Radio Rumble: Benson vs. Gallagher on 'Never Trump,' Credibility, and Objectivity

Posted: Jul 13, 2017 10:25 AM

Yesterday, I appeared on Mike Gallagher's nationally-syndicated program on the Salem Radio Network to discuss the latest developments in the escalating Trump-Russia furor.  Our conversation quickly shifted from the specifics of the topic at hand to whether my status as a 'Never Trump' conservative during the 2016 election detracts from the credibility of my current analysis on the Trump administration.  Mike and I are friends, so our exchange remained respectful, despite its intense edge.  His description of my alleged "credibility problem" echoes a refrain that I frequently hear from Trump loyalists whenever I offer commentary that is critical of the White House and its current occupant.  "Oh yeah, well you're Never Trump," they sneer, as if this is somehow a dispositive argument.  It isn't.  It's not even compelling.  In fact, it's reminiscent of when leftists respond to the substance of a point I've made with, "oh yeah, well you work at Fox News!"  Yes.  And?  I'll elaborate further below (I touched on these issues yesterday, too), but first, here is the somewhat fiery radio segment:

I'd like to address a number of Mike's points in greater depth, as I suspect this vein of criticism is likely to arise from time to time over the balance of the Trump era:

(1) On the Russia issue, Mike asked what I believe the "end game" is.  My response was honest -- I don't know.  I recognize that many partisans have firm beliefs about what, if anything, went on between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and its intermediaries.  Many on the Left are convinced the two entities colluded to defeat Mrs. Clinton, that crimes were committed, and that the president should be impeached.  Many on the Right think this is a baseless witch hunt designed to cripple a president whom Democrats and the media loathe.  I've supported the Russia probe all along because I think it's a serious problem that a hostile government sought to interfere in our election via cyber warfare and other means, which is a fact established by the FBI, CIA, NSA and the office of the Director of National Intelligence.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, evolving stories and amended disclosure documents from top Trump officials, prompted by new details being brought to light by the media, harm the administration's credibility.  The scenario surrounding Donald Trump, Jr's email thread is especially damaging on that front, for reasons I've elucidated elsewhere.  

My attitude is that the investigation must go on and its conclusions must be taken seriously.  I have no idea what those conclusions will be.  I still find it difficult to believe that there was a high-level conspiracy afoot that impacted the election outcome, but we should allow Robert Mueller to follow the facts and present an "end game" based upon them.  As for the current state of play, "my willingness to believe what the Trump administration is saying about the Russia situation is diminished because of these developments," I told Mike. That's true, and it's rational, based on new evidence. Regarding his assertion that 'an Iowa farmer doesn't care' about X Y or Z, I told him very candidly why I think that's a poor argument. He would never accept 'a single mom in Chicago raising her kids doesn't care about A, B or C' if that was how a liberal sought to minimize, say, Lois Lerner's IRS targeting lies.

(2) Mike countered that I'm the one with a credibility problem due to my history as a 'Never Trumper,' and proceeded to quote from a series of commentaries I wrote last year expressing my opposition to Trump's candidacy, the harshest of which came during the Republican primary.  Here's the thing, though: I don't have a credibility problem here at all.  The reason he could recite those anti-Trump statements is because I put them out in the open, for all to read.  I noted my 'Never Trump' and 'Never Hillary' status in my Twitter bio for months during the election season.  Short of getting a forehead tattoo, I could not have been any more transparent about my posture toward Trump.  You may passionately disagree with my ardent opposition to him in the GOP nominating process, and subsequent unwillingness to hold my nose for him in November, but you can't argue that I was sneaky about it.  You might also believe that my deep skepticism of Trump means that my analysis of his administration ought to be taken with a grain of salt, or viewed through that prism.  That's fine.  That means you disagree with some of my conclusions, not that my credibility as a good-faith political analyst is in question. Credibility is not synonymous with, and should not be determined by, political agreement.

I will acknowledge that, based on statistical data points, I was extremely concerned that Donald Trump would lose the election, especially because he was disproportionately unpalatable to women and young voters (the largest gender voting bloc, and most populous generation of voters, respectively).  Those concerns were well-founded; he lost the female vote by 13 points and Millennials by 19 points.  He lost the popular vote by well over 2 million ballots (I've also written that this doesn't matter, reasoning that if the goal had been different from the get-go, he could have won the popular vote, too -- an outcome that we now know the Clinton campaign feared).  Trump threaded the needle to improbably and narrowly run the table in crucial rust belt states, breaking through Democrats' blue wall.  He won the election despite having a brutal and normally-fatal 60 percent unfavorable rating among the electorate that elected him.  Take a bow, Mrs. Clinton.  Which all brings me to the key point...

