Skip to content
From David French: The Perils of Marrying Populism to Corruption and Incompetence
Go to my account

From David French: The Perils of Marrying Populism to Corruption and Incompetence

As demonstrated by the Ukraine scandal, ABC News’ Epstein problem, and … the suburbs.

Let’s talk about populism. It’s received conventional wisdom that we live in a populist age, and that populism rests on a conviction that America’s elites have failed in numerous, material ways. The simplified version of the right-wing narrative is clear. Elites gave us the Great Recession. Elites gave us the Iraq war. Elites in Silicon Valley are exploiting us. Elites worship the market. Elites in the media are sneering at us. Elites in the academy discriminate against us. They hate our faith, they hate our culture, and they are waging an unrelenting political war to drive us from the public square.

And the anti-elitism often extends even to allegedly allied elites. After all, a Republican president launched the Iraq war, and the stock market collapsed on that same president’s watch. Moreover, there is deep resentment against “establishment conservatives” or “Conservatism, Inc.” for failing to defeat the left. 

And so it’s time to burn it down. Drain the swamp. Disrupt the status quo. 

This week has presented us with fascinating case studies in the reasons for—and perils of—populism. It’s demonstrated once again there are legitimate grievances with elite institutions, but that populists should take care not to replace one form of dysfunction with worse dysfunction. Otherwise, the status quo can strike back, hard. 

Here’s today’s lineup:

  1. Why populism fails: Keystone Cops in Ukraine.

  2. Why populism succeeds:ABC News, elite media, and the giant #MeToo fail.

  3. Why populism fails: the suburbs aren’t ready for a revolution.

  4. Progressives may live to regret the judicial resistance.

Also, thanks much for the avalanche of feedback on “The French Press.” The verdict? Well, it was mixed. Some of you liked it, very few loved it, and some loathed it. So we’ll call The French Press a placeholder name, pending a brilliant alternative idea. In the meantime, however, special shout-outs to Bob for “Frank Talk” (the French were Franks before they were French) and I can’t seem to locate the email, but thank you for the genuine laugh to the person who suggested, “David’s Bridle.”

Now, on to the analysis:

  1. Incoherence and corruption aren’t an upgrade over perceived incompetence.

I’ve been wading through hundreds of pages of deposition transcripts in the Ukraine impeachment inquiry, and I’m struck by two things. First, the evidence of a quid pro quo is overwhelming. We laid it out in detail in yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, and I won’t repeat it all here. It’s quite clear, however, that the kind of exchange so clearly evident in Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky represented literally months of American policy toward Ukraine. It now appears that Trump and Trump allies tried to condition both a meeting with Trump and American military aid on Trump’s demands for improper investigations.

That’s of course the heart of the impeachment inquiry, but I want to focus on something else—the sheer amateurism and, frankly, weirdness of the Trump diplomatic effort. Reading the transcripts you can see that even strong Trump allies, like Ambassador Gordon Sondland, were deeply troubled by Rudy Giuliani’s freelance lawyering and diplomacy. Sondland said that Rudy’s involvement “kept getting more insidious.” 

 The transcripts feature American diplomats who can articulate American national interests in Ukraine’s independence and security and describe a rational approach to dealing with persistent Ukrainian corruption—but then struggle to articulate how an investigation of Joe Biden or bizarre conspiracy theories advance those interests. In fact, even the president’s most able defenders can’t defend his actions as worthwhile on the merits. Here’s my good friend—and one of the smartest writers and analysts I know—Andy McCarthy, providing his own “bottom line” on Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate the Bidens:

It was inappropriate for the president to point the Ukrainians specifically and explicitly at the Bidens. A more polished president would simply have said, “We want you to root out corruption, no matter how high up it goes, even in our own government”—the Ukrainians would have gotten the point and there would be nothing to criticize. Trump went about it crudely. Commendable? Of course not. A valid reason to vote against him in 2020? Surely. But it’s not impeachable.

