In Tuesday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, Jim VandeHei, the former CEO of Politico who left to start a still-mysterious new venture, has written one of the more clueless and despicable op-eds I have read from a current or former journalist. That it manages to be at once both sinister and utterly banal is its signal achievement.
VandeHei’s piece is ostensibly a common man’s plea for a responsible third party—one that would depart from the potential third-party paths laid out by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. In this and in this alone, it differs little from the Beltway pundits’ quadrennial exercise in hyperventilation over the prospect of a third-party candidacy. But VandeHei also puts forth some random and unfocused ideas that unite only around a bizarre combination of demagogy and Silicon Valley–driven innovation. Call it #Authoritarianism.
VandeHei begins by laying out his credentials. He assures us that he actually spends lots of time in blue-collar “Normal America.” Naturally, the places he mentions as being “normal”—Lincoln, Maine, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin—are small and more than 90 percent white. From this experience, VandeHei declares that “Normal America is right”: Washington “has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption.” These sentences, with their lazy assumptions about Washington mingling with the TED Talkese, achieve a sort of majesty in their bathos.
VandeHei then explains the problem with Sanders and Trump; one is a socialist, and the other is too vulgar, as if Trump’s language were the most offensive thing about him. VandeHei adds: “But if someone turned the critique, passion and disdain shared by the two movements into a new one, they could change the system in meaningful ways. Only an outside force can knock Washington out of its governing rut—and the presidency is the only place with the power to do it.” The rest of the piece offers a “template” for doing so.
And it’s here that the column starts rotating between the vapid and the creepy. The former comes in large doses, as VandeHei calls for “a true outsider” who will help “mandate that lawmakers … get outside of the D.C. bubble by holding months-long sessions in different sections of Normal America.” But amid this sort of dreary nonsense, VandeHei lets the mask drop here and there. “And exploit cable TV’s addiction to whatever is hot and new,” he writes. This is gross enough coming from someone in the media, but here is the next section, which is much worse, in full:
Exploit the fear factor. The candidate should be from the military or immediately announce someone with modern-warfare expertise or experience as running mate. People are scared. Terrorism is today’s World War and Americans want a theory for dealing with it. President Obama has established an intriguing precedent of using drone technology and intelligence to assassinate terrorists before they strike. A third-party candidate could build on death-by-drones by outlying the type of modern weapons, troops and war powers needed to keep America safe. And make plain when he or she will use said power. Do it with very muscular language—there is no market for nuance in the terror debate.
For a politician to call for the exploitation of fear is one thing. For someone in the media to call for it is another. For a media personality to call for it in the midst of a campaign that has seen unprecedented levels of bigotry and xenophobia is the ultimate monument to the Politico view of politics as a mindless exercise in signaling and brand management. (The bit about the ticket having military experience is a particularly nice touch.)
Perhaps fearing that he had reached his quota of fascistophilic appeals, VandeHei returns to banality, offering up such beauties as “Use the Internet revolution for the greater good.” He then adds, “Also, call on Silicon Valley technologist [sic] to do tours of service to bring data solutions and efficiencies to our aging governmental systems.” Terrific.
You can tell where this is headed, can’t you? “Why not recruit Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg to head a third-party movement?” VandeHei writes. “Maybe we can convince Michael Bloomberg to help fund the movement with the billions he planned to spend on his own campaign—and then recruit him to run Treasury and advise the president.” So essentially the only way to fix our broken country that has been screwed over by elites is to give more authority to three of the most powerful people in the country.
By the very end of the piece, the absurdity is so plain to see that you begin to wonder how VandeHei wrote any of it with a straight face. “I will even throw out a possible name for the movement,” he writes, generously. “The Innovation Party. Who is against innovation, especially when winning campaigns are almost always about the future?” Whatever else you want to say about him, VandeHei is an innovator. It takes a uniquely special mind to come up with an op-ed that is simultaneously so pointless and so perverse.