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The Voice of a Jen-eration

An ode to the great political columnist, whose work has both captured the moment and defined our times better than anybody else's.
Politicon 2018

A few months back sometime around 2 a.m. I was sitting in a bar I probably shouldn’t have been in, engrossed in conversation with three good friends. One put a difficult question to me: “Who do you think is the greatest columnist alive today?” I said myself, but when nobody laughed I felt like a jerk and started to offer real answers. We went through the obvious possibilities—Ross Douthat and suchlike—but concluded that none of them quite deserved the honor. We turned to talented but rather more niche right-wing wordsmiths but again came up short on every one. Finally, we ran through old hands whose work in better days might earn them some kind of emeritus status—George Will, Pat Buchanan.

In the end, we resigned ourselves to the conclusion that nobody alive and writing today could be saddled with a label such as “greatest.” Our very finest writers, we realized, would have been the in-house mediocrities at midsize regional magazines if they had entered this business a century ago. We have no D. Keith Manos, no Bill Buckleys; we don’t even have any Walter Lippmans.

Maybe we were too dour; beer, etc., had been flowing. With time to reflect and mostly sober up, I’d like to amend my answer. In the clear light of day it seems obvious to me that our greatest living columnist can be no other than Jennifer Rubin, grande dame of the Washington Post.

I’m sure I lost some of you just there. Maybe you think I’m joking. (I would never.) Maybe you think I’ve lost it. (Not yet, anyways.) I am both entirely sincere and, as always, to be taken quite seriously.

Now, let me be clear. I think Jen Rubin is our greatest living columnist in much the same way that I think Nic Cage is our greatest living actor: committed 100 percent to the bit, while simultaneously absorbing it into a self that is inscrutably bizarre. All at once the role is reduced to the level of absurdity, elevated to the level of art, and intertwined with the person of the artist.

For Rubin, the role is a particular kind of boomer conservatism, heavily influenced by what some (including her, with not much self-awareness) have called “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” Not so much stealing the Declaration of Independence as standing in the middle of a D.C. street waving it in the air, yelling incomprehensibly about threats to our democracy. This role is the pinnacle of a glorious tradition, and Rubin is a perfect if unlikely player. This is Nic Cage as King Lear.

Jen hasn’t always been this way. After two decades as a California labor lawyer who was voting as late as 2004 for the likes of Kerry/Edwards, Rubin was suddenly a mainstream neocon of the went-to-Berkeley variety (funny how that happens) sometime around 2005. In 2011 she was hired by the Post, and spent a while pushing for the liberal Mitt Romney to become POTUS the next year—until the election was over, at which point Romney’s platform became right-wing extremism.

Then the apocalypse: In 2016, the scary Orange Man ascended to the Oval Office. Rubin pivoted from beating the drums of war to sounding the alarm bells: America was under attack from within. Four years of panic and then, once the Resistance delivered the great hero Joseph R. Biden to replace him, everything was okay again. Jen commemorated the event with a book I have not read and will not read subtitled, no joke, “How Women Saved Democracy from Donald Trump.” Some day, I think I’ll write a follow-up called “How Donald Trump Saved Women from Democracy.”

It goes without saying that, at some point in this story, Rubin dropped even the pretense of belonging to the right. She started, instead, to identify as “an Andrew Cuomo Democrat.” Like, really identify:

This, surely, is sound judgment.

Rubin expounded on the personal realignment in a WaPo column published last September. In just short of a thousand words, Rubin explains why she changed her Twitter bio from “conservative opinion writer” to “NeverTrump, pro-democracy opinion writer.” It is impossible not to respect the raw power of a person whose one-word change in Twitter bio merits coverage in one of the country’s most prominent newspapers. But the argument itself is something less than sound.

“I didn’t leave the party,” Rubin screams into the void. “The party left me.”

If you say you are a staunch defender of the rule of law, that you are devoted to ending systematic racism, that you are an advocate of legal immigration, that you believe in objective reality (including climate change science) and that you think illiberal regimes such as Russia are our greatest foreign threat, the party of Trump will lash out at you. They will accuse you of Trump derangement syndrome and dub you a “fake” conservative. Well, they have a point. Because conservatives no longer seem to champion any of those positions (or free trade or American international leadership or NATO), it is hard to say I fit in any longer.

It may be worth pointing out to Ms. Rubin that “the rule of law” is just about the only item on her list that conservatives ever supported. There is “objective reality,” of course, but I do not think those words mean what she thinks they mean. (I am obligated to point out here that Nic Cage would have done a stellar job as Inigo Montoya.) Everything else, from free trade to Russia panic to devotion “to ending systematic racism” to immigration boosterism, is alien to the conservative program and vision. (By the way, it’s “systemic.” If you’re going to play the game you ought to learn the lingo.)

It is not surprising that Rubin no longer recognizes the Republican coalition. She came in at a time when it was dominated by factions with whom conservatives had unwisely allied—market liberals, foreign policy hawks—and who are now on their way out the door. Rubin, for her part, is happy to speed up the divorce. In one column published Thursday, she urges conservatives’ unwelcome allies—Cheney, Kinzinger—to exit the party quickly. In another published that same day she warns: “America cannot give evangelicals what they want.” Subtitle: “They have become antithetical to American ideals.”

This is another key aspect of Jennifer Rubin’s greatness: She says the quiet part out loud. Christians, you see, are forces of reaction—enemies of progress. Social conservatism is just a convenient cover for racism. Those backwards Bible-thumpers are not ready to enter the 21st century. A few decades ago they could stand “alongside supply-siders and national security hawks” but now, against them, “all defenders of a diverse democracy must stand shoulder to shoulder for an inclusive system of government.”

This, too, is unsurprising. When you ally yourself with people who do not share your understanding of the world and of the good, eventually the alliance will fracture. Those who never signed on to the substantive vision will be left clinging to the prudential means the coalition once used to secure it. Thus Jen Rubin is left with no ideal higher than a vague, procedural, diverse “democracy” that is best preserved by asking Coca-Cola to bully those racist Christians.

We do not, thank heavens, live in a democracy. But Rubin and co. have imagined one and insist that its structural elements must be preserved at any and all costs—knowing full well that the success of democracy entails the conquest of conservatism. Ah, well; at least a multiethnic populace voted to close the churches. Plenty believe it, but only Jen Rubin can (or would) come out and say it so openly.

To this kind of pyrrhic hyper-formalism, Thomas Jefferson—one of the great minds behind the “democracy” Rubin would preserve—offered an unequivocal answer:

A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.

The last word to the man Nic Cage was born to play: “O, that way madness lies; let me shun that.”



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