, call campus rape a myth, as Bret Stephens did. So there was a recent controversy with Kevin Williamson who was hired by The Atlantic and then subsequently fired.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: After pushback because he said that women who have abortions should be hanged.

Nima: Like en masse. Like to genocidal proportions.

Adam: Right. And he originally said it in a tweet, said it was just a tweet. Turns out he actually said the exact same thing in a podcast with some folks from Media Matters uncovered. Then he was fired because I guess this was a bridge too far. His sort of anti his hatred of women was too far. Again, you can generally be anti-woman sometimes you can go too far. You can pretty much not be fired for being anti-Arab. And of course he definitely checked that box. Of course he blamed the 2014 bombing of Gaza by Israel on Hamas and said that the Palestinians are sort of blood lust and like to be, they like to be killed. That was okay. Of course.

Nima: Right, he consistently predicted that Iran was about to build a nuclear weapon, which obviously-

Adam: He also said he also-

Nima: Kind of obvious shit.

Adam: He also disparaged African Americans several times. He, um, he made a not so cute reference about three fists this, um, in one, in one article for the National Review.

Nima: And like described an African American that he saw on the street as like an ape.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: Uh, so yeah, that guy’s a piece of shit.

Adam: He was good enough for The Atlantic and then he was fired after because of his anti-abortion comments, anti-woman comments.

Nima: Yes. Indeed. The editor of The Atlantic in announcing his hire, he was part of the ‘New Ideas’ section at The Atlantic. So Jeffrey Goldberg, who we’ve talked about on the show, uh, before, um, his reasoning behind hiring Williamson was that, you know, the section was going to gather together a diverse range of voices whose experiences and expertise can offer new perspectives just like platitudinal nonsense. And yet he checked this box of this conservative because if you’re going to hire left leaning or more progressive writers, obviously you need to balance that somehow. So Williamson was the one that they kind of hit on and now that’s kind of blown up in their face.

Adam: Um, and it, it shows you this, this, this institutional impulse to have the Reasonable Republican when in reality there’s really no such thing because we have a conservative party that is not overtly racist and it’s called the Democratic Party. It already exists. The Democratic Party is a centrist conservative party. Obama’s healthcare plan was literally copy and pasted from the Heritage Foundation. The major difference on a fundamental level between the Democratic Party, at least the Clinton wing of the party, there’s obviously a more progressive wing of the party that is kind of gaining traction, but generally the conservative wing still holds most of the power and that certainly has a place in the party. The only thing that really sort of makes a republican or a conservative is that they are more overt and more, I think more petty and more fiendish in their hatred of women and people of color and immigrants and minorities, that there’s a kind of overtness and a kind of mean-spirited streak to it.

Nima: Uncouthness. Yeah.

Adam: And there’s a punitive-ness to it. And I genuinely think that there is such thing as someone who is, I guess fiscally conservative as it were, but is not overtly racist. And again, those people have a place in the Democratic Party. The only real reason in the age of Trump to be a Republican at this point, I think it’s fair to say, is if you’re a either overt or covert white nationalist. There’s not really any other compelling reason because the Democratic Party has a place for you in its conservative wing.

Nima: Sure. There are plenty of people who would describe themselves as fiscally conservative and yet socially liberal who also voted for Trump.

Adam: Whatever that means.

Nima: No, but who voted for Trump, which means they are still representative of the Republican Party. And yet those people are still not represented in the opinion section of these papers and magazines.

Adam: Exactly. And the primary reason why I think there’s an institutional instinct to hold onto the capital ‘R’, capital ‘R’ Reasonable Republican, is because there’s a kind of, there’s a desire to maintain the Republican Party brand and kind of wait Trump out. So when Trump leaves the David Frums of the world and the Bret Stephenses and the Evan McMullins can sort of retake their place as the not sullied, not nativist, not anti-NATO, what we would sort of generally call the more neoconservative wing of the party and that Trump is sullying the brand of the party.

Nima: He’s doing all the same things.

