Think Tank in the Tank

I spent two decades writing for City Journal, and I cherished it and the Manhattan Institute’s independence. Then came the Trump era.

By Sol Stern

Tagged conservatismDonald TrumpintellectualsTrump Administration

In June 2015, as Donald Trump descended the gilded escalator to declare his candidacy for President of the United States, I was completing my second decade as a senior writer for City Journal, the flagship publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute. Trump’s announcement hardly registered on our magazine’s radar screen. We dealt only with serious issues. This wasn’t serious.

After Trump improbably emerged as a leading contender for the Republican nomination, City Journal took notice with a scathing review by Heather Mac Donald, perhaps our most talented and prolific writer. “While the Republican establishment deserves its comeuppance, the fallout to the country at large of a Trump presidency would likely be as dire as his critics predict,” Mac Donald wrote. “Trump is the embodiment of what the Italians call ‘maleducato’— poorly raised, ill-bred. Indeed, judging by the results, his upbringing seems to have involved no check whatsoever on the crudest male instincts for aggression and humiliation.”

I assumed that other critiques—including mine—would soon appear in the magazine. I pitched an article about Trump’s hate-filled campaign rallies to our editor Brian Anderson. “We’re steering clear of that now,” he responded, no explanation offered. Thus, as the candidate least tethered to the free-market principles the Manhattan Institute was founded on surged toward the Republican nomination, he became almost unmentionable in the pages of City Journal.

It was baffling to me, but I decided to shrug it off and, instead, published pieces at the Daily Beast and New York Daily News warning about the destructiveness of Trump’s grievance-based, populist movement. Since there was virtually no chance Trump would actually win the presidency, I consoled myself that this too would pass.

After the shock of the election results sunk in I assumed that City Journal couldn’t just ignore the danger to the country now emanating from the highest office in the land. Once again I was naïve. Writers who wanted to sound the alarm about the new President were still muzzled; in fact, the magazine published a number of articles welcoming the Trump ascendancy. Even Heather Mac Donald now allowed that, bad character and all, Trump was doing the right thing on important issues like law enforcement and immigration.

At this point I became convinced there was editorial interference coming from the boardroom. Two suspects came to mind. The first was the Manhattan Institute’s chairman, Paul Singer. The hedge fund billionaire was the Board of Trustees’ biggest yearly donor ($525,000 in 2016) as well as one of the Republican Party’s most generous and influential funders. During the primary season Singer went all in for Marco Rubio, even warning that if “[Trump] gets elected president it’s close to a guarantee of a global depression.” Singer then secretly bankrolled an anti-Trump opposition research project conducted for The Washington Free Beacon by Fusion GPS, the same firm that later was hired by the Clinton campaign and produced the infamous Steele dossier.

The November electoral earthquake forced Singer to make amends. He contributed $1,000,000 to the Trump inauguration and paid an atonement visit to the White House. After the meeting, President Trump thanked Singer “for being here and for coming up to the office. He was a very strong opponent, and now he’s a very strong ally.” Singer then began contributing to Trump’s political war chest.

Second, the number two donor among the trustees ($450,000) was Rebekah Mercer, daughter of another hedge-fund billionaire, Robert Mercer. Ms. Mercer was the principle funder of Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, the country’s most prominent media purveyor of coy white nationalism. Breitbart once launched a vicious attack on Manhattan Institute board member William Kristol, calling him a “renegade Jew.” Meanwhile Rebekah Mercer called Bannon “one of the greatest living defenders of liberty.”

After initially supporting Ted Cruz, Mercer switched Republican horses. She and her father poured more than $15 million into the Trump campaign—twice as much as the next highest donor. After the party convention she advised Trump to dump Paul Manafort as campaign chairman and hire Steve Bannon—a strategic move that some observers thought helped carry Trump to victory in November. Bannon became a senior advisor to the President, and Mercer was named to a key position on the executive committee for the Trump transition.

