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Tom Cotton and the Elite Media’s Dalliance With Illiberalism

How the elimination of constitutional rights became an irresistible argument in the world of mainstream ideas.

Andrew Harnik/Pool/Getty Images

In a March essay for The Atlantic, Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule argued that the American right should abandon constitutional originalism for “common-good constitutionalism,” a legal approach aimed unapologetically at establishing a conservative moral order. “The Court’s jurisprudence on free speech, abortion, sexual liberties, and related matters will prove vulnerable under a regime of common-good constitutionalism,” he declared. “The claim, from the notorious joint opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that each individual may ‘define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life’ should be not only rejected but stamped as abominable, beyond the realm of the acceptable forever after.” Instead, he wrote, our beliefs should be handed to us by a state given broad authority “to protect the public’s health and well-being” and “the weak from pandemics and scourges of many kinds—biological, social, and economic—even when doing so requires overriding the selfish claims of individuals to private ‘rights.’”

All told, the essay is less a serious entry in long-standing scholarly debates over constitutional interpretation than an important document in the literature of an emerging conservative nationalism—a faction on the right set on upending pluralism and liberalism as the ideological frameworks governing American society. While conservative Christians have traditionally grounded their politics in the idea that the Constitution is inseparable from Christian theology, figures like Vermeule, The New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari, and First Things’ R.R. Reno are pushing a social conservatism that elides the Constitution entirely. The tension between individual rights and the dream of a pious country, they argue, should be resolved simply by suppressing or destroying individual rights altogether.

The content of the essay should have been less notable, for those who’ve followed Vermeule’s oeuvre, than the fact that it was printed in The Atlantic, a publication so putatively committed to liberalism and free speech that it spent most of the last decade wailing about the threats to speech and individualism posed by a small faction of American undergraduates. There, under its nameplate, was an open call for the state’s demolition of, in Vermeule’s words, “the libertarian assumptions central to free-speech law and free-speech ideology.” Under common-good constitutionalism, he wrote, the idea “that government is forbidden to judge the quality and moral worth of public speech” would “fall under the ax.” As would, presumably, the editorial freedom of The Atlantic and all American journalists.

The Atlantic’s publication of Vermeule’s essay rhymes a bit with The New York Times’ publication this week of “Send In the Troops,” Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed arguing President Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy the military to quell the unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd. “Nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes,” he wrote. “These rioters, if not subdued, not only will destroy the livelihoods of law-abiding citizens but will also take more innocent lives.”

The piece was widely condemned immediately after it appeared, with critics inside and outside the Times applying scrutiny its editors hadn’t to Cotton’s historical allusions and unevidenced assertions—like the one above about antifa, which was contradicted by the Times’ own reporting. But the broadest and most forceful critique was that the Times, in running the piece, had promoted an argument that could lead to more assaults by authorities against peaceful demonstrators and journalists, potentially including the Times’ staff. It’s emerged since publication that the Times had specifically asked Cotton to write a piece supporting the invocation of the Insurrection Act and that the draft he’d ultimately submitted hadn’t actually been read by opinion editor James Bennet. Clearly, representing the argument in some form had been more important than examining the substance of what Cotton wrote.

In a Friday column, the Times’ Michelle Goldberg wrote that the controversy over Cotton’s piece underlined the challenges mainstream publications that offer the right a platform are facing in the Trump era. “It’s important to understand what the people around the president are thinking,” she wrote. “But if they’re honest about what they’re thinking, it’s usually too disgusting to engage with. This creates a crisis for traditional understandings of how the so-called marketplace of ideas functions. It’s a subsidiary of the crisis that has the country on fire.” One entry in the Times’ internal debate on where the paper should draw the line came from publisher A.G. Sulzberger in remarks to staffers on Friday. While the decision to represent Cotton’s viewpoint had been defensible, he argued, the execution of the piece had been laden with missteps, and Cotton had written in an overly “contemptuous” tone. The Editors’ Note the Times appended to the piece similarly calls Cotton’s tone “needlessly harsh.”

