At this point, it may be beyond banal to note that American politics is so polarizing that various people across the spectrum have lost their bearings, and possibly their reason. Perhaps the point is brought into sharper focus by noting that columnist Andrew Sullivan (at New York magazine, the latest in a long series of media perches) often looks sane by comparison.
That is no small feat, for among other things Sullivan has been the sort of conspiracy theorist whose acceptance by the establishment helped bring us to this political moment.
Older readers may recall Sullivan championed “Trig Trutherism.” This was the theory that 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was not the mother of her then-newborn son Trig and that her pregnancy was faked for political reasons. Sullivan persisted in this delusion for years, no matter how many times it was debunked (notably by Salon), before he tried in 2012 to pretend he had never made the claim.
This was Sullivan’s most-publicized conspiracy theory, but it was far from the first he embraced. There was the time he posted a video from… Alex Jones claiming that Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, in which he shot Harry Whittington, was less than an accident. (Sullivan didn’t back down when challenged, either.)
When U.S. and U.K. authorities foiled a spectacular terror plot to blow up airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean in 2006, Sullivan wondered whether President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had acted in part because pro-war Sen. Joe Lieberman lost a primary to progressive Ned Lamont. Just asking questions, you understand.
Sullivan also long wondered whether Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld intentionally set out to fail in the Iraq War, in pursuit of what he oh-so-subtly called “the Likud strategy.” Years later he would claim that the “neocons” were uninterested in freedom but were in part “about warfare against Israel’s perceived enemies.”
The person he was attacking, Danielle Pletka, was not a neocon, which was a matter of some controversy when she replaced Jeane Kirkpatrick at the American Enterprise Institute. But conspiracy theorists are not exactly known for adhering to basic facts. That’s how Sullivan came to claim the Washington Post dismissed a blogger named Dan Froomkin because the paper had been “coopted by the neocon right,” when it was far more likely complaints from staffers that he was giving the Post a bad reputation.
Given how sharply Sullivan turned against the Iraq War, it must be noted that soon after 9/11, he opined that the sophisticated form of anthrax delivered to Sen. Tom Daschle’s office meant that “a refusal to extend the war to Iraq is not even an option.” In 2008, Sullivan would note that writer John Judis wanted a congressional investigation into the source of the rumors that the 2001 anthrax attacks originated in Iraq—without noting that Sullivan was one of the sources.
Sullivan’s body of work is littered with this sort of garbage. For example, Sullivan casually insinuated that Pope Benedict XVI and his male secretary were a closeted gay couple.
There were also the years that, because the Left often refused to acknowledge the religious roots of the Islamist threat, Sullivan spent arguing America faced a more severe threat from “Christianiststs” who fused their faith with the GOP agenda. Given that conservative evangelicals are currently the group most likely to downplay President Trump’s moral failings, Sullivan’s hysteria seems almost quaint. But who knows? Maybe Vice President Mike Pence is secretly having “Handmaid’s Tale” gowns sewn in one of Ivanka Trump’s factories.
Sullivan took a hiatus from his usual spew in 2015. This was astute; maintaining his prodigious output during an election serving as a referendum on the legacy of President Obama would have only driven Sullivan further off the rails, given his near cult-like adoration for the man.
What Sullivan likely did not foresee was that Trump would drive so many others crazy that he could return to a less demanding column while appearing almost as a voice of reason. He could not possibly have foreseen someone like Louise Mensch claiming that a sealed indictment had already been filed against Trump in May 2017. Or that a Mike Cernovich would portray then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as a puppet of the Rothschilds. Or that so many between those poles would loosen their moorings.
To be sure, Sullivan remains hyperbolic. His inaugural column for New York in May 2016 argued America has never been so prone to tyranny (that he recycled it in March 2018 might be considered somewhat self-refuting).
But unlike his contemporaries at The Atlantic, Vox, and The New Republic, the heart of his argument was that we reached late-stage democracy because a century of progressive activism eroded the republican safeguards built into our Constitution by the Founders and the historical elitism of institutions like our political parties.
Since Trump’s election, Sullivan has also criticized intersectionality as a religion, Hillary Clinton as an incompetent candidate, the Left as intolerant of free speech and religious liberty (to the detriment of the LGBTQ movement), Democrats for embracing the idea that national borders are racist, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attack on Kanye West.
In today’s political environment, in which Voxsplainers and former Obama advisers simply dismiss conservatism as “the maintenance of dwindling white hegemony,” it is almost tempting to celebrate Sullivan’s heterodoxy. Almost.
However, Sullivan is allowed to be heterodox because he is “in the family” of the center-left establishment. It is the same reason a large number of establishment outlets indulged his nuttery. And the odds are that eventually he will return to that nuttery like a dog to its own vomit.
In the wake of Kevin Williamson’s firing from The Atlantic for his known comments on abortion (distorted by his antagonists), it was said that almost any provocative, outside-the-box thinker almost by definition will entertain one or two views that might be a dealbreaker for a particular publisher. But having extremely pro-life views is not quite the same as a decades-long record of promoting conspiracy theories. It is only the radicalization of the center-left in the Trump era that obscures this critical difference.