I could see the writing on the wall. It wasn’t the first time that I was blocked from writing about some issues because of pressure from donors. But this was different. The board’s top two funders were now entangled with a presidency that I believed was a national catastrophe in the making. To remain at City Journal would mean accepting that my once cherished magazine had moved from standing on the sidelines while Trump captured the Republican Party—troubling enough—to legitimizing the new President’s disruptive right-wing populism. Since I had no way of protesting City Journal’s capitulation to Trump from within the ranks, I decided to break ranks.

In October 2017, I submitted my letter of resignation to Brian Anderson and to the Manhattan Institute’s president Larry Mone, with copies sent to six of the magazine’s veteran writers. The action I was taking, I wrote, “now seems to be the only way for me to protest the magazine’s intellectual abdication on the most urgent crisis facing the nation today; the election of an unfit, dangerous man to the presidency.”

I also protested the role of Rebekah Mercer on the Board of Trustees, calling her “an accomplice in one of the most malignant political movements in the country [who] has weaponized what Steve Bannon calls his ‘killing machine,’ now wreaking havoc inside the Republican Party and trying to destroy the decent conservatism that first drew me to City Journal.”

Almost three years later, I find myself  locked down in the midst of an American public health emergency turned far more deadly because of President Trump’s character flaws, his serial dishonesty, and his self-dealing, exacerbated by his Administration’s demonstrable incompetence. Anyone can easily review the tapes to see that Trump first poured gasoline on the flames of the pandemic by denying its seriousness and then launching a brazen disinformation campaign to convince the American people that everything he did (or declined to do) was “perfect.”

Donald Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” Instead he drained the federal government of talent and institutional memory (see Michael Lewis’s prescient book, The Fifth Risk) while turning the White House into a sewer of corruption. Americans looking for a competent national government to lead the response to the pandemic discovered that (apologies to Gertrude Stein) “there is no there there.”

It’s useless to continue blaming Trump alone for the country’s predicament. He is who he is, which is exactly who he was and will always be. The same 22-year-old who dodged the draft by lying about his medical status went on to become the commander-in-chief who went AWOL during a dire national emergency.

Trump’s lack of fitness for the presidency was entirely predictable. What was unforeseen was the moral collapse in the face of the gathering storm by conservative activists and intellectuals. The Trump seduction happened at so many distinguished conservative thought centers and magazines that it led some Never Trumpers like Max Boot to conclude retrospectively that there was something amiss in the DNA of American conservatism that made the movement susceptible to a repellent figure like Trump. Others conservative opponents of Trump have argued that Trump’s conquest of their movement is a historical aberration and continue to hope for the revival of decent conservatism.

I will leave it to future historians to fully explain Trump’s success in high jacking American conservatism. What follows is, instead, the story of  what I witnessed at one reputable conservative institution, a think tank where donor money weighed heavily and writers were prohibited from writing about certain subjects—which culminated in my former colleagues’ intellectual surrender to Trumpism.

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Studies opened its doors in midtown Manhattan in 1978. The founders were an odd pair: a wealthy former Battle of Britain fighter pilot and businessman named Antony Fisher and Wall Street powerhouse William Casey (who soon became Ronald Reagan’s CIA director). Fisher was a disciple of Friedrich A. Hayek, author of the classical economics tract The Road to Serfdom. He established a British think tank promoting Hayek’s ideal of a rules-based, international order of free market, open societies. Partnering with Bill Casey, Fisher had the audacity to launch a version of the Hayekian think tank in the belly of the beast of modern, welfare-state liberalism.

My own journey to the Manhattan Institute likewise followed a somewhat unusual path. In 1965 I was a UC Berkeley graduate student caught up in the campus Free Speech Movement. I then abandoned my doctoral studies to join the radical muckraking magazine Ramparts, where I wrote about the counter-culture and the anti-war movement, and covered the riotous 1968 presidential campaign. My biggest hit for the magazine was an investigative piece exposing the CIA’s secret funding of the National Student Association that garnered the George Polk award for journalism.

