As we head into my favorite and most problematic American holiday, Thanksgiving, I just want to say thanks to all of you. You keep our dream of revolutionizing media humming cheerfully into the future, and I know all my colleagues at Puck are thankful, too. This week, which is short enough to allow me a couple days in the kitchen to help cook a labor-intensive meal that will be eaten in 15 minutes—more on that in my weekly email, which you can subscribe to here—I wanted to answer some more reader questions. I love doing these, and I would strongly encourage you to send me more at firstname.lastname@example.org. My inbox is always open.
As the Times’ Ben Smith reported, two Fox News contributors recently quit over Tucker Carlson’s latest antics. What does Establishment D.C. think? Is this grandstanding or something more serious?
If you missed the story, Ben Smith dropped another bombshell on Sunday night, reporting that conservative commentators and avowed Never-Trumpers Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg quit their lucrative Fox contributor gigs over Tucker Carlson’s “exposé” of the attempted coup on January 6th as a false flag. (Which it very obviously wasn’t, just so we’re clear.) According to Ben, “Mr. Goldberg said that he and Mr. Hayes stayed on at Fox News as long as they did because of a sense from conversations at Fox that, after Mr. Trump’s defeat, the network would try to recover some of its independence and, as he put it, ‘right the ship.’”
This is what establishment D.C. has thought since before the 2020 election: that if and when Trump loses, sanity will be restored and things will go back to normal. This was and remains a delusional fantasy. There is no unseeing what Trump showed us about our country. And there is very little that will undo the damage he’s done, not by a Republican party that remains in his thrall, and not by toothless Democratic investigations that drag on for so long that voters forget to care.
The idea that things can and should go back to normal is, perhaps, the most defining—and most maddening—thing about the standpatter D.C. establishment, which loves normalcy and calm and decorum, and will try its darndest to see it in everything, even when it’s long gone. Remember a D.C. establishment fantasy named Teleprompter Trump? Or He’ll-Grow-Into-the-Presidency Trump? Or This-Is-the-Day-Trump-Became-President Trump? Or the dream, when those fantasies flamed out faster than a paper napkin in an industrial furnace, that there were Adults in the Room who could restrain Trump—or, better yet, push him into something we could all pretend was normal? The thing about this near-pathological craving for normalcy is that the people who aspire to it tend to vilify as hysterical—or “too pessimistic”—those of us who were leaning on the alarm from the start. In part, that’s because those people—often people of color—were on the margins of the establishment, on the outside looking in and pointing out its many flaws. They were the Adam Serwers to the Bob Costas.
The point is, if you thought normalcy was something that could be attained post-Trump, you weren’t paying attention. This quote from Goldberg in Ben’s piece really caught my attention: “Now, righting the ship is an academic question… [The Carlson January 6 special] meant: OK, we hit the iceberg now, and I can’t do the rationalizations anymore.” I mean, if you thought that was the moment Fox hit the iceberg, rather than when the G.O.P. accepted and embraced Trump as their presidential nominee in 2016, well, you likely wouldn’t have survived the actual Titanic’s impact with the actual iceberg. You’d be 30 feet under the icy water, unable to feel your extremities and, noticing that you were running out of oxygen, thinking, Wait, did we … hit an iceberg?
Some observers believe that Fox News is the way it is because its audience and Trump’s supporters, which are essentially one and the same, demand it. But that would be like saying that the Sackler family simply had to churn out more pain-killing pills because opioid addicts demanded it. As any marketing professional can tell you, demand can be created out of thin air. Which is, in part, what Fox News did. Before 2015, it fed the party’s nationalist fringe with a steady diet of dog whistles. If you recall, the network was not very enthusiastic about Trump’s candidacy. Yet when he became the party’s de facto nominee, Fox became his greatest champion, swapping out the dog whistles for vuvuzelas. Despite Rupert Murdoch’s occasional personal disdain for Trump, he turned the powerful news network into a 24-hour propaganda outlet for Trump, spinning and rationalizing his racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and authoritarian rhetoric and behavior, because, of course, a Republican president is better for his business. (The most recent episodes of Succession have done a fantastic job imagining what this might look like in the News Corp C-suite.) Even after Trump lost, Fox did not quit, amplifying his stolen election fantasies and normalizing what happened on January 6. It was only after Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic launched multi-billion dollar defamation lawsuits that Fox News instructed its anchors to tamp down their false claims of election rigging.
Murdoch, who turned over leadership of Fox News to his eldest son, Lachlan, in 2018, following a tumultuous family power struggle, continues to offer tepid rejoinders to Trump and Trumpism. Last week, during News Corp’s annual shareholder meeting, Rupert called on conservatives to look forward, not backward, saying “the past is the past.” But neither he nor Lachlan appear to have done anything to rein in Carlson, the network’s conspiracy-peddling star. Because he gets the most viewers and, hey, business is business. The channel has also pushed vaccine disinformation that has surely cost tens of thousands of lives, despite Murdoch being one of the first people in the world to get a vaccine and demanding proof of vaccination and nose swabs from guests at his 90th birthday party.
In Washington, people consider it an act of courage to finally stop taking six-figure checks (according to Ben Smith) after many years of cashing them. Personally, I fail to see the valor in it. Sometimes late is scarcely better than never. Sometimes late is so late that there’s hardly a moral difference between that and never. And yes, Hayes and Goldberg were Never Trumpers who thought they could use the Fox News platform to talk some sense into a party that had abandoned them. But they could have gone about it differently, if the republic were their priority, rather than their bottom line. They could have gone on the air for free, for example. I do. Not all television appearances are paid, after all. Instead, they happily pocketed their six-figure contracts for years, abandoning them only after the conservative publication they recently founded, The Dispatch, safely reached cruising altitude.
