Bernie’s Q&A: O’Reilly vs Fox News, Cronkite & Vietnam, Juan Williams, and More (3/15/19)

Welcome to this week’s Premium Q&A session for Premium Interactive members. I appreciate you all signing up and joining me. There were some duplicate questions again this week, so I’ve condensed a couple. Also, I received multiple questions from a few of the same people. Based on the popularity of these of Q&A sessions, let’s try to limit it to one question per person per week. Thank you.

Let’s get to your questions (and my answers):

I agree with your opinion of Bret Baier’s Special Report. Definitely the most balanced of the cable news shows. It is, however, still slanted toward the conservative viewpoint with its content coverage. Which brings me to my question. What is your opinion of PBS News Hour? Their content coverage is good but slanted toward the liberal viewpoint. As with Fox News, this is probably based on playing to their audience. Perhaps a combination of Bret Baier and PBS News Hour may be good for getting a somewhat balanced look at the issues. Your thoughts? — Bob

Not sure I agree with you, Bob, re conservative content in the news portion of Special Report.  Nonetheless, let me try to get to the heart of your question:

Very often producers who put news programs together are blissfully blind to their own biases and so make decisions that result in a slanted newscast.  Liberals, for example, don’t believe their views are liberal so much as they believe they’re moderate, reasonable, middle of the road.  Conservatives may be guilty of the same delusion, though I suspect to a lesser extent since most news outlets are liberal not conservative.

The way around this is to have a few more conservatives in the newsroom who can point out these biases.  I’ve suggested can affirmative action program for the smallest minority in the American newsroom — conservatives.  I was kidding at first, but not so much anymore.

I’m writing a column on some of the above which will be published here shortly.  So stay tuned.

What is your opinion of the Bill O’Reilly controversy? Was Bill’s termination from Fox News warranted, and do you think he’ll come back to national television? — (combined questions from Joseph V., Bill E., and Joe B.)

I can tell you this much:  Bill has told me that he doesn’t believe his termination was warranted.  I obviously have no first hand information on what did or didn’t happen in any of the cases.  But I suspect if Bill wasn’t as popular as he was on Fox, liberal journalists may not have been so intent on unearthing their supposed scoops.  Do I think journalists at the New York Times, to use just one example, viscerally do not like Fox and Bill O’Reilly?  Yes.  And I also think that feeling influences how they cover this or any other story.

I am curious what effect, positive or negative, if any, your O’Reilly Factor appearances had on your efforts to reach a larger audience via your website & weekly column. I ask this because I thought that your back & forth with Bill, often disagreeing & challenging each other, was pretty unparalleled in modern TV journalism. — Joseph R.

It’s been my experience, Joseph, that most people who read political columns want to hear from people they, generally speaking, agree with.  That said, I’m certain my appearances on the O’Reilly Factor brought readers to my columns — the same readers who liked Bill’s show. If I were a liberal giving my opinions on the show I don’t think the viewer would necessarily follow me to my website.  I never pandered to the viewer.  I never said what I thought would be popular.  And I never thought about how that would affect me in terms of reaching a larger audience.  As that tired phrase goes:  It is what it is.  Or in this case, It was what it was.  Thank you for noticing that I wasn’t Bill’s patsy parroting his views.

I have heard some rather disturbing things regarding Walter Cronkite’s behavior during the Vietnam War. There are some right wing commentators that claim that the North Vietnamese were ready to surrender to the Americans after the TET Offensive. According to these conservative commentators, Cronkite deliberately slanted his reporting of the TET Offensive to make it look like a huge defeat for the Americans. However, I am not one to necessarily believe something without a reliable source to confirm it. Are you familiar with this story? Is it simply hateful nonsense from bitter conservatives or is there some truth to it? If it IS true, would it be worth it to expose Cronkite as a liar, beyond what the conservative commentators have already done? — The Emperor

I have heard the same stories and don’t believe any of it.  This will infuriate people who have perpetuated the story.  You ask if “Cronkite deliberately slanted his reporting …”  I was a youngster at the Associated Press in New York during the TET offensive, not at CBS.  But I worked for the CBS News with Walter Cronkite and emphatically do not believe he deliberately slanted that story.  Was Walter a liberal?  Yes.  But that’s not a crime and it certainly doesn’t mean a liberal can’t cover the news fairly  Same, of course, goes for a conservative.