After an internal coup at Ramparts the new editors steered the magazine even closer to the radical left. They made common cause with Tom Hayden, the firebrand anti-war leader who met with the Vietnamese communists and was now urging the protest movement to “bring the war back home.” That was a bridge too far for me, and I drifted away from the magazine.

Continuing my career as a freelance journalist, I wrote frequently for The New York Times Magazine in the 1970s and reported for the paper on the Yom Kippur war from the Golan Heights. I also served as the Israel correspondent for the New Statesman. In the 1980s I was a regular contributor to The Village Voice.

The Voice had a deserved reputation as one of the more provocative and radical publications in New York journalism, but in my day it was also admirably open to diverse points of view. I was among the more politically centrist of its writers, sometimes even criticizing the liberal pieties of the other regulars at the paper. In my writing I was gradually evolving toward a moderate conservatism. For my tastes, my old comrades on the left had now turned too anti-anti-communist and unjustly critical of Israel.

In 1996, I published a long-form essay in City Journal about the success of the city’s Catholic schools. The piece argued for expanding school-choice programs, including vouchers, that would allow poor children stuck in failing public schools to attend parochial schools that worked. My article was excerpted in The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times columnist John Tierney soon wrote that I had “started the current debate” over school choice in New York City.

Within a few months I became a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and contributing editor of City Journal—the first time since leaving Ramparts that I was getting a regular paycheck for my journalism. At the institute’s gala fundraising dinner later that year, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Roger Hertog, cited my writing on education as an example of the contributions the institute’s “scholars” were making to the city.

City Journal gave me a second life in journalism and apparently I was even having some influence. Because of my reporting on the city’s awful labor contract with the teacher’s union, I was asked to serve as an informal adviser to the Giuliani administration as it prepared to negotiate a new agreement with the United Federation of Teachers. I knew my articles were having an impact when union president Randi Weingarten denounced me as a “demagogue” in the UFT newspaper.

I attributed a lot of my success to Myron Magnet, City Journal’s editor during my first decade at the magazine. With his side whiskers, horn-rimmed glasses, and impeccable striped suits, he looked like a character out of Dickens. He was the best editor I ever had, exacting in his standards while nevertheless encouraging me to take on almost any subject that piqued my interest.

I cherished our magazine’s lively editorial meetings with talented writers and public intellectuals such as Heather Mac Donald, Kay Hymowitz, Fred Siegel, and Steve Malanga. Half the writers and editors around the table had PhDs or J.D.s, and the sessions sometimes felt like a graduate-school seminar in the history of ideas.

Magnet was fiercely protective of City Journal’s editorial independence. One year, at the magazine’s holiday party, held at the luxurious east side home of a Manhattan Institute trustee, our editor gave a little talk in which he cited one of my articles criticizing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stewardship of the city’s public schools. The problem was that the mayor had been invited to the party and was standing within earshot of Magnet. Bloomberg asked for his coat and left in a huff. The scuttlebutt after the party was that some members of the institute’s Board of Trustees were not thrilled that our editor had dissed the richest man in New York.

The Manhattan Institute’s annual budget ($22 million by the time I resigned) came almost entirely from conservative foundations or our wealthy trustees, all receiving hefty tax deductions under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. I assumed that the big donors would have some influence on the general direction of the institute. It didn’t occur to me that this might also extend to the editorial content of City Journal. During Myron Magnet’s tenure it never did—at least I didn’t see any evidence that it did.

Then, one day in 2007, without any warning, Magnet was out of the editor’s chair. His abrupt dismissal at a time when City Journal was flourishing felt ominous, in part because it was never explained or even officially announced by the Manhattan Institute’s management. Yet it was common knowledge among the senior writers that Magnet’s relations with some of the trustees had soured, apparently because he had fought too hard to maintain the magazine’s independence.

