November 21, 2018

Bret Stephens takes on Donald Trump

I’ve been to almost all of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lectures. They take place at UCLA and feature notable journalists who speak in honor of the late Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Islamic extremists kidnapped Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002 and later murdered him.

All of these lectures have been good; two stand out.

On March 3, 2010, the late Christopher Hitchens spoke of the rising tide of anti-Semitism. What seemed a bit of a stretch at the time now reads like an exhortation from the future, delivered in the past.

Last week, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens gave the 2017 Daniel Pearl Lecture. By now, many of you have read the essay on the internet, or seen his delivery of it on YouTube.  For those of you who weren’t actually there, you need to know a few things.

As the audience members filtered into the 400-seat Korn Hall, a screen onstage displayed a montage of the life of Danny Pearl: Danny celebrating Passover on a train in China. Danny playing violin with friends. A 10-year-old Danny clowning around the family swimming pool in Encino.

When the speaker took the lectern, the screen behind him filled with a large picture of Danny, in a tie, looking bright, curious and open.

It’s a way of memorializing a remarkable journalist, who dedicated his foreshortened life to helping his readers better understand the world as it is. But it’s a reminder, too, that we live in a world of real danger and that many journalists risk their lives in pursuit of finding the truth.

Stephens took the podium the same week the 45th president of the United States called some of the leading journalists in this country, “the enemy of the people.”

It fell to Stephens, a conservative, to defend his profession, to fight against five dumb words with thousands of thoughtful ones.

Donald Trump, he said, “is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. … His objection to, say, The New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.”

Then Stephens described what happens when people are confronted by a barrage of such untruths.

“The first is that we normalize it, simply by becoming inured to constant repetition of the same bad behavior,” he said.

We also are excited and entertained by it, Stephens said, or we judge it not by an objective standard, but by how it plays.

The fourth point, Stephens said, is the most painful. And it answers a question that has been plaguing me: Why are intelligent people, people I respect, afraid to criticize and oppose this man?

“Watching this process unfold has been particularly painful for me as a conservative columnist,” Stephens said. “I find myself in the awkward position of having recently become popular among some of my liberal peers — precisely because I haven’t changed my opinions about anything.

“By contrast, I’ve become suddenly unpopular among some of my former fans on the right — again, because I’ve stuck to my views. …  The most painful aspect of this has been to watch people I previously considered thoughtful and principled conservatives give themselves over to a species of illiberal politics from which I once thought they were immune.”

Stephens compared what is happening to many Republicans and conservatives to what happened under Communist regimes, which had a similar relation to truth.

“It has been stunning to watch a movement that once believed in the benefits of free trade and free enterprise merrily give itself over to a champion of protectionism whose economic instincts recall the corporatism of 1930s Italy or 1950s Argentina,” he said. “It is no less stunning to watch people who once mocked [Barack] Obama for being too soft on Russia suddenly discover the virtues of Trump’s ‘pragmatism’ on the subject.

“And it is nothing short of amazing to watch the party of onetime moral majoritarians, who spent a decade fulminating about Bill Clinton’s sexual habits, suddenly find complete comfort with the idea that character and temperament are irrelevant qualifications for high office.”

For these Trump supporters, Stephens said, “There’s the same desperate desire for political influence; the same belief that Trump represents a historical force to which they ought to belong; the same willingness to bend or discard principles they once considered sacred; the same fear of seeming out of touch with the mood of the public; the same tendency to look the other way at comments or actions that they cannot possibly justify; the same belief that you do more good by joining than by opposing; the same Manichean belief that, if Hillary Clinton had been elected, the United States would have all but ended as a country.

“This is supposed to be the road of pragmatism, of turning lemons into lemonade. I would counter that it’s the road of ignominy, of hitching a ride with a drunk driver.”

If you weren’t there, you would have missed the long ovation, a cathartic relief, that followed Stephens’ speech — applause for Stephens, applause in defiance of Trump, applause for Daniel Pearl, smiling on the big screen.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.