The Washington Post’s op-ed section used to feel like one of those World War II flicks in which every segment of American life was represented. The movie’s platoon had the farm boy, the city slicker, and the stuffy Harvard toff. The Post’s op-ed department, meanwhile, had its conservatives and its liberals, its free-marketers and its moralists, its faintly disloyal Republicans and its slightly heretical Democrats.
Critics occasionally have howled about the op-ed mix—in recent years, lefties have felt underrepresented—but even the griping implicitly accepts the Post’s notion of what the section should be: a compendium of views from across the political spectrum. “We consider the diversity of views in our opinion section an asset,” editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt tells Washingtonian.
That’s why the current state of the opinion section is so jarring: One of America’s two major political parties has nominated a candidate—someone who will likely have the support of at least 40 percent of the electorate this fall—and absolutely no one on the paper’s opinion roster supports him.
Forget the liberals—take a look at the right-leaning columnists: Jennifer Rubin calls Donald Trump a “pathological liar/narcissist/know-nothing.” Charles Krauthammer can’t stand the guy. George Will quit the Republican Party because of him. Marc Thiessen finds Trump unpalatable, and Thiessen has defended torture.
“In an ordinary year,” Hiatt says, the paper’s columnists “would ensure that the presidential choice was thoroughly debated in our publication.” But in this cycle, “our conservatives are not enthusiastic” about the GOP nominee. The few sympathetic op-eds the Post has run about Trump were written by outside contributors.
That may be as close as it gets. “We are certainly not going to go out and hire someone new based on support for or opposition to a particular candidacy,” Hiatt says.
Sounds like a sensible policy. But over the years, running a section that aims to reflect the major currents in American thought has indeed meant pulling in new perspectives that often track with changing electoral fortunes. Following the rise of “values voters” in the George W. Bush years, Hiatt brought in Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian and former Bush-administration speechwriter, calling him “a different kind of conservative from the other conservatives on our page.” So isn’t it odd that a set of opinions that upended an entire political party—ideas about trade, immigration, political correctness, and foreign entanglements—are missing from the capital’s major media outlet?
Of course, the specifics of Trump make it hard to translate those positions into an actual, professional hire. CNN’s experience with recruiting Trump surrogates has been a nightmare. After House speaker Paul Ryan criticized Trump’s comments about a Mexican-American judge, the network’s paid Trump supporter, Jeffrey Lord, ventured that Ryan was the real racist. Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson blamed the media for reporting accurately on Trump’s own press releases.
And all those people have to do is talk! Writing Trumpism in 800-word bursts is more difficult—for the same reason the candidate confounded the political establishment: His bid for the White House isn’t built on the policy ideas that fuel most Washington commentary. People who like him care less about specifics than about feelings. The feeling that immigrants might be wresting jobs from them. The feeling that all Muslims are trying to hasten the downfall of the US. The feeling that black-on-white crime is up.
Where would Hiatt even find columnists who could bang out nimble, surprising defenses of this fact-challenged worldview week in and week out? (Trump is the only policy answer to the problems he identifies; as he told the Scottish parliament when asked to defend some assertions in 2012, “I am the evidence.”)
In fact, there have been some decent Trump-curious articles in and outside the Post this year, though they’re generally less about his ideas and more about what he represents. Tucker Carlson wrote for Politico about how people in the “warm bath” of Washington missed the causes of anger that fueled Trump’s rise. In the American Spectator, George Neumayr used the experience of hanging out with “profane, tattooed bikers” to explain the candidate’s appeal.
There are plenty of reasons why a publication might not want to go any further than that. After all, Trump banned Post reporters from his rallies and staged a meeting with the editorial board that ended up with him hitting on one of the editors. In a recent editorial, the paper called Trump a “danger to the republic.” To some editors, the task of keeping certain opinions out of the public sphere is considered a high calling. Hiatt could shun pundits who support Trump and still sleep like a kitten.
But that’s not how the Post’s opinion section regards itself. The section, Hiatt says, has an “obligation to help readers understand and think about Trump from a variety of perspectives,” which means that none of the editorial board’s antipathy will “keep us from seeking commentary from him or his supporters.” (Anything they say, though, “would have to meet our standards.” They couldn’t, for instance, say American Muslims celebrated on 9/11: “Being on an opinion page doesn’t mean you can make stuff up.”)
The more interesting question, though, is what happens if Trump loses in November. What if Trumpism outlasts its creator’s political ambitions?
Hiatt pledges that “as the political and ideological worlds evolve, we will evolve with them.” The ambition to present “all sides” harks back nobly to his predecessors Philip Geyelin and Meg Greenfield. But it also has scratchy echoes of the days when media outlets believed it was their duty to feed readers the sort of falsely balanced, “on the one hand/on the other hand” arguments that helped craft the milquetoast policies, and enshrine a political elite, that drove so many voters away from the mainstream.
Let’s face it—there’s really only one person who could solve the Post opinion section’s Trump problem. He has the best words, the best paragraphs. He’d win so many awards and make the op-ed page great again. And by the second week of November, he might have plenty of spare time to roll up his sleeves and get typing.
This article appears in our September 2016 issue of Washingtonian.