Magnet himself declined to discuss the affair. He was kept on as a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, was still listed as editor at large on the masthead, and continued writing for the magazine. But he never showed up again at our monthly editorial meetings. Brian Anderson, Magnet’s deputy, was immediately appointed as City Journal’s new editor.

The erosion of City Journal’s editorial independence might be dated from Magnet’s dismissal, but it didn’t happen overnight. Anderson had apprenticed under Magnet, was a serious public intellectual and writer in his own right, and seemed as committed as his mentor was to the magazine’s tradition of freedom for its writers.

Our new editor was soon tested on that score. For the Winter 2008 issue, he gave me the green light to write a long, somewhat revisionist essay on education reform titled “School Choice Isn’t Enough.” I reported on the mounting evidence showing that poor kids in urban districts with robust voucher programs hadn’t made the academic gains we had hoped for. I urged the school reform movement to get behind a grade-by-grade, knowledge-based curriculum such as the one championed by the education theorist E.D. Hirsch.

The Manhattan Institute’s President Larry Mone had a small temper tantrum after the article was published. It wasn’t that Mone objected to my piece on the merits, but according to two staff members I spoke with, he was rattled by the phone calls he received from donors expressing concern that the institute was backing away from all-out support of voucher programs. Sharply critical letters, some accusing me of apostasy, arrived at the magazine from leading figures in the school-choice movement.

Anderson handled the matter deftly. He posted my original article as well as all of the critical letters, plus supporting letters from Hirsch and the education historian Diane Ravitch, as well as my own extended response on the magazine’s website. I thought this was exactly what a magazine of ideas was supposed to do—engage in a serious conversation about serious issues.

Anderson’s judgment appeared to be vindicated when I was contacted by New York Times education reporter Jennifer Medina. She told me she was writing about the reaction to my City Journal article within the school reform movement. Naturally I was delighted, and we set a time and place for an interview.

Larry Mone wasn’t happy at all. He told me he was worried that further coverage of the school-choice debate would stir the pot again and remind the donors about my heretical ideas. Mone even tried, unsuccessfully, to coax me into backing out of the scheduled meeting with Medina.

The Times’s profile turned out to be complimentary, describing me as a “contrarian” whose ideas on education were “heard” at Mike Bloomberg’s City Hall. But it was also good for the Manhattan Institute, or so I thought. After all, the country’s leading liberal newspaper was showcasing a conservative think tank honoring its principles, allowing its writers the freedom to have second thoughts and engage in relevant debates about important public policy issues.

Once again, I felt somewhat reassured about City Journal’s editorial independence. But the feeling didn’t last very long. The following year I received the go-ahead from Anderson to write a review essay focused on Charles Murray’s recently released book, Real Education. My proposed article seemed like a no-brainer because Murray was a legendary figure at the Manhattan Institute. His first book, Losing Ground, written while he was a senior fellow at the institute in 1984, had a big impact on the national debate about welfare policy and also helped establish the new think tank’s reputation. (The Manhattan Institute declined to back Murray’s next controversial book, The Bell Curve, but that’s part of another story.)

I thought Murray’s new book deserved attention because it challenged the “educational romanticism” behind many current reform ideas (including school choice) for improving schools. In commenting on Murray’s analysis, I reiterated my view that it was unrealistic to expect that voucher programs alone would magically transform American K-12 education and reduce the racial achievement gap.

Anderson did a final edit on my piece, pronounced it “very powerful,” and scheduled it for the Winter 2009 issue. A few days before the magazine was set to go to print, I received an e-mail from Anderson informing me that he was getting “a nervous reaction from higher-ups, which could cause some problems,” and that he was being summoned to an urgent meeting with Larry Mone.

In Anderson’s office the next day I was informed by Howard Husock, the Manhattan Institute’s vice president for research and a former Harvard professor, that my article had been spiked. He told me that the article was too pessimistic and that “M.I. is for vouchers and school choice,” full stop.

