Back in 2016, when formerly distinguished conservatives were suddenly lining up to issue glassy-eyed endorsements of a half-mad reality TV figure, Jonah Goldberg wrote a brilliant column comparing the experience to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He captured the sense so many of us had that nearly an entire party and, eventually, nearly an entire intellectual movement had been lobotomized. “People would go to sleep violently opposed to Trump and everything he represented,” he recapped for Vanity Fair, “but by morning they’d start telling me how under comrade Trump, we were going to have the greatest harvest we’ve ever seen.” If he does nothing else in his career, I will always cherish him for his indomitability when others, with less to lose, crumpled.
So it’s disappointing to see him falling for the narcissism of small differences. As Sigmund Freud wrote, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.”
Celebrating the two-year anniversary of The Dispatch, Goldberg, apparently feeling the need to do some product differentiation, tossed off a gratuitous swipe at The Bulwark. Both publications are redoubts of Trumpism-defying conservatives and thus, you might think, allies? Compadres? Friends? I was a charter subscriber to The Dispatch.
Regarding The Bulwark, Goldberg said, “If you wake up every morning trying to argue about why Trump is bad and the people who like Trump are evil, you’re just as obsessed with him as the people who wake up every morning wanting to prove that Trump is a glorious statesman and everything he does is great.” Never Trump and pro-Trump publications, he continued, are “two sides of the same Trump-obsessed coin.”
Well. That’s awfully close to accusing The Bulwark of Trump Derangement Syndrome — very odd considering that Goldberg has doubtless experienced that aspersion many times himself at the hands of people who regard any criticism of “el jefe” as treason. And completely untrue to boot: The same week Goldberg accused The Bulwark of Trump obsession, the website published pieces about Chris Christie, long-term trends in the American military, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, vaccine objectors, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Norm MacDonald, the Taliban, President Joe Biden, gender balances in education and election reform, just to offer a small sample.
Recently, responding to a piece by Jonathan Chait, Goldberg again aimed a potshot at The Bulwark, writing:
“Let’s say I believe that Trump and his followers, apologists, and enablers are an ongoing threat to democracy. Does that mean I have to support Joe Biden?
“That’s the question of the moment for a bunch of people on the left and the right. It seems to be the view of my friend Bill Kristol and many in his circle.”
Much depends upon what “support” means. Goldberg implies that Kristol’s “circle” (aka The Bulwark) demands uncritical cheerleading for Biden. And Goldberg refuses to compromise his integrity, he says, to get on any partisan’s squad. “I want no part of any popular fronts.”
Here we have descended several fathoms deep into the narcissism of small differences. It’s hard to see what Goldberg is talking about. Throughout the past several months, The Bulwark has published dozens of pieces arguing that Biden should move to the center. Far from a Biden cheering section, The Bulwark has urged that the Democrats thank Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for saving them from themselves; that they take the more modest infrastructure bill as a win; and that they make efforts to broaden their appeal to estranged Republicans. Charlie Sykes has pleaded almost daily on “The Bulwark Podcast” for the Democrats to reject the maximalist demands of the progressive wing of the party, comparing it with the Republican Freedom Caucus.
Perhaps it comes down to a matter of emphasis. Kristol has said that in light of the Republican Party’s lunatic spiral, he’s hoping for Biden’s success (while also advising that Biden, you guessed it, tack to the center). I have written that in the Virginia governor’s race, I’m voting Democratic because the Republican is signaling his endorsement of the fiction that our elections are not legitimate. Sometimes, you must lean toward one over another, even when it makes you uncomfortable. To attempt to move Democrats toward policies that are centrist and popular and will result in success for the only sane party left at this moment is not to endorse the agenda of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Quite the opposite. And it is not a surrender to partisanship.
Also, it is sometimes the case that when you insist you’re not constructively helping one side at the expense of the other, you actually are. As Goldberg himself wrote in 2016: “Politically, anti-anti-Trumpism, as Orwell could have told you, amounts to being objectively pro-Trump, even if it doesn’t sound like it.”
All of us must grapple with the threat the Republican Party now presents to the country. The Dispatch has insisted passionately that they want to transcend Trump and Trumpism. Don’t we all? But even with Trump in gilded exile, the Republican Party continues to spin out of orbit. A glance at the senatorial contest in Ohio is as good a gauge as any that the party is demanding extremism and crack-pottery (neither J.D. Vance nor Josh Mandel is an actual kook; both are simply adapting to suit consumer demand). And there is zero chance that any candidate can withhold the Republican presidential nomination from Trump should he run in 2024, which makes him the de facto leader of the GOP today. So, as Goldberg has himself acknowledged five years ago, it’s fantasy to suppose that “the real nuts are the ones who are making a big fuss about how awful he is.”