Your books were very clear with direct examples of media bias. I’m curious if any journalism professors have reached out to you for advise, or, do you believe they are part of the problem? — Tim H.

Good question, Tim.  They use Bias in some college journalism courses.  But journalism professors, by and large, are liberal — and so see the world and journalism through a liberal prism.  My own alma mater, Rutgers University, has not reached out to me to pick my brain about any facet of journalism.  The only time they call is to ask for money.  And because they’ve never reached out to me for advice on the state of journalism, they won’t get any cash from me.

I would like to watch alternatives to Fox News but every time I turn-on CNN and MSNBC it is so embarrassingly pathetic I can’t abide it more than a few minutes. It’s like a shock to the system. Perhaps the best route is to watch Bret Baier’s show and read the WSJ and NY Times? Although The NY Times has really gone down hill the past few years — Phil R.

Phil, you’re experience is exactly the same as mine.  Fox in prime time is way too cozy with the president for my taste, but as you say, CNN and MSNBC are “embarrassingly pathetic.”  I too watch Bret Baier’s show and read the WSJ and NYT.  And I also agree with you that the Times has gone down hill in the past few years.  Were we separated at birth?

What is your professional opinion as to how effective, a President, Mr. Obama was? Can you speak to your direct and/or indirect knowledge as to Mr. Obama’s effectiveness in building personal relationships with U.S. and world political leaders? — Matthew Q.

Barack Obama’s politics didn’t jibe with mine, so — in a political sense — I wasn’t a fan. But he had allies in the media, some of whom deified him.  Check out the glowing covers on the news magazines.  He was effective enough to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress. Not knowledgeable enough about his personal relationships with world leaders.

I believe I’m not alone in my disappointment with the current state of “journalism”. Do you think the time is right for a new news organization that focuses on truth rather than narrative? — Keith M.

It’s long past time, Keith, but I hold out next to no hope that it’s going to happen anytime soon in places like big city newspapers or cable TV.  The web is a big place with unlimited space so it’s possible that maybe the news operation you hope for could show up there — in a podcast, for example.  But too much journalism, as I’ve written, has become a business model, not a model of good journalism.  So news outlets give the audience what the audience wants.  Which, in my opinion, makes the audience part of the problem.

Are there topics you prefer for these questions — such as things you write about like media bias, politics, and culture? And if we would like to see you write about something, are you receptive to suggestions? — Michael E.

I’m receptive to suggestions, Michael, but over the years I’ve noticed a problem:  If I don’t do a TV story or a column on a suggested subject, it causes tension.  The person who made the suggestion is unhappy.  So I’m open to ideas, but am concerned about unintended consequences.  As for topics  I prefer — or more accurately, feel more comfortable with:  Media. Politics. American culture.

I heard the other day from some left-leaning pundit on CNN who claims presidential pardons can be overturned in some capacity? Does you think this is true? — Brian H.

I’m not a lawyer but it’s always been my understanding that a president has the absolute right to pardon anyone he want to pardon. Here’s what I found from my research:

Under the Constitution, the president’s clemency power extends only to federal criminal offenses. A president cannot pardon someone for state or local crimes. Experts disagree as to whether a president can pardon himself, but pardons cannot apply to cases of impeachment.

Will the Green New Deal be an Albatross around the necks of the Dems that have endorsed it? — Steve M.

It should be, Steve, but it’s a long way to November 2020.  Between now and then they’ll weasel their way out of what they said after the Green New Deal was rolled out.  And they may get away with it.

