The Federalist Embraces Anti-Anti Trumpism, Loses Its Way
A home for smart young conservative thinking gets too clever, and contrary, for its own good.
In the summer of 2016, The Federalist’s publisher Ben Domenech delivered one of the most insightful warnings to Republicans about Donald Trump. Under the headline Are Republicans For Freedom or White Identity Politics, Domenech observed that “A classically liberal right is actually fairly uncommon in western democracies,” and he cautioned that Trump’s politics risked turning America into Europe.
It was one of the many thought-provoking pieces produced by the outlet prior to Trump’s election.
Launched in September of 2013, The Federalist was introduced as “a web magazine focused on culture, politics, and religion.” But in recent months, the site is increasingly drawing criticism for concern trolling, hot takes in the vein of a mirror-image Salon.com — exhibit A: Trump’s Aide Is Right: Media Do Need To Shut Up And Listen —and, most troubling to conservative fans, adopting an anti-anti-Trumpism stance.
Anti-anti-Trumpism has been defined by The Week’s Damon Linker as arguing that “the president’s liberal opponents are somehow worse than this phenomenally bad president.” Anti-anti-Trumpism’s “home base on the right is The Federalist—and especially the Twitter accounts of several of its leading writers and editors, above all Mollie Hemingway and Sean Davis,” Linker observed.
Case in point, compare Domenech’s 2016 warning about Trump with this tweet sent on June 9, 2017, by senior contributor at The Federalist and newly minted Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway: “Trump's crime was winning an election. A lot of drama due to some people's refusal to accept this fact.”
(Hemingway and Domenech both said they were traveling, and thus unavailable to comment on criticisms of the site’s evolution.)
Just as Donald Trump’s unedited tweets of 140 characters do as much to shape public perception about his policies as his prepared remarks, tweets sent by the most prominent writers at The Federalist have taken on outsized importance. Now, one could certainly argue that work product (published articles) are more important than tweets or TV hits—but in terms of perception, it’s the whole gestalt that matters.
One could also argue that the opinions of a handful of a site’s most prominent writers should not reflect the entire oeuvre of a media outlet. But, again, perception is reality.
There’s no doubt that “Trump Derangement Syndrome” exists and that some liberals and media figures have overreacted to some of his actions and rhetoric. As conservative writer and talk radio host Erick Erickson told me, “I do think it is worth covering the ongoing hysteria over the president daring to just breathe, which they [The Federalist] do. But they also run pieces critical of the president.”
Fair enough, but Hemingway’s aforementioned tweet is one of many that seem to imply that Trump has done nothing at all to warrant legitimate concern—that he’s an innocent bystander in all of this.
It’s one thing to point out the left’s hypocrisy and the media’s hyperventilation; it’s another thing to cast Trump as a victim.
"The transformation of the Federalist has been pretty dramatic," says Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio host who is writing a book about How the Right Lost Its Mind. “They have become a classic example of how some conservative media have morphed to accommodate Trumpism.”
There are organic and benign explanations about how an evolution like this takes place, along with less noble theories being bandied about. “The anti-anti-Trump position is a safe one,” says Mediaite columnist and conservative talk show host John Ziegler, “because you're giving the Trump cult what they want while you're also trying to pretend you're standing on some sort of principle.”
“The shift is unmistakable, but is it designed to appease funders or advertisers, or simply the organic outcome of changing times and writers' evolving positions,” asked writer and Rochester, N.Y. radio host Evan Dawson. “When you see smart people who you've respected for a long time going down a strange road, it's easy to allow yourself to ascribe nefarious motives… is it about money? Is it something we're not seeing? But I don't necessarily want to fall victim to that. I just don't understand it, and it's disappointing.”
At least one writer at The Federalist is concerned about the site’s general direction. Tom Nichols, a senior contributor at The Federalist, professor at the Naval War College, and author of The Death of Expertise, told me “I think some of it goes too far. I don't like the drumbeat of terms like ‘fake news,’ and I particularly didn't like the attacks on Comey, which really do come across, at least to me, as looking like just so much water-carrying for Trump.”
“But here's the thing,” Nichols says, “if I wanted to write a long piece in opposition to those articles, and take on my fellow writers, I can. That's important to me.”
Nichols doesn’t feel like Big Brother is watching him, but he does admit to feeling somewhat isolated. “While I have never felt pressured or censored at The Federalist,” Nichols continued, “the most I can say now is that on some days, I feel a bit outnumbered, but that's probably an accurate reflection of the composition of the conservative movement right about now, where the Never Trumpers are a stubborn minority.”
Aside from attacks on James Comey (and other Trump adversaries), the site has also ratcheted up criticism of liberal media bias. When I searched for "The Federalist" right after the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise and four others in Alexandria, Va., Google identified these as the top stories: “NYT Blames GOP When Both Democrats And Republicans Are Shot,” “CNN Botches Basic Gun Fact: Then Refuses To Correct Error,” and “If Liberals Were Fair, They'd Blame Themselves For Alexandria.”
The Federalist isn’t monolithic, and there are still articles about topics like “localism,” hot takes about women’ leggings, and essays on, say, G.K. Chesterton, but the website’s anti-anti-Trump emphasis (the things that get buzz) concerned almost everyone I spoke to.
Since March, a satirical Twitter feed named “Federalist Pitchbot” has been poking fun at the site’s hot-takes. Recent tweets include, "If Mueller is fair and imbalanced, why does he keep provoking Donald Trump to lash out at him?”, “To celebrate Father’s Day: seven ways to reassert male authority in the home,” and “Before you fret about the Trump ‘obstruction of justice’ nothing burger, check out this inside scoop on James Comey’s library fines.”
On one hand, this is a compliment; unimportant outlets don’t get mocked. On the other hand, fake satire only works when there is an element of truth to parody.
The larger point here is that the Trump presidency is dangerous for conservatives, in part because it confuses things. It’s hard to justify your existence as a balance to the liberal media if you are spending most of your time criticizing a Republican president. If you’re not keen on defending the indefensible (which would be most of Trump's rhetoric), you end up making a lot of tu quoque arguments that become hackneyed and predictable.
The Federalist, of course, is not uniquely guilty of this. "I think this is a virus that has affected at least 80 percent of the conservative media," says John Ziegler. The problem is that they set the bar pretty high: The site was supposed to be different from other more click-baity center-right sites. This expectation might not be fair, but the worry is that carrying water for Trump might undermine the other smart and important work these writers do to advance the conservative cause.
Donald Trump has already compromised respected Republican operatives (Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer) and questioned the actions of men with reputations that had seemed beyond reproach (Rod Rosenstein, H.R. McMaster, et. al).
Conservative writers should not be anxious to join this list.
It’s one thing to make a sacrifice for a noble cause, but it would be a shame if some of our smartest conservative opinion leaders ended up as collateral damage in Trump’s personal war for political survival.