Adam: Even though he’s doing 95 percent of the stuff, he’s doing exactly what Marco Rubio would do with the exception of maybe some of the tariffs and sort of the, the, you know, the kind of sillier trade war stuff. But ultimately it’s basically just the Marco Rubio administration up to and including arming the Ukrainian militias and supporting and bombing Syrian government positions in Syria and of course setting up military bases in Syria, which of course any other neoconservative would’ve done.

Nima: Exactly. So in the past few years, the Democratic Party’s rank and file have shifted left on a lot of major issues from healthcare to a legalization of marijuana and other drugs to obviously taxes. Uh, the heart of the party has grown more progressive. So in many instances, they have actually become overtly socialist in nature. Recent polling has found that 47 percent of Democrats and democratic leaning Independents now identify as both socially liberal and economically moderate or liberal, which is, which is up from 39 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2001.

Adam: Yeah. And in contrast, in the nominal liberal media, which we’ll sort of generally define as editorially pro democratic, like The New York Times and MSNBC.

Nima: Big ‘D’ Democrat.

Adam: Yeah, big ‘D’ Democrat. It continues a hiring spree of Never Trumpers as if it’s required by law. So last summer, MSNBC hired pro torture, climate change, denying anti Arab-racist, Bret Stephens, who was also of course just been hired by The New York Times editorial page in case you didn’t have enough of him. Ironically enough, Bret Stephens’ first article for The New York Times out of the gate had to issue two different corrections because it got basic science on climate wrong. And then MSNBC picked up George Bush advisor Nicolle Wallace, who’s become one of their major stars, right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, Washington Post columnist George Will and former Fox News stars, Greta Van Susteren and Megan Kelly, although it should be noted that Susteren’s show was subsequently cancelled.

Nima: ‘Cause, (laughs) no one was watching it.

Adam: Because no one was watching.

Nima: (Laughs) Right.

Adam: Because who the hell cares what she has to say. But there’s an institutional instinct to have when there’s a conservative in office they sort of follow suit by having more conservatives, but they can’t have pro-Trump conservatives even though they represent, again, roughly 90 percent of the Republican ideology and party so they have to fill up so there is no greater affirmative action plan and all in all of the world the NeverTrump mediocre white conservative writers who represent five percent of the population but are approximately 30 to 40 percent of the pundit class.

Nima: Right. Now I should point out I’m not opposed to not hiring neo-Nazis and white nationalists. I think that’s okay not to do. It’s just that the conservatives that then are hired are basically just closing the Overton Window even further so that the kind of scope of discourse that is seen in these pages, on air, just winds up being everyone agreeing, but to what extent?

Adam: Well because when they say things like we want ideological diversity as their excuse, which is always the excuse given, it’s the excuse The New York Times gave, ideological diversity. The fact that they don’t, that they’d never hire pro-Trump Republicans exposes that talking point as total horseshit.

Nima: And especially the other way because they’re also not hiring Bernie Sanders supporters, for example.

Adam: So so. Right. So New York Times opinion page editor, James Bennet, who I would probably argue is the most influential person in opinion media because The New York Times as the single most important opinion arbiter or I guess curator of the American public, especially the American left liberal class as it where. He said something interesting in a closed-door meeting. Ashley Feinberg at Huffington Post got her hands on a transcript of a closed meeting that he had with his staff back in February-

Nima: Which was basically because of Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens.

Adam: Because the backlash over Bari Weiss because Bari Weiss is just this mediocre troll who we will get into later. This is what he said. He said: “Most of our readers are liberal. I think if we show we take conservative seriously and we take ideas seriously there, we can get a lot more moderates paying attention to what The New York Times has to say. I think we lose the moderates completely if we just show that we think conservatives are just, and there’s no point in even engaging their ideas or to debate with them.” Then there was a staff member who gingerly asked why there was no Bernie Sanders supporters on The New York Times

Nima: Right. Despite the fact that 43 percent of Democratic voters backed Sanders in the, in the 2016 primaries.

