Reactionary centrism: The toxic force that could elect Trump — and kill off democracy

Supposedly fair-minded moderates who demonize the left are poisoning our politics — and only helping the Orange Man

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published January 14, 2024 9:00AM (EST)

Joe Lieberman and Joe Manchin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Lieberman and Joe Manchin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is crushing his opponents in polls of Republican voters, and will likely do the same as the caucuses and primaries begin this week. He’s running a backward-looking, grievance-driven, base-strategy campaign and the rest of the GOP is following him — full on in the House, with bogus investigations in fealty to MAGA, and more mutedly in the Senate and the ever-shrinking primary campaign for second place

But that only gets Trump’s approval ratings into the low 40s, at best, and House Republicans’ budget-slashing campaign is even less popular. Trump will need to reach the high 40s to win the general election against Joe Biden. For that, he needs the help of reactionary centrist elites in the political establishment — meaning funders, establishment media and organizations like No Labels — to make him competitive. If Biden’s ill-conceived support for Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza should prove fatal, that, too, is partially due to reactionary centrist politics.  

Aaron Huertas introduced the term "reactionary centrist" in 2018, defining the species as “Someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” This is related to the media’s false equivalence problem, but not exactly the same thing. False equivalence is more about the institutional results of passively adhering to dysfunctional norms, while reactionary centrism is more about the active production of a distorted picture.  

But the two interact with and feed each other. Both pretend to adhere to neutrality as a touchstone of virtue, while producing results that belie that claim, and that obscure or deny the asymmetrical nature of American politics, as documented in Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins’ 2016 book "Asymmetric Politics." (Salon review here.) 

To summarize that analysis, the Democrats are a relatively pragmatic, results-oriented coalition, whose officeholders are rewarded for delivering concrete benefits to address specific social problems, while Republicans “forge partisan ties based on common ideological beliefs, encouraging party officials to pursue broad rightward shifts in public policy." Therefore, the authors conclude, "Republican voters and activists are more likely than their Democratic counterparts to prize symbolic demonstrations of ideological purity and to pressure their party leaders to reject moderation and compromise."

Reactionary centrism and false balance have created their own fantasyland: Rather than preserving and building on what’s best in our civic tradition, as their practitioners imagine, they’ve become witless handmaids in its ongoing destruction.

Those differences have only grown more extreme since 2016, as the Democratic base grows increasingly diverse and progressive, and Republican ideology has drifted into conspiracy-theory fantasyland. Both developments can be traced to the utter failure of George W. Bush’s administration — particularly on national security (9/11, the Iraq war) and economics (the Great Recession). the GOP’s supposed strong suits — followed by the rise of the Tea Party, a reactionary movement that effectively torpedoed Barack Obama’s efforts to forge a bipartisan governing consensus. That drove  younger Democrats to take up more militant politics — on immigration, climate, gun safety, racial justice and more — in pursuit of policies that actually work, as opposed to those that might, hypothetically, draw a few votes from Senate and House Republicans. 

By obscuring or denying this reality, reactionary centrism and false balance have created their own fantasyland as well. Rather than preserving and building on what’s best in our civic tradition, as their practitioners might imagine, they’ve become witless handmaids in its ongoing destruction, which could well come to fruition this November.

While Huertas highlighted reactionary centrism as something new, or newly visible, the longtime U.S. posture as an “honest broker” seeking a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, while supporting increasingly right-wing Israeli governments in practice, reflects a similar dynamic. 

To understand how and why reactionary centrism could get Donald Trump elected in 2024, we first need to understand what it is and then how it will help him in three main ways. Huertas introduced the term in the context of “a crisis of lopsided political polarization in the United States,” despite a strong tendency to pretend otherwise: 

Opinion columnists, influential academics, and think tankers feel a need to occupy a middle ground, even if it’s one that is increasingly a product of their own imaginations. As a result, they wind up giving the right wing a free pass or accepting its worst impulses as a reality we have to live with, while reserving their criticism and armchair quarterbacking for anyone to their left.