Do any of the three major networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, in your opinion cover the news in a fair and balanced way? Also do you feel that David Muir of ABC is fair in his coverage of the news? — George V.

I no longer watch network news.  So sorry, George, that I don’t have a good answer for you.  That said, in 2001 when my first book Bias came out, I was documenting liberal bias at the networks.  Today, cable news is a far worse offender when it comes to bias than the old networks.  The networks had — and probably still do — have a liberal sensibility.  Cable news blurs the line between news and commentary, which makes the problem of bias worse.  I know next to nothing about David Muir.

Bernie, why aren’t you guesting on Bill’s new platform? Was it because you were still working for Fox? Will you now be on Bill’s show? — Nicholas C.

I’ve been on a few times but as I told Bill, I don’t like being a guest on his show to talk only about the media’s biases.  I think the president brings a lot of the bad press on himself — and while Bill lets me say whatever I want, I know that he’s more interested in media bias than Trump chaos.  So I’ve declined his invitation on more than one occasion. But he’s asked if I’ll go on his show next week.  I’m thinking about it.

As a long time viewer of FNC I have cut back on my program choices over the last few years. The only commentators I have confidence in now are Chris Wallace, Brett Baier and Harris Faulkner. I’m probably wrong but it seems to me the fair and balanced mantra departed about the time O’Reilly was fired. My question is why Juan Williams allows himself to be embarrassed by being constantly being shouted down by Watters and Gutfeld? When Beckel suffered the same treatment he would just mumble to himself and hang his head. Does Juan need the money that bad? — Lee

You’re not wrong, Lee.  Chris Wallace, Brett Baier and Harris Faulkner are worth watching.  The other opinion people are in the tank for Donald Trump.  No problem with them liking the president.  But if you want real analysis, Fox prime time isn’t the place to go.  Neither, for the record, are CNN and MSNBC.  As for Juan Williams:  He’s a good guy.  A smart guy.  A real journalist.  He clearly knows his role as the lone liberal on the show — and very often the only smart one.  Let’s cut him some slack.  We all have reasons for doing what we do, right?

Do journalists have leeway to push their own opinion and political agenda or are they under pressure to report within their network’s ideology? — Mike S.

Journalists, Mike, if they’re “hard news” reporters, shouldn’t push any opinion or political agenda.  Their role is to report the facts and keep their own views out of the story.  Regarding commentators:  Everyone who gives opinions on cable news shows know what their network’s ideology is and conforms.  (The old networks — ABC, CBS and NBC, for the most part, don’t do entire shows based on opinion, which is not to say their journalists don’t let bias slip into their stories from time to time.) To my knowledge, there are no memos, no smoking gun telling them what they’re supposed to say.  Everybody just knows.  If you’re on prime time on Fox you don’t spend your hour bashing Donald Trump and if you’re on MSNBC or CNN you don’t spend a lot of time praising him.  I’ve said this before:  The business model demands that you give the audience what it wants so that they’ll come back for more.  Do commentators have leeway to push their own opinion? Technically, yes.  But in reality, everyone knows what’s acceptable on their channel and what isn’t.

Thanks, everyone! You can send me questions for next week using the form below! You can also read previous Q&A sessions by clicking here.

Daydreams of a Less Consequential Washington

Back in late summer of 2011, when Rick Perry was running for president, the (then) Texas governor’s message to voters was somewhat of a unique one:

“I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, DC as inconsequential in your life as I can.”

Small-government conservatives understood and shared his sentiment. The notion of centralized power being peeled away from the top-heavy federal government (an entity that most Americans don’t trust), and dropped down to local governments (and in some cases, the private sector), was an appealing one. The belief, of course, is that with fewer hurdles and restrictions standing in the way of individual freedom, the pursuits of happiness and the American Dream can be more easily achieved.

Liberals didn’t get it. Some believed Perry was vowing to abdicate presidential leadership, and undermine the responsibilities of elected representatives on Capitol Hill. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews even framed Perry’s words as a call for anarchy.