Adam: And he sort of just poo-pooed the question. You gave a very long-winded answer, which we don’t need to read because it’s kind of nonsensical where he basically just doesn’t answer the question. Um, and then he said something quite revealing. He said, when he was asked what the appropriate scope of discourse is in The New York Times, he said, “I think we are pro capitalism. The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress we’ve ever seen.” Now, this is a very ideological statement obviously, and of course, you know the capitalist country that we have that’s been fueled by cheap immigrant labor and slavery may disagree, but that is the ideological claim that he’s made and it’s very rare that, you know, someone of this influence in this position, will sort of overtly tell you their ideology, which is that he accepts capitalism’s normative properties as being good as something that’s non negotiable. Something like gravity or, I mean I would say climate change, but they hired Bret Stephens so something that’s sort of taken for granted.

Nima: Exactly. Exactly.

Adam: That you’re not even really allowed to debate the axioms of capitalism in any meaningful way because it’s a settled issue, which is why the idea of having a socialist or a leftist or even a soft Bernie Sanders supporter.

Nima: That’s the thing I was going to say. I mean it’s not even like Bernie Sanders is the most anti-capitalist person. It’s just that goes so far to show the ideological bent of Bennet and therefore his opinion page. That in response to questions about Sanders, he’s seeing Sanders and supporters of Sanders as so far out of The New York Times enabling mainstream. That really can’t even be considered. I think another kind of amazing part of this leaked transcript is when Bennett, again, whose literal job is to understand the media landscape and find new and worthwhile voices to publish. He has no clue where to find writers that maybe aren’t racist or Zionist or like hue exactly to the most pro-capitalist ideology. This is what he said, “What a columnist is a trusted voice in your ear that helps you process, kind of, the world in real time, right? Through a particular lens. And there are a number of lenses we’re missing right now, I think. And a lot of those are, it’s gender and it’s identity, you know, as well as ideology. So where am I looking? I’m asking you guys. You know, send me names, please. You know, if there are people that you’re reading that you think belong in The New York Times.”

Adam: Now James spent 15, 16 years as the editor of The Atlantic before Jeffrey Goldberg took over, so this is someone who has spent his entire life in publishing who lives in a kind of West Wing adult universe where there’s the acceptable Discourse, capital ‘D’, and it’s serious Republicans and serious Democrats and everyone vaguely to the just slightly to the right of Bernie Sanders is a wacky, far left nut who’s unserious and then people who are very, you know, probably neo-Nazis are not really taken seriously, but you can promote white nationalist ideology as long as you use the right code.

Nima: Right, because their good behavior is not good enough to appear.

Adam: So the question is, what is this, the overarching ideology of maintaining this myth of the Reasonable Republican and why that’s so essential? So to the extent to which someone like Jeffrey Goldberg will go out on a huge limb and defend Kevin Williamson before he just couldn’t do it anymore.

Nima: Right.

Adam: But to sort of have this guy again, someone who, here he is with this comment about hanging women who have abortions like staring him in their faces. ‘Oh no, it’s just a Twitter comment. It’s not.’ I mean, what, what is this institutional need to have the moderate Republican who hates Trump but also tows the line on everything else in terms of national security. Um, you know, Israel, uh, the fact that social security is insolvent, you know, the sort of usual boilerplate centrist stuff.

Nima: Right.

Adam: I don’t quite know what that dark matter is. And um, you know, we have some theories as to why that is and namely that they don’t really offend power, right? Someone like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss who came at the same time, New York Times, both are very pro-Israel. They master the feet of being provocative without being subversive. Its kind of why, you know, big corporate records love, you know, Blink-182, right? It’s sort of like edgy but not really offensive in any meaningful way. Right. And that’s what Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, they troll the liberal orthodoxies, like let’s say climate change or I don’t know, Arabs deserve to live or things that we kind of take for granted or maybe you know, or things like campus rape, which is a hugely important deal. They both kind of poo-poo that. So they troll these non-class based non, you know, they’re not going to obviously critique imperialism or anything of substance or power. They just troll liberal axioms and liberal sort of assumptions. And then dullards like James Bennet mistake that for being somehow having a diversity of opinion or being edgy, but they’re not. They’re just, they’re just being trolls.

Nima: Right and then when they elicit reactions to their horrible ideas that is seen as some sort of victory for the hiring process, right? That, ‘Oh, look at the discussion that they have engendered.’

Adam: Right right.

Nima: Look at how because they’ve been controversial and so people are pushing back, which means we’re starting in conversation, which means The Times is relevant when actually the pushback is not because the ideas deserve to be addressed.

