Published June 17, 2021
The New Criterion - May 2021 issue
Eight plus eight is sixteen. Easy to remember. And it was on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2016, a date that will live in media infamy, that Jim Rutenberg announced, ostensibly on behalf of The New York Times but really on behalf of all major media outlets in America, that they were no longer to keep up the pretense, pretty threadbare by then in any case, that they were in the news business. Henceforth they were to be unabashed advocates for a rhetorical holy war against Donald Trump — and, eventually, what was to prove the Trumpist half of the American electorate. At the time, this revolutionary turn to advocacy — which was actually a return to a high-tech version of the media environment of the early days of the Republic — seemed an extraordinary measure, meant to have been justified only by the candidacy of someone allegedly far out of the mainstream of American politics. Once the anti-Trump campaigners had achieved their goal of defeating the Bad Orange Man, it was assumed that they would resume media life as we had known it up until 8/8/16.
Even after the Trump victory in the following November’s election, it was widely supposed that the new president would serve less than a full term, either because of Russian “collusion,” eventually to be uncovered by the Mueller investigation, or some other scandal, and that, once the aberrational president had been purged by fair means or foul, “normal” media service would naturally be resumed. At least it appeared during the primary season of 2020 that this wish for a return to normalcy led the Democrats and their media allies, after the failures of Robert Mueller and impeachment, to turn to Barack Obama’s vice president for a return to something like the political status quo ante. The media, in turn, could go back to being merely biased in favor of their fellow progressives, rather than their cheerleaders. “The Democratic Party made a decision after seeing 24 people run,” said a party fund-raiser and Obama associate quoted in The Times of London, “that we just want normal again. We don’t want a revolution.”
Turns out this was all for show. They did want a revolution — and a big part of the reason was that the media found that turning propagandists was both more profitable and more to their taste than going back to being mere newsmen. Revolutionary fervor, originally kindled only for the sake of prising Mr Trump loose from his limpet-like hold on the presidency, has proven to be addictive. Even Joe Biden (or whoever is pulling his strings) has proved to be every bit as radically left-wing as his defeated rival, Bernie Sanders, and by the same token the Rutenberg revolution in the media now appears to have been for keeps. The institutionalized media mendacity of the Trump years is now being deployed on behalf of the Biden-Pelosi revolutionary agenda; the cheerleading against President Trump is now to do a volte face and become cheerleading for President Biden. Perhaps you’ve noticed. As I write, I see that in this morning’s Washington Post the opinion columnist Fareed Zakaria is explaining to readers “How Biden’s New Deal can really make America great again.” [emphasis added].
It remains to be seen if the eager consumers of the paper’s long-running hatred for Mr Trump will be equally enthusiastic about its love for Mr Biden, but the media are taking no chances. The fires of outrage against Trumpism may be banked down, but they are still glowing and are still made periodically to flare up whenever the opportunity offers — which is not seldom — just to remind readers of the perils still supposedly lurking on the right. Here, for instance, inserted into the middle of the Post’s 2000-word account of a hate-crime against an Asian woman in New York, published under the rubric of “National Security,” we find this:
In recent weeks, Asian Americans in New York have reported being punched in subway cars, spit on and pummeled with metal pipes — an ugly echo of a national trend that activists say gained traction as President Donald Trump used racist terms to tie the coronavirus pandemic to China.
Presumably the “activists” blaming Mr Trump for somebody else’s act of violent bigotry are the same as the “experts” in the Post’s headline from March of 2020 to which the article helpfully links — as evidence for such an outrageous conjecture: “Trump has no qualms about calling coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus.’ That’s a dangerous attitude, experts say.” Experts, activists — what’s the difference? Either one will suit the media’s purposes. All are just part of the continuation of their anti-Trump campaign of the last four years, when insinuations even more outrageous than this were being made routinely. No surprise, then, that President Biden’s press secretary, Jennifer Psaki, would try to make a similar claim in response to the murder of six Asian women by a sex-crazed lunatic in Atlanta: “I think there’s no question,” she told reporters, “that some of the damaging rhetoric that we saw during the prior administration — blaming, calling COVID the ‘Wuhan virus’ or other things led to perceptions of the Asian American community that are inaccurate, unfair and … has elevated threats against Asian Americans.”