Writing for The Politico, Jeff Greenfield put forth the argument that Americans have never embraced the idea that the government should be inconsequential in their lives. He described how U.S. citizens have historically wanted and/or needed federal intervention, whether it be in regard to education, voting rights, the welfare state, etc.

Of course, Perry’s statement wasn’t that the federal government had no role to play in Americans’ lives. He just wanted to reduce that role, pushing the power closer to the people.  Greenfield was right in that much of the country expects government benefits and aid, and these people have only grown in numbers over the years. Perhaps the most glaring evidence we’ve seen of this was the 2016 election, where both of major-party presidential nominees campaigned against entitlement-reform, and for government-heavy healthcare.

Still, it would have been interesting to see how Perry’s theme would have played with the general electorate, had a series of gaffes and political misfires not sunken his primary hopes. He used the slogan again when he ran for president the second time, but with Candidate Trump soaking up all of the media’s attention (from a ridiculously bloated GOP field), and uncharitable memories from four years earlier, his candidacy didn’t get very far.

Perry likely won’t ever run again, but our current political climate is further illustrating the wisdom of his doctrine with each passing day.

Take the issue of healthcare, for example. We learned early in the Obama presidency that a political party with enough power in DC can go against the will of a strong majority of voters, and — in one fell swoop — completely screw up a significant portion of the U.S. economy.

Prior to the passage of Obamacare, national polls showed that roughly 20% of Americans were unhappy with their healthcare situations. Rather than focusing on the concerns of this relatively small percentage of individuals, the Democrats turned the nation’s entire insurance system on its head, selling (and signing into law) fatally-flawed legislation on a plethora of false premises and promises. The Affordable Care Act has left us with skyrocketing premiums and deductibles, fewer healthcare choices, and another insolvent entitlement.

The looming catastrophe, and promises of “repeal and replace,” led to Republicans picking up significant seats in DC. And now that the GOP finally holds the presidency, one would think that the party would be in a great position to start righting the healthcare ship.

Only, that’s not what’s happening.

Republican lawmakers, despite repeated efforts, can’t reach enough of an internal consensus to move forward on any kind of reform bill. And with a deeply distrusted (and increasingly unpopular) Republican president sitting in the Oval Office, anything with his name attached to it has become politically poisonous. In fact, President Trump’s election-win managed to do the unthinkable by pulling Obamacare’s approval rating above water (for the first time in its existence).

Additionally, the political demagoguery from the Democratic party has again reached levels of pure insanity, with U.S. senators (most notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) publicly claiming that even modest changes to the current system will result in mass deaths. The rhetoric may be reckless and utterly dishonest, but it has also been effective.

I live in Colorado, where the effects of Obamacare have hit us particularly hard. The individual health-insurance market has been devastated. Major exchanges have collapsed. My family lost our affordable plan early on, and soon after, I lost my doctor. I have friends who are paying more for their monthly health insurance premiums than they are for their home mortgages. And I assure you, none of us are amused by the perpetual clown-show in Washington that creates and maintains these obstacles.

It all begs a few simple questions: Why do a handful of elected leaders, who don’t even represent our state, get to make such consequential healthcare decisions on our behalf? Why should a U.S. president’s popularity or unpopularity matter at all, when it comes to the healthcare coverage of a private citizen? Why on earth is Washington DC this consequential in our lives?

To find the answers, we unfortunately have to look at ourselves. We keep electing populist personalities who promise us the world, rather than individualist leaders who are humble enough to believe that communities should have a significant say in what’s best for them. The more problems we entrust high-ranking political salespeople to deal with, the less likely they are to be solved. And because too few of us understand that, we’ve put ourselves in a position where we have to endure the endless posturing and drama that plays out every day in DC, while hoping something constructive will eventually come from it.

Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. But we’ll keep getting behind such leaders, and we’ll continue to be let down, because we’ve made Washington far too consequential in our lives. Sadly, at this point in our history, the alternative feels like little more than a daydream.

