There are roughly two categories of resistance to President Donald Trump that have emerged over the past few months. There’s the grassroots, earnest resistance marked by mass protests, populated by everyone from radicals to liberals to nonprofits to immigration rights groups to antifascists to the occasional Democratic politician with the backbone to stand up to the administration. Then there’s the Resistance™, a loose confederation of media careerists who nominally oppose Trump but do so often for the most cynical and ideologically incoherent reasons. The Resistance consists of, among others, David Frum, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and Evan McMullin.
These men comprise the worst of the Resistance. Their attacks on Trump, such as they are, are marked by Cold War-mongering, gendered insults, career revamping and a dislike of a foreign policy they view as inadequately bellicose toward Russia, Syria and Iran.
Stop with the purity tests! is a common rejoinder to these criticisms. We must, given the stakes, welcome all who oppose Trump, some might say.
But what use is that opposition when it stops at the water’s edge; when it cares only for Trump’s excesses at home but ignores — if not welcomes — excesses abroad? Consider this not an indictment on the whole of their ideology, but an honest question from a potential anti-Trump ally: Why does the Resistance not seem to care about Trump’s Iran war path?
Since he was sworn in just a month ago, Trump has signaled a radical departure from the Obama White House’s already hostile (though mild in relative terms) approach to Iran. Trump has surrounded himself with anti-Iran hawks like Michael Flynn (since departed for unrelated reasons) and his Secretary of Defense General James Mattis. Flynn stated time and again that Iran was “intent on having a nuclear weapon" despite all evidence to the contrary. Gen. Mattis, who, as Politico put it, “has a 33-year grudge against Iran,” insists “the Iranian regime . . . is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
In their short time in office, Trump has put Iran “on notice” and leveled new sanctions nominally for firing a ballistic missile in January — an act that, according to NPR, did not violate the terms of the relevant U.N. resolution.
Trump has also surrounded himself with radical pro-Israel voices whose antipathy for Iran dovetails with their staunch loyalty to Israel’s far right. Trump's nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, once compared the Iran deal to the Dreyfus Affair, the infamous anti-Semitic persecution of a Jewish army captain in 1890s France, saying of the deal, “the blatant anti-Semitism emanating from our president and his sycophantic minions is palpable and very disturbing.”
“The relationship between America and Iran,” Saeid Golkar, an Iran expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, recently told Al Jazeera, “is getting very dangerous.”
One would hardly have noticed if they were only listening to high-status Resistance pundits.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote a much-praised 8,000-word piece warning of Trump’s “authoritarianism,” but didn’t mention Trump’s hostility toward Iran, his alliance with Israel’s far right or any of his foreign policy aggressions once. The only time foreign countries were brought up, whether it was Russia or Honduras or Venezuela, was when Frum needed to use them as examples of backwaters Trump would turn us into, not targets of Trump’s hothead foreign policy.
For Frum, the vaguely defined concept of “authoritarianism” seems to apply only stateside. This is an exceedingly self-serving definition given that Frum worked in the Bush White House and is to this day an advocate for the devastating Iraq war leveled by his former boss.
Limiting criticism of Trump to the damage he will inflict domestically isn’t just bad politics, it’s also a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card for Frum and his neoconservative friends who helped turn Iraq and the Levant into a hellscape less than a generation ago. To this extent, Frum is far more concerned with protecting the GOP brand both in the future and down-ballot than he is with “resisting” Trump. This is why Frum is silent on Trump’s Iran war path and his increasingly close relationship with Netanyahu; Trump’s vision of power in the Middle East, sans perhaps Syria, is entirely in line with Frum’s.
Evan McMullin, who has been calling for the United States to bomb the Syrian government and overthrow Assad for years, routinely discusses how Trump’s posture on Russia will help Iran rather than reading the words the president actually states on the subject. On actual policy, on actual statements threatening Iran and ratcheting up tension, McMullin has little to say. McMullin even lavished praise on Trump’s selection of Gen. Mattis as Defense Secretary, largely because, again, Trump’s policy on Iran dovetails with what McMullin actually believes.
Keith Olbermann, who isn’t nearly as vile as other members of the Resistance, rants and raves about Trump being a “Russian whore,” but can’t take five minutes out to note Trump's gutting of Obama’s hard-fought Iran deal. Nor does Olbermann have anything to say on Trump cozying up to the worst elements of the Israeli far right. Olbermann never tweets about or discusses Iran, Israel or Palestine on his GQ web series. Like Frum, he limits his outrage over Trump to purely domestic issues.
Glenn Beck has used the anti-Trump sentiment to try to rebrand himself as a moderate, principled, conservative crusader, even given validation and airtime by liberal late-night comedian Samantha Bee for a much publicized anti-Trump campaign. Beck (as well as Bee) has been entirely silent on Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric. Beck, showing the nebulous nature of the Resistance, has even praised Trump’s far-right Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and has gone back to blaming Black Lives Matter for entirely unrelated crimes against whites.
The Washington Post, which raised money saying it would hold Trump accountable, publishes op-eds on Trump’s Iran policy ranging from praise (Jennifer Rubin) to procedural handwringing (David Ignatius), but never offers any meaningful criticism. Liberal media watchdog Media Matters and Mother Jones have not covered Trump’s ramped-up hostility with Iran once. Not only has MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid ignored Trump’s surly Iran posture, she even praised Gen. Mattis as the man preventing Trump from “dragging us into bed with Russia.” A pro-Russia stance is, as a matter of dogma, always assumed to be worse than potential war with Iran.
The reason, if history is any guide, is that if someone in the media has three topics to choose from, and two of those topics don’t upset American national security orthodoxy, those two topics will always rise to the top of the press heap. This is why foreign policy, especially as it relates to Palestine, Iran and Muslim countries in general, always gets lowest priority. Its moral hazard is seen most explicitly during the early Obama years when issues like drone killings, extrajudicial assassination and a sprawling war on terror largely went unquestioned. This is a bipartisan consensus of executive power that, predictably, later came back to haunt liberals after Trump was elected.
Just the same, because Trump’s hostility in the Middle East largely serves the bipartisan consensus on Iran and Israel, it is of extremely low importance to most high-status liberals and centrists who are far more concerned with scoring points and winning the latest 24-hour news cycle than building an ideologically sustainable opposition to the Trump regime and the Republican Party it serves. This myopia is understandable for party flacks and media hangers-on, but it doesn’t mean thinking adults should indulge it or its longer-term implications.
It’s important that the resistance to Trump, such that it is, highlight the clampdown on domestic opposition and liberal programs. But it’s equally important for the resistance not to lose sight of those outside the United States who will suffer greatly from Trump’s eagerness to ramp up tensions in Iran and the Middle East as a whole.