But Cotton’s assertions that violence has been justified by liberals “in the spirit of radical chic” or that opposition to military intervention has been cultivated in “chic salons” were more than snide ornaments to his central argument. One of the ideas underpinning the piece was that military action had been made necessary by “delusional politicians” in thrall to a dangerous, radical, and ridiculous class of cultural elites—a class that includes the journalists of The New York Times. In his essay for The Atlantic, Vermeule similarly fantasized aloud about having the state “curb the social and economic pretensions of the urban-gentry liberals who so often place their own satisfactions (financial and sexual) … above the common good.” Both Cotton and Vermeule have kindred spirits in right-wing populists like Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Senator Josh Hawley, who delivered speeches at last year’s National Conservatism conference, from the comfort of a Ritz-Carlton ballroom, about the destructive influence of the “cosmopolitan elite.”

They also have an ally in Attorney General Bill Barr, who defended the decision to violently clear Lafayette Square of protesters and journalists before President Trump’s photo op this week. In a November speech before the Federalist Society, Barr claimed that the president’s critics “see themselves as engaged in a war to cripple, by any means necessary, a duly elected government” and that progressives, broadly speaking, are on a mission “to remake man and society in their own image.” “Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursuing a deific end,” he said. “They are willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage in achieving their end, regardless of collateral consequences and the systemic implications.”

It would take some time to fully unravel the ways in which the right’s long-standing cultural resentments and anxieties began congealing into an open illiberalism and an untroubled enthusiasm for putting down progressives by state force. But it should be said that some of the groundwork has been laid by figures in the mainstream press, including voices at the Times and The Atlantic, who have worked hard to promulgate the idea that the progressive movement has been overtaken by a totalitarian horde of irrational and emotionally weak, if not psychologically disturbed, crusaders. Broad acceptance of the idea that progressives want to impose their virtues by “any means necessary” has been seeded, in part, by a discourse that regularly distorts pocket controversies on social media and on college campuses into atrocities comparable to the Spanish Inquisition. And there’s not much distance between Cotton’s line about “chic salons” and the insistence of centrist writers that many of the left’s concerns are decadent, frou-frou obsessions.

This is another reason why the notion that Cotton’s piece was inordinately “contemptuous” seems dubious. That word also describes the critiques of progressive politics offered by the Times’ Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss: Their work is often glib and repetitive, marred by both factual errors and an incurious condescension. The same can be said of Weiss’s response to the Cotton controversy. “The civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes [and] the (mostly 40+) liberals,” she tweeted Thursday, “is the same one raging inside other publications and companies across the country.” The “wokes,” she went on to say, have been shaped by a mindset christened by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and speech activist Greg Lukianoff—a duo best known for pathologizing the opinions of progressive millennials in The Atlantic. “They call it ‘safetyism,’” she wrote, “in which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.”

This was countered by journalists at the Times and elsewhere who noted that the piece and the decision to run it had been criticized by a broad and age-diverse range of voices, and that discussions on the matter had been reasoned and civil. They also questioned whether safetyism encompasses the regularly expressed ire of Weiss and the Times’ other conservatives over the mockery and criticism they receive on the internet. In August, for instance, Bret Stephens’s remarkable public conniption over being called a “bedbug” in a tweet ended with a column that invoked the Holocaust.

These and other centrist writers who have sounded alarms about the progressive left would recoil at the suggestion they have anything to do with illiberalism on the right—they are, after all, opponents of President Trump, nationalism, and populism, and fervent defenders of free speech. But the consequences of the press’s catastrophizing about the state of speech in America have been clear. If progressives have already mostly dismantled free speech in the service of their agenda, a growing faction on the right muses, conservatives might as well do away with what remains of it in a desperate defense of their own principles. If the public square has already been functionally destroyed by a mob of coddled twerps, they argue, conservatives should work to reconstitute it as they see fit. The growth of illiberalism on the right has been fed, in large part, by the belief that progressives have already rendered liberalism a fiction. “[Progressives] regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy,” Sohrab Ahmari wrote last year. “We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise, given all this, that years of angst about political correctness and speech on campus have culminated in efforts to tether higher education funding to discursive standards set by conservative state legislators and the White House. Similarly it makes both no sense whatsoever and all the sense in the world that a cadre of centrist speech advocates have been less alarmed by a senator’s call for the deployment of the military against protests than by an editorial debate at the Times over whether it should have been published. Their advocacy has always been guided by a conviction that the truly critical threats to speech are coming from the left. “The censorious left has become more aggressive and promiscuous in its condemnations,” Stephens wrote in February. “No wonder the administration has taken up the banner of free speech: Even a president who called the media the ‘enemy of the people’ has a case to make that his opponents are more hostile to the letter and spirit of the First Amendment than he is.”