Adam: Right.

Nima: It’s because of the people should not be hired.

Adam: We’re re-litigating settled issues like climate change and the baseline humanity of trans people. That’s not a controversy. That is pure trolling.

Nima: Right.

Adam: It’s just fucking with liberal conventional wisdom in a way that is meant to provoke. So, and you know, I’ve said this before, Stephens is just, he’s just 4chan with a master’s degree. It’s highbrow, um, hatred of women, hatred of immigrants, you know, hatred of, of Arabs.

Nima: Well, right.

Adam: In a way that’s appropriately coded. But you look at his Twitter feed he’s just a fucking troll. He says, oh, every time you post some, some stupid shit, like, ‘Oh, they’re really going to come after me for this one, right guys?’ It’s a fucking game to him.

Nima: That actually nods to this. In that same leaked meeting with The Times staff where he actually describes Stephens as “an exceptional writer and thinker.” And then he adds, “I don’t agree with him a lot of the time, but I like to read him, so.”

Adam: It’s because these people have no skin in the game.

Nima: Right.

Adam: This is a joke to them. It’s all a joke.

Nima: Right. Stephens doesn’t really offend Bennet on a fundamental level of who deserves to be treated as a human. He has ideas that he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but like he thinks that somehow his writing is lovely enough to warrant publication and then doesn’t really give a shit about what Stephens is actually saying. I mean it’s the same reason why there’s no fact checking done in editorials or in opinion pieces.

Adam: Right.

Nima: It’s like you can say whatever the fuck you want and then it takes a Twitter backlash for corrections to be issued because of fundamental facts that are incorrect that Stephens just put out there, but apparently he’s an exceptional fucking writer and thinker.

Adam: Um right. ‘Cause he flatters people in power in a way that is supposedly provocative. But again, what do these concepts mean? If your goal is to be provocative, he could just call someone a poo-poo face. I mean, it’s basically what he does anyway right? He’s a toddler.

Nima: So to unpack this further, there’s a great writer for Slate, Osita Nwanevu. He’s been tracking this media obsession with false balance with this phony both sides-ism for quite some time and we’re really excited to have him on the show. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Osita Nwanevu staff writer at Slate. Osita, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Osita Nwanevu: Thanks for having me.

Adam: Uh, so this episode is about the pathological industry insistence upon the Reasonable Republican as this sort of thing we have to have. The kind of Ainsley Hayes character who’s good and noble and honest and not, uh, you know, racist or a shithead. You’re one of the foremost critics of this pathology and you’ve written quite a lot about it in a way that I thought really got to the heart of what it was. Can you talk about this sort of institutional obsession, especially in the age of Trump to sort of find the reasonable anti-Trump Republican and why that oftentimes is so impossible or so invasive?

Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, sure. So, I mean, I think the major controversy now is obviously over Kevin Williamson at The Atlantic but even before that for the past year, more than a year really, since the election, we’ve seen just a crush of articles at The New York Times and other places trying to sort of understand the Trump voter and we’ve seen people like James Bennet at The Times and other people sort of talk constantly about the need to drill down into what is motivating people on the right. And the argument is the best way to do this is to have their opinions represented in the pages of major centrist publications. And the problem with this is that first of all, the project of conservatism is really antithetical to what these publications are trying to do. Um, one of the arguments I made in the piece that I wrote about the Williamson controversy was that if conservatives really, really wanted to have neutral gate keeping institutions, if they really, really thought that they were important and that the liberal media or that liberal media bias that caused institutions like The Times to fail at this, they would just sort of do it themselves. Like there would be more publications run by conservatives aimed at presenting like a broad range of views. But they don’t do that because presumably they don’t really think it’s that important. There’s no shortage of resources on their side to to try to do this. There are lots of donors and funds, partisan conservative publications, but they’re, I mean apart from say The Wall Street Journal, which was not founded as a corrective to The New York Times’ liberal bias or whatever. Like there’s no real equivalence there. There’s no equivalent effort on their part. And the other problem is that there’s nothing you can do really, as I say in the piece to actually satisfy conservatives on this front. This is something they’ve been complaining about since the 1950s. William F. Buckley, like, established his career talking about bias on campus and the very same way it’s talked about now, but he also talked about bias in the liberal press. There’s a clip that I included in Slate piece or the Slate piece I wrote about Williamson where he’s talking to the liberal journalist David Susskind in saying this exact same thing back in 1966. So you know, ‘the press is totally biased against conservatives, aren’t willing to give them a fair hearing,’ but really if that was true in 1966 and things were intolerable and liberal baton at the time when there was still a lot of apprehension, having leftist voices in the press, you’re just a few years removed from the second red scare, in which left are being thrown out of the jobs. Like if that was a too leftist environment, then it’s hard to imagine what The Times could do, what James Bennet could do to actually bring coverage at The Times, your opinion at The Times, for instance, bring your spectrum to The Times that conservatives would actually be satisfied with. So this isn’t really like a complaint that can be addressed. By design. I mean they’re always going to try to hack away at institutions in the center that have broad readership and constantly claim that they’re not being heard enough so that they can put their hooks into these institutions and bring themselves more and more into the mainstream and then shift the Overton Window over to the right.