And here’s Lindsey Graham describing Trump’s policy toward Ukraine as “incoherent.” 

“Inappropriate but not impeachable” or “incoherent but not impeachable” are not arguments that sustain a populist political movement. They help a president survive removal. They do not help a president build the trust and confidence of the American people.

Nor do the images of the impulsive American withdrawal in Syria, where Russian reporters and mercenaries grant guided tours of hastily abandoned American bases to interested viewers back home. And nor do childishly written presidential letters to Turkish dictators. 

Yes, Trump has had his foreign policy achievements. His decision to continue (and accelerate) the Obama administration’s offensive against ISIS was sound. He didn’t just reduce the ISIS caliphate to rubble; forces under his command killed the “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But except for the recent raid on Baghdadi’s compound (conducted in the midst of an overall American retreat), many of his best moments came earlier in his administration, when he was surrounded by the trio of generals who helped guide American policy. 

Yet now the populist wave is carrying a president who has shed his restraints. He’s “Trump in full,” and while rage and fury against the establishment may sustain his core supporters, many other Americans won’t necessarily look at incoherence and corruption as an upgrade over the pre-Trump status quo. 

  1. ABC News teaches a valuable lesson about media corruption.

I need to become more cynical. I really do. I thought I couldn’t be shocked by media sex scandals, and then ABC went right ahead and surprised me anyway. Project Veritas released a leaked tape of ABC’s Amy Robach vividly expressing frustration that the network “quashed” a story about Jeffrey Epstein. You can watch the video here:

NPR has a good writeup of the video’s contents and ABC’s reaction: 

Robach complains that the network “quashed” her interview, suggesting that ABC had yielded to threats from powerful forces, including Buckingham Palace. Prince Andrew is among those men whom the accuser alleges Epstein trafficked her to for sex. The prince’s representatives have denied that claim. 

ABC News executives say their journalists were simply not able to corroborate the details of the reporting sufficiently for broadcast. 

“We would never run away from that,” Chris Vlasto, head of investigations for ABC News, tells NPR. The network has filed approximately two dozen digital and broadcast stories on Epstein since early 2015, when ABC started talking to the accuser, Virginia Roberts Giuffre.

 As NPR notes, Robach’s comments “came just two days after an NPR story disclosed the existence of Giuffre’s interview and ABC’s failure to broadcast it.” 

I have thoughts.

 First, let’s just be honest. There is a stunning amount of hypocrisy and selective reporting around media and political sex scandals. Though there are of course nuances that tweets can’t capture, sentiments like this rocketed around conservative Twitter yesterday, and the core critique has merit:

Second, the hypocrisy and selective reporting isn’t solely related to partisanship. Instead, I want to discuss an aspect of media corruption that gets entirely too little attention—relationships. My Dispatch colleague Jonah Goldberg has pointed out many times on his podcast (and written in his most recent book) that relationships—more than money—can explain media failures. 

 Relationships can be professional, personal, or familial, but the courtesies we extend to those we know or those we seek connection with will far outstrip the courtesies we extend to strangers or rivals. In her lament about her lost story, ABC’s Robach mentions Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz (a longtime fixture on mainstream media until he began defending Trump), and Britain’s royal family. Those aren’t just partisan connections, they’re often professionally valuable and personally warm. 

 Think of disgraced television anchors. It’s one thing to take on a Fox personality like Bill O’Reilly. It’s another thing to train your guns on someone you might simply know as “Matt” (Lauer) or “Charlie” (Rose). 

 And nobody should think this is a purely progressive or mainstream media problem. It’s a human problem. We tend to give the people we know and like the benefit of the doubt. That tendency is amplified when that relationship might be professional valuable to us. Conservatives can and do suffer from the exact same malady.