(3) None of that matters anymore.  As I told Mike, in my ledger -- and as others who share this mindset have written -- 'Never Trump' ended on election night.  That phrase did not mean that I would oppose and fight against Donald Trump forever and ever, regardless of circumstances (some 'Never Trumpers' do seem to adhere to that idea, some to the point of derangement).  It had a concrete and discrete meaning to me: That I wouldn't vote for him.  Once he prevailed in the election, my 'Never Trump' membership expired. That's why I see no contradiction whatsoever in saying that I want his presidency to succeed.  But wanting him to succeed does not require me to shut off my brain when it comes to assessing his offensive conduct or wrong-headed decisions as president.  Per our on-air conversation, I'm not objective.  I don't pretend to be objective.  I don't masquerade as a down-the-middle, agenda-free journalist, as too many in the mainstream press do.  I disclose my biases to my readers, followers, listeners and viewers.  I make no effort to camouflage the fact that I'm a center-right conservative who generally votes for Republicans, and who is Trump-suspicious.  

People can and should consider those factors as they digest my work.  But the mere existence of my views on certain politicians or issues is not an persuasive argument against the substance of what I'm arguing on any given topic.  If liberals want to dismiss me out of hand because I'm a Fox News contributor, or if Trumpers want to do the same because of my election-era stance on the object of their unwavering affection, have at it.  But it's lazy thinking. And it doesn't even come close to adequately serving as a "rebuttal" to any specific points I might make.  I suspect that in both cases, it's sometimes a coping mechanism to compartmentalize and disregard inconvenient truths or uncomfortable ideas. Indeed, it at times feels like it's the anti-Never Trump forces who can't let this go, trotting 'Never Trump' out as a scapegoat when things are going badly for Trump.  Nevertheless, as long as they still want to bitterly re-litigate an election that's over (ironically doing what they accuse Democrats of doing vis-a-vis the Russia fracas) allow me to reiterate a few things for the record:  

Yes, in my personal judgment, regarding my solitary little vote, I saw Donald Trump as fundamentally unfit for the presidency, and viewed Hillary Clinton as ethically unfit for the job -- and also ideologically unacceptable.  The body of my work over the course of the general election campaign was decidedly anti-Hillary; I wrote dozens upon dozens of pieces about her email scandal (some of my criticisms of her have since bled over into criticisms of Trump, because I strive to be consistent), blasted her candidacy in unsparing terms, and wrote just before the election that the future of the Supreme Court required every conservative to vote against her.  Some people still insist that that all adds up to "wanting her to win."  Nonsense.  I was honest about how I was personally going to vote, but I never once tried to convince anyone to oppose Trump in the context of the general election.  And I aimed most of my political fire at his opponent, with a few exceptions that I stand by to this day

(4) Finally, the category error that Mike and many people who think like him repeatedly make is that because I vehemently opposed Trump in the GOP primary and couldn't bring myself to give him my measly little vote last November, that must mean that I want him to fail and am looking for any excuse to tear him down.  That's simply not true.  I want the United States to thrive.  I want our leaders to succeed.  I'm especially inclined to root for leaders who are pursuing conservative policy goals, which Trump is doing in a number of important respects.  But maintaining what I see as a warranted and healthy skepticism of this president (I was a strenuous and consistent critic of his predecessor) is not the same thing as abetting or wishing for his failure.  Not in the least.  Mike Gallagher and Guy Benson both want President Trump to succeed, especially when it comes to achieving large conservative goals.  Where we differ is the degree to which we will defend him, and the point at which we will criticize him.  If Trump were to actually follow through on his jokey insight that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and his supporters wouldn't abandon him, I'm confident that Mike wouldn't just shrug it off.  He'd "bash" Trump for shooting someone.  There is a line, but our thresholds are far apart.

When Mike suggested that I should offer disclaimers on all of my Trump-related commentary in order to remind my audience that I opposed his candidacy (which is superfluous and silly and won't happen), I sardonically asked him if he felt obliged to read a vow of loyalty to Trump at the beginning of every hour of his radio show, to let listeners know where he's coming from.  His response was more or less, I already do. "I say it all the time, we're not bashing Trump on this show," he exclaimed  That's fine, I replied.  If he wants to be a pompom-waving cheerleader, he's more than entitled to that approach, and many of his listeners will love him for it.  But I see my job differently. As I wrote just this week, my goal each day is to analyze political events to the best of my ability, taking into account my worldview, my moral compass and my critical thinking skills.  For me, this precludes blind or near-blind loyalty to any individual figure or political party.  

When President Trump does something great, I'll say it.  When President Trump makes a tough call that I support, I'll say it.  When President Trump is being unfairly maligned or attacked, I'll say it.  When President Trump's opponents engage in stupidity or hypocrisy, I'll say it.  And when President Trump comports himself in a manner that's reckless or demeaning to his office in my opinion, I'll say it.  With due respect to Mike, as I see it, none of that means that I'm an "objective" observer, but it does mean that I'm a more objective observer than he is.  Despite agreeing on a great array of specific issues, we play different roles in today's diverse media landscape.  Sometimes Mike and his flock will love my takes, and sometimes they'll hate them, which is fine by me.  That's this business, and that's America.