Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes are positioning themselves as responsible conservatives horrified by a channel that has gone too far. A look into their own histories suggests otherwise
Fox News commenters Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes resigned from the network this weekend in protest. The two said they could no longer work at an organization that promoted Donald Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories about 2020 election fraud. In particular, they pointed to Patriot Purge, hosted by Tucker Carlson, a Fox series about the January 6th insurrection that falsely and incoherently claims the American left is using government resources to imprison and torture noble right-wing patriots.
It’s important to have responsible voices on the right denouncing Fox. Conservative partisans, and Fox audiences, need to hear the truth from voices they trust. Trump and Fox are lying. The more people who say so that better. But it’s also important to remember that Goldberg and Hayes were themselves spreading lies and misinformation not that long ago.
There’s a tendency to frame latter-day opponents of Trump as responsible conservatives, representative of a healthy right tradition to which we need to return. In fact, though, people like Goldberg and Hayes paved the way for Trump and Carlson. We need a true estimation of the complicity of “responsible conservatives” if we want to know how we got Trump, and how we can get rid of him.
Jonah Goldberg is a longtime conservative pundit; he was a columnist at National Review until 2019. His first book, published in 2008, was titled Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Like the title says, the book claims — contrary to basically every responsible scholar — that Hitler’s Nazism was a far-left movement, rather than a far-right one.
Goldberg’s argument isn’t really an argument. It’s a troll. The book doesn’t attempt to contribute to scholarly discourse and understanding. It simply attempts to enrage the left.
More, Liberal Fascism is a by-now familiar exercise in projection and paranoid reversal. Trump claims that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election as a way to cover for his own attempts to steal the election. Similarly, Goldberg claimed the left were the real Nazis as a way to deflect discussions of the obvious links between historical fascism and the American right’s racist and nationalist rhetoric.
Stephen Hayes’ first book, published in 2004, was titled The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America. In it, Hayes justifies the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Specifically, he claims that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attack. The connection between Hussein and al Qaeda was pretty clearly nonsense to thoughtful observers before Hayes published his book. It was definitively debunked by the Pentagon in 2008.
Hayes’ book, then, was an exercise in partisan propaganda in line with Trump’s repeated lies about the extent and danger of the coronavirus pandemic. Like Trump, Hayes twisted facts and misled the public in order to shore up Republican political talking points and justify failed right-wing policy. Trump’s lies contributed to thousands and even hundreds of thousands of deaths. So did Hayes’.
Of course, Trump has more power and more culpability than Hayes or Goldberg. And his lies are more brazen and more clearly, indisputably preposterous. Neither Hayes nor Goldberg has suggested injecting bleach as a cure for Covid. Through incompetence or superior mendacity, Trump is willing to go further than them.
Nevertheless, Goldberg and Hayes have for decades been part of a right-wing media bubble that encourages and rewards partisan nonsense (like “Hitler was a leftist”) and conspiracy theories (like “Hussein and al Qaeda were working together.”) They both kick-started their careers by writing egregious, inflammatory, duplicitous trash not that far removed from Tucker Carlson’s egregious, inflammatory, duplicitous Patriot Purge series.
If Goldberg and Hayes now want to stop being egregious, inflammatory, and duplicitous, that’s all to the good. But it’s important to recognize that Trump is not some sort of bizarre departure from a previously thoughtful, responsible conservatism.
Even as they repudiate Trump, Hayes and Goldberg can’t let Trump go. In their public letter explaining their resignation, they also insist that Fox until recently was a force for good: “We believed, sincerely, that the country needed Fox News,” they opine, and insist that the network has been “good for the country and journalism.” Yet Fox rarely indulges in deep reporting or investigative journalism. To say it strayed from the path is wildly inaccurate; it was never on the path in the first place.
The right wing has been laying the groundwork for Trump at least since Nixon and Goldwater. You can’t understand Trump if you think he’s an alternative to Goldberg and Hayes and Fox News. He’s their orange, ranting child. And if Trump is defeated, but the conservative movement that birthed him remains in place without further introspection or accountability — well, it will just bring forth another Trump to take the place of the last.