On the one hand, Huertas wrote, “Reactionary centrists need an intolerant left to match the intolerant right,” while on the other, they tend “to prop up the moderate right.” Another point he makes is that “Reactionary centrists think politics is about positions, not actions,” which leads them to think “that if only the left and right could meet in the middle, wherever that middle is, we could settle contentious debates.” This not only assumes an imaginary symmetry between left and right, but also ignores the asymmetrical nature of political activism, which on the right has reached the level of insurrection and ongoing threats of violence.

Journalist Michael Hobbes spread the term on social media, defining it more pointedly: “Reactionary centrism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: Leftists are about to start being authoritarians and Republicans are about to stop.” 

There’s also a bottom-up dimension at work. Historian Thomas Zimmer describes reactionary centrism as “fueled by a pervasive anxiety among elites who are convinced that the assault on traditional authority has gone too far. … I think the key to understanding not just the cancel-culture panic, but the political conflict in general is to conceptualize it as a struggle over authority — a struggle between those who want to uphold traditional authority vs. those who are challenging it.”

Last January, New York magazine pundit Jonathan Chait struck back in an aggrieved column that identified reactionary centrism as “the left’s hot new insult for liberals,” categorizing it as the latest in a series of epithets from “social fascist” to “Cold War liberal,” “corporate liberal” and neoliberal. Amusingly, Chait wrote a similarly outraged column in 2017 headlined “How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult of Liberals,” which betrayed a total ignorance of that term's long history

This time around, Chait had problems dealing with the evidence right in front of him. “Looking at the Twitter commentary, I think everyone he quoted has pointed out that he's not accurately representing their views,” Huertas noted on Mastodon. Although he quoted both Huertas and Zimmer contradicting this, Chait insisted that the  “actual standard, and … most commonly applied usage” of the term was as “an insult for liberals who sometimes criticize the left.”

Huertas responded firmly but patiently. “It's not meant as an insult, at least in my mind. It's a descriptive term about ideology and resulting communication strategy,” he wrote. “Further, some people who engage in reactionary centrism, including one cited in my essay, do explicitly identify as centrists.” He also insisted he only meant the term to apply to bad-faith criticism, not “good faith criticism, which obviously exists.

If you view yourself as a liberal but “are experiencing reactionary impulses,” said Thomas Zimmer, “it creates an intellectual and emotional dissonance that is often resolved by declaring that which makes you uncomfortable is radical and extreme.” 

In this context, bad-faith arguments generally claim a position of dispassionate objectivity, but in fact appear to be driven by personal circumstance. For example, changing demographics and the social-media mean that elite white heterosexual men encounter personal pushback in ways they've never encountered before, as Thomas Zimmer discussed with sociologist Lily Mason and columnist Perry Bacon Jr. on the "Is This Democracy" podcast in December 2022. Zimmer argued that this version of centrism is “not about policy positions” as such, but more about self-image. If you view yourself as a liberal but “are experiencing these reactionary impulses,” he said, “it creates a kind of intellectual and emotional dissonance that is often resolved by declaring that which makes you uncomfortable is radical and extreme.” 

What fundamentally defines reactionary centrism, Zimmer concluded, is this kind of sentiment: “'I feel this discomfort, I feel uncomfortable. That can't be right. So it must be the fault of these radicals. So we must must push back against this.”

That kind of discomfort can be displaced onto others, Mason observed: 

What they claim to do is to say, yes, I think that same-sex marriage should be legal everywhere, but there are a lot of Americans who don't believe that. And the left needs to listen to them and the left is very unpopular with these people, some imaginary group of people [who] hate the left because the left likes same-sex marriage. And therefore the left should not support same-sex marriage. I support it, but the left shouldn't.