Obama’s Moral Belittling Won’t Be Missed

Since the election, “This is why Trump won” has been popular social-media response to the self-righteous liberals who continue to scold those who don’t subscribe to their politically-correct social justice orthodoxy. Many on the Right (including those who aren’t Trump fans) have enjoyed taunting the Left’s incessant demagoguery, because while the frequency of it hasn’t slowed down, its effectiveness and societal appeal undoubtedly have.

In fact, some of the leftist rants of the past few months (from Hollywood, the Democratic party, and political activists) have been so hysterically ridiculous that it’s hard to imagine how such sentiment was ever mainstreamed in the first place. Thankfully President Obama reemerged at the John F. Kennedy Library earlier this week to answer that question.

After accepting the JFK “Profile in Courage” award, Obama expanded on the topic of courage in a speech to attendees. To the surprise of no one, he applied the noble term to himself and those who supported his presidential agenda — specifically his signature piece of legislation, Obamacare.

“I hope that current members of Congress recall that it actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential,” the former president told the audience. “But it does require some courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm.”

He added, “I hope they understand that courage means not simply doing what is simply politically expedient, but doing what [people] believe in their hearts is right.”

In other words, the Democrats were brave and compassionate for supporting Obama’s vision of health care reform (complete with dishonest rhetoric, skyrocketing patient costs, and overall unsustainability), and the Republicans were cowardly and cruel for opposing it, and now working to repeal and replace sections of the law.

Much can be said about Obama’s well-documented sense of moral superiority in matters such as these, but I’m not sure anyone could have put it better than syndicated columnist, Charles Krauthammer, did Monday on Fox News:

“It’s been a full hundred days, but it was nice to be reminded of why we should be grateful as a nation that [Obama’s] gone. There are a lot of arguments you can make, on either side, of the debate about Obamacare, but notice how it was complete moral condescension. The other guys are cowards because I, and the people who support me and oppose this legislation, stand with the poor and afflicted and all that, and the others are on the side of the rich and the powerful. That’s nonsense.

What the [Republicans] have done is practically commit political suicide to support a measure with 17 percent support in the population, that does what we know has to be done, which is to curtail entitlements, or starting to curtail, by doing a curtailment of Medicaid. It’s inevitable, it’s in the future. Obama had eight years. He didn’t want to touch it. You can say that this is something necessary, something people are entitled to, but to pretend that you are the one who’s advocating a courageous position when it goes completely against what the public wants, it’s complete nonsense.

Obama did that all through his presidency, always assuming he was on the side of the angels, and always the one who was willing to go against public opinion, when it was completely the opposite. He reminded us, reminded me — it’s been a hundred days — but good riddance, Mr. President. That is sort of the restrained version of my reaction to that condescension.”

Condescension is right. For eight years, President Obama presented himself not just as our nation’s leader, but also as our moral conscience. If you agreed with him, you were doing right by America. If you disagreed with and opposed him, you were a bad, petty, uncaring person who was doing deep harm to our country and its citizens.

Obama and members of his administration sometimes referred to their opposition and critics as people who were “betting against America” or “on the wrong side of history” (two of the nicer phrases they used). And over their eight years in office, the media was more than willing to substantiate that narrative, and treat the president’s promoted principles as how things should be in our country.

Ironically, that alone undermines the notion that Obama was a particularly courageous president. When the media generally approves of whatever you’re doing, political courage is neither required nor exercised.

In fairness, President Trump has also been guilty of these moral high-ground arguments. We’ve seen them when he casts unfair aspersions on (and assigns false motivations to) his political opponents on both sides of the aisle. The differences are that he does it far less frequently, and that he doesn’t put the electorate in the cross-hairs (as Obama liked to). And really, he couldn’t reach Obama-levels of condescension even if he tried, because the media would never give him a free pass on it.

Regardless, such conduct is not an example of courage.