Five years later, I hit another pothole, this time over a book I’d written defending the Common Core education standards. Even though the institute had nothing to do with my arrangement with the publisher, several high-level staff members obtained the galleys prior to the book’s publication in order to scrutinize it for another possible act of heresy. They discovered that my text criticized some conservatives who had reflexively rejected the Common Core standards on the dubious grounds that they had been forced on America’s schools by the Obama Administration. Executive Vice President Vanessa Mendoza was disturbed that one of the critics I took issue with was conservative icon George Will.

In a telephone conversation, Mendoza told me that since Will had been “a good friend” of the institute, I should cut or change the passage. I refused to make the change.

Two months later, I was removed as a Manhattan Institute senior fellow without any explanation. I stayed on as a City Journal contributing editor and continued to write for the magazine and the website. Not, however, on school choice. And never about candidate Trump or President Trump.

The Winter 2017 issue of City Journal came out a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration. The lead article, by the military historian and classicist, Victor Davis Hanson, was titled “Trump and The American Divide.” In my view, the essay was a clever exercise in historicism in which Trump’s emergence as tribune for millions of culturally besieged Americans living in the heartland appears almost inevitable. Trump is rendered morally legitimate, despite his personal flaws, because he is propelled by a historic resurgence of American populism. As in Hanson’s more polemical defenses of Trump, he sprinkled his City Journal essay with learned references to major figures in Greek and Roman antiquity—Theocritus, Virgil, Thucydides, Cicero, Plato, and the Pythagoreans—intended to steamroll less erudite readers into accepting Trump’s rise in the aura of precedence.

Hanson’s essay was certainly worthy of further debate. But, by this time, there was no discussion allowed in City Journal about this critical issue for the country. The historical validation of Trump thus became our magazine’s default position. For a journal of ideas, this was a dereliction of duty.

Nobody asked me, but if I had been asked, I would have said that this also represented a betrayal of the Hayekian principles that the Manhattan Institute was founded on. F.A. Hayek abhorred populist movements of both the left and right. The good society, he insisted, was built on property rights, free markets, and free trade. Beyond these essential economic arrangements, Hayek stressed the need for the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the slow, steady process of parliamentary give and take. Hayek also happened to be a confirmed globalist. Not exactly the values that Donald Trump was bringing to the White House.

For the next few months, I agonized about what to do about the conspiracy of silence at my magazine. I expressed my displeasure a few times directly to Brian Anderson and a few other writers, but with no apparent effect. As President Trump continued to demonstrate his lack of fitness for office, I knew I had to make a more forceful statement.

In my October 2017 resignation letter I expressed hope that there might still be an internal conversation about City Journal’s political direction in the Trump era. Three of the senior writers whom I copied on the letter appeared to agree. In an e-mail one writer said, “I hope your letter will spark the internal debate you seek, which is long overdue.” Another said, “That is a very powerfully expressed letter, which I am sure will get no response.” The third writer echoed my complaint about the lack of debate on Trump and sent links to two articles mildly critical of the President that hadn’t been allowed in the magazine.

Larry Mone didn’t answer my letter, but the institute’s vice president, Howard Husock, responded in an email: “I don’t think City Journal has ever really been an overtly political journal and would not help matters much today by becoming one.”

This was news to me, since a good part of my own writing for the magazine consisted of sharp political criticism of mayors, governors, and presidents (most of them Democrats). And even as City Journal stayed out of the fray over Trump during the 2016 election, it had continued to savage President Obama.

In a thoughtful response, Brian Anderson defended the magazine’s stance on Trump: “Conservative fusionism now must include a populist dimension, along with libertarians and the religious right. There were a lot of alienated Americans whose concerns were being ignored, and worse, they found themselves being sneered at contemptuously by elite culture. Conservatives need to figure out how to bring those people back into the argument, without embracing irrational and destructive policies.”