Nima: Yeah. I mean the idea that this is a scare tactic that can never be actually adequately addressed. I mean that’s such a great point you make that as conservatives have always screamed if there was so much leftist and communist and anarchist indoctrination like they always say there is then like this would be a fundamentally different country and we would not be living under a Trump administration and the-

Osita Nwanevu: We’d be living in Soviets really. There’s, there’s no, I mean to actually believe what they say when they talk about the pervasiveness of liberal bias in the idea that like people from the time they go into school to the time they’re adults and news consumers, that they’re constantly being bombarded with liberal or leftist propaganda. That would have a profound impact one would imagine on the viability of conservative ideas. It does not seem to me in 2018 that conservatives are wanting for political power.

Nima: Right.

Osita Nwanevu: So I don’t know. There’s not really very much evidence in practice.

Adam: One thing they’re good at when it comes to the liberal media bias is that they have this image of what that means in a very distorted way. Now it’s probably generally true that things like on gay rights for example, or social issues that don’t really offend the rich or the powerful even though that’s kind of debatable. That its probably true that the media is generally, like the media accepts climate change, okay, fair enough.

Osita Nwanevu: Right.

Adam: But when it comes to things like, you know, obviously war or imperialism or any kind of core things that we’re all supposed to agree on the media of course is very right-wing. So like by acting as if the totality of liberalism or even leftism is somehow, you know, a handful of issues that can position themselves as the victim and, you know, Roger Ailes was very good at this at the press conference in which they launched Fox News in 1996, he talked about the bias of the media and how Fox News was going to be a corrective and this white grievance politics was a huge part of their initial launch. And I thought that was, again, it goes back to Buckley, this idea that there’s this constant left-wing plot against the average working man who Fox broadly defines as, you know, the ultimate little guy of Fox is a guy with a golf tan in Florida who owns a network of Toyota dealerships, right? Um, it’s a millionaire basically. So can you speak to that, how that constant sense of victimization is sort of inverted for the purposes of basically just gaslighting liberals into thinking that they do in fact run the world.

Osita Nwanevu: Yeah, I mean victimization has always been central. As you suggested the voices that are represented in Fox, in major conservative publications are not the little guy by any stretch of the imagination. We’re having a conversation now about Williamson who famously wrote in the National Review that he believes that the very communities that people are looking to now to try to understand where Trumpism came from, he basically wrote straightforwardly that these are communities that deserve to be abandoned, left behind, that they had sort of invited their own fate but not working hard enough. And that was just a very sort of invited their own fate by not working hard enough. And that was just a very sort of naked version of elitism I think is pretty pervasive across most publications on the right. You won’t really see very many people who represent populous Trumpism at the major magazines or none at National Review. Uh, there are none at The Weekly Standard, those kinds of places. And one of the arguments that I make in the piece I wrote about Williamson is that okay, if you think you can’t really make an argument that The Atlantic should represent the full spectrum of conservative views if you’re writing for conservative publications that does not include views representing the majority of the people who are on the right in America today. That doesn’t make any sense. Obviously concerned publication if there is a burden to representation would take out that burden before a centrist publication would.