The relationship between the ideas being advanced by centrists in the media and the illiberal right isn’t fully symbiotic—again, the nationalists want to end freedoms vital to the functioning of a truly free press. It’s in the interest of all in the media, then, to think seriously about whether and how to represent illiberal viewpoints. The Times has long maintained that it selects its columnists and op-ed writers to expose its readers to a broad range of political perspectives. It’s recently made some progress legitimizing that claim—hires like Jamelle Bouie, Michelle Alexander, and Elizabeth Bruenig mark an effort by the paper to include more views well left of center. But the Times cannot actually live up to its representational goals without soliciting more contributions from the unabashedly Trumpist right—that would mean more pieces like Cotton’s, not fewer, and offered regularly enough that they don’t seem like one-off performances of open-mindedness.

Is representation worthwhile? One case for it should be familiar to all by now. The representation of a broad range of political viewpoints productively broadens the minds of a publication’s readers; engagement with arguments they strongly disagree with induces useful shifts in perspective and allows them to poke holes in noxious opinions. This, it is often said, is the best and perhaps only way to truly defeat bad ideas. The main problem with this perspective is that it is substantially untrue: Researchers have told us time and time again that it is difficult to change minds by political argument and reason, and the material and social disincentives for accepting a new truth even once recognized can be incredibly strong. Moreover, many weak ideas enjoy long lives in the world well after they’ve been refuted by evidence and experience. The very concept of a “free marketplace of ideas” is itself a decent example of this. The notion that argument is always and obviously a better way than suppression to defeat bad ideas is fanciful—we fear the erosion of free speech, to begin with, because we understand that censorship and rendering arguments inaccessible have often worked alarmingly well, on ideas both good and bad.

A better case is that publications should present a broad range of viewpoints to their readers, who might not change their minds about anything at all, simply to inform them about the ideological composition of our political landscape, just as they might do in their reporting. One can even make an instrumental progressive case for this as far as representing the illiberal right is concerned—exposure to opinions like Cotton’s could galvanize the opposition of liberal readers to the Republican Party and the conservative movement much more than exposure to the views of unrepresentative NeverTrump columnists. But the Times’ readers are regularly exposed to arguments from prominent figures like Cotton, whether the Times publishes them or not. And the educative benefits of representation are inevitably weighed against whatever harms publication might bring about, including the risk that representation might normalize and facilitate the spread of destructive views.

At this magazine, of course, we’ve decided that representation for its own sake isn’t worthwhile—our commitment is to advancing arguments and ideas we believe to be interesting, just, and well-supported, in keeping with a particular set of political values. That hasn’t prevented us from engaging the arguments of our ideological opponents or precluded healthy disagreements among ourselves or with readers. But it has freed us from an obligation to promote ideas we believe to be unsound just so that we can applaud ourselves for our magnanimity in doing so. The Times, The Atlantic, and other ideologically similar outlets have made a different choice, and it is unlikely they will ever reverse themselves—their work depends on the cultivation of advertisers and sources on the right they can’t afford to alienate, and even now, as conservative hostility toward the mainstream press deepens, they aspire to an ideologically broad readership. They will continue to publish the opinions of a right that openly disdains the principles underpinning a free press and a free society, those opinions will continue to attract controversy, and the work of meaningfully scrutinizing the basic premises governing the right and our mainstream press will continue to fall largely on weary observers at a remove from both worlds.