What I got wrong in 2019

Damon Linker

Most days, I love working as a columnist. It's enormously stimulating to try and make sense of the world. But it's also hard.

It's hard these days because the news cycle never ends. It's hard because social media, and especially Twitter, has the effect of heightening conflict and intensifying political passions through constant bombardment by provocations — and because our president practices a tweet-based politics that keeps everyone on constant edge, which helps to pull his opponents down to his fractious level. Rendering judgment in a state of emotional agitation is easy. Rendering wise judgments in such a state is exceedingly difficult.

That's where the mistakes come in.

Every year in the days just before the end of December, I devote a column to reflecting on what I got wrong over the previous 12 months. This year, there are fewer individual columns to highlight for singular wrongness and more broad patterns across several columns that haven't aged especially well. Looking back over my writing in 2019, I see a lot of uncertainty superficially concealed by the rhetorical confidence that's expected from an opinion journalist. I try on a position for a while, see how well it fits the unfolding narrative in the news, and then shift to another when it ultimately fails to explain later twists and turns in the story.

Not that this describes all or even most of what I've written this year. The columns that have aged best are those taking on broader, bigger topics, often with a cultural focus — like my reflections on the return of honor politics and the oddly repetitious character of the Trump era. I stand behind my takedown of The New York Times Magazine's decision to turn itself into a vehicle for spreading left-wing agitprop on race, along with my examination of the how some liberals have adopted astonishingly radical views on gender in the past five years. I also remain proud of my four-part manifesto for a new (more populist) political center. That was published in March, several months before Boris Johnson ran for election in the U.K., and won, on a platform very much like what I advocated in the column.

When it comes to critical engagement with the right, I think there's enduring value in what I wrote about the National Conservatism Conference in July, and in my analysis of how some conservative intellectuals are talking themselves into tearing down American democracy (by embracing counter-majoritarian forms of rule).

I have been less sure-footed in my assessment of Joe Biden's presidential campaign. First, I predicted it would be an “endless gaffe-riddled apology tour” and pronounced that he was getting “demolished” in the Democratic debates. Later I came to think that his pedestrian way of communicating, while incredibly off-putting to me and my colleagues in the press, might actually endear him to less verbally fastidious Americans, rendering him “impervious to gaffes.”

Then there was President Trump's obsession with getting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate (or at least announce an investigation into) Biden and his son Hunter for the latter's lucrative sinecure at a Ukrainean energy conglomerate during the later years of the Obama administration. At first I thought this would harm Biden's prospects, whether or not any wrongdoing was ever revealed, simply by implicating the former vice president in the low-level (self-dealing) corruption that's pervasive among members of the American political establishment. That was in early October. Before long, I saw that endless focus on Ukraine was having no effect on Biden's standing in the polls. By the end of the year, I had surrendered to the reality that Biden was the clear and (aside for a couple of days in early October, when Elizabeth Warren fleetingly inched into the lead) enduring frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination.

I've done somewhat better in my attempts to analyze the Democratic field, and the party, as a whole. One enduring theme this year has been that Democrats are deeply divided along multiple dimensions — ideology, region, race, age. My strongest treatment of this theme appeared in November, in a column devoted to the question of whether the party's ideological spread, ranging from Bernie to Bloomberg, was too wide for its own good.

But at other times, I flirted with an alternative (and less persuasive) interpretation — one that has dominated several of the Democratic presidential campaigns. In this view, the party as a whole had shifted to the left, requiring the winning candidate to run as a quasi-socialist. I pushed this line furthest in a column from February about how I was supposedly “feeling the Bern.” That worked well for a grabby headline, but it wasn't true to my convictions. (Sanders is simply too far left to receive my vote.) If there's any 2019 column I'd like to take back, or at least drastically rewrite, this was it.

I also got some things wrong on the right side of the aisle. From the start of the Trump administration, I've considered impeachment ill-advised and bound to fail. But I was so appalled by the corruption on display in Trump's dealings with Zelensky that I decided the Democrats had no choice but to attempt to remove the president from office. I spent a few weeks gaming out how Republicans (especially in the Senate) might be persuaded to turn on Trump. Finally, I came to see that this wasn't going to happen, in part because of the Republican embrace of “gonzo politics.” I urged Democrats to pursue censuring the president instead.

Only in recent weeks have I been forced to acknowledge that the disappointing outcome of the impeachment push isn't entirely the fault of Republicans. Politics in the Trump era is driven to a great extent by the collapse of trust in establishment institutions. The Trump presidency is both a function and a catalyst for the acceleration of this collapse — but so is the behavior of his most furious establishment opponents, who have done an awful lot to undermine public faith in their competence and the sincerity of their professions of high-mindedness. That was the point of a recent column giving my final word on the prospects for impeachment. I expect to remain proud of that one for some time to come. But it also forces me to reevaluate an earlier column, from May 2018, in which I expressed too much confidence in establishment institutions and actors, and reacted too harshly toward those who subjected them to greater critical scrutiny.

If it sounds like I'm saying I've been insufficiently cynical, that's because I am. Sometimes cynicism is warranted, and this is one of those times. The depressing reality is that those who refused to give into a narrative of higher motives saw further in 2019 than those who naively placed their hopes in would-be heroes and saviors. I'll do my best to keep myself from being hoodwinked again.

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