 Why do mainstream media reporters pursue Fox News scandals with far more diligence than most conservative outlets? Well, yes, there’s the obvious partisan angle. But the simple fact is that large numbers of conservative reporters and commentators desperately want to be on Fox. And so you’ll see conservative “media critics” aggressively decry very real and very troubling mainstream media misconduct while remaining studiously silent about matters even as bad and brazen as Fox personalities’ role in promoting the loathsome Seth Rich conspiracy theory. 

 But it’s a simple fact that the web of relationships in mainstream media covers more outlets that reach more people than the cozy confines of the conservative media echo system. And it’s also a fact that major American institutions—like Hollywood and the academy—care far more about mainstream media coverage than they do about conservative coverage. 

 The web of relationships corrupts coverage. It protects the powerful. And it helps provide justifiable reasons for populist frustration and anger. 

And then right on cue, just as I was editing this piece, Yashar Ali tweeted a disturbing scoop, revealing first that ABC discovered who accessed the footage, a former employee who is now at CBS: 

I suppose media respect for whistleblowers has its limits … 

  1. The suburbs don’t like revolutions

Let’s begin with two quotes from two smart writers and analysts. First, here’s the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney:

Since Trump’s shocking upset win in November 2016, the story of politics in America has been pretty simple: Democrats win, Republicans lose.

The explanation is pretty simple, too: Trump has made Trump voters, but not Republicans, out of working-class independents and Democrats, and he has made Democratic voters out of independents and Republicans. Trump has also motivated Democrats to unprecedented levels.

The net effect is a massive shift of the electorate towards Democrats.

Next, here’s National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar telling us exactly where that shift is occurring: 

The main theme connecting Tuesday night’s governor’s races in Kentucky and Mississippi, state legislative contests in Virginia, and local elections in Pennsylvania is that Republican support has utterly collapsed in the suburbs.

It’s an existential warning for the GOP: Without running competitively in at least the outer rings of urban areas, Republicans can dismiss their chances of winning back the House, start worrying about the Senate flipping next year, and desperately pray that Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders emerges as the Democratic presidential nominee in order to give President Trump a shot at reelection.

The fact that the GOP is losing badly in the suburbs is well-established. The reason is slightly more complex than simply saying, “Donald Trump.” The reason is implied from Josh’s last sentence in the paragraph above. You say you want a political revolution? Well don’t try to start one in the most stable and prosperous communities in America. 

It’s often said that “where you stand is based on where you sit.” And there’s no question that if “where you sit” is rural America, there’s a good chance you’re going to experience declining job prospects, accelerating rates of drug addiction, underfunded schools (with no real school choice), and a feeling that your values and lifestyle are mocked and derided by wealthy, urban elites.

If you sit in the great cities of the American coasts, you’ll experience job opportunities and economic growth, but you’ll also see extraordinary inequality, endure spiraling costs of living that can make a person feel poor making salaries that rural Americans rarely see, and you’ll feel a rage that – for all your vast numbers – your values and votes are trumped by a cohort of citizens who hate you, mock your lifestyle, and believe you’re not even “real Americans.”

Moreover, both rural and urban Americans will sit among mainly like-minded neighbors who reinforce their beliefs and—through the magic of group polarization—amplify their extremism.

Life in the suburbs is substantially different. They’re generally more politically diverse. They’re generally far more affordable than America’s wealthy coastal cities. The schools aren’t crumbling. Since residents are often college-educated, they don’t lack for economic opportunity. Married, educated parents tend to do well. Their kids tend to do well. Life isn’t perfect, and the suburbs aren’t completely insulated from the cultural forces that drive American polarization, but they’re largely missing the sense of extreme urgency that powers both the Trump base and the progressive #resistance.

Last year I moved from rural Tennessee to a nice suburb outside of Nashville. Both locations are about equally “red.” Maury County (my old home) went for Trump in the 2016 general election by a 68-29 margin. Williamson County (my new home) voted Trump 65-30. But in the 2016 primary, Williamson County was the only county to vote against Trump in the GOP primary. Marco Rubio won it by four points. 