William McGurn of The Wall Street Journal has written of this and similar Democratic talking points that “Mr. Trump functions much the way the deposed Farmer Jones does in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Each time the animals that replaced Jones as rulers of the farm do something contrary to their promises, they deflect difficult questions by bringing up the farmer. ‘Surely, comrades,’ they ask, ‘you don’t want Jones back?’” I wish I could say that the totalitarian implications of such a comparison were overstated, but when we see that the American media are behaving in so many ways that are indistinguishable from those of their Soviet counterparts in the Cold War era it seems all too apposite. I hasten to add that this idea of the Sovietization of the American media is not just my own but that of Matt Taibbi, who is no right-winger but a man with some experience of Russia.
We now know in advance that every Biden address will be reviewed as historic and exceptional. It was only a mild shock to see Chris Wallace say Biden’s was the “the best inaugural address I have ever heard.” More predictable was Politico saying of Thursday night’s address that “it is hard to imagine any other contemporary politician making the speech Biden did… channeling our collective sorrow and reminding us that there is life after grief.” (Really? Hard to imagine any contemporary politician doing that?). This stuff is relatively harmless. Where it gets weird is that the move to turn the bulk of the corporate press in the “moral clarity” era into a single party organ has come accompanied by purges of the politically unfit. In the seemingly endless parade of in-house investigations of journalists, paper after paper has borrowed from the Soviet style of printing judgments and self-denunciations, without explaining the actual crimes. . . Those still clinging to mainstream jobs in a business that continues to lay people off at an extraordinary rate read the gist of all of these stories clearly: if you want to keep picking up a check, you’d better talk the right talk.
The carrying over of the media’s Trump-era propaganda campaign into the Biden presidency also means that the Rutenberg hypothesis, eagerly adopted by the NeverTrump Republicans, of Mr Trump’s aberrational quality, originally meant to justify the media’s turn to advocacy, has had to go by the board. Now all Republicans are seen as being as bad as he was — unless, of course, they fall into line with the Democratic and media narrative, especially when it comes to electoral reform. Having established — mainly by constant repetition of the lie that he had called neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, “very fine people” — that the former president was a “white supremacist,” the official media has decided to follow the lead of their statue-toppling, Antifa allies and characterize everyone who disagrees with them, or who stands for what was once thought of as American history or “normality” in the same way.
That’s how an effort to bolster election security by Republicans in Georgia, so recently media heroes for resisting the Trumpian claims of electoral fraud in the state, have become tantamount to the return of the Jim Crow laws of yesteryear. “Jim Crow,” by name, was suddenly all over the media and showed every sign of becoming the new Russian collusion: a bit of obviously self-serving media myth-making whose status as conventional truth was everywhere affirmed in the teeth not only of furious Republican denials but of the most basic common sense. “Republicans want to go back to Jim Crow,” wrote Robert B. Reich (or his headline writer) in The Guardian. “Eliminating voter access under the guise of race-neutral actions that clearly target communities of color is nothing short of Jim Crow 2.0,” said Stacey Abrams on CNN. She was elsewhere quoted as calling the Republican sponsored legislation in Georgia “Jim Crow in a suit.”
Her fellow Georgian, Senator Raphael Warnock, stuck with the sartorial metaphor as he insisted that “this is Jim Crow in new clothes.” President Biden himself took up the cry during his first and so far only press conference in March, saying that the Georgia law “makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.” No one was quite sure what that meant, but the next day he repeated the charge, saying: “This is Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” So much for Mr Normal, Joe Biden.
