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The Wokening vs. the Trumpening
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The Wokening vs. the Trumpening

Illiberalism is breaking out everywhere.

This might sound strange, but this week I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about a news item I didn’t really care about. Or, more precisely, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I didn’t care about it. I’m talking about the controversy that erupted when the New York Times published Tom Cotton’s op-ed, “Send in the Troops.” The controversy consumed journalism for days. Online it completely swallowed the news of Gen. James Mattis’s statement of opposition to Trump. On Twitter, the debate competed with news of massive national protests for virtual airtime. 

Yet aside from my concern for friends at the Times—such as Bari Weiss, who has been repeatedly and unfairly attacked—I had a hard time caring about the turmoil, or of seeing it as particularly significant in the context of the moment. In fact, days later, I’m still a bit bored. And I’ve finally figured out why. To borrow a medical analogy, when a man is wounded, you treat the worst conditions first (if you ever want to learn about combat lifesaver methodology, look up the acronym MARCH), and the spasm of outrage at the Times was one of the least important events of the last two weeks.

Consider the following events that occurred in the days and hours before the Times published Cotton’s op-ed:

1. The president of the United States threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act over the objection of governors and mayors to deploy troops under his command into the nation’s streets. 

2. Federal officers and National Guard soldiers under his command violently attacked peaceful protesters in part to clear a path for the president to hold a photo op at a church—without the church’s knowledge and in direct violation of the church leaders’ desires.

3. Cotton himself tweeted a threat that active duty troops should give “no quarter” to “insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” The term “no quarter” used in the military context—exactly the context of Cotton’s tweet—is a term that means killing rather than capturing enemy forces. “No quarter” orders are unlawful. Cotton, who served honorably and bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan, knows this well. 

4. A remarkable collection of former military leaders—including Gen. Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense—united to condemn the Lafayette Square attack. Gen. Mattis went further and directly accused the president of trying to divide the nation. 

I had not seen anything like this in my adult lifetime. Together these events represented not just a startling, illiberal abuse of power by a president but also evidence that Donald Trump and one of his senatorial allies were dangerously on the verge of losing their cool in a time of crisis. Read Cotton’s op-ed: Does it make a compelling case that the crisis is so grave that it requires overriding governors and mayors and sending in federal troops against the will of those leaders? 

Look back eight days. Was the crisis that grave? No, it was not. 

It’s against that backdrop that we learned (again) that many staff members of the New York Times are prone to their own overreactions and that there are profound divisions within the paper. Rather than merely use their voices to eviscerate Cotton’s terrible, panicky argument, they also turned on the management of the paper, eventually forcing out editorial page editor James Bennet and likely at least somewhat narrowing the range of right-wing expression (I hesitate to call Cotton’s argument “conservative”) permitted in the Times’s editorial page. But the Times will still publish essays by conservatives. It still employs conservatives. 

Yes, I know that the Times is perhaps the most culturally important news outlet in the United States. The newspaper matters, and the actions of the past week may have made it marginally worse (time will tell). But it’s not the most politically powerful news outlet in the United States. That distinction belongs to Fox News. And that brings me to my next point—I’m tired of right-wing media mocking and condemning the illiberal “Wokening” of the left while ignoring (and often participating in) in the illiberal “Trumpening” of the right. 

This may surprise some readers, but every single dysfunction you’ve observed from the Online Left and progressive media more broadly applies to the Online Right and conservative media as well. Except in conservative media, the focus isn’t on intersectionality and social justice but rather Trump and his followers. 

This behavior takes the form of online mobbing that can be every bit as vicious (if not more) than left-wing Twitter attacks. It includes immense pressure from donors (a form of threatened boycott) to remove or censor anti-Trump voices. It includes terminations and cancellations, and it certainly includes copious online demands for termination and cancellation of Trump-critical conservatives. And yes, it includes the heavy hand of editorial control limiting Trump-critical content and even imposing a form of “sensitivity reading” to make sure that Trump fans are not excessively triggered by Trump-critical speech. 

If you wonder why so many public figures say one thing about Trump in private and something else entirely in public, this is the reason. The pressure is so pervasive, so malicious, and so cruel that part of me simply rebels at publishing yet another piece that says, “Look at the intolerant woke left!”

