Some years ago, academics and legal and political commentators began joining in a lament that eventually became a kind of trope: “What the heck has happened to Jonathan Turley?” The sad refrain recalled that George Washington University law professor Turley was once a serious and respected legal scholar—a civil libertarian who often constructively criticized liberal cant –and then observed that he had turned his energy into appearing all over the media, but especially welcomed the chance to be on Fox News. Turley, who acknowledges that he is a paid Fox News contributor, began to regularly pop up on the Fox shows that purport to be journalistic, but also the clownishly right-wing Fox & Friends in the morning and then the demagogic right-wing propaganda evening programming. He presented himself as a kind of Alan Dershowitz with table manners—his stance was that of one of the last remaining “principled liberals” speaking truth to leftist power.
Turley reports that he voted for Obama in 2008. Nevertheless, and no doubt with poignant reluctance, he launched a series of attacks on the Obama administration. His shtick involved saying things that pretty much reinforced the Fox News conservative meme of the day, but with a genteel tone, inflected with a kind of tragic regret that he was intellectually and morally obliged to say these things to keep liberals honest and American discourse civilized. He surely knew that regardless of the exact words he uttered himself, what the Fox audience heard was always going to be “Famed liberal legal scholar agrees with what Fox News hosts are saying about how awful liberals are.”
But now the “What the heck happened?” trope needs an update. In the last few years, starting during the heat of Donald Trump’s first impeachment saga in 2019, the Turley phenomenon has gone from odd to puzzling to disturbing. The tonal pretense is still that he is the rare Burkean honest man, horrified that politics have become too contentious and law too political. But his earlier interest in showing up on Fox News and in chastising Democrats and liberals has become, well, compulsive and obsessive. Not just in his Fox News appearances but also in his prolific tweets and blog posts, we see Republican sycophancy rendered in a sober scholarly tone with pearl-clutching sanctimonious nostalgia for some pre-political era of American law. There is the unintentionally comical self-referential stuff (roughly translated: “As readers of my earlier columns will recall,” or “When I was honored to be asked to testify before Congress,” or “The court has now agreed with the position I earlier expressed”). But a newer reader of Turley might conclude that he now actually despises Democrats in a venomous way.
Turley gleefully reports court decisions that go against Biden or other Democrats—and almost never or barely mentions any that the GOP loses. While his supposed added value is legal expertise, he takes time to chortle at random Biden gaffes. But what about the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world? Well, he has mentioned her, but it was to argue that the calls to disqualify her from Congress were unsound. He virtually second-chairs the Trump lawyers fighting searches and subpoenas, or the defense of Jan. 6 figures facing indictment. Oh, he does the occasional feint the other way, reminding us, say, that he once said that there were some crimes at the Capitol.
A related role for Turley is, as he puts it, a Free Speech Absolutist or Internet Originalist. Calling out every offense to these principles—and asserting that the public/private distinction should not matter—he has treated Elon Musk as a savior. Of course, the left gives plenty of fodder when it says foolish things about obviously protected speech being too harmful to be tolerated—especially on college campuses. But almost every day, Turley plays the anti-left Paul Revere on this, again with the occasional reassuring reminder that somewhere a while back he noted that a leftist was censored. Read enough of Turley’s pronouncements on this subject and you might begin to think that maybe the cure for bad speech really IS less speech.
For those (very sane) people who don’t have the time to keep up on the evolution of the Turley oeuvre, here is a recent, short Turley post that distills the essence of the Turley vision as well as “Ode on a Grecian Urn” did for Keats’. It’s his “Winners and Losers” takeaway from the 2022 midterms in the New York Post last week, and it brings the rhetorical maneuver of the non sequitur to the highest artistic level.
Turley’s midterm quandary—how to boost the poor performance by the party he has loyally served as academically credentialed propagandist and opposition researcher—is unenviable. And so we must admire the almost-subtlety with which he gleans the key midterm takeaway—that the real midterm winner is people who profess to play the middle while sticking sharply to the right, such as … Jonathan Turley:
Despite the rivaling predictions of red waves and blue walls, the night showed what was always abundantly clear: We are still a deeply divided country. Congress will reflect that division in terms of power distribution — and that may be a good thing.
Turley confidently concludes that by giving the GOP an embarrassingly low margin of control in the House and a near-tie in the Senate, voters fulfilled his noble dream of a sanely nonpolitical politics and preservation of purity of the law. But wait, what happened to “division” among the country’s voters? Turley says this:
Once again, voters preferred divided government with a Congress willing and able to challenge a president rather than remain a pure pedestrian in the exercise of governance. There’s now a moving part in Congress that’s been dormant for two years. As those institutional gears engage, checks and balances will again force greater accountability and exposure in the constitutional system.
