Tom Cotton, The New York Times, and the People Who Just Don’t Get It
For some time now, leading anti-Trump journalist David Frum has offered as the pinned tweet atop his Twitter page, the prediction, “When this is all over, no one will admit to ever having supported it.” A near corollary forecast will most assuredly prove as true — that many more will claim to have opposed Trump than ever really did.
The current case in point is the latest contretemps at The New York Times, over Tom Cotton’s Op-Ed calling on Donald Trump to “employ the military” in an “overwhelming show of force” against Black Lives Matter demonstrations and disturbances. Faced with an uprising in its ranks, the Times confessed to error in publishing the piece, but its acknowledgment notably ignored the newspaper’s gravest error. While the paper placed blame on “process” and failures of “fact-checking,” its greatest error was in thinking the Op-Ed worthy of publication at all.
In response to just this claim, and to the Times backtracking on the Op-Ed’s publication, there arose a familiar din of counter protest. The Times, bewailers of the paper’s pusillanimity objected, was sacrificing the liberal ideals of a free press and free speech before the advance of the “woke,” safe-spacing hordes. By thus aiming their fire at their perpetual and convenient free-speech straw man, the Times’ second round of critics, just as the newspaper itself, ignored the real issue: the inappropriateness for publication and amplification in the nation’s premier and third most widely circulated newspaper such ideas by the likes of Tom Cotton.
Unquestionably, liberal-leaning national publications embarrass themselves in such screw ups. The New Yorker did the same when it rescinded its 2018 invitation to Stave Bannon to speak at the magazine’s Festival of Books. These publications first defend themselves by appeal to the liberal-democratic entertainment of a wide range of views, then retreat in the face of complaints, many indeed coming from “woke” critics of liberalism who might more accurately be described as differently sleeping. The publications end up seeming to stand for nothing greater than fearful pandering, not unlike, in fact, most GOP politicians in 2020 America — though Tom Cotton decidedly not among them. He is a Trump true believer.
So no one comes out looking very good — that is to be acknowledged — least of all that straw man of liberal, free speech values erected in these cases by the frequently self-described moderates, or cleverly promoted champions of classical liberalism, who decry the decline of liberal values among the woke bogey people far more often and loudly than they do in relation to Trumpism.
Had Cotton actually been rejected for publication (which he subsequently was in print, though as of this writing the op-ed remains more widely promoted online than this essay ever will be), the senator would still have had access to a multitude of forums through which to promote his views. His advocacy would have well fit the conservative ghetto of The Washington Times or the stigmatizing banner of Breitbart News, but perhaps in those very characterizations we see the answers to why he sought out the liberal New York Times instead: more bang for the publicity buck in fresh fields to furrow. So no one was infringing on Cotton’s right to free speech, which is not defined by publication specifically in The New York Times (and if so, I want to sue); neither is fulfillment of the liberal mission of a democratic free press defined only by publication in New York’s leading paper and nowhere else. Complaints along these lines are, if not disingenuous, utter nonsense grounded in complete misconception of the liberal ideal.
But why did the Times want to publish Cotton? In pursuit of its own publicity buck-bang? Maybe. It will help many a publication to be known as a venue for provocative ideas. Because of the newspaper’s own misconceptions, of what non-partisan journalism requires of it? It is particularly curious, then, that among the Times’ announced goals in now reviewing its opinion operations is the intention of “reducing the number of Op-Eds we publish.” How does that serve the idea of presenting a wide range of views in a vibrant democratic culture?
All this, however, is not yet to address why the Times was mistaken in publishing Cotton’s Op-Ed, the danger in publishing it, or the peril posed by the foolish defenses of that publication. That all has to do with the uses and abuses of Donald Trump.
Cotton’s essay was, indeed, marred by unsupported claims of fact, such as that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” had infiltrated the protest marches. It also proved, in just a couple of days, to be profoundly, dangerously wrong in its own prediction, that “[t]hese rioters, if not subdued, not only will destroy the livelihoods of law-abiding citizens but will also take more innocent lives.” Much more is still to be learned about any organization behind what destruction took place and of the looting, but in about three days, the violence and looting, where they did occur, came to an end, and they came to an end without resort to setting U.S. military troops, in overwhelming force, against the fellow citizens those troops are dedicated to protect. The civil, and civilly disobedient, protests went on — they continue still — despite Tom Cotton’s Trumpian effort fully and tragically to rend the American political fabric. The protests transcended their worst, early manifestations to emerge as a historic social movement for racial justice, though their critics will insist on tagging them even now with the crimes of others left behind or the rhetorical or demonstrative excesses of some.