Adam: And that’s the rub right? Ideological diversity. But there’s basically no Trump supporters at The Post or The New York Times or The Atlantic, despite the fact that he has like a, he has a 90 percent approval rating amongst Republicans.

Osita Nwanevu: Right. So I mean, at any of these right-wing, you know, mainstream publications, they want to frame themselves as sort of the people who stand with the average conservative voter in America and that if you hire somebody like Kevin Williamson or if you have someone like Bret Stephens at your institution, you are doing something to represent that sort of very regular American conservative voter. And it’s not true at all. You’re representing people who live mostly on the east coast, in New York. The kinds of places that they sort of attack liberals for living in. You’re representing a very narrow slice of American conservatism that is basically upper middle class to upper class. Um, their constituency is really just other conservative writers, uh, and think tank people.

Adam: Right.

Nima: So what is the reason do you think for editors like James Bennett or Jeffrey Goldberg, for instance, to kind of drink the Kool-Aid on, you know, their publications are liberal they need the other side right? Then. So they’re, they’re looking for whom to hire, but someone to hire that they like their writing and it doesn’t offend them all that much. Right? Like they’re not, they’re not going to just hire a Nazi, but they can hire, like, an almost-Nazi if they previously published in The Wall Street Journal. But at the same time those who scream about liberal bias are not looking, as you’ve written before, are not looking to create unbiased centrist fact based media. No. The right-wing creates this uber-ideological propaganda constellation of networks and magazines, Weekly Standard, National Review, Fox News, Breitbart, Daily Caller, etcetera. So they’re doing that work narratively on their side. And so what is the, what does the Bennett, Goldberg need to believe the bullshit?

Osita Nwanevu: You know, I think that’s a complicated question. I’ve been very iffy on the extent which all of this matters in some large sense. I mean we’re talking about writers at different publications and you know, media organizations that a lot of people don’t read or know about, but the one sense in which I do think it matters is that I think you can connect the need for centrists or sort of liberals, broadly speaking, at these publications to find people on the other side who are supposedly reasonable. With, I think, larger currents in American politics. I think this is the kind of thinking you see from Democrats in Congress, for instance, when people who are actual politicians talk constantly about the need to reach across the aisle and work with the other side. That’s something that’s very embedded within conventional liberal politics and I can’t really quite explain it apart from, I guess the sense that they share interests with the right in certain ways, obvious and not. What we’re seeing now with Williamson is a symptom of that larger problem. Democrats, mainstream liberals, they’re ideal political situation is one in which they’re able to share power with people they see as reasonable on the other side and they could work together to reach common sense solutions in a bipartisan fashion. Right? Like that is the ideal. I think that is true at The Atlantic. I think just true at the DNC. The ideal political situation for the right is complete hegemony at all levels of government.

Adam: It’s to win.

Osita Nwanevu: You don’t hear people on the right looking for reasonable liberals or reasonable leftists that they can sort of have these disagreements with and then go out and have a drink with afterwords. It’s not how they operate. This is sort of a cold culture war that they’re running and it’s one that they, uh, I wouldn’t say that they’re winning necessarily. But you know, obviously conservatives, Republicans have done very well on all levels of government for the past several years.

Adam: Yeah, it’s certainly not something that you would see in 2018. I think that part of the way people approach this, because it’s a criticism people made of Obama a lot, that he wanted to sort of reach across the aisle and find these Reasonable Republicans. And in many ways they just completely rolled him. I think there’s some naiveté to the assumption that Democrats necessarily want to win as such. And what I mean by that is that liberalism is, by its very nature, is a reformist ideology that exists in relation to power. But it fundamentally wants to keep the general outline without really much change. And when you say they have many shared interests, I really think that’s the rub. The Kevin Williamsons of the world they accept the core agreed upon principles of American imperialism, capitalism, and that everything else is just sort of a negotiation. So like the baseline humanity for example, of trans people is not something that really upsets Jeffrey Goldberg doesn’t really bother his status. Right? Because he’s not from that community and he doesn’t really affect them. Whereas if Kevin Williamson wanted into, I don’t know, liberate Palestine, this would be something that would offend one of his core ideological principles. So.

