Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Destruction Of Authority

Trump, public health experts, and the media -- all have been hemorrhaging authority this past week
Protesters Demonstrate In D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis

Whatever you think of Gen. Mattis’s rebuke of President Trump, the importance of a highly respected retired Marine Corps general and former Secretary of Defense calling out the Commander in Chief cannot be overstated. Note this part:

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.

We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict— between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part.

He’s talking about Trump having deployed elements of the 82nd Airborne to Washington. If President Trump orders in more troops to restore order — as US Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) calls for — we could easily be looking at a genuine Constitutional crisis. Cotton says that the US president has authority under the Insurrection Act to do this, and cites times in the past that this has been done, including President Eisenhower doing so to suppress white riots against desegregation.

What, though, would happen if military commanders, or frontline troops, refused to obey the Commander in Chief, on grounds that his orders were unconstitutional?

This is not strictly a legal question. It’s also a question of moral authority. Trump has very little of that. In a crisis like this, you can see very clearly the cost of his having spent his presidency demeaning and wasting the authority of his office on idiotic Twitter fights and one pointless controversy after another. True, such a move by the president would likely be popular. As Sen. Cotton points out:

Not surprisingly, public opinion is on the side of law enforcement and law and order, not insurrectionists. According to a recent poll, 58 percent of registered voters, including nearly half of Democrats and 37 percent of African-Americans, would support cities’ calling in the military to “address protests and demonstrations” that are in “response to the death of George Floyd.” That opinion may not appear often in chic salons, but widespread support for it is fact nonetheless.

Still, a president making the call to send in American troops to apply potentially deadly force against Americans is not something to be taken lightly. It is one of the gravest acts any president can do. Trump has the legal authority to do it, but it’s not difficult to foresee a situation in which some troops might wonder if they were doing the right thing.

However this crisis abates, it seems clear that the Trump presidency will not recover, even if somehow Trump wins four more years. It’s about authority which, again, is not the same thing as power.

On the subject of authority, the past week has also seen the authority of public health experts — and the authority of their media megaphones — blown sky high by the George Floyd protests. For months now, these experts and their media cheerleaders (including, to some extent, me) have been warning about the importance of social distancing to flatten the Covid-19 curve. The conservative blogger Matt Walsh has a stunning roundup of media warnings that right-wingers who violate social distancing are death-bringers.

But when people hit the streets en masse to protect police brutality, the public health voices fell largely silent, and so did the media. Three weeks from now, we will know if the protests spread Covid. Conservative critics of social distancing advocates like me are not yet vindicated. Three weeks will tell the tale. But what is undeniable now is that nobody will listen to public health authorities or the media again on the matter of Covid-19. Right-wingers treated Covid-19 not like a virus, but like a political construct — and what do you know, when the Floyd killing happened, left-wingers behaved just like the right-wingers they criticized earlier. Covid was such a threat that we had to shut down the economy, and forbid people from going to church, but not so much of a threat that we had to scream at people to stop protesting, because they were going to get us all sick.

Here’s the thing: what if Covid-19 really does come roaring back in the next few weeks? If the authorities tell people to go back to their houses and follow social distancing, people will refuse. All church people have to do is say that they’re going to pray for racial justice.

And one more authority thing. The New York Times op-ed editor James Bennet is taking massive incoming fire from the left for publishing that Tom Cotton piece — even from Times staffers. Many of them are saying that simply publishing the op-ed puts the paper’s black staffers in danger.

This would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. The Times op-ed section has published acres and acres of commentary favoring the protests from every conceivable angle. If you depended on the Times op-ed page as an accurate barometer of what Americans believed about the protests, you would be radically uninformed. In this one instance in which they published the opinion of a US Senator, calling for the military to stop the riots — a belief that most Americans share, including 37 percent of black Americans — Times staffers scream bloody murder. They retreat to that infuriating leftist claim that speech that makes certain people feel “unsafe” must be prohibited.

Kudos to Bennet for holding his ground, but do not miss what’s happening here. We don’t yet know how many people on the NYT staff feel this way, but so far, “dozens” (in the words of the Times‘s correspondent) of voices there who believe that people who want the military to step in to stop nights and nights of rioting in American cities are objectively putting black people in danger just for stating their opinion. 

And look, here is the Times‘s recent Pulitzer Prize winner for the 1619 Project:

Here is that same person yesterday defending rioting and looting as not-violence:

Think about that when you consider the authority The New York Times has. Some of you always say when I bring this up, “Who cares what the Times says? It’s in New York.” I’ll tell you who cares: nearly the entire media ecosphere — broadcast and print — which takes its cues from the Times.

Let’s be clear: the problem is not that they disagreed with the Cotton op-ed. It’s that they think his writing it, and the Times publishing it, is a threat to the life and safety of black people. What a disgusting, manipulative, ideological canard. These are dozens of staffers who work for the most powerful media institution in the US, and maybe the world, saying this. It is a stunning abdication of basic journalistic professionalism. I don’t know whether or not I agree with Cotton, but I absolutely would have published his op-ed were I in Bennet’s position.

At issue here is not the authority of The New York Times op-ed page. Alas for us opinion journalists, op-ed pages aren’t as authoritative as they used to be. What is at issue is the authority of the newspaper’s reporting. When dozens of writers and editors for a newspaper believe that an ordinary opinion held by 58 percent of Americans is so vile that it doesn’t deserve to appear in the paper at all, what does that tell you about the contempt the people who put the paper out have for their countrymen?

What does that tell you about the narrative these elites are constructing, and what the ruling class plans to do with it?

UPDATE: What kind of authority will the NYPD have left after all this?

UPDATE.2: In Pennsylvania, the government wants you to know that you should stay away from group gatherings, unless it’s to protest racism:

(Sorry, I had the wrong tweet embedded earlier.)