As for the anonymous grumbling Ben documents behind the scenes at Fox News, with hosts and commentators complaining up the chain about Tucker—spare me, please. We just had four years of this: Trump White House staffers who were so shocked, so appalled by their boss’s behavior that, in their righteous indignation, they told reporters, anonymously, that they—gasp—thought about maybe possibly resigning without actually doing so. To be fair, some of them did, though many did so in the last week of the Trump administration, after the man tried to overturn an election and obstruct the peaceful transfer of power.
Not everything is brave, and not everyone deserves credit for doing the right thing, especially if it’s done so belatedly as to be morally moot. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the Washington establishment and their cousins in New York are, largely, cowards. They love the bravery of others, especially that of foreign activists and journalists who put their lives on the line for principles America has advertised to the world as universal. But it is rarely a kind of bravery they practice in their own lives. Their lives are somehow more precious than those others. They require more expensive maintenance. In America, money is more important than bravery, and certainly more important than morality. In America, and especially in Washington and New York, money is morality. It’s the American way.
We had some related questions about the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border. One asked what “a President Ioffe would do” and the other wondered, “What is D.C. going to do about Russia and Ukraine? Will there really be a summit?”
First of all, I am deeply relieved to inform you that, having been born in the Soviet Union, I am disqualified from ever being president, a job I would never, ever, ever want. The introvert in me would never allow it, nor would my need for many, many hours of sleep. (The latter quality also puts me squarely on the outs in Washington, a city which is aggressively an early-morning-person city, and where people pride themselves on how little sleep they need. I’ve had people here tell me they need three-four hours, max, the fucking lunatics.)
If you think I’m avoiding the question, you’re absolutely right. That’s because it doesn’t have a very good answer. A quick recap: America and Europe have been freaking out over the colossal massing of Russian forces just over the Ukrainian border and in Crimea. According to some reports, Russia has gathered as many as 100,000 soldiers and has called up tens of thousands of reservists, an unprecedented move. The West is concerned that Russia could invade Ukraine simultaneously from multiple points and with air support, while some, like Secretary of State Antony Blinken are worried that Russia is setting up a high-pressure situation where any small misstep could give Russia an excuse to invade—which is essentially what happened in 2008 with Georgia.
Why is Putin doing this? Will he invade? If so, to what end? If not, then why the war games?
There are several hypotheses. Some Russian observers liken this to a similar, albeit slightly less menacing build-up in the spring of 2021, when Putin sent all those soldiers home as soon as Biden called him and scheduled a tête-à-tête in Geneva. There, Putin was received and treated like a Very Important Leader and Biden called him “a worthy adversary,” the ultimate compliment. This time, various Kremlinites are openly talking about how they expect that Putin and Biden will have a virtual summit by the end of the calendar year. Since that leaves only about a month and the White House is pretending to know nothing about such a summit, you can see why Putin is being rather insistent. Others, like Andrew Weiss and Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment, think that there’s something else going on. An aging Putin, focused as always on his historical legacy, sees Ukraine as his last bit of unfinished business, viewing the country as part of the Slavic heartland that he hasn’t succeeded in bringing back into the Russian fold. Weiss and Rumer think the likeliest scenario is that Putin will continue saber-rattling and doing everything he can to keep Ukraine from becoming “a Western aircraft carrier parked just across from Rostov” by keeping the pressure on and making Western support in Ukraine too expensive for both Kyiv and Washington.
I think both hypotheses are right, and that Putin is motivated by both things. My gut tells me Putin won’t invade, and if he does, it would only be to hack a land route to an essentially blockaded Crimea. There’s no way he could swallow Ukraine whole without unleashing a decades-long insurgency the likes of which Europe hasn’t seen in generations. But that’s just my gut. It’s just a collection of digestive organs and they’ve certainly been wrong before. I’d be remiss not to quote Weiss and Rumer’s extremely astute observation about Putin that you should always keep in mind when trying to rationalize the Russian president’s actions: “As cold and calculating as Putin may often appear, one aspect of his temperament should not be overlooked—a tendency to act emotionally and to lash out precipitously in ways that don’t always make ‘sense’ to outside observers.”
So in sum and yet again, the answer is: we don’t know. And that’s trademark Putin. Putin loves doing seemingly insane, unpredictable things—like sending “little green men” to Crimea or targeting his enemies with obscure poisons—because it makes him a force to be reckoned with. It’s all he’s ever wanted: for him, as the embodiment of the Russian state, to be a power that has to be consulted and appeased. No matter how engrossing your dinner party discussion, you will all have to pay attention to the dragon crashing through your windows and cavorting through the food. For a while, Putin lost that mantle to Trump, who managed to be even more terrifyingly unpredictable than Putin, who, to his credit, never brought the world to the precipice of nuclear war. Now, Putin is once again alone on the stage, making us think about him and attempt to rationalize his actions. Which is partly the point.
Whatever he decides to do, though, he now knows that there isn’t a whole lot the West can or wants to do about it, and the West knows that Putin doesn’t care much about sanctions. He has clearly decided that whatever economic cost sanctions inflict, it is worth the gain to his geopolitical standing—and his historical legacy.