In January, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska took to the pages of The Atlantic to address “the blossoming of a rotten seed” of conspiracy theorists allegedly taking hold of his own party. He wrote:
When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them. We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones.
So it’s both befuddling and disappointing that just nine months later, Sasse was not just willing to sit down face-to-face with a powerful conspiracy theorist, but failed to call out the ways this individual threatened American institutions and the many cable-news fantasies he stoked.
The Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Sasse at The Atlantic Festival last week, where the reason for the senator’s appearance is likely two-fold. Sasse is, as Goldberg himself described at the onset of the interview, someone who “veered” from the “Trumpian norm,” so that means he’s a good Republican and useful for The Atlanic’s purposes. Second, while The Atlantic would likely love to bring other conservatives on stage for harassment, other conservatives, unlike Sasse, do not care to be liked by The Atlantic’s audience enough to engage in such an unfair public lashing.
But none of that matters because Sasse’s reason for engaging with a conspiracy theorist is far less interesting than how he engaged with a conspiracy theorist, which is to say, not how someone who purportedly wants to defend “our best American institutions and traditions” should.
Goldberg’s track record of pushing unsubstantiated, and even thoroughly debunked, claims dates back all the way to 2002, when he peddled reports about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be utterly inaccurate. Fast forward to 2016 where, under Goldberg’s leadership, The Atlantic was at the front of the corporate media pack in pushing the conspiracy that Donald Trump colluded with Russia to steal a presidental election (“It’s Official: Hillary Clinton Is Running Against Vladimir Putin,” Goldberg wrote himself in 2016). It was also under Goldberg’s leadership that The Atlantic became eager defenders of the Chinese Community Party in the early days of the Wuhan virus pandemic, a name they deemed “xenophobic.”
Finally, it was Goldberg’s own reporting, bordering on conspiracy theory, in which he claimed anonymous sources told him Trump called the World War I soldiers buried in Aisne-Marne American Cemetery “losers” and “suckers” and that the president canceled his scheduled trip to the cemetery out of concerns the weather would ruin his hair. The report was quickly debunked by numerous on-the-record sources on the same trip, including Trump-critic John Bolton, and by existing weather reports and government emails. Yet the conspiracy theory was so wholeheartedly accepted by corporate media that it was even asked about in a presidential debate, despite having not a shred of veracity.
Despite Sasse’s supposed disgust with conspiracy theorists who threaten our democracy, Sasse willingly sat down with Goldberg last week and did not mention any of Goldberg’s cable-news-driving fantasies. Even when Goldberg was the one to bring up people who “really threaten the nature of our democracy,” Sasse was mum on Goldberg’s involvement in the tinfoil hat gang that stirred up a false narrative that tore the country apart because they didn’t like a democratically elected president.
Worse, even if Sasse weren’t considering Goldberg’s past anti-democratic activities, the senator uncritically accepted the false premise of Goldberg’s present question about the “majority of Republicans.” Here’s the question in full:
What are you seeing in Nebraska that cuts against the understanding that the majority of Republicans now are these hyper-angry, white, ethno-nationalist, resentment-based, antidemocratic almost, kind of voters who are going to, by 2024, really threaten the nature of our democracy. Is there anything that you’re seeing on the ground among the Republicans in Nebraska that says, ‘You know what, most people are actually not all in on that’?
According to whose understanding are the “majority of Republicans now are these hyper-angry, white, ethno-nationalist, resentment-based, antidemocratic” voters? Sasse doesn’t bother to ask for any evidence of this claim, he just goes on to complain about tribal politics being beneath him while a proprietor of tribal politics sits across from him.
Sasse was often praised by corporate media for “speaking truth to power” in the Trump era, and that is all fine, but speaking truth to power doesn’t stop depending on who has the power. In fact, that’s just the opposite of speaking truth to power. That’s just speaking up on what will get you pats on the head from Jennifer Rubin.
Speaking truth to power looks like calling out the people at the very top of our most corrupt and most powerful media institutions when given the chance. Or better yet, just not engaging with them at all. That’s how smart people treat conspiracy theorists.