Even he, however, cannot really believe this — not if he retains any memory of what the real Jim Crow was like. And if he doesn’t, Biden-fan Carl Cannon is there, in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger piece at RealClearPolitics, to remind him.
When Donald Trump likened his being impeached to a lynching, living relatives of Willie Edwards and Emmett Till called this comparison “ignorant” and “insensitive” and “offensive.” They were right. But now Biden is invoking racist history, and doing it to score partisan political points. Millions of Americans who voted for him hoped they were done having to listen to such blasphemy from the White House. It took 65 days and one news conference to disappoint them.
Presumably all the other Democrats and media folk making the same comparison to Jim Crow as a talking point against the Georgia law do not rise to the level of disappointing Mr Cannon but are only doing what’s now become expected of them. To me, the strange thing is that anyone can ever have expected a long-time partisan warrior like Mr Biden to be any different. Doesn’t he remember when he told a largely black audience back in 2012 that Mitt Romney was “gonna put y’all back in chains”? I think we need to look beyond the emotional manipulation of “Jim Crow” to the real beliefs of those who are cynically using this comparison. To them, it seems to me, such language is no more than a bit of rhetorical license based on the article of ideological faith cited by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s response to the new law, which was headed: “Marching backward into history.” That “history” can mean nothing good but only slavery and Jim Crow laws is now as firmly established in progressive orthodoxy as that progressives themselves are on “the right side of history” — a belief also alluded to by the Journal-Constitution editorialist who wrote that, “in a cynical series of actions Thursday, Georgia lawmakers managed to march firmly onto the wrong side of history.”
There it was again, that quasi-Marxist trope that was such a favorite with former President Obama — that belief in “history” as an avenging but mechanical god, running on rails into an inevitable utopian future and destined to crush all such “reactionary” resistance as that of the Georgia legislators beneath its mighty wheels. This history, however, unlike Marx’s, is most often racially oriented, because racial grievance, in America’s historical context, is the engine that makes those wheels turn. It came up again in connection with the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. “Derek Chauvin trial represents a defining moment in America’s racial history,” wrote Reid Forgrave and Maya Rao in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Chauvin case to add to national racial legacy.” To these writers, as to the rest of the media, Derek Chauvin was no longer a human being and a citizen, entitled to the presumption of innocence, but a symbol, like Jim Crow, of the race hatred that their political agenda requires them to keep always before the faces of their progressive readers as the reason why history must be supposed to have “sides” — and why they must be supposed to be on the right side of it. The trial, said Benjamin Crump, attorney for the George Floyd family, was a “referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all.”
Interesting choice of words, that “referendum.” For Mr Crump, the trial is not a trial but an election — and an election which can only have one right outcome. Now where have I heard something like that before? Writing on “What the Derek Chauvin trial says about America” for the Los Angeles Times, LZ Granderson made a direct connection to the Georgia election law:
We’ve all followed so many Chauvin-like cases recently that it is nonsensical at best and insulting at worst to hear elected officials say, “We are better than this.” No, we are not. We are exactly this. We are the country that looked at the historic turnout of our most recent election and drafted 253 bills across 43 states to restrict voter access, many of which target people of color. We may want to be better but for that to happen, we have to first be willing to do better.
We have, that is, to get ourselves onto “the right side of history” — which, paradoxically, also means leaving history itself behind us in our inevitable progress towards the progressively promised land. The right side of history turns out to be the one that’s turned away from it. Real history is forgotten as anything more than a set of slogans, or a rogues’ gallery of monsters like Farmer Jones or Donald Trump. Or Derek Chauvin. Progressive history, whether as savage god or as Utopia Limited, can never have pity on such people. On the contrary, the totalitarian future must keep hatred for them alive and burning brightly as its own ultimate justification. I doubt that Jim Rutenberg foresaw all this when he threw in his and the media’s lot with the anti-Trump revolution, but then neither do I think he can be sorry that he did. After all, second thoughts might cost him his job.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.