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I know I’m a little off my libraries-and-technology beat, here, and a week late, but I’m an old-time newspaper junkie, and that bombshell (or clickbait) anonymous opinion piece published in the Gray Lady last week keeps bugging me.
My first reaction was anger at the author (who apparently is an appointed member of Trump’s team, not a career public servant struggling to keep the wheels of government turning even as they fall off) for claiming he or she was bravely protecting us from a dangerously unbalanced president when actually the goal – the description of the things preserved - was to protect the Republican party’s agenda. Joining an administration to carry out partisan goals knowing the person who appointed you is dangerously incompetent (this was not a secret) is problematic enough; telling us you’re a heroic member of the resistance while also telling us you’re determined to selectively carry out his promises in spite of his incapacity seems . . . what’s the word I’m searching for? Undemocratic.
To be sure, there’s no easy way out of this mess. The president is dangerous and Congress, which is the only check on him, won’t behave like a Congress because it’s held by Republicans who are scared of Trump’s base, which is a minority of voters but larger than their base, and which despises government nearly as much as the people who pay for the Republican’s seats in Congress. (There’s something truly undemocratic about a party that pins its hopes on disenfranchisement of voters to win.)
I’m sure the anonymous author of that piece is worried that Trump could appoint a replacement who will let him do crazy stuff, and their deliberate bamboozlement of an easily-confused and distracted president is patriotic. But it’s not. They supposedly swore an oath to protect the Constitution, not a party agenda. Trump made plenty of public statements during his campaign that proved he’s contemptuous of the Constitution. They signed on for this, and they’re going to get what they can out of it for their party and do so without turning to Congress and the people to say publicly “you must do something. The nation is in grave danger.”
The anonymous writer claims “We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility.” No, most of us haven’t sunk anything like as low as he has, and lack of civility is not the problem. Nor is “tribalism.” Who has refused to check the president? The Republican-dominated congress.
Telling us anonymously from inside the White House that the president is incapable won’t help. Trump supporters will never believe anything published in The New York Times. Times readers haven’t learned anything we don’t already know. This isn’t newsorthy. It isn’t even news. They handed a megaphone to a powerful government official, when the job of the press is to hold the powerful accountable.
There are times when reporters should allow vulnerable people anonymity in their reporting. There are even times when powerful people (Deep Throat comes to mind) should be allowed anonymity if the story is big enough, can be confirmed, and can’t be told without their insider information. But granting anonymity to powerful political players is dangerous.
What did we learn from the anonymous op-ed? That we’re in big trouble. We already knew that. We even knew that people in the administration are desperate to keep the president who brought them on board from doing something disastrous. You’d think from its WMD experience the Times would have learned that it’s dangerous to trade their reputation for access. This piece was a promo for another episode in a reality show that Trump is directing. Everyone’s waiting to hear him say, once again, “you’re fired.” He loves doing it, too.
I think Masha Gessen has it right: “The thing about autocracies, or budding autocracies, is that they present citizens with only bad choices. At a certain point, one has to stop trying to find the right solution and has to look, instead, for a course of action that avoids complicity. By publishing the anonymous Op-Ed, the Times became complicit in its own corruption.”
Best of luck to all those in the path of yet another extraordinarily big weather event. We live in abnormal times.