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The Pro-Coup Perspective
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The Pro-Coup Perspective

NBC News shouldn’t have hired Ronna McDaniel.

Ronna McDaniel delivers remarks before the NBC News-hosted Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, Florida, on November 8, 2023. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In a world in which Jen Psaki and George Stephanopoulos anchor their own shows, by what right should a former head of the Republican National Committee be blackballed by news networks?

Psaki served as White House press secretary for the sitting president. Stephanopoulos was a White House adviser to Bill Clinton who now spends his days shaming Republican guests for, of all things, not taking their leader’s sexual misconduct seriously. If American news media can find space for partisan hacks from the left, why shouldn’t it find space for Ronna McDaniel?

NBC News is reportedly in an uproar internally over McDaniel’s recent hiring, as one might expect when a Republican apparatchik is airdropped into a news organization staffed by mostly left-leaning journalists. But rarely do internal uproars reach such a frenzy that they spill out externally, onto the airwaves. It happened on Sunday on Meet the Press after McDaniel, now a paid contributor to the network, spent 20 minutes being interviewed by host Kristen Welker.

It happened again on Monday morning on MSNBC:

Even among anti-Trump conservatives like me, there’s an impulse toward whataboutism when mainstream media figures grouse about former Republican officials being platformed. Whatabout Psaki? Whatabout Stephanopoulous? Since when does a career spent carrying water for politicians render one unfit for work in the news industry?

In 2024 it feels more like a job requirement, frankly.

NBC News chief political analyst Chuck Todd framed his criticism of McDaniel poorly too by focusing on “gaslighting” and “character assassination” by the RNC toward his network’s reporters. Those are legitimate objections, but there’s a lot of that going around in modern American politics—and she’s hardly some noteworthy offender, especially by modern Republican standards. If anything, McDaniel has been more conciliatory toward the press than most in her party: She agreed last year to let NBC News host a GOP primary debate, a not insignificant show of faith in the network for a prominent Republican.

Add in the fact that NBC News is the same network that employs riot-inciter Al Sharpton and you’d be forgiven for assuming that the outcry over hiring McDaniel is nothing more than liberal whining about having to devote airtime to a Republican point of view.

But you’d be wrong. No respectable organization, inside the news industry or outside of it, should want anything to do with her.

McDaniel is NBC News’ lame, yet understandable, attempt to solve an intractable political problem of the Trump era. 

Imagine you’ve just been named president of a news network. You have $300,000 available to hire a former Republican official for political analysis, a necessary thing in an election year where the GOP is likely to regain the White House and right-wing voices are underrepresented in major media. There are two requirements for the position:

  1. The hire must broadly reflect the viewpoints of the GOP’s populist majority
  2. The hire must have no history of defending Donald Trump’s 2020 coup attempt

The goal in pairing those requirements is to move the Overton window toward the sort of populism that’s captured the GOP since 2016 without moving it so much as to mainstream authoritarianism. The hire can support protectionism, isolationism, building a wall on the border—practically any Trumpist policy initiative you can name, as there’s obviously a constituency for that in the MAGA-fied right. But they need to be clear-eyed and critical of the “Stop the Steal” effort that led to January 6.

Whom do you choose? Is there anyone who fits the bill?

The possibility that there isn’t is the intractable political problem I mentioned.

Before sitting down to write this morning, I brainstormed with some of our editors to see if we could find anyone of renown within the Republican establishment who might satisfy both requirements. One suggested Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, both of whom declined to join the Republican plot against Biden in 2021. But Cotton and Rubio are holdovers from the pre-Trump era and retain certain Reaganite views, especially on foreign policy. And neither is beloved by the MAGA base the way that, say, Matt Gaetz is.

Oh, and they’re members of Congress. You can’t hire them as political panelists.

Among the commentariat, you would instantly rule out people like Alyssa Farah Griffin or Cassidy Hutchinson who worked in the Trump White House and then recoiled in horror during the post-election period. They’re wildly unrepresentative of Republican opinion.

You might take a look at Ross Douthat of the New York Times or Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review, but they’re both devout Catholics and therefore odd choices to speak for the post-Christian right. And I doubt Douthat and Dougherty would roll their eyes at all 91 of the criminal charges pending against Trump, as Republicans in good standing are required to do.

Ben Shapiro is another possibility, but he’s still enough of a conservative to have supported Ron DeSantis in this year’s primary before experiencing a hasty conversion of late. And Shapiro might be a nonstarter for a news network that understandably won’t want to field questions about his own dubious hiring record.