Whether or not you’re a Trump fan, it’s a safe bet that our president’s sense of morality won’t be presented as the moral compass of our nation (from which its citizens are to be judged) anytime soon. Those days are likely over for a while, and I, like Krauthammer, am relieved.

The Obama Administration’s Dishonesty on Syria

ricePresident Trump received a fair amount of ridicule back in February, when he publicly complained that he “inherited a mess” from the previous administration. Because the rhetoric mirrored statements made by President Obama eight years earlier (in regard to Bush and the economic collapse), critics were quick to point out that Obama left the U.S. economy in a much better state than he had found it.

But Trump was not simply referring to the economy. His words were aimed at a multitude of issues (both domestically and abroad) including his categorization of the Middle East as a “disaster.”  In reference to the situation Trump came into regarding Syria alone, it’s difficult to say that he didn’t have a point.

One can certainly argue that it’s unbecoming of a president to openly complain about the environment he “inherited,” whether we’re talking about Trump or Obama (who played the Blame-Bush game for the entirety of his first term in office). After all, presidents are hired by the American electorate to address big problems; it comes with the job.

It can also be argued that Trump demonstrated breathtaking hypocrisy last week when he said, “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”

As many have pointed out, President Trump was an outspoken advocate for not taking action to deal with Bashar al-Assad back in 2013. Trump even went as far as to mock President Obama on multiple occasions for merely considering using our military against the Assad regime. Trump insisted that the situation in Syria was not our country’s problem. And in the end, Obama proceeded exactly as Trump wanted him to.

What cannot be argued is that Obama’s policy on Syria was a success. It was an extraordinary failure, and the result of that failure has been daily violence, hundreds of thousands of deaths, expanded Russian influence in the region, and a terrible refugee crisis. And as we’ve recently learned, the 2013 chemical weapons agreement between Syria and Russia — that the Obama administration repeatedly assured us had removed WMDs from the conflict — was an utter joke.

“We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiable give up its chemical weapons stockpile,” former national security advisor Susan Rice bragged in an interview back in January of this year.

The horrifying images we saw on television last week of dead children and convulsing victims fighting to stay alive dispelled that myth once and for all. And as it turns out, the Obama State Department likely knew as early as a year ago that the U.S.-brokered agreement was bunk.

In a piece on Monday, The Weekly Standard’s Jeryl Bier drew attention to a State Department report from April of 2016 which included the following passages:

“The United States cannot certify that the Syrian Arab Republic is in compliance with its obligations under the CWC. The United States assesses that Syria has used chlorine as a chemical weapon systematically and repeatedly against the Syrian people every year since acceding to the Convention…”

“…the United States assesses that Syria did not declare all the elements of its chemical weapons program, required by Article III of the CWC and that Syria may retain chemical weapons as defined by the CWC.”

“In addition to assessed CW use and maintenance of a residual CW capability, Syria failed to meet most of its milestone destruction dates.”

“The Syrian declaration contained obvious gaps, discrepancies and omissions, as detailed above, thus placing Syria in non-compliance with the CWC declaration requirements and the additional declaration requirements[.]”

These findings support new statements from former Obama officials who are now admitting that the administration knew all along that there were still chemical weapons in Syria.

Despite that, President Obama himself made this statement in a speech just four months ago [emphasis added]:

Just think about what we’ve done these last eight years without firing a shot. We’ve rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. That’s not just my assessment, that’s the assessment of Israeli intelligence, even though they were opposed to the deal. We’ve secured nuclear materials around the globe, reducing the risk that they fall into the hands of terrorists. We’ve eliminated Syria’s declared chemical weapons program.

Anyone who still has confidence in our “roll back” of Iran’s nuclear program might want to start worrying.

This begs the question: What consequences are there for the Obama administration, having once again misled the American public on a very serious issue? The short answer is likely “none,” as was the case with the administration’s assurances (while still in power) on Obamacare, Benghazi, I.R.S.-targeting, and more.

