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?)