Ross Douthat: The twilight of the anti-Trump idols

The problem of media failure in the Trump era does not begin and end with the conservative bubble.

(Damon Winter | The New York Times) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers the State of the State address in Albany, N.Y., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. "From Andrew Cuomo’s scandals to the European vaccine disaster, after Trump the failures of his foils have been laid bare," writes New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat.

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency and especially in the COVID era, there was a quest for figures that could be held up as embodiments of everything that Trump’s opposition wanted to restore: reason, technical competence, idealism. Over time these figures took on the character of familiar dramatic archetypes — the Good Republican, the Heroic Whistleblower, the Beleaguered Expert, the Tough Blue State Governor, the Wise and Sophisticated Europeans.

The first month of the Biden era has been a hard time for these characters. A few have come through more burnished than before; if Mitt Romney was a Good Republican before, now he’s pretty much the Best. But elsewhere we’re seeing archetypes of anti-Trumpism exposed as idols — not just fallible but failing, not just imperfect but corrupt.

You may have noticed, for instance, the long-overdue collapse of the heroic story around Andrew Cuomo, the Tough Blue State Governor par excellence, whose pandemic news conferences inspired such fawning media coverage — from late-night hosts who declared themselves admiring “cuomosexuals,” from his own CNN-host brother — that the governor wrote a book about “leadership lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic” while the pandemic was still going on.

For the sake of the heroic story, the fact that Cuomo and Bill de Blasio jointly botched New York’s initial response to the coronavirus was airbrushed out of the televised hagiography. The fact that the governor shipped potentially contagious patients back to nursing homes was reported on but didn’t dent Cuomo’s reputation, becoming a cause célèbre mostly in the right-wing press. And the bullying, berating side of Cuomo that’s suddenly front-and-center in stories about his alleged cover-up of nursing home death numbers — well, that was portrayed as the seriousness a reeling country needed.

Only now is the more complete Cuomo story taking hold. Meanwhile, a similar deglamorization has arrived for the Good Republicans at the Lincoln Project, the collection of Republican strategists dedicated to using their skills to bring down Trump. They started with a sermon about saving the Republic, lapped up Resistance lucre for their ad campaigns, and now — well, it now turns out they had an accused sexual harasser among their founders, a toxic workplace culture and a mission that sought “generational wealth” for its leaders as assiduously as it sought Trump’s defeat.

Finally, the wheel has also turned for the Wise and Sophisticated Europeans, whose governments were once portrayed as having vanquished the pandemic with science, while Trump’s America was a failed state where the coronavirus held illimitable dominion over all.

That trans-Atlantic contrast diminished when Europe experienced its own autumnal wave, but now, in the race to vaccinate, the whole narrative has been reversed. America’s vaccine program looks far better than Europe’s catastrophic nonrollout, and the only major European country doing really well is Britain, which rather famously Brexited out of the Continent’s technocratic utopia not so long ago.

This twilight for the anti-Trump idols should be a teachable moment in two ways. First, it’s a reminder that the problem of media failure in the Trump era does not begin and end with the conservative bubble. As my colleague Frank Bruni wrote last month, Trump’s outsize awfulness often worked as a “concealer” over sins and follies not his own. But there should have been more scrutiny for what lay underneath: The issues with Cuomo were always apparent, the issues with the Lincoln Project somewhat so, and the fact that America and Europe were never so very far apart in their COVID response was discernible as well. Yet anti-Trumpism frequently produced narrative conformity in media outlets that congratulated themselves on not being like those sycophants at Fox.

I wrote last week, at Rush Limbaugh’s passing, about how the success of the conservative media has often been bad news for conservatism. One can also say, though, that the conservative media’s retreat into a dream palace has made portions of the mainstream-cum-liberal media stupider — slow to scrutinize their own narratives, question their own icons or acknowledge the importance of stories that might vindicate the right.

But the other thing to recognize here is that the press was not wrong to desire heroic leaders or institutions that Got the Pandemic Right. The attempt to wish those leaders and institutions into being is a media failure, but the fact that the media looked for them is not.

In the failure to find them and in the substitution of figures who ended up exposed as corrupt or just incompetent, we can see once again the importance of thinking about how we got Trump in the first place.

Our society’s sickness may be particularly acute in Trump worship, but the affliction is more general. The stink of failure hangs over the liberal and cosmopolitan as well as the populist and provincial, the “cuomosexual” parts of the media as well as the conservative. And as we hopefully approach the end of this particular emergency, it’s not only Trump’s enablers but a much wider range of leaders and authorities who should feel shame at the stark and shocking number of the dead.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.