The far right's secret weapon

Have some extreme reactionism you need to sell? Call the politics desk of the New York Times.

Liberals woke up to some bad news yesterday: The governor’s race in Virginia, a state Biden won by double digits, went to a previously unknown Republican. More worryingly, Glenn Youngkin seems to have won on the strength of his opposition to educating Virginia’s schoolchildren about America’s ongoing history of racism—a hot topic in a state still grappling with its legacy as the old Confederate capital and the white-supremacist riot that rocked Charlottesville four years ago.

Seeking the solace of information, the disappointed turned to what remains the most authoritative voice in their slice of America.

The New York Times explained it like this:

A natural campaigner running his first race, Mr. Youngkin found a way to enlist both the Republican base still in thrall to Donald J. Trump and less ideological Republicans who rejected the party in the Trump era. Furious Democratic attacks that he was a Trumpian wolf in suburban-dad fleece never quite stuck because, in both biography and manner, Mr. Youngkin did not fit the former president’s bullying, self-aggrandizing profile. His ability to direct multiple messages — red meat to the G.O.P. base via interviews with right-wing media, and a less divisive pitch to swing voters, including on parental input for schools — will serve as a blueprint for his party in the midterms.

That is all very clean and straightforward, a scientific description of a seemingly natural phenomenon. Indeed, the main cause of longtime Democratic mandarin Terry McAuliffe’s defeat was his inability to communicate any of the Democrats’ substantial accomplishments in Virginia over the past four years, or really any message other than “Youngkin = Trump = Bad.” But at the same time, the analysis leaves out a key player: the role of media itself, specifically the New York Times.

Few institutions did more than the Times to help Youngkin—a multi-millionaire former CEO of the immensely powerful defense-aerospace-and-everything-else private equity giant known as the Carlyle Group, who trafficked in antisemitic calumny on the campaign trail—sell himself as the aforementioned “suburban dad.” The Times’ coverage down the stretch often seemed calibrated to launder Republican appeals to white Virginians’ racial insecurities in ways that would be palatable to voters in the ostensibly liberal strongholds of the commonwealth like Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads.

And one Times reporter in particular did yeoman’s work on that front.

Jeremy spoke in …

Jeremy W. Peters has become a familiar byline to Times readers in general and Virginians in particular over the past five years, thanks to his beat: conservatism, Trumpism, and the modern Republican Party. Geared as it is to the Times’ core readership, his reporting generally seems to be animated by the same few questions: What are conservatives thinking? Why are they so mad? And are there any “good ones” that liberal elites can make common cause with?

What comes through in Peters’ stories, time and again, is that he has arrived at his answers before setting out to report.

Take for instance Peters’s 2018 story, “As Critics Assail Trump, His Supporters Dig In Deeper.” The lead anecdote featured Gina Anders, whom Peters described as “a Republican from suburban Loudoun County, Va., with a law degree, a business career, and not a stitch of ‘Make America Great Again’ gear in her wardrobe,” who nonetheless was “moved to defend” the 45th president because of the “overblown” reactions to his policy of separating refugee children from their families.

It took only a few minutes of Googling for the lawyer/blogger Luppe Luppen (a.k.a. @nycsouthpaw on Twitter) to learn that Anders was in fact a longtime right-wing political operative who had co-founded a group dedicated to, among other things, defending Confederate statues. In other words, she is someone who would likely need little convincing to support a xenophobic Republican president. Confronted over this glaring omission by Isaac Chotiner, Peters dug in, accusing his critics of lacking “nuance.” (Peters also described the story he was pushing as an “almost Silent Majority, Nixonian phenomenon”—a slogan Trump himself would adopt in 2020—without noting that, like the original “silent majority,” this was neither.)

Even more glaring was the tidying up Peters did for Trump in Charlottesville the year before. After the white supremacist rampage—which ended when the neo-Nazi James Fields drove his Dodge Challenger through a crowd of pedestrians, killing one and severely injuring dozens—Trump shocked and infuriated millions of Americans by insisting repeatedly that there was “blame on both sides.” Peters and his editors took it upon themselves to explain away the president’s comments, theorizing (in their words) that Trump had made his comment not to offer “his white nationalist supporters a wink and a nod,” but rather in response to “perceptions of excessive political correctness and media bias.”

That excuse blew up within hours, when Trump gave his third press conference in the wake of the riot. Now, instead of merely blaming both the organized white nationalists and civilian counter-protesters, Trump affirmatively praised the white supremacist attackers, telling reporters that there had been “very fine people on both sides.” (As I detailed in the piece below, it is clear when you examine Trump’s comments closely that he was referring specifically to the rally at the University of Virginia the “night before,” when Nazis carried tiki torches, attacked unarmed and peaceful counter-protesters, and chanted “Jews will not replace us.”)