As time goes by, I grow more and more convinced that the antidote to illiberalism and cruelty comes not through critiques from ideological opponents (radicals on both sides often enjoy being targeted by ideological opponents) but rather through courageous confrontations with erstwhile ideological allies. It’s not that conservatives should be silent about intolerance in left-wing institutions. By no means. We do need to educate our audiences about consequential trends in American public life. It’s that we should understand the reach (and limits) of our influence. 

I disagree with Jonathan Chait on many things, but he’s shown tremendous moral courage in confronting the illiberal left, and he’s hated for it. One of my favorite people is Johns Hopkins professor and Atlantic contributing writer Yascha Mounk. He’s shown immense integrity and bravery opposing illiberalism on the left and the right. I’d highly recommend that you follow progressive journalist Jesse Singal and his podcast co-host Katie Herzog. I singled out Bari Weiss above not because we’re ideological allies but rather because she’s heterodox, kind, and—crucially—fearless. I could go on at length mentioning progressives I admire and  who are valiant defenders of the liberal order (and I’ll do so later in the comments), but those voices are out there, and they’re worth elevating and appreciating.

Those voices exist on the right as well, including from people who remain every bit as stalwart in their conservative views as they were in the days before Trump. They’re the people that Trump’s most stalwart media supporters obsessively and constantly tell us are completely irrelevant and unimportant.

Readers often ask me, “Why do you spend so much time critiquing conservatives, especially conservative Evangelicals?” I frequently answer like this—if you have a crisis in your family, don’t you have more control over and concern for what happens in your own walls than over what happens to the family next door? It’s not that my family is more important or our lives more precious than my neighbor’s, but we have special responsibility for our own families and our own communities. 

Liberalism is under assault. In fact, that was the most consequential aspect of last summer’s French-Ahmari debates. At its most dangerous, the assault comes explicitly from the government itself (after all, the New York Times commands exactly zero troops), but the attack now spreads across America’s political tribes. 

It’s vitally important to recognize that America faces two culture wars. Yes, there are still the old battles over abortion, religious liberty, free speech, and gun rights. But there’s a new struggle between those forces—left and right—who seek to preserve America’s fundamental classical liberal values, including respect for pluralism, decency, and the foundational protections of the Bill of Rights and illiberal opponents—left and right—who would sweep all that away for the sake of “social justice” or the “highest good” or simply for a man named Donald Trump.  

One more thing … 

I’ve written and spoken a great deal about the need for limits on police (and on government use of law enforcement) in the days since the horrific killing of George Floyd, but as the phrase “defund the police” maintains its hold on the public conversation, it’s worth noting that there are ways to support police that could ease our national crisis.

During one of the excellent comment discussions earlier this week, I noted that the U.S. military climbed out of its trust and competence deficit after the Vietnam War in part by doing three things—paying more, training more, and expecting more. 

Our national conversation about police has focused on the last element. The first two are vital also. You simply cannot expect excellent performance in tense circumstances solely by piling on legal obligations or legal limits. You must also give police the training and tools they need to accomplish their mission within constitutional and ethical constraints, and you must incentivize high achievers to join a stressful profession.

All this is common sense, but it’s mostly lost in our present discourse. And with municipal and state budgets under strain during a recession, we may well end up with the worst-case scenario—expecting more while providing fewer resources. 

The federal government cannot comprehensively reform policing—a local function controlled by local leaders—from the top-down. It can, however, provide funding and resources that states cannot. Police reform can and should increase resources to states to pay more and train more even as they rightly expect more from the men and women in blue. 

One last thing … 

It’s my newsletter, and I can link what I want to, and what I want to link is more SpaceX! In today’s podcast, Sarah mentioned that when Carly Fiorina offered her a job in 2015, Sarah had three requests if Fiorina became president (listen to the podcast to hear what they were!) That made me think—what are three requests I’d make as a condition of employment? Here are mine—1) end qualified immunity (you knew I’d say that); 2) let me see all the alien files; and 3) back up a dumpster truck full of cash to the SpaceX headquarters and tell Elon Musk to make this happen:

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

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.