None of these people is a former Republican official, either. If you’re intent on landing an “insider” with special insight into what’s happening inside the GOP, you need someone who meets the two requirements and who served Trump in some important position in the party or the government.

Who is that person?

It is very—very—difficult to find a thoughtful pro-Trump analyst who’s populist but not illiberal. Which tells us something about the nature of populism, perhaps, but also about the general pointlessness of MAGA populism. Apart from immigration and gun rights, it’s not a movement devoted to anything much grander than Trump’s empowerment and the general subjugation of leftist enemies. How do you find someone who’s in that crowd who shares its goals but is also somehow anti-coup?

Faced with that conundrum, NBC News seems to have turned to McDaniel as a compromise on its two hiring requirements. She sort of reflects the viewpoints of the Republican majority, having been Donald Trump’s choice to lead his party for eight years. And she’s sort of ambivalent about his coup attempt, having kept a generally low profile during the “Stop the Steal” effort three years ago. She’s a Romney by birth and a Trump crony by choice, a solid proxy for the GOP’s moral and ideological arc since 2016.

I think the network meant well in hiring her. But she fails its test on both counts.

If she were a solid avatar of right-wing populism, McDaniel would at least fulfill the first requirement in NBC News’ talent search. But she isn’t. She has even less of a constituency in the modern Republican Party than her uncle does, in fact.

Even if she had a following, it’s unclear to me why any news network would want “a reliably conservative voice” on its election panels this year. There won’t be a conservative candidate on the ballot this fall and, as the results of the primary reminded us, conservative voters now account for a smallish rump minority of the American right. Television networks that showcase smart conservative commentators are essentially misleading viewers about what the GOP has become. (Although special exceptions should of course be made for the brilliant and talented Jonah Goldberg, Sarah Isgur, and Steve Hayes.)

But McDaniel is an especially strange choice. Whom, after all, does she speak for? Not for Trump; he’s done with her. Not for the populist base; its heroes despise her, having converted her into a scapegoat for the GOP’s electoral failures since 2016. Not for anti-Trump Reaganites, who understandably resent her toadying for Trump. She’s too much of an old-guard establishmentarian for the new Republican Party to respect her and not enough of one for the old Republican Party to do so.

Chuck Todd touched on that in the clip above, noting how hiring McDaniel might conceivably have been justified as a play for “access” … except that she no longer seems to have meaningful access to anyone. Consider it “just deserts” for a functionary who accommodated herself disgracefully to the Trump era in exchange for a taste of power: She chose to be a “team” player for a rotten team, to borrow a word she used during her Meet the Press interview, and ended up with no team at all. Old friend Andrew Egger writes:

In the age of Trump, however, many institutional Republicans in the Ronna McDaniel mode made a fetish of being team players. The fact that they personally loathed the guy, knew him to be an incontinent boor, a liar, and a jerk—and then went out and carried his water anyway—wasn’t, in their minds, a testament to their weakness and cowardice: In fact, it was just the opposite! It was noble, to their minds, that they were still willing to carry that water despite their own personal feelings: because that is what it is to be a team player.

That’s one difference between Psaki and Stephanopoulos on the one hand and McDaniel on the other. The first two seem to have at least believed in the political vision of the presidents they served and, embarrassingly in Stephanopoulos’ case, respected them as people. They’re partisans, but they’re sincere partisans. Given the Republican establishment’s famous (and famously quiet) disdain for Trump, it’s anyone’s guess if McDaniel feels the same about her own party and its leadership or has ever given her honest opinion about it—which is a strange trait to seek in a commentator. All that’s known is that she insisted on remaining a “team” player, enthusiastically or otherwise, even as Trump’s vision turned dark and autocratic.

Which brings us to the other requirement. Ronna McDaniel isn’t just an apologist for Trump’s coup plot, she’s an accomplice.

She joined a phone call with the then-president nine days after the 2020 election in which he pressured canvassers in Michigan not to sign anything certifying Biden’s victory in the state. “If you can go home tonight, do not sign it. … We will get you attorneys,” she added. Days later, she signed a letter formally asking the state canvassing board to delay certification.

