Rarely do we see a story that has so much to teach, from which so little is learned, than the saga of Kevin Williamson’s firing from The Atlantic. The nonsense continues to pile up, so let’s see if we can sift out some truth.
One and Done
Lost in the uproar so far has been the fact that Williamson’s one and only Atlantic essay was crap. It was little more than a regurgitation of his longstanding contempt for Donald Trump and rank-and-file conservative voters, all wrapped in his trademark long-windedness that he tries to pass off as sophistication. The best I can say about it is that he dings libertarians for the delusion that they matter, but even that’s tainted by the delusion that they deserve to matter.
Still, it contains a couple of noteworthy nuggets:
- His gratuitous and misleading swipe at someone who actually possesses the intellect Williamson imagines in himself, Victor Davis Hanson. I can’t add anything to Hanson’s prophetic response, but I do have to say how remarkable (and, I confess, gratifying) it is to see one of the Right’s most respected figures finally mention — in National Review, no less! — what most conservatives have spent years pretending not to notice: Williamson’s tendency to be “incoherent and cruel.”
- “Self-professed libertarian voices such as Larry Elder have become abject Trumpists.” I don’t hear Elder enough to judge his overall take on Trump, but I can use Google — which is apparently more work than Williamson bothered to do. It took me less than 30 seconds to find this column in which Elder criticizes the “economic illiteracy” of Trump’s tariffs. Especially since it’s not the first time Williamson’s misrepresented a fellow conservative over Trump, his dishonesty makes all the odes to what a wonderful guy he is doubly grating.
- “The Christian right was able to make its peace with Trump with relative ease, because it is moved almost exclusively by reactionary kulturkampf considerations. ‘But Hillary!’ is all that Falwell and company need to hear, and they won’t even hold out for 30 pieces of silver.” Anyone else see the irony of Williamson sneering at religious conservatives’ judgement that abortion (among other issues) was important enough to justify voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton (a call that’s since been vindicated), just before getting sacked for an abortion statement more extreme than anything they’ve ever said? Williamson understands that abortion is literally murder (and in his saner moments has written eloquently about how being born just a few months later, after Roe v. Wade, might well have killed him). Yet not only did he ignore the moral imperative this gave the 2016 election, he lacks any discernible charity for others motivated to vote Trump by a concern he claims to share.
- One wonders if throwing in the German for “culture struggle” (or “culture war,” as we’d say) above was meant to evoke the vile smear of Trump supporters as Nazis, or to provide another bit of foreign language faux-sophistication. Knowing Kevin, probably both.
Kevin D. Trump?
I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons Williamson’s animosity toward our vulgar, impulsive, nasty, big-mouthed, thin-skinned president is so visceral is because, on some level, he recognizes some of those qualities in himself. His hanging comments are a perfect example not only of that, but of his #NeverTrump colleagues’ selective outrage.
One of the most glaring (and, so far, unspoken) ironies in all this is that Williamson’s defenders know damn well they never would have tolerated Donald Trump saying anything half as inflammatory. In fact, it’s not hypothetical — they didn’t tolerate it. Remember when Trump told Chris Matthews there “has to be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions? Conservatives uniformly (and rightly) came down on him like a ton of bricks. National Review’s editors said he “managed to damage his own campaign, the Republican party, and the pro-life cause at a single go.” NR’s David French called it an example of Trump doing “what he does best: open[ing] his mouth and insert[ing] his foot.”
Curiously, though, that doesn’t seem to be the verdict for Williamson saying — and sticking to — a more extreme version of what Trump said and recanted. Now, French meekly says “we might differ about the laws in hypothetical-future-America.” Jonah Goldberg (a senior editor who presumably had some input in the Trump denunciation) says simply that “You can agree or disagree with” Williamson’s position, but what really matters is that “He never made that argument for National Review.”
What’s the difference? That Williamson thought it through and Trump was just spouting what he assumed pro-lifers wanted to hear? True, but irrelevant — if punishing women is the wrong answer, it’s wrong no matter who gives it or why. That a presidential candidate is a bigger PR liability that a conservative opinion writer? Also true, but only a question of degree — the Left made sure to publicize it just the same, and again, it cannot be harmful for one person to say something but harmless for another to say the same thing, only harsher.
Indeed, many of Williamson’s other defenders are actually doing more harm by suggesting he was fired merely for being pro-life — lending credence to the leftist smear that punishing women (up to and including death) really is what opposing abortion’s all about. (UPDATE: Here’s my explanation for why Williamson is wrong about punishing women, and why most pro-lifers are logically consistent on the subject.)
Say, isn’t there a word for holding a like-minded friend to one standard, and a hated opponent to another? Oh yeah…tribalism.