This, then, is the point: Trumpism, and the failure, still, after nearly four years, of so many journalists and “moderates” truly to recognize its indecency — in the former instance to understand, further, how they enabled Trump’s ascent to begin, in the latter, to be truly more adverse to Trump than to the far left whose perceived excesses rile them far more.
As the 2016 election neared, many — this writer, in his small way, among them — called out loud and insistent warning of all that Trump manifestly was and was bound to become. Yet so many people of more phlegmatic, more moderate temperament and politics dismissed what they branded one way or another as extremism in the opposition to Trump. It even became popular among some of Trump’s more intellectual cadres (oh, yes, dear reader — they exist) to attribute liberal opposition to Trump to mere elitist aesthetic disdain, for the vulgarian that Trump is and that these others somehow (like a late Friday night foray into the dungeon) found bracingly fresh and titillating. He isn’t that bad, they’d say. Overlook the bad form, they’d advise. The American Constitutional system of checks and balances is too strong a bulwark they’d reassure. The nation will be fine. Calm down.
The reason David Remnick was mistaken to invite Steve Bannon to the New Yorker festival to begin is found in foxes and hen houses. Bannon, champion of Hungary’s Victor Orban, wants to destroy secular liberal democracy. He will use democratic freedoms and their liberal license to do so. Through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, most authoritarians have done just that, and few have tried very hard to hide the intent. We needn’t betray liberal democratic principles to thwart the effort, but we needn’t provide national megaphones for the effort either.
In 2017, Jeffrey Toobin wrote of Tom Cotton’s appearance at Arkansas’s annual Republican Party fund-raising dinner that “Cotton’s appeal to his audience for solidarity with Trump, which was greeted with strong applause, represented just one part of his enthusiastic embrace of the President.” Steve Bannon himself told Toobin, “Next to Trump, he’s the elected official who gets it the most — the economic nationalism. Cotton was the one most supportive of us, up front and behind the scenes, from the beginning.”
Cotton, as did nearly every GOP senator, voted to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial, without hearing testimony and evidence. He voted against hearing testimony.
Cotton tried to support his call for a U.S. military crackdown on American citizens — as have many critics of the Times — by citing Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s employment of the military to enforce and protect Southern school integration, though Cotton unsurprisingly frames those events differently. But there have been other instances of U.S. military forces’ employment in domestic affairs. There was, for instance, General Douglas MacArthur’s shameful assault on the WW I Bonus Army in Washington D.C. in 1932. There have been many shameful moments in American history. Do we want to revert to that America? More to the point, Kennedy, Eisenhower, even Herbert Hoover, were not Donald Trump. A power that might be exercised responsibly by them will never be by Trump. That is the daily redundancy of national life since that fateful escalator descent into the American basement.
And that is the question still remaining, for every critic of the Times who supports the paper’s having published Cotton’s Op-Ed and condemns the paper for then short circuiting it. Do they yet understand what Trump is? After nearly four years, since not before, after all the degradations to American life and heritage, do they really, finally understand? Do they understand how he is not an aberrant phenomenon that befell the GOP, and then the country by accident, but in reality the product of 50 years of Southern Strategy and destruction of the labor movement, with obscene plutocratic growth in economic inequality, mass incarceration and police oppression of African Americans, all supported by a culture of Atwater-Stone-Manafort dirty tricks and New Gingrich’s and Tom Delay’s and Mitch McConnell’s lust for power at all costs and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News assaults on truth and democratic processes? Do they understand that that’s why Trump was able to capture the Republican Party, which gave itself up to him spineless and supine in an embarrassment of unexceptional servility?
It appears they do not, since they continue to pretend that opposition to Cotton should show itself in no more than the ordinary partisan contention of dueling Op-Eds. How quaint this blindness that pretends to some kind of wisdom, that itself often expresses opposition to Trump as little more than exasperation at his ignorance and vulgarity. Cotton’s essay did not present itself as a constructive, if controversial, contribution to the national discourse. It misrepresented and misled and sowed division, just as Trump did four years ago, and The New York Times offered up its million plus sets of eyeballs to the effort, no differently from all the news channels that gave Trump endless free airtime during the last election season, in sublime indifference to the national disservice they performed.
When I wrote four years ago, I said, “News media must cease to treat Trump as another candidate, end their acquiescence to, and normalization of his conduct, and report on him not as a mere variant candidate for president, but as a phenomenon of American political history deserving of historical analysis and judgment.” The same applies to his surrogates calling down the force of American military might on the nation’s citizens.
There are five months to go, the country’s fate hangs in the balance, and nothing goes unrecorded anymore. Claim what anyone will, we’ll know of this dark hour who supported it. We’ll know, too, who understood, and who really opposed it.
Further reading: “The Dark History of the White Reaction to Black Protest”