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This was patently ridiculous: What kind of “very fine person” would attend an explicitly neo-Nazi and white supremacist event alongside groups like Vanguard America, Identity Evropa, and the Ku Klux Klan for any reason other than to protest against it?

Peters went looking for anything to prove Trump’s critics wrong. On Aug. 16, the day after both Trump’s most infamous comments and his first failed attempt to soften Trump’s response, Peters and two other Times reporters offered up “Michelle Piercy, a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.”

“Good people can go to Charlottesville,” Peters and his colleagues quoted Piercy as having said. The Times referred to her group as “gun-loving defenders of free speech.”

Once again, the story collapsed under the slightest scrutiny. Piercy, it turned out, had not traveled to Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate statues at all (indeed, the statues played only an ancillary role in the white supremacist event itself). She had come with the far-right militia American Warrior Revolution, essentially to serve as armed security for the white nationalists. The head of Piercy’s group, a right-wing broadcaster who goes by the name “Ace Baker,” declared in a Facebook post that the paramilitary group believed it “had the justification to use deadly force that day, and mow people fucking down!” AWR was in turn part of a larger submovement of far-right militias that includes the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, the latter two of which ended up taking a leading role in the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Those facts are not reflected anywhere in the story, which has become a centerpiece of MAGA propaganda from PragerU and elsewhere. It remains uncorrected four years later.

In the Mood

In the last days of the Virginia governor’s race, Peters offered yet another entry in his series of what I’d call “supposedly ordinary people who happen to fill a very specific role in a central but highly contested Republican narrative.”

This time, the man on the street was Glenn Miller, “a Hillary-Biden voter” and “lawyer from McLean” interviewed as he “walked into a Youngkin rally in southern Fairfax County.” This purportedly prototypical swing voter from the crucial DC suburbs of Northern Virginia told the Times that he had chosen to back the Republican after his “tipping point”: “hearing his teenage daughter’s teacher make a comment during a virtual lesson about white men as modern-day slaveholders.”

No effort, so far as I can tell, was made to verify the teacher’s alleged statements. The story went on:

“There are a lot of people like me who are annoyed,” he said, adding that he was able to vote for Mr. Youngkin because he did not associate him as a Trump Republican.

I hardly need to tell you how this one turned out. Miller is a prominent local activist who led anti-affirmative action protests and authored a piece decrying “critical race theory” in the right-wing, eugenics-friendly magazine Quillette two months before the 2020 election. (His co-author was the unabashedly pro-Trump “Muslim reformist” Asra Q. Nomani.) Miller even has his own tag on the Fairfax County GOP website.

Peters again tried to bat away his critics. This time, his editors were forced to update the story, and they did so in a way that managed to make the problem worse: They noted that Miller was “a frequent donor to both parties” (all of his reported donations since 2016 have been to Republicans, with the exception of a pair of early donations to the failed presidential campaigns of Cory Booker and Bill De Blasio).

The Times also added that Miller had “been active in local efforts opposing the elimination of race-blind admissions tests in schools and has spoken out against critical race theory”—which is a funny way of describing Miller’s committed advocacy against a change in admissions procedures that led to an increase in the numbers of Black and Hispanic students at his favorite prestigious magnet school by 550% and 287.5%, respectively. It’s unlikely that many readers noticed the changes anyway.

Youngkin love

It’s difficult to say what effect these image-softening stories have on the electorate—if they played any role at all in Youngkin’s narrow but unmistakable victory on Tuesday. (Though Peters himself took immediate notice in the evening that the margins “in heavily blue Fairfax County” were “where Republicans think they need to be.”)

Nor is Peters alone at the Times in his pursuit of reactionary confirmation bias. There was Sarah Maslin Nir’s recent article on vaccine hesitancy that forgot to mention its star source was a Trumpist anti-vaxer who had participated in an attack on a coronavirus testing site. Elaina Plott, a newly hired former Buckley Fellow at the National Review, had an incredible correction appended to her October 2020 piece, wherein the paper was forced to admit that two “Atlanta-area voters” it quoted prominently were, in fact, well-connected GOP activists.

But if the immediate impact of all these elisions and diminutions is hard to measure, the function they serve in the discourse is clear. They manufacture the impression of a broad constituency for extreme right-wing ideas, softening the images of actors from far-right militia members to anti-vax vigilantes. They also make the politicians who champion their ideas appear more representative and more popular than they otherwise would have been. Whether the Times is institutionally aware of it or not, this serves the goals of the far-right itself—whether the activist behind the initially synthetic panic over “critical race theory” or the “alt-right” white-nationalist Charlottesville conspirators who are obsessed with convincing the public that they are clean-cut, respectable, and deserving of places of influence in society. In Virginia this week, they got what they wanted.

Edited by Sam Thielman

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