I welcomed Anderson’s candor. I agreed that elite conservatism tethered to the interests of Wall Street had become increasingly out of touch with the plight of ordinary Americans, including the working class. I would have welcomed a serious debate in our magazine about whether an unscrupulous character like Trump could lead a healthy populist revival within the Republican Party.

But any chance of continuing the conversation was shattered when my resignation became public. (I hadn’t intended that, at least not yet, but I had forgotten that everything leaks these days.) Bari Weiss, a staff writer for The New York Times opinion page, called me and announced that she had my letter and intended to write about similar disputes over Trump at several conservative think tanks. I agreed to be interviewed about my resignation.

Weiss’s article, titled “The Trump Debate Inside Conservative Citadels,” cited several unnamed staff writers who agreed with my complaints about suppressing debate at the magazine. But rather than acknowledging that City Journal had moved somewhat toward supporting Trump and defending his brand of conservatism, Larry Mone dissembled to the Times. “When we think the administration is right, we write about it. When we think they are wrong, we write about it.”

I had some sympathy for Brian Anderson’s predicament. He wasn’t the source of the censorship I was subjected to over my education articles, and I understood that he was walking a tightrope on the Trump issue. He could ill afford to provoke our two powerful trustees now heavily invested in the Trump presidency. He was feeling heat from the Manhattan Institute’s managers (the “higher-ups,” as he called them during the Charles Murray affair) who in my view were more preoccupied with fundraising and public relations than with defending City Journal’s independence or the institute’s founding principles.

To make matters worse, Paul Singer had now jumped into the fray. Several sources at the magazine told me that the board chairman was pressuring Larry Mone to tighten control over City Journal and its writers. Some staff writers were told that they had to submit articles intended for publication in other outlets for review by management first, and they were warned to “steer clear” of sensitive issues, including criticism of President Trump’s tax cuts or corruption within the Administration.

One writer was discouraged from submitting an article only marginally critical of Trump to another publication. “Larry would melt down,” the writer was told. Another staff member wrote to me in an email, “You have no idea how bad it’s gotten. Every word is now parsed by committee before being published anywhere…all they see is Trump!”

Another subject deemed taboo for City Journal’s writers was gun control. After a surge of deadly mass shootings at schools, shopping malls, and places of worship, there was widespread debate in the media about reasonable restrictions on gun ownership. According to two sources, it was Paul Singer who blocked any discussion of gun control as a remedy for the American carnage.

In retrospect, it wasn’t entirely surprising that our board chairman would intervene in the editorial content at an enterprise like Manhattan Institute. Singer is one of the world’s most feared “activist” investors, someone who takes an ownership stake in a public company and then pressures the firm’s management into making changes that boost his own or his clients’ returns. Journalists across the political spectrum, from Greg Palast on the left to Rod Dreher and Tucker Carlson on the right, have described Singer’s investment strategy as “vulture capitalism.” Financial reporters for The New Yorker and Fortune revealed one case after another in which Singer’s hedge fund went to what both magazines described as ethically questionable lengths to achieve its financial goals.

In fairness, it should be mentioned that there is another, more charitable side to Paul Singer. In 2018 he received the William Simon prize for Philanthropic Leadership from the Philanthropy Roundtable. The award cited Singer’s support for many good causes, including his commitment to “enhancing and protecting intellectual diversity and the marketplace of ideas on college campuses.”

Yet I detected no evidence of Singer’s support for “intellectual diversity” at City Journal. Instead I saw an “activist” donor who intervened in the editorial decisions of the magazine and often got his way on issues important to him, including gun rights, tax cuts, and fealty to the President of the United States.

Nine months after my resignation, Larry Mone abruptly announced he was leaving the Manhattan Institute. After a six-month search, Paul Singer announced that Reihan Salam, a wunderkind of conservative journalism and the executive editor of National Review, would be the institute’s next president. Salam was a serious public intellectual who had written two well-received books, one on immigration and one on the Republican Party (co-authored with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat).

