When writing about how far the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has gone off the rails during the Trump era, what comes to mind is the motto of the long-gone, pioneering webzine Suck: “a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun.”
Here is Rubin, the Post’s “conservative” blogger, hyperventilating over President Trump appointing former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton to be his next national security advisor:
The Bolton pick is wake-up call to Rs who always assumed wise, calm advisers would be there to constrain Trump. It should motivate Congress to reclaim power, by declaring that congressional authorization is required for a first strike on Iran or NoKo https://t.co/D5CVxZTsY9
— Jennifer 'pro-voting' Rubin (@JRubinBlogger) March 23, 2018
She elaborates in the linked post: “The question of the moment is whether the John Bolton we read in print and see on TV will be the same John Bolton who is charged with coordinating foreign policy. Advocating in print a position a Democratic president will never undertake is one thing; presenting to your boss a viable plan for military action that may result in mass casualties is quite another. In other words, we’re about to find out if Bolton is really serious about all his views or has simply enjoyed the role of gadfly.”
Yet here is Rubin, recommending Bolton for a high-ranking position in December 2016: “Former ambassador John Bolton, who met yesterday with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and is set to meet with Trump tomorrow, had an insightful take on the task ahead in that regard. On ‘Fox and Friends,’ he argued for the need for a ‘cultural revolution’ at the State Department, making certain that a department of 70,000 follows the president’s wishes and not the other way around. There are few experienced hands who know how the State Department works today and have a granular understanding as to how it should function. If not Bolton himself, someone very much like him would be ideal in the No. 2 spot at State.”
Why was she particularly keen on Bolton getting this job? Because it would put him in line to become Trump’s national security advisor! Yes, really: “Unless Trump wants to go through the rigmarole of hiring a new face, the inevitable [Michael T.] Flynn replacement is very likely to come from within the administration — the No. 2 person at the state or defense departments or some other player with whom Trump has developed a relationship of trust.”
Indeed, in the mists of ancient history – 2011 – Rubin wanted Bolton as commander-in-chief:
ive got an idea: get john bolton to run for president.. cut out the middle man
— Jennifer 'pro-voting' Rubin (@JRubinBlogger) December 7, 2011
This high regard was not limited to Twitter, or to the 2012 election cycle. In 2014, she wrote admiringly of “Bolton’s fundraising prowess” and the positive effect he could have on the 2014 and 2016 cycles, perhaps by becoming a candidate himself:
Bolton — if he doesn’t become a candidate himself in 2016 — becomes a helpful addition to a hawkish candidate’s presidential campaign, both as an adviser and a fundraiser. That will benefit the party and that candidate in developing anti-Hillary Clinton arguments. And if he does not run or does not join a campaign, he still becomes a key endorsement for candidates to seek out.
In short, raising a lot of money gives Bolton much more clout than if he had remained simply an expert and talking head on TV. His success is both a reflection of and an accelerator of a more hawkish GOP — and hopefully a smarter one.
The positions Rubin now criticizes, including those on Iran and North Korea, are not new for Bolton. What’s new is that Trump has now accepted her basic post-election recommendation for national security advisor.
However, Rubin blatantly flip-flopping on positions merely based on Trump adopting them is not a new development. In December 2017, Charles C. W. Cooke catalogued a raft of examples.
Rubin dismissed the Paris climate accord as “nonsense” until Trump agreed, at which point it became a dog-whistle to the “climate-change denial, right-wing base that revels in scientific illiteracy.” She criticized Trump when he delayed moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and dismissed it when he did it. The Iran deal, tax cuts, welfare, energy, gun control… the moves in Rubin’s gymnastics routine have been as wide-ranging as they are embarrassing. (And the primary defense of these flip-flops required mischaracterizing both Rubin and Cooke.)
There will always be a segment of readers whose reflexive response to this sort of critique will be “Who cares?” If Rubin wants to reprise John Cleese’s role in Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch, what does it matter?
The answer can be found in the Argument Clinic sketch itself, as Michael Palin’s character explains: “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.” Or, as Cooke wrote of Rubin: “What, one might ask, separates her from possessed [Trump] apologists such as Tomi Lahren?”
If the answer is “not much,” Rubin is as much a symptom of our polarized and tribal politics as Trump himself. If politics ceases to be about ideas and argument, it becomes about identity and pure coercion. That matters, and perhaps it matters more when someone with a big platform claiming to be of the Right chooses that path.