Ross Douthat: Jeff Zucker didn’t save democracy

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Ross Douthat: Jeff Zucker didn’t save democracy
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Here are two anecdotes from the still-unspooling saga of Jeff Zucker, no longer the head of CNN. First, from the aftermath: According to The Los Angeles Times, in a meeting between some of the network’s staffers and its corporate leadership, CNN correspondent Jamie Gangel shared that four members of the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6 had called to say that Zucker’s exit left them “devastated for our democracy.”

Second, from the background to Zucker’s departure: We already knew that he blessed the wild prime-time lovefest between the brothers Cuomo, the CNN anchor and the New York governor. But now it’s being reported by The New York Post that Zucker helped arrange the absurd interviews, sometimes through the influence of his paramour, a former Andrew Cuomo communications director, and even allegedly gave the New York governor advice on how to swat at Donald Trump during his famous COVID-19 briefings.

You can put these anecdotes together and get a decent understanding of what went wrong in important parts of American media during the Trump presidency, the sacrifice of sobriety and neutrality to what Armin Rosen, writing for UnHerd, dubs the “centrist-branded panic industry.”

Undergirding this shift, at CNN and elsewhere, was a theory that the way to blunt Trump’s demagogic power was to assemble the broadest possible coalition of elites in media and politics, to establish moral clarity and create an effective cordon sanitaire.

In 2016, I believed in this strategy, urged it on Republicans during the primaries and participated in it — along with most conservative commentators I respected — by opposing Trump’s election in the fall.

But then Trump won — with a minority of the vote, yes, but all that elite opposition couldn’t even get Hillary Clinton to 49%, and the Republicans won more votes nationally than Democrats in House elections, paying no obvious price for having nominated Trump. The American people listened to the Never Trump alliance, fanned out across our newspapers and magazines and networks, and delivered their verdict: For every Republican we persuaded, a different sort of swing voter seemed to discover that maybe there were good reasons to take a chance on Trump.

What followed in Trump’s presidency was a doubling down on the elite-opposition strategy — but increasingly I doubted its approach. In its most sincere form the anti-Trump front became paranoid and credulous, addled by the Steele dossier and lost in Twitter doomscrolling. In its more careerist form, it became a racket for former Republican consultants. And in general it became its own ideological echo chamber, a circle of clarity closed to anyone with doubts.

In detaching somewhat, I remained an anti-Trump conservative; after the 2020 election’s aftermath, it’s safe to say that I’m forever Never Trump. But I decided that fundamentally the elite-consolidation strategy was a failure — that it succeeded in 2020 only because of the pandemic and that it may fail in 2024 — and that if Trump were to be permanently defeated, one of two things needed to happen: Either some adaptation from Republicans, one that might seem ugly or compromised in its own way (as you see now, say, in Ron DeSantis’ winks and nods to anti-vaxxers), or some shift that made the leftward-lurching Democrats seem less dangerous to cross-pressured Americans.

So those are the two questions that this column takes up regularly: Can there be Trumpism without Trump, and what’s so unappealing or frightening about progressivism and the Democratic Party? And the consistency of those themes clearly sometimes exasperates people who think they amount to moral equivalence or denial about how awful the Republican Party has become.

I don’t mind those critiques, but I will close this exercise in navel-gazing with a concrete example of where I think that they go wrong. For the united front of Never Trump, there’s no greater heroine at the moment than Liz Cheney, and no clearer embodiment of Republican cowardice than Susan Collins, the Maine moderate who even now won’t say definitively that she’ll oppose Trump if he’s the 2024 nominee.

I also admire Cheney’s direct anti-Trumpism, as I’ve admired it from Mitt Romney, and now even a little from Mike Pence. (Yes, it’s a low bar.) But if you believe, reasonably, that the immediate danger posed by Trump’s demagoguery involves an attempted Electoral College theft in 2024, then Cheney’s work is a lot less important than the bipartisan effort underway in the Senate to reform the Electoral Count Act. And that effort is being steered, with some success so far, by Collins.

Maybe the effort will ultimately fail. But it’s quite possible that the most important response to the events of Jan. 6 will be shepherded by Republicans playing a careful inside game, with the cautious navigation of the senior senator from Maine more essential than a thousand essays about never giving Trumpism an inch.

That’s not a heroic view of how democracies are stabilized and demagogues finally retired. But if the choice is between this unheroism and the mentality that gave us Jeff Zucker and the brothers Cuomo, for now I’m inclined to bet on Susan Collins.

Ross Douthat writes a column for the New York Times.

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