The Conservative Pundit Problem in the Age of Trump

Big media organizations have a Bret Stephens problem.

It could also be called a David Brooks problem. Or a George Will problem. But Bret Stephens’ embarrassing behavior in the bedbug controversy over the past few days makes him the perfect poster child for a challenge that spans much of the journalism industry. To recap briefly: a university professor called Stephens a “bedbug”; Stephens responded by trying to get the professor fired, or at least disciplined, in email exchanges with the professor and his superiors; the professor took the issue public; and then Stephens escalated the matter with a ludicrous and falsely attributed column comparing the professor’s rhetoric to Nazi dehumanization. (The piece should never have made it past the editor’s desk.)

Stephens is the sort of conservative columnist that major newspapers love to hire: anti-Trump, contrarian mediocrities ostensibly concerned with free speech and liberal overreach. He and others like him allow editors and ombudsmen to say their publications include “conservative opinion” without actually giving voice to conservatism as it truly exists today. A more genteel version of the provocateur pseudo-intellectualism of a Joe Rogan or Jordan Peterson, Bret Stephens and his fellow NeverTrump commentators offer the sort of coded antebellum conservatism that even a good tote-bag-carrying liberal can love. They provide climate denialism not as an affront to God’s plan, or a conspiracy of pointy-headed nerds in it for the grant money, or an interference in the workings of glorious libertarian capitalism, but merely as a questioning of consensus tyranny of thought; they offer imperialism as expansion of human freedom rather than jingoistic corporate and militaristic predation; they offer appeals to a patriarchal order of racial hierarchy not as a matter of overt Bible-thumping or white supremacy, but coded support for a “culture” of “family” and “respect” that just so happens to resemble a whitewashed Norman Rockwell painting where Father Knows Best.

The problem, of course, is that men like Stephens, Will, and Brooks—they are almost uniformly middle-aged or older white men—represent very few people in American civil society. Notably, very few of their kind wind up in elected office. Somewhere around 85% of Republicans support and approve of Trump; most Republicans think anti-white racism is a bigger problem than anti-black racism. And neither Democrats nor independents are buying into their perspective. Ostensibly non-prejudiced, anti-Trump conservatives are far overrepresented in the media compared to their actual constituency. Why is this?

While some of the explanation lies in the sort of interpersonal chumminess among select opinion-makers who go to the right parties and went to the right schools—as Chris Hayes lays bare in his Twilight of the Elites—it’s also true that big media organizations face an unenviable challenge when it comes to presenting conservative opinion in the Trump era.

On the one hand, editors have an obligation to their readers to present a wide spectrum of opinion–including ones with which their core readership may disagree politically. On the other, editors also have a duty to maintain accuracy and social responsibility. Finally, they have both a financial and moral incentive to ensure that the opinions they print be interesting and well-considered, and not just a rehash of partisan talking points. As the conservative movement delves ever further into anti-scientific ignorance, overt bigotry and lockstep loyalty to its current leader, presenting responsible, accurate and interesting conservative opinion can be a challenge.

So let’s say you’re the editor of a major magazine or newspaper, and you want to give voice to the somewhat less than half or so of the country that identifies broadly with conservative perspectives. Do you hire an alt-right figure with openly racist and sexist attitudes, who actually represents what conservatism is today, even though it will outrage your readers and provide a dangerous platform for hateful views? Do you hire partisan operatives who will parrot the talking points du jour and defend whatever outlandish pronouncements Trump makes next, at the risk of ruining your brand in much the same way CNN has done by inviting commentary from the likes of Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany? Or do you hire a never-Trump conservative like Bret Stephens who doesn’t actually represent very many people, but who won’t unduly offend readers’ sensibilities or implicitly encourage violence against women and minorities?

Time and again, editors choose the third option as the path of greatest comfort and least resistance.

For what it’s worth, they do this on the left as well. Despite the strong progressive tilt of the Democratic electorate over the last decade, both cable news and major newspapers have a dearth of representation from pundits and opinion writers who might generally be described as falling into the Sanders coalition. They continue to sample opinion from writers much more concerned about preserving the false veneer of past cultural unity and the economic stability of those with six- and seven-figure mutual fund and real estate portfolios, rather than the more representative and growing class of people who are struggling to afford a downpayment on their first mortgage while working two gig economy jobs, paying off exorbitant student loans and stuck in a private insurance hell of making too much for Medicaid but too little to afford adequate medical care. The opinion-makers are still typically older, white, and male, and don’t represent the Democratic electorate at large.

Solving this problem for left-leaning commentary is simple: including more diverse and more progressive voices won’t endanger or embarrass anyone or damage a media company’s brand, though it may discomfit some centrist traditionalists.

But in terms of conservative commentary, media organizations should look to err more on the side of actual representation. Why risk the ire of readers and do potential harm to present contrarian viewpoints that few Americans truly share? There is nothing novel or interesting in the sort of content that George Will, David Brooks, and Bret Stephens provide: their takes are as predictable as the rising of the sun and the passing seasons, and it’s not indicative of the opinions of the Americans who continue to empower Republican policymakers.

A better approach would be to hire Trump loyalists willing to defend the president and his actions (as well as those of Senate Leader McConnell and the Roberts Court), while strictly adhering to standards of fact-checking and anti-racism. If a conservative writer could manage to defend modern Republican politics while remaining honest, accurate, and without resorting to bigotry, that would be both potentially interesting and skillful enough to deserve publication. It would be more satisfying to conservative readers and more informative for liberal ones.

But the time for providing a special platform for contrarian NeverTrump conservatives should come to an end. It’s both embarrassing and unproductive.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.