For a news-media industry that is always quick to point out President Trump’s dishonesty (as it should), it would be nice if some of that aggression could be reserved for the often-more consequential dishonesty that comes from the other side of the political aisle.

Broken Slate

Trump-Era Reading for the Principled Soul

Principled SoulLast year, once primary voters from America’s two major political parties had decided that our next president would be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, a lot of people felt as though our country had very much lost its way.

National polling consistently showed that both nominees were deeply unpopular, and the anecdotal evidence could be found everywhere you looked. Conversations with friends and family from both sides of the political aisle were bleak over the prospects, and discussing the situation on social media felt like reviewing a loved one’s funeral proceedings.

The discontent wasn’t primarily over issues.

Sure, a lot of progressives were disappointed that Bernie Sanders (and his fantasy-genre promises of confiscated wealth from rich people solving all of society’s problems) didn’t become the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer. Likewise, conservatives who believe in things like small government, personal responsibility, and individual freedom were also left without a voice.

But it wasn’t the loss of ideas and policy positions that had crushed people’s spirits. It was the loss of principles and personal character. Most Americans believed Clinton and Trump had neither, deeming them morally bankrupt and far more dishonest than what people were willing to accept from a politician.

That doesn’t mean that there weren’t lots of enthusiastic folks from both teams, convinced that their candidate was a stellar choice for the job. Political writers and commentators (including myself) heard from them on a daily basis — especially Trump fans who tend to be more defensive of their guy than I am of my own children. But such people were the exception, not the rule.

A large portion of the electorate held their noses on election day, faced with the daunting task of deciding which option would result in the least amount of damage caused not just to the nation, but also their souls.

In the end, voters mostly returned to their partisan areas of comfort, and the contest came down to turnout in a few key states. And when the unthinkable happened, and Donald Trump pulled out a surprise victory, things went a little nuts.

The Left disintegrated into full meltdown-mode, aggressively denying the election results, howling at the moon over the forthcoming apocalypse, and condemning the racist, sexist, homophobic Trump voters that had signed the world’s death warrant.

The Right celebrated the lifting of a burden of eight years of progressive rule, signified by insatiable political correctness. They relished the Left’s freak-out, taking guilty (and not so guilty) pleasure in witnessing liberals crumble under the same pain they had felt in 2008 and 2012.

Unlike in previous election years, however, Donald Trump’s 18-month scorched-earth campaign and personal conduct were so incredibly abrasive and divisive that any hope of earning the public-at-large’s good graces (and a shot at national unity) was doomed from the beginning. And with President Trump deciding to frame his critics and detractors as enemies of his administration, the situation will likely not get better.

Our political landscape has become increasingly tribalisitic. Each side has galvanized its base, drawn battle-lines, dug trenches, and is prepared for war. But what is being fought over, exactly? It doesn’t seem to be as much about ideas and principles as it does an individual: Donald Trump. Either you’re with him or you’re against him. There is no wiggle room, and no obstacle will stand in the way — especially not self-reflection.

As a commenter on this website wrote the other day, “I’m glad to settle for making the other side as miserable as I’ve been for the past 8 years. He [Trump] could sit there and just pump middle fingers in the air for all I care. That’s the point we’re at.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, and it shouldn’t be that way. Unconditional allegiance (or unconditional opposition) to a political leader corrodes one’s soul and marginalizes independent thought. Reflexively attacking (or aligning with) a politician’s critics runs the risk of causing great damage to a free society.

A couple of extremely well-written columns came out last week regarding this issue. They are must-reads for anyone who thinks they might be caught up in this tribalistic warfare.

The first one was by Jonathan Bethune, a young man I hadn’t previously heard of. Judging by his double-digit Twitter following, few others had as well. But his excellent piece for The Federalist will likely change that.

“There can be no meaningful dialogue premised upon shared values if both sides only apply those values when it lets them score points,” Bethune writes. “The class of moderately intelligent politically aware people are those most affected by this trend. They have become partisan ideologues.”