This kind of pretzel logic works both subconsciously and pre-logically, shaping how one frames the world and one’s relationship to it, which in turn determines what issues or ideas stand out as most significant. It has very little direct relationship with what’s actually happening in the world. In the same conversation, Bacon sketched out the backdoor effects of political change in the Trump era: 

To be a quote unquote liberal or Democrat in good standing, until about 2017, required you basically to have voted for Barack Obama, and to profess to want to have some women, LGBTQ people, people of color at your workplace — like, a few. But if you ultimately said that you couldn't find a qualified one, that's OK, because you voted for Barack Obama, so obviously you’re for diversity, you just haven't found the right kind yet.

In the wake of the 1619 Project and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, things have changed. “Being like, ‘I like Barack Obama, I voted for him and I have his views on race’ is no longer enough in a lot of liberal environments,” Bacon said. 

Indeed, the backlash to the summer protests of 2020 can’t be fully understood without understanding the role of reactionary centrists. When right-wing activist Christopher Rufo launched his attack on critical race theory, it was propelled by Fox News but validated by the New York Times and other “liberal” institutions, culminating with the Times’ pile-on role in ousting Harvard president Claudine Gay, which completely ignored numerous facts, including conservatives’ about-face on campus free speech

Let’s consider the Times’ role in recent elections. The Gray Lady’s coverage played a much bigger role in electing Donald Trump in 2016 than Russian propaganda did, according to a study by published in the Columbia Journalism Review. As I reported in 2017:

The Times was de facto strongly biased against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump, simply by what the paper chose to focus on. For example, over one six-day period, the Times "ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails [10] as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.” 

A follow-up study last November looked at Times front-page coverage of the 2022 midterms, along with the Washington Post's, which the authors found to be less biased. But neither paper dealt with policy to any significant extent. Just 10 out of 219 front-page Times stories on domestic politics “explained domestic public policy in any detail.” At the Post, it was just four stories out of 215. Informing voters about policy clearly wasn’t a priority at either paper, another indication of the hollowness of their claims to objectivity. The Times ran 37 articles on Republican-favored topics (crime, inflation, immigration) compared to just seven on Democratic-friendly issues like abortion and gun policy, a bias that intensified when it mattered most:

In the final days before the election, we noticed that the Times, in particular, hit a drumbeat of fear about the economy — the worries of voters, exploitation by companies, and anxieties related to the Federal Reserve — as well as crime. Data buried within articles occasionally refuted the fear-based premise of a piece. Still, by discussing how much people were concerned about inflation and crime — and reporting in those stories that Republicans benefited from a sense of alarm—the Times suggested that inflation and crime were historically bad (they were not) and that Republicans had solutions to offer (they did not).

This is closer to reactionary centrism than to false balance, as that last sentence suggests — the premise is about speaking on behalf of “real Americans,” however inaccurately, against the supposed extremism of the left. The Times is an institution, not an individual, but the shoe still fits: “Someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” The consistent subtext of Times coverage — if not simply the text — was that Biden’s big-spending, soft-on-crime policies were a problem that Republicans had rightfully identified. The “left” had taken over the Democratic Party and the midterm election had helped “restore balance.” 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Reality, of course, was quite different. The federal government has little if any short-term impact on crime rates, which in any case saw only a temporary spike during the pandemic from historic low levels. On inflation, the U.S. rate was in line with that other G7 countries and dropping dramatically by the time of the election. Given that GOP victories in five New York districts won by Biden were enough to give control of the House to Republicans, the Times’ coverage on these issues alone could have tipped the balance. 

But the Times has a much broader reach as an agenda-setter, and the media as a whole has dramatically misrepresented the economy under Biden, which has recovered dramatically from the COVID collapse. Unemployment is lower than it’s been in 50 years, and prime-age (25–54) employment surpassed its pre-recession peak last March, far more rapidly than the 12-year recovery from the Great Recession, when centrist economists and GOP opposition limited stimulus spending to half of what was needed, leaving millions needlessly unemployed for years for no good reason. 

The consistent subtext of New York Times coverage in 2022 was that Biden’s big-spending, soft-on-crime policies were a problem that Republicans had rightfully identified. The “left” had taken over the Democratic Party and the GOP had helped “restore balance.”

