With all the talk of how many jobs have been created during the Trump administration, little attention is paid to one vibrant industry his time in the White House has spawned: writing apocalyptic op-eds.
You know the ones: articles predicting whatever the news of the day will be The End of Democracy. Alongside The New York Times and The Washington Post, whose op-ed pages are pretty much a daily End of Days, practitioners include Chicken Little regulars Rachel Maddow, Lawrence Tribe, Malcolm Nance, David Corn, Benjamin Wittes, Charles Pierce, Bob Cesca, and Marcy Wheeler.
You’d have thought after almost three years of wrong predictions (no new wars, no economic collapse, no Russiagate) this industry would have slam shut faster than a Rust Belt union hall. You would have especially thought these kinds of articles would have tapered off with the release of the Mueller Report. It turned out to be the opposite—while Mueller found no conspiracy and charged no obstruction, the dang report turns out to be chock-a-block with hidden messages, secret road maps, and voices speaking in tongues (albeit only to Democrats) about obstruction.
We’ve gone from thinking the president is literally a Russian agent (since 1987, the last year your mom and dad dated!) to worrying the attorney general is trying to obstruct a House committee from investigating a completed investigation into obstruction by writing a summary not everyone liked of a report already released. But the actual content is irrelevant. What matters is there is another crisis to write about! The op-ed industry can’t keep up with all the Republic-ending stuff Trump and his henchworld are up to.
Help has arrived. Now anyone can write their own fear-mongering article, using this handy tool, the op-ed-o-Matic. The GoFundMe for the AI-driven app version will be up soon, but for now, simply follow these simple steps to punditry!
Start with a terrifying cliche. Here are some to choose from: There is a clear and present danger; Dark clouds gather, the center cannot hold; It is unclear the Republic will survive; Democracy itself is under attack; We face a profound/unique/existential threat/crisis/turning point/test. Also, that “First they came for…” poem is good. Be creative; The Washington Post calls the present state of things “constitutional nihilism.” Snappy!
Be philosophical and slightly weary in tone, such as “I am in despair as I have never been before about the future of our experiment in self-rule.” Say you’re sad for the state of the nation. Claim time is short, but there just may be a chance to stop this. Add “…by any means necessary.”
Then choose a follow-on quote to reinforce the danger, maybe from: The Federalist Papers, especially Madison on tyranny; Lincoln, pretty much anything about “the people, government, test for our great nation, blah blah;” the Jack Nicholson character about not being able to handle the truth; something from the neocons like Bill Kristol or Max Boot who now hate Trump. Start with “even” as in “even arch conservative Jennifer Rubin now says…”
After all that to get the blood up, explain the current bad thing Trump did. Label it “a high crime or misdemeanor if there ever was one.” Use some legalese, such as proffer, colorable argument, inter alia, sinecure, duly-authorized, perjurious, and that little law book squiggly thingy (18 USC § 1513.) Be sure to say “no one is above the law,” then a dramatic hyphen, then “even the president.” Law school is overrated; you and Google know as much as anyone about emoluments, perjury, campaign finance regulations, contempt, tax law, subpoenas, obstruction, or whatever the day’s thing is, and it changes a lot. But whatever, the bastard is obviously guilty. Your standard is tabloid-level, so just make it too good to be true.
Next, find an old Trump tweet where he criticized someone for doing just what he is doing. That never gets old! Reference burning the Reichstag. If the crisis you’re writing about deals with immigration or white supremacy (meh, basically the same thing, right?), refer to Kristallnacht.
Include every bad thing Trump ever did as examples of why whatever you’re talking about must be true. Swing for the fence with lines like “seeks to destroy decades of LGBTQIXYZ progress” or “built concentration camps to murder children.” Cite Trump accepting Putin’s word over the findings of “our” intelligence community, his “very fine people” support for Nazi cosplayers, the magic list of 10,000 lies, how Trump has blood on his hands for endangering the press as the enemy of the people, and how Trump caused the hurricane in Puerto Rico.
And Nixon. Always bring up Nixon. The context or details don’t matter. In case Wikipedia is down, he was one of the presidents before Trump your grandpa liked for awhile and then didn’t like after Robert Redford showed he was a clear and present danger to Saturday Night Live, or the Saturday Night Massacre, it doesn’t matter, we all agree Nixon.
Focus on the villain, who must be unhinged, off the rails, over the edge, diseased, out of control, a danger to himself and others, straight-up diagnosed mentally ill, or under Trump/Putin’s spell. Barr is currently the Vader-du-jour. The New York Times characterized him as “The transformation of William Barr from respected establishment lawyer to evil genius outplaying and undermining his old friend Robert Mueller is a Grand Guignol spectacle.” James Comey went as far as describing Trump people as having had their souls eaten by the president. That’s not hyperbole, it’s journalism!
But also hold out for a hero, the Neo one inside Trumpworld who will rise, flip, or leak to save us. Forget past nominees like the pee tape, Comey, Clapper, Flynn, Page, Papadopoulos, Manafort, Cohen, Mattis, Kelly, Barr, Linda Sarsour (replace with Ilhan Omar,) Avenatti, and Omarosa to focus on McGahn. He’s gonna be the one!
Then call for everyone else bad to resign, be impeached, go to jail, have their old statues torn down, delete their accounts, be referred to the SDNY, be smited by the 25th Amendment, or have their last election delegitimized by the Night King. Draw your rationale from either the most obscure corner of the Founding Founders’ work (“the rough draft, subsection IIXX of the Articles of Confederation addendum, Spanish language edition, makes clear Trump is unfit for office”) or go broad as in “his oath requires him to uphold the Constitution, which he clearly is not doing.” Like Nancy Pelosi, mention how Trump seems unlikely to voluntarily cede power if he loses in 2020.
Cultural references are important. Out of fashion: Godfather memes especially about who is going to be Fredo, ‘bots, weaponize, Pussy Hats, the Parkland Kids, Putin homophobe themes, incest “jokes” about Ivanka, the phrases the walls are closing in, tick tock, take to the streets, adult in the room, just wait for Mueller Time, and let that sink in.
Things you can still use: abyss, grifter, crime family, not who we are, follow the money. Also you may make breaking news out of Twitter typos. Stylistically anyone with a Russian-sounding name must be either an oligarch, friend of Putin, or have ties to the Kremlin. Same for anyone who has done business with Trump or used the ATM in the Deutsche Bank lobby in New York. Mention Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez somewhere because every article has to mention AOC somewhere now.
Finally, your op-ed should end either with this House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler faux Kennedy-esque quote, “The choice is simple: We can stand up to this president in defense of the country and the Constitution and the liberty we love, or we can let the moment pass us by. History will judge us for how we face this challenge” or, if you want to go old school, this one from Hillary Clinton saying, “I really believe that we are in a crisis, a constitutional crisis. We are in a crisis of confidence and a crisis over the rule of law and the institutions that have weathered a lot of problems over so many years. And it is something that, regardless of where you stand in the political spectrum, should give real heartburn to everybody. Because this is a test for our country.”
Crisis. Test. Judgment of history. Readers love that stuff, because it equates Trump’s dumb tweets with Lincoln pulling the Union together after a literal civil war that killed millions of Americans in brother-to-brother conflict. As long as the rubes believe the world is coming to an end, you might as well make a buck writing about it.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99%.