The Divorce Heard Around Washington

Joe Biden
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
September 17, 2021

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he had a clarifying effect on the body politic. During his ascent and years in the White House, the country was cleaved neatly into two opposing teams. For once, things became clear and stark, like in a war. Nuance and subtlety became unaffordable luxuries. Politics became a packaged deal, and you had to pick one of the two on offer. And so, if you opposed Trump, you loved journalists. And in part because Trump and his supporters constantly attacked them, liberals valorized them, thanked them for their service, and turned them into mini-celebrities. 

Trump also forced the #resistance into a strange embrace of national security experts, diplomats, and even the intelligence community—the very people liberals had grown wary of after George W. Bush’s ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, his wire-tapping and torture programs, and Barack Obama’s continued use of drone strikes. Trump attacked them as the “deep state,” and the #resistance sprung to their defense, perceiving this as an assault on the country’s institutions. 

But, as some predicted, this alliance was only temporary. As the Biden administration confronted withering coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, many liberals and progressives reflected the White House’s deep exasperation with the media. “The frustration is palpable,” an administration official told me at the time. Some White House reporters have complained to me that “Democrats de facto expect you to be on their side and are horrified when you hold them to account as you would any other administration.” But this was the first big split after the Trump years had thrown everyone into the same trench. Perhaps feeling the need to defend a seemingly precarious Democratic administration, commentators on the left slammed anyone who criticized the pullout from Afghanistan as hawks, warmongers, and establishment lovers of “forever wars”—even the critics who supported the withdrawal but thought it could have been better managed.