Bethune goes on to describe what a partisan ideologue is:

An ideologue is at least consistent in his belief in specific policies. A partisan openly supports his gang above all else. But a partisan ideologue is worse than both. He is a Machiavellian creature: a supporter of “ends justify the means” approaches to pushing an agenda. The gang must be defended that the agenda might be defended, even when the gang violates core tenets of the agenda. Partisan ideologues are dishonest by nature. Worse still, they often cannot even tell when they are being dishonest.

It’s these partisan ideologues, Bethune argues, that are making it nearly impossible to have a public debate in this country:

I have no energy to argue with these people because the charge of hypocrisy has lost all rhetorical power. No one expects any sort of integrity anymore. This signifies a societal breakdown. In an advanced society, fidelity to abstract principles is seen as important. We get offended when those in leadership roles disregard their values, and we disqualify them from positions of responsibility in the future. Credibility matters.

When we stop punishing hypocrisy, the most unscrupulous and amoral benefit. There is no longer any pretense of ideas mattering once you replace principles with people. All that remains is tribalism. All debate is reduced to “my gang good, your gang bad.”

Hypocrisy, of course, has run rampant in the era of Trump…on both sides. The Left and the mainstream media flip their lids over our president doing or saying the same types of things they ignored (and even hailed) from Obama when he was president. The Right has every right to point that out, and they certainly have been. The problem is that the Right now celebrates Trump doing and saying the same things that they and the conservative media excoriated Obama for.

It seems that people view hypocrisy the same way they view members of Congress: Everyone else’s is awful, but they’re pretty satisfied with their own.

On the point of replacing principles with people, Bethune says the end result is tyranny, and that holding fast to principles is “the only way we can get back to talking about ideas instead of personalities.”


The other column was by National Review’s David French.

“Too many conservatives mistake the admission of inconvenient truths for weakness,” writes French, arguing that “Trump feeds some of the worst impulses in the conservative movement, turning otherwise sane and smart people into Facebook commandos and Twitter SEALs.”

French refers to these individuals as social media’s “tough-guy Right.” As an administrator for Bernie Goldberg’s Facebook page, I’m quite familiar with the type.

Scratch all too many conservative keyboard warriors and you’ll find that they pine for their own heroic moment — not Selma, but perhaps Omaha Beach or Fallujah. They wish they had been there fighting evil when the bullets flew, so they cast their present activism in the most dramatic terms. They’re not just typing; they’re “fixing bayonets.” They’re not just tweeting; they’re “firing back.”

French’s metaphor is a good one, because these people truly believe they are on a noble mission against an enemy combatant, and that all is fair in war.

Express concern that, say, Trump’s first national-security adviser lasted less than a month on the job before being fired, and you’re “pearl-clutching.” Call out lies on your own side and you’re accused of angling for a gig at the New York Times, or of attempting to curry favor with the crowd that frequents those ubiquitous Beltway cocktail parties. Criticize these tough guys and they’ll call you a mealy-mouthed “beta male,” looking at the liberal elite and begging for love.

None of this is honorable. It’s low and partisan. I don’t care how many war allusions you use, how insulting you are on Twitter, or how many times you accuse your opponents of “pearl-clutching” and “bed-wetting.” Unless your argument is honest, principled, and consistently applicable to both sides, you’re just being tribal.

French nails it. Unfortunately, a thoughtful column here and there about the importance of principles isn’t going to do a whole lot to free people’s minds from the hyper-partisan collectives they’re quite comfortable dwelling in. Most tribalists wouldn’t bother to read such pieces in the first place.

Hopefully, however, there are still enough open minds out there to recognize this growing problem and stop giving others a pass when they contribute to it. Societal expectations should be raised, not lowered.  Everyday Americans can start by reintroducing the stigma of shame back into our dialogue, and it will have to be those regular folks, because that shame is not going to come from media figures or the top tiers of American political leadership.

Broken Slate, a Sean Coleman Thriller