So, for Turley, the miserable GOP performance shows that the voters wanted divided government in the good ol’ checks and balances way. But what will a divided government look like with a House of Representatives in which the Freedom Caucus and the likes of Reps. Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Paul Gosar demand influence that a feckless Kevin McCarthy tries to resist? Well, Turley informs us, without actually identifying any similarly radical Democrats, that extremism is an issue for both parties!
The problem is that so few true moderates remain in Congress. The result is that while the country remains moderate, Congress will again not reflect that broad center.
Ah, the people agree with Turley’ s moderation (along with politely divided government). But faithless politicians sow the polarized version of divided government. (Don’t ask which side most of those faithless politicians are on and who elected them.) Certainly, the real issue in Turley’s world is not that politicians act polarized to appeal to a polarized public—goaded on by media platforms like Fox News and commentators like Turley—and not that it was the especially nutty polarized positions of some GOP candidates that led to the numbers just happening to come out the way they did. Turley’s worldview always prevails, no matter what the actual facts on the ground say.
Take another one of Turley’s big winners, constitutionalism, again under threat by generic politicians (all of whom happen to be Democrats):
The last two years have seen frontal assaults on constitutional values ranging from separation of powers to free speech. Democrats applauded, for example, as President Joe Biden unilaterally waived roughly $500 billion in loans owed to the American people. While courts repeatedly found Biden to have violated the Constitution, Congress remained conspicuously silent even as it joined the president in declaring Republicans threats to the Constitution.
In an August New York Times column, “The Constitution Is Broken and Should Not Be Reclaimed,” law professors Ryan D. Doerfler of Harvard and Samuel Moyn of Yale called for our founding charter to be “radically altered” to “reclaim America from constitutionalism.” It’s safe to say voters effectively reclaimed constitutionalism from such extremist voices.
Here, Turley purports to speak in general terms about assaults on constitutional values. But for him the only assailants worth mentioning are Democrats, and the issues he mentions are ones of reasonable debate, rather than clear-cut constitutional violations, like, say, sending a mob of violent supporters to attack the Capitol and try to seize power after an election loss. On the whole, our current factionalism is entirely blamed on one side, and that happens to be the side he’s paid to criticize.
Another of Turley’s winners, despite all evidence to the contrary, is the Supreme Court:
For two years, the left has targeted the nation’s highest court with calls for packing it. Polls have long showed this movement was contained almost entirely within the far left. Yet attacking the court and its justices was an article of faith for many Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called for raw court packing. While the attacks are likely to continue, the shift in Congress will put an end to such radical proposals.
Ah, in rejecting historic anti-SCOTUS demagoguery, the voters fulfilled Turley’s dream of public appreciation of the utterly nonpolitical Supreme Court as a genteel academic seminar. Not that (a) court packing pretty much never got mentioned in the Democratic campaign, and (b) these Democrats did shockingly well, and (c) what did demonstrably help the Democrats was one Supreme Court decision that vast numbers of voters (especially young women) viewed as proof that the Supreme Court had been corrupted by right-wing ideology—namely the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and ending the constitutional right to an abortion.
Now Turley’s losers:
The media: Outlets, in framing the election, consistently echoed Democrats’ narratives — yet failed to deliver them victory. The media now face the prospect of inquiries that could further erode voter trust.
This was published one day after last week’s midterms, and so perhaps pre-written before the almost universally acknowledged Republican failure in this election had become so widespread, so maybe Turley was getting ahead of himself. Or maybe he’s just delusional.
The Bidens: After successfully avoiding any media or congressional scrutiny of their alleged influence peddling, time is up for the Bidens. Despite Attorney General Merrick Garland’s refusal to appoint a special counsel, they will face investigations launched with the full authority of the Oversight Committee. Garland will also confront demands to show the same aggressive prosecution of contempt of Congress when Biden associates are the subject of such referrals.
Background to this: For at least two years, one of Turley’s most obsessive obsessions has been to play Javert to Hunter Biden’s laptop. (He was also co-Javert to John Durham’s effort to nail a lot of bad guys, and when that effort embarrassingly flopped, Turley only barely acknowledged the failure.) Now, to be sure, Hunter Biden may indeed be in big legal trouble and a Jim Jordan–led House Judiciary Committee will doubtless make the life of the president’s son (and of Garland) miserable. Indeed, the first thing Republicans did after winning the House was hold a press conference on Thursday announcing their various planned show hearings into the Bidens. But since the chances of the House going to the GOP were always in the 90-plus percent range, this was all baked in the cake. The election shows that the Democrats came miraculously close to thwarting this, and even now Jordan’s efforts may be weakened by roiling GOP infighting in the House.
But for Turley, a key takeaway of the election is that, well, by a tiny margin, the GOP got this almost guaranteed opportunity just barely across the finish line.
That’s what constitutes center-of-the-road commentary, according to Turley-vision, right there. It’s easy to imagine Turley seeing in this “moderate” outcome the delicious opportunity to second-chair the case against the laptop. Because the chief beneficiary of Jonathan Turley’s ideological evolution has always been and will always be Jonathan Turley personally.