Nima: Considering he was a former Israeli prison guard.

Adam: Right. For example, I think that the amount of shared interests behind what is considered the kind of serious liberal establishment, and your far right-wing goal is pretty significant. And I think that’s really what the kind of rub is. And especially with someone like Bret Stephens is the same way. Bret Stephens is very boilerplate capitalist, very pro-American empire, and so you sort of see that he’s not really subverting anything. As I mentioned in earlier in the show, he’s provocative without being subversive and that’s really what they want.

Osita Nwanevu: I think that’s absolutely true. You know we’re only talking about Williamson because I mean if Williamson didn’t have the sort of caustic tone that he adopts in his writing and is known for and he was just given to saying things like, ‘Oh, you know, we should get rid of some food stamps.’ We would not be having this conversation because that was totally normalized and accepted as within the bounds of reasonable opinion. It is within the bounds of reasonable opinion to say that we should invade Iran, you know, so, you know, I, I think you’re right. And it seems like we’re looking at two opposing sides between people like Goldberg, people like Williamson and we think that there’s a hand that’s been reached out to Williamson from a partisan on another side. But in reality this is sort of a group of people that is a glob, a miasma of certain shared elite opinions about the nature of American society and American politics. Um, and there are a handful of things you can do to put yourself on the outs. But in large part, we see the effort to reach across to the other side because they’re not actually reaching to another side, right? They’re extending a hand to people who roughly share their opinions on some of the core facts of American life. And this idea that some bridges being built is really an illusion, the bridge was always there.

Nima: Right. No, I think that’s a fundamental point to make. I mean, it’s, it’s really fascinating what the bridges that are too far, wind up being for these opinion writers. Uh, you know, so-called experts, so-called thinkers where Bret Stephens and Barry Weiss can do whatever they want. Megan McArdle could do whatever she wants. But it’s like there needs to be this one tipping point and you know, we see it with, you know, what is it with Kevin Williamson? Well, it’s not going to be the comments about African Americans. Its going to be comments about, um, genocide against women who have abortions. Like that’s, that’s too much other things are not. We see it-

Adam: Well yeah. Barely too much right I mean-

Nima: Exactly. It wasn’t at first.

Adam: He had to expressly say it.

Nima: He had to do it multiple times.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Um, and so that’s just kind of a fascinating way to kind of see like what does it really take, you know, for these people to either be ostracized once they have a job or not to be offered it in the first place. There’s a ton that you can do and still just keep climbing the ladder. There are endless examples. Max Boot has a career. Like this is bizarre.

Osita Nwanevu: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s absolutely true. I mean one of the Williamson columns that wasn’t even really talked about in this controversy was one he wrote awhile back about how semi-facetiously advance the argument that we should just shoot everybody at Guantanamo. That wasn’t even brought up that I saw in most of the talk about him and why he was sort of reprehensible. But you know Goldberg knew about all of these other pieces. It just happens that this was the one, the abortion thing was sort of the one thing that people glommed onto. But this is somebody who presumably is familiar with Kevin’s work, has been reading him for a long time and knows that his, basically his reputation has been built on advancing these kinds of extreme arguments. I can’t imagine that Goldberg felt too badly about the Guantanamo article in particular.

Nima: Right?

Adam: Well, he was a prison guard. So. Um.

Osita Nwanevu: Right. Right.

Nima: I think we can leave it there. This has been so fantastic talking to you, Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at Slate and everyone can follow Osita on Twitter. Uh, the Twitter handle is just his first and last name, Osita Nwanevu, that’s O-S-I-T-A-N-W-A-N-E-V-U.

Adam: Do it.

Nima: Do it, he’s fantastic.

Adam: He’s a great follow. And uh, he’s good at trolling these incredibly dumb notions of balance, which are incredibly toxic.

Nima: And incredibly necessary to do.

Adam: And wildly inconsistent, as he points out constantly.

Nima: Thank you so much for joining us on Citations Needed. This has been great.

Osita Nwanevu: Thanks guys.


Adam: Yeah. So that was, that was excellent. That sort of pathology behind what compels this obsession with the Reasonable Republican is this idea that politics is a sport and we need both sides. Who are sportsmen-like. Who don’t cheat and we have this great debate and then the sort of synthesis of which is sort of the truth.