Not Quite a Victim
The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg are absolutely the bad guys here; the left-wing filth they’re willing to both publish and tolerate from their writers proves that leftist mob outrage, not some sincere or consistently-applied editorial principle, is why they canned Williamson. That said, let’s not exaggerate Williamson’s victimhood or overlook his own contribution to his current situation.
First, as Ace wrote Friday (in a post that’s a must-read for points beyond what I’m covering here), an opinion magazine terminating a writer for his opinions is hardly a matter of censorship, and going too far down that road carries a strong risk of hypocrisy:
The Atlantic is a magazine of ideas. Obviously, ideas being its stock in trade, it has the right any business does of deciding what ideas it wishes to sell and which ideas it thinks it can sell to its customer base.
Its ideas and the writers typing up those ideas are its stock in trade and its entire brand identity.
It has a very strong interest in defining not only what its brand identity is, but what its brand identity is not […]
I asked someone at the National Review during general campaign season of 2016 (not primary season — general election season) why they were hiring nothing but NeverTrumpers. They were hiring both writers of quality, like Heather Wilhelm, and trash level writers, who I won’t name.
The quality varied but their politics did not: They were all vociferously anti-Trump. Again, during general election season, when the only alternative to Trump was Hillary Clinton […]
But then: Doesn’t The Atlantic have that exact same right to choose which writers it wants to tell its audience are worth reading (and, indeed, worth paying cash money for)?
Second, Williamson is only jobless (for the moment) because he chose to leave NR — a platform that, by all appearances, rubber-stamped damn near anything he wanted to say under its masthead, without regard for its reasoning or accuracy, no matter how unprofessionally he conducted himself on Twitter or elsewhere — for a platform where it was entirely predictable that his days would be numbered.
Why did he make such a shortsighted trade? That brings us to the last item of this rundown…
Jonah Gives Away the Game
In just a few days, the righty blogosphere has filled with gushing defenses of Williamson, including one from his NR pal Jonah Goldberg. Its reviews as the best must-read reaction yet are dead-wrong (John Nolte’s, Scott Greer’s, and Ace’s are all smarter and more important), but it does illuminate a couple of extremely important points Goldberg didn’t intend to.
First, throughout the piece Jonah showers Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation) and The Atlantic with eyebrow-raising praise. Jeffrey “courageously hired Kevin because he wants his magazine to be a public square for different points of view.” Jonah “still think[s The Atlantic] is an excellent magazine, for now.” Jeffrey is one of “many smart and thoughtful liberals.”
Does Jonah really think excellence can be compatible with people and organizations dedicated to undermining the Constitution, individual rights, limited government, and free markets? Or is he stoking liberal egos for elite respectability? Neither possibility is flattering.
And it would be beyond naiveté to honestly believe Jeffrey had such lofty motives. Since the primary Williamson has established himself as one of the nominal Right’s nastiest (and shallowest) critics of Donald Trump and Trump-sympathetic conservatives. That’s what The Atlantic really wanted: a pet conservative to regularly dump on the Right, their own Jennifer Rubin, Bret Stephens, or Charlie Sykes.
It says a lot about Kevin Williamson that “tool of the Left” was a job opening he was happy to fill, and that he thought getting in bed with vipers would spare him their wrath.
Finally, consider the following:
His point is that abortion is the taking of a life and should thus be treated under the law as such. You can agree or disagree with that position, on moral, practical, or legal grounds. I disagree with Kevin on all three grounds to some extent, even though I am what you might call mostly pro-life (I know, I know, but we can argue about all that another day).
There are writers at National Review who are pro-choice, but they aren’t fired for it. They just don’t typically make that case in our pages.
All of a sudden, the past two years make a lot more sense.
Ever since Trump won the nomination, we’ve been inundated with lectures about how accepting Trump would corrupt conservative principles. Yet here we have one of the most prolific peddlers of those lectures admitting that “to some extent” he rejects the most foundational of those principles (the Declaration of Independence lists the right to life first), and that some other NR writers reject it outright.
No wonder he and so many other #NeverTrumpers downplayed the threat Hillary posed to the country and turned up their nose at the idea America’s survival was at stake. No wonder Goldberg lazily dismissed the moral dilemma of throwing a Senate seat to pro-abortion Doug Jones rather than leaving the Roy Moore accusations for an ethics panel to decide. Because #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary were operating from different starting assumptions not about either candidate, but about the causes we supposedly share.
They were the ones taking the conservative principles at stake less seriously than those of us who supposedly “sold out” or “bent the knee” to Donald Trump. And now, on at least one issue, we have one of them inadvertently admitting it.
So in a very roundabout way, we actually owe Kevin Williamson our thanks. His antics turned out to be the catalyst for his fellow travelers to display #NeverTrump’s moral and philosophical bankruptcy with some of the clearest examples yet.
Just imagine the rant we’ll get if he ever realizes it.