It’s been weeks—maybe months is more accurate—since I mucked about in The New York Times’ opinion pages, meaning not just picking out a random Ross Douthat (wishy-washy semi-conservatism with a nod to his faith) column, Paul Krugman’s political talking points, disguised as economic commentary, or Maureen Dowd’s name-dropping, but not always unentertaining, written-on-her-phone barbs at Donald Trump (still!), but all of the well-paid pundits at once. I’ve done so over the past week—unlike the Times’ owners and shareholders, I’d guess, and more Truth to Power to them, for, as I’ve noted previously, The Times Co. is a digital company, and the print paper’s an afterthought—and my unoriginal conclusion is that not much has changed.
An exception: the Times, in search of another “conservative” columnist (Bret Stephens fits that bill, Douthat doesn’t), earlier this year took on well-known, at least in the Beltway, #NeverTrump evangelical Christian (justification, I suppose, for the “conservative” label) David French, who, after right-leaning commentary for The National Review and think tanks, has gone full-bore Bill Kristol—a fellow I met on many occasions years ago when he was engaging and brimming with stimulating ideas, such as promoting Colin Powell for president in 1996 vs. the feckless Bill Clinton—but since Trump has begun to resemble a slightly more together Joe Biden, which I take no solace in writing, French writes for the cognoscenti who still believe that J6 was an event on the level of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. I was surprised to learn that French is just 54—that “just” is relative, but since the Times won’t hire a commentator under 40 (and if the editors did, you know it’d be Greta Thunberg, and not a sensible choice like Lena Dunham, who’d drive her colleagues to an earlier cocktail hour)—that passes for “young.”
(It’s baffling that, in lieu of the younger generation of journalists, the Times hasn’t signed up Chris Caldwell (60), an unpredictable conservative—not unlike Thomas Frank from the left—who continues to write, and well, for a slew of publications. I’m very fond of Chris—he wrote for my New York Press for six or seven years, a weekly column he moonlighted; his home was the then-excellent Weekly Standard—but that’s incidental. His stories for the Claremont Review, Financial Times, The New Criterion, The New Republic, and on occasion, The New York Times, are always worth reading, and though he has zero social media presence, his reputation is first-rate.)
Anyway, I did read every word of French’s March 5th column, and though my eyes didn’t bleed or turn purple, and my lifelong facial tic didn’t go into overdrive, I did feel soiled afterwards. French chose as his topic the batty white supremacist Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s promotional declaration that the United States requires a “national divorce,” meaning in her whatever-hallucinogen-she-was-taking-at-the-time, that red and blue states, while still united as one country, would make their own rules about guns, abortion, education, immigration, anything about trans issues, taxes, and likely 20 other wacked-out ideas that makes her the symbol of the right-wing fringe nuts who’ve probably never even heard of Wavy Gravy, let alone William Bartley or Calvin Coolidge. She’s a foul person, among the worst Americans, and while Trump, a few months ago, batted around the idea of tapping her, so to speak, for his running-mate in the 2024 presidential election, apparently he’s moved on to the slightly-less-repulsive Kari Lake. Trump being Trump (if he’s hired an adviser more awake than Rudy Giuliani) will tease different kooks, but if he’s headed to the nomination my guess is he’ll go with a boring choice like Mike Pence.
French begins rationally, writing about Green’s proposed divorce (“no-fault”?): “The very idea is absurd. It’s incompatible with the Constitution [which, according to French and like-minded hysterics, has been shredded so many times that the scraps can’t even be found to make a cut-up version a la William Burroughs]. It’s dangerous. It’s unworkable. It would destroy the economy, dislocate millions of Americans and destabilize the globe.” Points to French, even though politically-aware high school students write similar words every day (such essays are likely allowed in elite prep schools).
But then French tumbles down the stairs, saying, “It could also happen. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and we should take that possibility seriously.” Maybe he’d read Sinclair Lewis the night before. (It’s also possible, using French’s warped logic, that overnight I could shed 45 years, grow several inches and become the Boston Red Sox’s ace right-hand pitcher.)
And then it’s re-run time: “America’s recent history makes me worry, and if we doubt that concern one need only point back to Jan. 6, 2021, and indulge in a single, simple thought experiment: What if Mike Pence had said yes [block, at Trump’s demand, the certification of Joe Biden’s clear presidential win]?” Since every single day is J6 for French (and he makes a living by living in that daydream) he also says that Trump nearly pulled off a coup. Really? Where was the military and tanks at Trump’s side on that winter day? Where were the 500,000 supporters of his cause? Christ, I’m getting sucked into French’s con, and that won’t do.
I came to end of the column, fully expecting the following, and was rewarded for my less-than-sensational vision: “This is not a new concern for me. In 2020, I published a book arguing that political polarization had grown so extreme that it was time to be concerned about our national union.” When you’re knighted at The New York Times it’s fully permissible—encouraged, expected!—to hawk your own outside writing. That’s “cash money,” baby, that’s a “steak dinner!” And in honor of French’s unflinching self-promotion, I want to help! You can buy his book today; the link the author provides in his column goes to Amazon, which I thought was a no-no at the Times, but maybe there’s a letter-writing/Twitter campaign coming up from annoyed Times colleagues.
At the top of this article, I said the whole world of the Times’ opinion pages was my rotten oyster, and that was no lie. But it was French, a newcomer who took center stage, rather than, say, David Brooks, who wrote another self-parody—this time about his efforts to escape “political addictions” and “the Trump scandal du jour” by immersing himself in the arts, whose beauty suppresses the ego. Brooks went to an Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney and… oh, fuck it, you get the gist.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955