If you’ll indulge me in a bit of “rank punditry” (to borrow Jonah’s great phrase), in 2020 the less-revolutionary (or less-stable) candidate is likely to hold the suburban edge. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, the more-revolutionary (and less-stable) party was perceived to be the Trumpist GOP. And that’s the default presumption for 2020 as well.

But that brings me back to Josh’s last sentence. What’s potentially more revolutionary and disruptive than Trump’s tweets and scandals? How about a health plan that would yank most suburban voters out of insurance coverage they like? How about a left-wing economic program that seeks to fundamentally transform the economy that works so well for them? 

Yes, it’s true that Trump could so alienate the suburbs (especially suburban women) that they’d prefer to roll the dice with Warren or Sanders, but that’s a strange risk for a political party to take. As of this moment, the suburbs are theirs – but not because the suburbs want socialist change, and if the Democrats press the political revolution, they may well get shocked again. Right now, it’s the soccer moms who just might be keeping American politics from lurching completely to the angry extremes.

  1. The progressive judicial resistance may regret its precedents. 

Yesterday, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Obama appointee Paul Engelmayer) struck down in its entirety a Trump administration Department of Health and Human Services rule that was intended to “interpret and provide for the implementation of more than 30 statutory provisions that recognize the right of an individual or entity to abstain from participation in medical procedures, programs, services, or research activities on account of a religious or moral objection.”

The Trump administration rule is complicated, the judge’s opinion was 147 pages long, and I’m trying to limit the length of my newsletters, so I’m not going to dive into the details of the ruling. As a general rule, the court imposes a more exacting degree of scrutiny on the Trump regulations than existing jurisprudence permits. It functionally narrows the degree of discretion granted to the executive branch to interpret statutes and promulgate regulations.

That brings me to the key point. I’m beginning to believe that the legal left may well (and perhaps in the near future) learn to regret the precedents it sets today. 

In 2017 I coined the term “Trumplaw” to describe the legal left’s use of forum-shopping, creative legal theories, and national injunctions to cobble together a remarkably successful series of legal holding actions that seemed designed as much to run out the clock on Trump’s first term as they were to permanently block his policies. Even if they were perhaps destined to lose in the Supreme Court, the process of actually getting there and getting the case heard and decided could take years. 

And, indeed, the Supreme Court cannot and will not take every case. So some Trump regulations might just die, killed by lower courts that modified and strengthened existing legal doctrines to dramatically increase the level of judicial skepticism over executive branch actions. 

Moreover, by pressing legal challenge after legal challenge as far as it will go, progressives are moving cases to a Supreme Court that is not necessarily thrilledwith the regulatory state. Justice Gorsuch, in particular, has written eloquently about the administrative state’s threat to the American system of governance. 

So, what does that mean? It’s easy to imagine a very different kind of legal resistance, one that uses the precedents set by today’s legal left – but filtered through very different courts. Instead of filing cases in California and New York, the next legal resistance (say, this time, to a President Warren) will file its cases in Texas or Alabama. And then, those same courts will find the scrutiny applied to presidential actions by the Ninth and Second Circuits to be both interesting and persuasive. After all, conservative legal scholars have long argued that the executive branch has far more power than the founders intended.

It’s easy to see an emerging legal future where American polarization means Congress enacts few, if any, sweeping reforms, and presidents are subject to increasing restraints on their regulatory authority – based on precedents set by judges on the left and the right. And when that progressive activists lament that heightened legal barrier, in part they’ll have to blame themselves. Their own resistance established the precedents that will block progressive legal reform.

One last thing … 

In reviewing reader mail (thank you for all of it!), I’m surprised at how many people took issue not with anything I said about Trump, but instead objected to my very correct take that LeBron > Jordan. You obviously did not read the airtight argument I made in 2018. And so, to paraphrase Monty Python, because of your apostasy, I shall end this newsletter by taunting you a second time. This is just great athleticism combined with great fundamentals. And it’s his 17th season. Ladies and gentlemen, the GOAT: 

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.