The Bulwark remembered this clip from that period, right around the time that the right’s “rigged election” nonsense was taking off. This is what Todd meant by “gaslighting”:

Last summer, two-and-a-half years after Biden’s inauguration, McDaniel was still unwilling to squarely contradict Trump’s lies. When CNN’s Chris Wallace asked her whether Biden had been legitimately elected, she demurred. “I don’t think he won it fair. I don’t. I’m not gonna say that,” McDaniel told Wallace. “I’m saying there were lots of problems with the 2020 election and we need to fix it going forward.”

The difference between Psaki, Stephanopoulos, and McDaniel isn’t that the two Democrats are less partisan than she is. It’s that they haven’t aided and abetted sedition. There’s a place for partisans in news commentary. There shouldn’t be a place for seditionists.

Especially when the seditionist brain trust of the “Stop the Steal” effort has paid hardly any price for what they’ve done. Apart from a few wrist slaps in Georgia, they’ve made out like bandits: The ringleader is the frontrunner to become the next president, his co-conspirators are in line for pardons and/or Cabinet positions, and Ronna “Don’t Say Romney” McDaniel is now set to take home upwards of $300,000 per year from NBC News. Not only has America failed to deter future coup plots by penalizing the last one harshly, the way we’ve treated the plotters has arguably incentivized them.

But even if we concede that McDaniel was hired in spite of her seditionism, not because of it, that’s a message in itself. It means that the political establishment through its media organs no longer regards trying to overthrow the government as a sin so grave that it should deprive one of lucrative employment, even in an industry that’s been laying off talent left and right. If you worry about “normalizing” illiberalism, gaze upon Ronna McDaniel’s new gig and understand that it’s too late. The Overton window has moved far enough to include the “pro-coup perspective” in major network broadcasting.

I greatly doubt that NBC News hiring Mike Pence as a commentator would have drawn the same outcry inside and outside the network that hiring McDaniel has even though Pence, by any measure, was a Trump enabler of greater consequence for most of his term in office. You know why: When the time came for Pence to choose between Trump and the constitutional order, he chose correctly. So did many others, from Cabinet members like Elaine Chao to deputies like Sarah Matthews, who resigned in protest after January 6.

McDaniel, the “team player” without a team, didn’t join them. Yet she’s the one rewarded with a six-figure payday and a national broadcast gig for her opinion. How’s that to make you feel good about American media and America generally?

This episode with McDaniel and NBC News may seem trivial and unworthy of lengthy comment, but I think it’s important. It cuts to the heart of a momentous question: What is this election “about”?

The election is about inflation, one might say. Or unchecked immigration. Or fear of rising crime. Or America’s role in containing China and Russia.

The answer I would give is this: It’s about whether sedition should be a first-order or second-order concern in American politics.

I’ve written about that before. First-order concerns have to do with how our system of government is organized—democracy or autocracy, rules or “retribution,” the constitutional order or “knowing what time it is.” Second-order concerns have to do with traditional policy disputes—tax rates, pro-life or pro-choice, interventionism or isolationism. Our elections have traditionally focused on second-order concerns because both sides have agreed broadly on the first-order ones. Not anymore. 

I support Biden in this election because he’s correct on the first-order questions and Trump isn’t, and that’s the end of the matter for me. Sedition is disqualifying. Those guilty of trying to overturn the constitutional order in 2020 deserve to sit in the ashes and know that they’ll never again be tolerated in polite society, let alone be permitted to wield public power.

Ronna McDaniel is among them. She abetted a coup attempt and did so almost certainly knowing that Trump’s hysteria over election fraud was groundless. No respectable organization should tolerate her. Let her misery be a warning to the coup plotters of tomorrow.

But if the polls are correct, I’m in the minority of Americans on all of this. If Trump is reelected this fall, the unmistakable takeaway will be that sedition is not, in fact, disqualifying. It’s not a first-order concern at all anymore, just another second-order issue to be weighed against others like inflation, immigration, and foreign policy.

Coup plots and power grabs will be part of the political mix going forward, something to be bantered about during panel chitchat on Meet the Press, perhaps.

Anyone who views January 6 and the “Stop the Steal” campaign that preceded it as just another issue set will struggle to understand why McDaniel should be judged any more offensive than Psaki or Stephanopoulos, I suspect. They’re all partisans, after all; if one or two are allowed to blather on the airwaves about universal health care in the guise of “news,” the third should be allowed to blather about why democracy can’t be trusted.

Is sedition now up for debate in American politics? That’s what the election is about. Hiring Ronna McDaniel suggests that NBC News thinks it should be.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.