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The Wall Street Journal Epitomizes the Failure of Elite Conservatism

Once the paper of record for conservative opinion-makers, the Journal’s editorial page has betrayed its readers.
January 4, 2021
The Wall Street Journal Epitomizes the Failure of Elite Conservatism
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Wall Street Journal editorial page is probably the most influential elite conservative outlet in the country. Fox News, talk radio, and the rest may hold more sway with the grass roots, but the Journal has always been the gold standard for educated opinion shapers. Millions of busy people who may not follow politics closely rely on the Journal to provide a sober voice of informed conservatism to balance or rebut the editorial page of the New York Times.

In the Trump era, the Journal’s editorial board has betrayed its readers. It has trimmed and hemmed and to-be-sured its way through the most sustained assault on truth and the American political order of our lifetime. Every now and then—usually on textbook economic matters like tariffs—the board has issued stern rebukes of the president’s policies. But rarely. For the most part, it has retreated into anti-anti-Trumpism, averting its gaze from the president and focusing disproportionately on his opponents. Some columnists have become outright cheerleaders for the Russia hoax narrative.

Their January 3 editorial is a classic of the genre. They began with both sidesism:

As Americans like to tell the world, a hallmark of democracy is the willingness to accept defeat and the peaceful transfer of power. The tragedy of the last two presidential elections has been the refusal of partisans to accept defeat, and public trust in American self-government is eroding as a result.

No. The Democrats did not decline to accept defeat in 2016. Hillary Clinton conceded, albeit with insinuations that the Russians had helped Trump. But grumbling about your loss is a far cry from contesting it. A few Democrats lodged complaints about the vote in January 2017 when the Electoral College results were read out. See this video for the way the then-president of the Senate and sitting vice-president handled those matters.

Today, the Journal concedes, “too many Republicans refuse to accept Mr. Trump’s defeat.” They note that the Senators who have agreed to contest the Electoral College count this week cite no evidence of fraud, “Instead they cite ‘allegations of fraud and irregularities’ that feed ‘deep distrust’ of the results—distrust they and the President are feeding.” So far, so good. But then, in a typical misfire, the editors caution that “this is a . . . lousy political strategy for returning to power.” Ah. So that’s the main issue then? It gets worse:

The GOP electoral focus now should be on minimizing the damage of the Biden-Nancy Pelosi agenda, and that includes making the case for reforms to restore trust in elections. This is mainly a state duty, but the national party can do better at exploiting the rules as they exist. That includes more consistent rules for securing the integrity of mail-in ballots, and a better litigation strategy before elections to block Democratic attempts to change rules at the last minute.

Thus, the Journal’s editorial page gives its imprimatur to the lies that are the basis for the current crisis—a crisis they do not recognize.

Those Republicans—the ones whose electoral fate the Journal is so tender about—are joining a putsch attempt. They are helping an unhinged president to spread dangerous lies about the election and lending their weight to an effort to overcome the will of the voters. And the Wall Street Journal thinks this is the time to talk about the danger of the Democrats “changing rules at the last minute?” They cannot see—or refuse to see—what is in front of their faces. The president of the United States is attempting to subvert the democratic process. He is calling on his followers to swarm Washington, D.C., on January 6. For what conceivable purpose?

Last week, dismissing concerns about this scenario, the Journal noted equably that “Mr. Pence is too much of a patriot to go along.” That held up well. The editorial concluded this way:

But the scramble to overturn the will of the voters tarnishes Mr. Trump’s legacy and undermines any designs he has on running in 2024. Republicans who humor him will be giving Democrats license to do the same in the future, and then it might matter.

No, it matters now. Never more than now. It isn’t about the precedent that this might set for some imagined Democratic abuse of the future. The abuse is here. The abuse of power is now. This is a constitutional crisis because one party has decided that it cares more for power than for the American system. Giving one iota of support for Trump’s unconstitutional coup attempt is discrediting for every politician and commentator who fails to call it out loudly and unequivocally. A decent few, like Sens. Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney have done so. Find your voice, or don’t insult us by calling yourself a patriot.

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].