Is there anything less shocking—yet more horrifying—than Donald Trump declaring “people don’t ask the question…why was there the Civil War?” It’s not just that Trump wrongly claimed that his racist, slave-owning hero, Andrew Jackson, tried to prevent the war (Jackson died 16 years before it began). It’s the arrogant suggestion that Trump alone asks the tough questions, as though generations of historians haven’t debated the origins and necessity of fighting a bloody war to end slavery—with the overwhelming majority concluding it was, indeed, necessary.
This faux-intellectual feint is a familiar one, and it’s often used by people with more brainpower than our addlepated president. Coincidentally, it’s a favorite rhetorical stance of The New York Times’s new climate-change-denying, conservative op-ed columnist Bret Stephens. Although Stephens won praise for opposing Trump during the 2016 race, in other ways he’s a garden-variety Beltway Republican pundit, always presenting hackneyed defenses of corporate power and the status quo as intellectual and political bravery. In his debut Times column, he told readers the correct approach to climate change is to “teach the controversy.” Although scientists may differ over the precise pace at which humans are damaging the planet, there is, in fact, no controversy over whether climate damage is human-accelerated and must be slowed dramatically.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet adopted a similar approach in fending off a reader revolt over the paper’s hiring a climate-change denier in the age of Trump. Baquet told us: “Didn’t we learn from this past election that our goal should be to understand different views?” There it is again—that smug superiority in facing down critics, the Trumpian suggestion that only those who hold or defend rightly criticized views are brave and smart enough to handle robust political and intellectual debate.
Trump made his bizarre remarks about Jackson and the Civil War in a softball interview with the admiring, conservative Washington Examiner writer Selena Zito. Praising Jackson, he told Zito that the seventh president of the United States, who owned 150 slaves, “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War—if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” It takes either a staggering density or a willful ignorance of slavery’s cruel and persistent power to suggest that it could “have been worked out” without war.
We’ve come to expect as much from Trump. It’s somewhat more shocking to find that kind of reasoning in the pages of the nation’s paper of record. We’ve gotten used to mediocrity on the Times editorial pages, with some critical exceptions (and it must be noted that the paper has been adding smart new voices occasionally, including Slate’s Michelle Goldberg, The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, and historian Rick Perlstein). But Stephens is a particular provocation to the Times’s liberal readership, especially at a time when science is under assault from the right. (Was it deliberate that he made his debut the day before the Climate March?)
Vox’s excellent Dave Roberts broke down all the ways Stephens fails to live up to the Times’s editorial standards, both in his first column and in his long career. In an interview with Vox’s Jeff Stein that Roberts excerpts, we see Stephens channeling Trump on the issue of whether we know the precise amount to spend to ameliorate human effects on climate.
Stephens: The best argument made on behalf of climate mitigation strategies is even if there’s a small chance your house catches fire, you take out insurance. That’s perfectly sensible. And you can make a perfectly sensible argument that even if we’re not 100 percent sure we’re facing a catastrophic climate future, we should take out a host of insurance policies to mitigate carbon emissions.
But then the intelligent question is: “How much are you paying for insurance?”
Stein: Are you saying we’re currently paying too much?
Stephens: I’m saying that’s a question we ought to be raising.
As if nobody is currently raising it? “There’s a whole thriving area of scholarship devoted to it,” Roberts retorts, correctly. “There are all sorts of smart people who have thought it through from all sorts of angles and run all sorts of models.” Almost as much thriving scholarship as there is on the Civil War, actually. This is the kind of intellectual dishonesty that makes subscribers consider ditching the paper they mostly love.
I’m not doing that. If I haven’t abandoned the Times after decades of reading Maureen Dowd and David Brooks, I won’t let Stephens drive me off. To be honest, I came closer to canceling after the paper’s embarrassing over-coverage of James Comey’s shameful October surprise (as well as Hillary Clinton’s e-mail troubles more generally), and its under-coverage of the evidence that intelligence agencies were investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian officials and their hacking of Democrats. I still look forward to the Times doing an exhaustive investigation of the paper’s failings in covering Election 2016, the way it did of its faulty reporting in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Instead, it hired a climate-change skeptic. And Baquet insults his angry readers by suggesting that their own intellectual blinders led them to underestimate Trump’s chances last November—that somehow we brought on the Trump apocalypse by not trying to “understand different views.” That makes it seem that, instead of listening to liberal critics of its anti-Clinton election coverage, the paper’s leadership has been cowed by Trump himself, who likes to claim that the “failing” paper is going down because it missed the heartland populist revolt that led to Trump’s election.
Even as the Times boasts that Trump’s election increased its subscriber base, and advertises that it will challenge the “alternative facts” the administration promotes, it hires Stephens and insults its readers by suggesting they’re intellectually close-minded for objecting to the hiring of Stephens. So what’s next? Will the paper’s next op-ed pick be someone who questions whether the Civil War was necessary? If Barack Obama was really born in the United States? Whether we’re talking about the Civil War, climate change, or the merits of hiring a climate-change denier, pretending we don’t know what we really do know is dangerous.
And in the age of Trump, acting like you’re the only one brave enough to raise these questions is arrogant and offensive. In other words: It’s Trump-like.