Nima: Right. Somewhere in that middle is reality.

Adam: Right. Is the appropriate position to have. Which oftentimes again includes permanent war and gutting social security, which are the acceptable centrist positions we’re supposed to have, and the idea that there is actual good in the world, that there are people who are good and moral and that there are people who are bad and evil and wrong is not something that really factors in because these concepts are somehow ideological. The ‘I’ word right? Or dangerous because they believe in right and wrong.

Nima: I think we see this even in media that proceeds Trump in certain ways where, um, where people who were instrumental in pushing the invasion of Iraq, for instance, were not ostracized from media. Were not seen as persona non grata. Who were still invited back to talk about their opinions. We see endless parades of a military and ex-military officials, right, on nominally progressive platforms like MSNBC, and this is still that sort of there’s a reasonable militarism, right? There’s a reasonable conservativism, there’s a reasonable republicanism that demands being represented by mainstream media that they insist that that is an appropriate way to address these issues. Its the reason David Frum is on TV constantly and Bill Kristol and Ken Pollock and you know, Eli Lake, like those are the people who will, you know, not be ostracized for being wrong all the time. They’ve been these staples and now we just see even more of it with this kind of NeverTrump hashtag.

Adam: Yeah because the goal is not to be right. The goal is to push the power serving agenda. Whether or not you’re right or wrong is incidental to that. So people say, ‘Oh, well, you know, Bill Kristol is wrong about everything.’ It doesn’t matter. Bill Kristol’s job is to push a certain perspective. The fact that he’s wrong about everything is irrelevant to his employment status.

Nima: Right, exactly. And then you actually see, I think I’ve referenced this before on the show where earlier this year, Bill Kristol was on MSNBC on the Velshi and Ruhle show and uh, was talking about protests in Iran and basically said that, you know, we need to support the Iranian people. And Trita Parsi, who was president of the, NIAC, National Iranian American Council, basically said to Kristol, you know, but you’ve been calling for bombing and killing Iranians for years, and there was this kind of like tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, and then the MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle, jumped in on Bill Kristol’s behalf and said this,

[Begin Clip]

Stephanie Ruhle: Trita, Bill Kristol is not advocating to kill anyone. Let’s make that very clear.

[End Clip]

Nima: Yeah, that’s, that’s not true.

Adam: But he is, yeah he is advocating.

Nima: Right. His whole career.

Adam: That’s what he does. He just does it in language that Trump doesn’t use, but it’s the same thing he’s advocating bombing countries. What does she think the result of bombing is? Killing people.

Nima: Right. So therefore we see yet again-

Adam: That you have to protect the Reasonable Republican.

Nima: He’s being protected. Exactly. Somehow Bill fucking Kristol is now reasonable in the age of Trump.

Adam: ‘Cause it’s all reasonable. It’s, it’s the obsession with the Reasonable Republican. It is a pathology, it is a clinical condition, and it will never go away. Because once you get rid of this assumption of the Reasonable Republican you’re left with, you can’t use the crutch of false balance as your guiding principle in life. And when you take that away, you then have to build an ideology from scratch. You have to actually go on first principles, what’s right, what’s wrong. And that’s a scary proposition to a lot of people because when your, when your entire worldview is, let’s take the right, the left and split the difference it’s easy to understand the world because you have something to look at, something as a point of reference, you have a, you have a compass, right? But if you take that away and you say, okay, now you need to build an ideology from scratch, what is it? It’s a very scary place to be and most people don’t want to be there.

Nima: And certainly the mainstream media does not want to be there.

Adam: Definitely not people who rise to anchor at MSNBC. Not something that registers in their moral compass.

Nima: Or to the opinion editor at The New York Times.

Adam: Or the opinion editor of The New York Times.

Nima: Uh, so I think that’s a great place to leave it. Thank you everyone for joining us this week on Citations Needed, of course Twitter, Facebook, Patreon, everything helps. Certainly our critic level supporters deserve an extra special shout out. Thank you as always. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Music is by Granddaddy. Thank you so much for joining us yet again. We’ll catch you next week.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, April 11, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.