The publication of a New York Times Op-Ed by an anonymous Administration official is part of a wider corruption of the media that is one of the most insidious effects of the Trump era.
Photograph by Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty
Let’s get the obvious points out of the way first: the anonymous Op-Edpublished by the Times on Wednesday was a ploy by someone who wants to distance himself from what he perceives to be an imperilled Administration, while capitalizing on whatever credibility and popularity the Presidency still retains.
The article added little to the public’s understanding of the Administration—an understanding that has already been shaped by seemingly endless leaks and rumors from within the White House.
Only the day before the Op-Ed was published, excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” added to the ever-accumulating picture of chaos, mendacity, fear, embattlement, and contempt for the President even within his senior staff.
But, while the content of the anonymous Op-Ed is not newsworthy, in the sense of providing new information, the fact of its publication certainly is.
The article asserts that the country is, to some extent, governed not by the President but by a group of people who have taken it upon themselves to moderate, modify, and even block the President’s actions, or, as the anonymous author puts it, his “worst inclinations.” ‘
We suspected as much—Woodward, for one, described how the former Treasury Secretary Gary Cohn swiped documents from Trump’s desk, lest he act on them precipitously.
But having this state of affairs described in print further establishes that an unelected body, or bodies, are overruling and actively undermining the elected leader.
While this may be the country’s salvation in the short run, it also plainly signals the demise of some of its most cherished ideals and constitutional norms.
An anonymous person or persons cannot govern for the people, because the people do not know who is governing.
The Times, however, does know who the person is, which also changes the position the newspaper occupies in this democracy.
The Op-Ed section is separate from the news operation, but, in protecting the identity of the person who wrote the Op-Ed, the paper forfeits the job of holding power to account.
An anonymous Op-Ed is a very rare thing. The editors at the Times faced a tough choice.
They evidently concluded that the information contained in the piece was important enough to justify sidestepping normal journalistic practices and principles.
I don’t doubt the editors’ serious intentions, though I happen to disagree—the content of the Op-Ed does not strike me as newsworthy.
But that’s not the point.
The thing about autocracies, or budding autocracies, is that they present citizens with only bad choices.
At a certain point, one has to stop trying to find the right solution and has to look, instead, for a course of action that avoids complicity.
By publishing the anonymous Op-Ed, the Times became complicit in its own corruption.
The way in which the news media are being corrupted—even an outlet like the Times, which continues to publish remarkable investigative work throughout this era—is one of the most insidious, pronounced, and likely long-lasting effects of the Trump Administration.
The media are being corrupted every time they engage with a nonsensical, false, or hateful Trump tweet (although not engaging with these tweets is not an option).
They are being corrupted every time journalists act polite while the President, his press secretary, or other Administration officials lie to them.
They are being corrupted every time a Trumpian lie is referred to as a “falsehood,” a “factually incorrect statement,” or as anything other than a lie.
They are being corrupted every time journalists allow the Administration to frame an issue, like when they engage in a discussion about whether the separation of children from their parents at the border is an effective deterrent against illegal immigration.
They are being corrupted every time they use the phrase “illegal immigration.”
The anonymous Op-Ed was a corrupting event not only because the Times allowed itself to become the keeper of a secret that shouldn’t be kept but also because it was a remarkable example of the Trumpian corruption of political language.
It began with the headline: “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”
The anonymous author actually distances himself from what he calls “the popular ‘resistance’ of the left.”
But headlines are usually written by editors, and this one misapplies a term that has been adopted by activists who oppose the Administration itself, not just its erratic chief.
After the headline, the author proceeds to abuse language all on his own.
He refers to the “unsung heroes” of the Administration, the people who, he writes, work to insulate their departments from the President’s whims, tantrums, and, it seems, eyes—insuring that actual policy is sometimes the very opposite of what is described in Trump’s public rhetoric.
The problem here is with the term “unsung heroes,” which usually refers to people who are hidden from the public eye, not to public persons who intentionally conceal the substance of their actions.
A lack of transparency in government is a constitutional crisis in the making, not an unrecognized feat of heroism.
Also, one must note that the author of the Op-Ed is very much singing his own praises, albeit anonymously.
(For now, anyway. His, or her, identity will almost inevitably be revealed.)
A few paragraphs down, the author makes a clear and striking statement: “The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us. We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility.”
This is unarguably true, but, as it appears in this Op-Ed, it is also a lie.
There is a meaningful distinction between those who have actually resisted, or at least not aided, this Administration and those who work for it.
I would even argue that, by claiming, anonymously, to have usurped some of the power of the Presidency, the author has separated himself from the people, rendering the phrase “we as a nation” doubly false.
Yes, it’s complicated. We are, as a nation, grateful that James Mattis actively muffles Trump’s outbursts, but we should also be aware that he is laying the groundwork for defense secretaries to act against the wishes and possibly even the orders of future Presidents.
This is part of the degradation that the author describes in this passage, while failing to acknowledge that he has been an active perpetrator of that degradation, not a passive victim.
In the last paragraph, the author uses a sleight of hand that has become so common that it is barely noticeable.
He conjures “everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans.”
This familiar sentiment seems utterly unrelated to the rest of the piece, but it is serving a purpose here.
The author is claiming common ground with people “across the aisle”—perhaps the people behind the very resistance that he put in condescending scare quotes earlier in the piece. He is also inveighing against politics.
In doing this, he is lying twice. A person who works for probably the most aggressively partisan Administration in American history has no business asking anyone to reach across the aisle, and his implied claim of common cause with bipartisanship is a lie.
His other lie is juxtaposing “common ground” and politics.
Politics is not the opposite of common ground; politics is the very process of finding common ground and making it inhabitable.
Trump has been waging war on politics itself for more than two years.
The anonymous member of his Administration who is bragging about his membership in a secret government has just opened a second front in this war.
By Masha Gessen