Donald Trump’s regular assaults on reality have so thoroughly torn Washington’s fabric of time and space, we hardly notice things that in the ancient days of 2016 would have struck us as bizarre. But one through-the-wormhole phenomenon still deserves examination: the embrace of Jennifer Rubin by DC’s liberal establishment.
Until recently, the conservative Washington Post opinion columnist was widely reviled by readers on the left. “In political journalism, Rubin is openly regarded as a hack and perhaps a shill by an ideologically diverse subset of her peers,” Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf wrote in 2012. Salon named her to its “hack list” two years in a row. (She made number two!) And after onetime Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton left that gig in 2013, he wrote a column in Washington City Paper offering some advice to his old employer—including a strong recommendation that it fire Rubin. “Not because she’s conservative,” he wrote, “but because she’s just plain bad.”
However, Rubin has found a remarkable ideological deodorant: her loathing of Donald Trump. Liberal watchdog Media Matters for America—once a regular Rubin antagonist—hasn’t body-slammed her since July 2016. Her work now gets shared on social media by liberal celebs such as Dan Rather, Laurence Tribe, and MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid. Last October, Salon named her to a different list: It now considers her one of the “25 conservatives actually worth following on Twitter.”
Rubin is part of a broader club of Republican thinkers whose position in the mediasphere has suddenly shifted. Call them Conservatives Once Reviled, Now Safe (CORNS): David Frum, Bret Stephens, Rick Wilson, and others have become in-demand commentators in various liberal venues due to their anti-Trump views.
In addition to her Post writing, Rubin is particularly good at lobbing liberal-catnip opinions on MSNBC, where, along with harshly criticizing the President, she has said that Kellyanne Conway earned a “special place in hell” by supporting Senate candidate Roy Moore, and she’s gone after conservatives for focusing so much on deportation.
For some, this enemy-of-my-enemy business is a bit uncomfortable.
In her print column and on the Post’s Right Turn blog, which she updates throughout the day, Rubin is a bit less pithy. A typically Rubinean sentence: “Moderation also understands that competing interests (immigrants’ security and border security, from the earlier scenario) need to be reconciled.” But she still hasn’t been shy about using such a widely read platform to savage the leader of her own party.
Fred Hiatt, editor of the Post’s editorial page and Rubin’s boss, says her traffic is way up since Trump rose to political prominence, but he notes that Greg Sargent, the paper’s most notable leftward blogger, has seen similar gains. “I don’t attribute this to any particular stance,” Hiatt says, but rather to their “combination of opinion and reporting, and how they manage to combine speed with intelligence in responding to and even anticipating the news.”
Still, Rubin’s embrace by former enemies seems notable—especially to lefties who remember her retroactive defense of the Iraq war or her opposition to Obamacare. For some, this enemy-of-my-enemy business is a bit uncomfortable. “On one hand, I don’t want to invalidate the positive contributions Rubin is making to the conversation today,” says Media Matters president Angelo Carusone. But, he points out, it’s not as if she’s disavowed her “reckless, irresponsible, and reprehensible” prior work. For example, Rubin’s critics haven’t forgotten her assertion, in a piece about the “Ground Zero mosque,” that President Obama had more sympathy for “the Muslim World” than for American citizens, or her botched post about the 2011 mass shooting in Norway in which she suggested that a jihadist may have been to blame.
Meanwhile, some conservatives are puzzled by her shifting positions. As National Review’s Charles C. Cooke detailed in a December piece, Rubin’s fealty to her previous ideas has eroded as she has beaten on Trump. In 2013, she said that only a deep tax cut could stimulate the economy, but in December she ripped Trump’s cut as a “moral and economic monstrosity.” She once opposed the Obama administration’s Iran deal, but now there’s no “no visible, reasonable alternative.” Should the US move its Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem? Rubin loved the concept when Marco Rubio mentioned it. Since then it’s somehow become a symbol of a “non-policy-based foreign policy.”
To Hiatt, such criticism misses the mark. “There’s no question that Trump has shaken and upended the conservative movement and the Republican Party,” he says. “But who has moved from conservative principles? Is it Jennifer Rubin or a GOP majority that no longer seems to care about the fiscal deficit? Jennifer Rubin or evangelical leaders who tolerate the support of a senatorial candidate accused of abusing teenage girls? I think she’s been faithful to her principles.” (Rubin declined to comment for this story.)
Certainly there are conservatives who appreciate Rubin’s particular brand of apostasy. But many others are sticking with Trump even though they find him repulsive, pointing to his success at reducing regulation, lowering taxes, and nominating simpatico judges.
Which raises a question: If the goal of an opinion influencer is to actually change minds, is Rubin having any impact? Or is she just giving succor to battle-weary liberals and moderates who want to feel as if they’re taking in diverse perspectives but can’t stomach another dispatch from the dark heart of Trumpland?
Rubin once claimed that George W. Bush kept the nation safer from terrorism than Obama did—as long as you didn’t count 9/11. Liberals mocked the caveat. But perhaps there’s some resonance with that statement in the left’s recent interest in her work: She’s one of the conservative media’s smartest pundits—as long as you don’t count all that other stuff.
This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Washingtonian.