That put Salam in an altogether different league from his predecessor, who had no record of intellectual accomplishment and was  an easy pushover for Singer and other influential donors. I dared hope that Salam’s appointment signaled some overdue changes in the governing culture at the Manhattan Institute.

I was even more intrigued after reading Salam’s declaration on his website that, as a National Review editor, he had commissioned articles “from libertarian conservatives, cosmopolitan libertarians, centrist neoliberals, national developmentalists, and egalitarian nationalists who hold clashing opinions.” Salam’s statement that he actually valued “clashing opinions” made me think that something finally had to give.

(After my resignation I had moved on, doing some writing for other magazines and working on a long delayed memoir. But I still had a journalistic interest in how my old colleagues would respond—indeed if they ever would respond—to the unraveling of the Trump Administration.)

Unfortunately, during Salam’s first year, I didn’t notice much change. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. government’s response to the worst national emergency since World War II. Surely, I thought, City Journal’s editors and writers would now have to take a critical look at the Trump Administration’s performance, to fairly assess whether the President had fulfilled his constitutional obligation to protect the nation.

City Journal’s coverage of the health crisis was massive. As of the end of June, as many as 80 articles had been published on the website, plus a special issue of the print magazine devoted entirely to the pandemic. Many of the articles were incisive. However, in the entire collection, there was hardly a mention of President Trump’s role in the crisis. Only one piece, written by an outside contributor, cited the President’s slow response to the crisis. Yet even that minor criticism was rendered moot when the writer falsely claimed that Trump’s performance was no worse than that of any other world leader.

The special issue carried the title “World War Virus” on the cover and was blurbed by Manhattan Institute’s publicity department as “of historical importance.” If this was history it was Orwellian history, as if a group of editors and writers had produced an account of America without assessing the role of the nation’s commander-in-chief at the height of World War II.

It wasn’t that the writers lacked the appropriate vocabulary to evaluate President Trump’s leadership during the health crisis. An article by associate editor Seth Barron blasted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s performance during the crisis as “a daily exercise in justification, accountability denial and self-aggrandizement. Never shy about trumpeting his insipid accomplishments as the city teeters on the edge of disaster, the mayor has assumed an alternating tone of paternalism, victimhood and self-righteous vindication.”

City Journal’s savage takedown of Gotham’s mayor was published on May 13. By that date, everyone in the country except for Trump’s tribal loyalists could see that the President’s briefings on the coronavirus had also become “a daily exercise in justification, accountability denial and self-aggrandizement.” Indeed, the briefings became so embarrassing that they had to be scrapped. And soon afterward President Trump decided to ignore the virus entirely.

In the first week of June, City Journal shifted its coverage away from the pandemic toward the outbreak of urban unrest sweeping the country after the police killing of George Floyd. The magazine covered every aspect of this second American crisis, but once again never mentioned the President’s response. No comment about the Trump Administration’s use of force against peaceful protesters in front of the White House, or the Hollywood-style photo-op of the President posing as a Roman emperor holding up a bible instead of a scepter. Not a word about the dangerous rift between the U.S. military establishment and the White House.

Yet in the midst of these ongoing crises, contributing editor Judy Miller opined in City Journal on the dangers of “woke” culture and self-censorship. “The impulse to self-censor, however powerful in such politically polarized times, is deadly to any vibrant culture, no matter how seemingly compelling its justification. It must be resisted,” Miller concluded.

Everything in my old friend’s indictment of liberal cancel culture rang true to me. Unfortunately, my former City Journal colleagues, both writers and editors, were among those unable to resist the impulse to self-censorship. They were now bound by a code of silence on an American President’s out-of-control behavior during a national emergency. This was an act of intellectual betrayal that further damaged the cause of principled conservatism—or whatever’s left of it in the era of Trump.

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Sol Stern spent two decades as a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and City Journal contributing editor. He is now an independent, freelance writer and is working on a political memoir.

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