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Jonah Goldberg’s Narcissism of Small Differences

In a world of trouble, why snipe at allies?
October 13, 2021
Jonah Goldberg’s Narcissism of Small Differences
(Illustrated by The Bulwark, Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Back in 2016, when formerly distinguished conservatives were suddenly lining up to issue glassy-eyed endorsements of a half-mad reality-TV figure, Jonah Goldberg wrote a brilliant column comparing the experience to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He captured the sense so many of us had that nearly an entire party and, eventually, nearly an entire intellectual movement, had been lobotomized.“People would go to sleep violently opposed to Trump and everything he represented,” he recapped for Vanity Fair, “but by morning they’d start telling me how under comrade Trump, we were going to have the greatest harvest we’ve ever seen.” If Goldberg does nothing else in his career, I will always cherish him for his indomitability when others, with less to lose, crumpled.

So it’s disappointing to see him falling for the narcissism of small differences. As Sigmund Freud wrote, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.”

Celebrating the two-year anniversary of the Dispatch, Goldberg, apparently feeling the need to do some product differentiation, tossed off a gratuitous swipe at The Bulwark. Both publications are redoubts of Trumpism-defying conservatives, and thus, you might think, allies? Compadres? Friends? I was a charter subscriber to The Dispatch. As Ronald Reagan is purported to have said, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally—not a 20 percent traitor.” Or, as National Review editor William F. Buckley responded in 1995 when Bill Kristol founded the somewhat-competing conservative journal, The Weekly Standard, “Come on in, the water’s fine!”

Goldberg isn’t conveying that spirit. Regarding The Bulwark, he said, “If you wake up every morning trying to argue about why Trump is bad and the people who like Trump are evil, you’re just as obsessed with him as the people who wake up every morning wanting to prove that Trump is a glorious statesman and everything he does is great.” Never Trump and pro-Trump publications, he continued, are “two sides of the same Trump-obsessed coin.”

Well. That’s awfully close to accusing The Bulwark of Trump Derangement Syndrome—an accusation that has often been lobbed at Goldberg by people who regard any criticism of El Jefe as treason. And completely untrue to boot: The same week Goldberg accused The Bulwark of Trump obsession, the website published pieces about Chris Christie, long-term trends in the American military, Ron DeSantis, vaccine objectors, Gavin Newsom, Vladimir Putin, Norm Macdonald, the Taliban, Biden, gender balances in education, and election reform, just to offer a small sample.

Nor does Goldberg deny the centrality of the Trump phenomenon in other contexts. In a recent column, he endorsed the concept of a third party, a Reaganite one, even if the only consequence would be to divide the conservative vote and hand victory to Democrats.

Recently, responding to a piece by Jonathan Chait, Goldberg again aimed a pot shot at The Bulwark, writing:

Let’s say I believe that Trump and his followers, apologists, and enablers are an ongoing threat to democracy. Does that mean I have to support Joe Biden?

That’s the question of the moment for a bunch of people on the left and the right. It seems to be the view of my friend Bill Kristol and many in his circle.

Much depends upon what “support” means. Goldberg implies that Kristol’s “circle” (aka The Bulwark), demands uncritical cheerleading for Biden. And Goldberg refuses to compromise his integrity, he says, to get on any partisan’s squad. He believes that Biden should have governed as he ran, in the center. He thinks the country would be better off if that had happened, and the threat of Trump’s return would have been diminished. And so, he adds with a flourish, “I want no part of any popular fronts.”

Here we have descended several fathoms deep into the narcissism of small differences. It’s hard to see what Goldberg is talking about. Throughout the past several months, The Bulwark has published dozens of pieces arguing that Biden should move to the center. Far from being a Biden cheering section, The Bulwark has published pieces urging that the Democrats thank Senators Manchin and Sinema for saving them from themselves; that Democrats take the more modest infrastructure bill as a win; and that they make efforts to broaden their appeal to estranged Republicans. Charlie Sykes has pleaded almost daily on The Bulwark Podcast for the Democrats to reject the maximalist demands of the progressive wing of the party, comparing it with the Republican Freedom Caucus.

Goldberg proclaims that he rejects the binary being foisted upon him by Chait and The Bulwark. He dismisses the argument that he, as a commentator, is constructively for Trump if he’s against Biden.

If you listen to Chait, as well as some of my friends on the Never Trumpier parts of the right, none of this matters, because we need to form a popular front against Trump and Trumpism. I think that’s wrong not because I don’t want to see Trump and Trumpism banished from public life (I certainly do) but because I think it’s my job to tell the truth as I see it. I could comfort myself and rationalize my position by noting my fervent belief that if Biden had governed the way I said he should, staking himself in the real center and picking fights with his left flank, the country—and Biden himself—would be better off and Trump would be more marginalized. But I think I should still tell the truth as I see it, even if that didn’t happen . . .

There is, as far as I can tell, no organized movement to persuade Goldberg not to tell the truth as he sees it. Everyone of basic integrity values truth. That’s not the question.

Perhaps it comes down to a matter of emphasis. Kristol has said that in light of the Republican party’s lunatic spiral he’s hoping for Biden’s success (while also advising that Biden, you guessed it, tack to the center). I have written that in the Virginia governor’s race, I’m voting Democratic because the Republican is signaling his endorsement of the fiction that our elections are not legitimate. Sometimes you must lean toward one over another, even when it makes you uncomfortable. To attempt to move Democrats toward policies that are centrist and popular and will result in success for the only sane party left at this moment is not to endorse the agenda of Bernie Sanders. Quite the opposite. And it is not a surrender to partisanship.

Also, it is sometimes the case that when you insist you’re not constructively helping one side at the expense of the other, you actually are. As Goldberg himself wrote in 2016:

Among the commentariat, the first signs of creeping Trumpodism take the form of anti-anti-Trumpism. The argument usually starts off by grudgingly and bloodlessly conceding that Trump is imperfect—who isn’t? Wink wink. Then comes the extended and passionate diatribe about how the real nuts are the ones who are making a big fuss about how awful he is . . .

Politically, anti-anti-Trumpism, as Orwell could have told you, amounts to being objectively pro-Trump, even if it doesn’t sound like it.

All of us must grapple with the threat the Republican party now presents to the country. The Dispatch has insisted passionately that they want to transcend Trump and Trumpism. Don’t we all? But even with Trump in gilded exile, the Republican party continues to spin out of orbit. A glance at the senatorial contest in Ohio is as good a gauge as any that the party is demanding extremism and crackpottery (neither J.D. Vance nor Josh Mandel is an actual kook, both are simply adapting to suit consumer demand). And there is zero chance that any candidate can withhold the Republican presidential nomination from Trump should he run in 2024, which makes him the de facto leader of the GOP today. So, as Goldberg has himself acknowledged, it’s fantasy to suppose that “the real nuts are the ones who are making a big fuss about how awful he is.”

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].