The media’s obsession with inflation, and with fears of a recession that has never materialized, has drowned out genuine economic reporting. Mark Copelovitch, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, has been tracking media headlines throughout the Biden presidency, comparing inflation, recession, unemployment/jobs and recovery. In his most recent update, he wrote that “we're still pretzeling ourselves to explain why folks think the economy is so terrible despite all the data,” and that “truly astounding imbalances” persisted through the end of 2023. The media’s latest conventional wisdom seems to be that you can’t tell people how to feel about the economy, although the media itself has been telling people how bad it is throughout the Biden presidency.

A similar but even longer narrative can be told about crime. Ever since George W. Bush’s first term, Americans’ perceptions of rising crime rates have been utterly at odds with the real world, where crime continues to decline. The number of people actually experiencing crime is down dramatically since the 1990s — even allowing for a spike related to the pandemic — but the number of people who think crime is rising stays well above 50%. They don’t believe that based on anything that has happened to them or their neighbors. They believe it because of mainstream media, which pretends to be objective while consistently demonizing progressives as “soft on crime” — a key ingredient of the reactionary centrist dynamic.

So why does all this bolster Donald Trump’s chances in November, assuming he makes it that far? I see three specific ways.

It divides Democrats

By its very nature, reactionary centrism works to divide Democrats, and not just pitting moderates versus progressives, as reactionary centrists might claim, but doing so unfairly, in bad faith and with wanton disregard for facts. In reality, following the Biden-Sanders Unity Taskforce program, moderates and progressives worked together to pass important legislation in Congress, even as major components were blocked by centrist darlings Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom delight in punching left. Given how popular some of the policies they blocked actually are — a $15 minimum wage, universal pre-K and child care, paid parental leave, a permanent refundable child tax credit (which cut child poverty by 50%) — it seems obvious that Biden and the Democrats would be a lot more popular without persistent centrist sabotage, and that the narrative that the party has moved “too far left” doesn’t hold up.

Indeed, most of what progressives prioritize is also supported by moderates as well, if not as intensely. Reactionary centrism works to conceal that reality, highlighting divisions that are more sizzle than steak. As I wrote in October 2022, for example, the actual substance of the movement slogan “defund the police,” such as shifting police funding to “social workers, mental health care and other social services," drew 75% support in households with a police officer in a Los Angeles-area poll. 

Even the most “extreme” criminal justice reform activists — those who identify as prison abolitionists — see their advocacy and their policy proposals as part of a long political process, not a magical solution. If it weren’t for the work they’ve been doing for decades, no one would even be talking about this option, much less supporting it. Misrepresenting and demonizing them, as reactionary centrists do, only serves to block future progress and, by the way, to undermine the kind of reality-based, pragmatic public dialogue that reactionary centrists claim to want. 

What’s true of prison abolitionists is true of movement activists more generally. Their job is not to win elections, generally speaking, but to change what elections are about — and ultimately to change the world by changing what we accept as normal and just. The interaction of movements and political parties is always complicated, given the nature of our political system. Reactionary centrists work to diminish and distort the value of activism, and thereby to stand in the way of genuine democratic progress. Their divisive obstructionism in 2024 could be a boon to Donald Trump. 

It poisons discussion on Israel/Palestine 

The most serious division facing Democrats is Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza, where more than 10,000 children have died so far. The official narrative of waging war to destroy Hamas was never credible, as Jewish Currents editor Peter Beinart explained on Democracy Now! in October:

You can’t defeat Hamas militarily, because even if you depose it in Gaza, you will be laying the seeds for the next group of people who will be fighting Israel. We know that Hamas recruits from the families of people that Israel has killed. You need, it seems to me, to support Palestinian leaders who offer a vision of ethical resistance, not what we saw on Oct. 7, but ethical resistance, and a path to Palestinian freedom, that also means safety for Israeli Jews. 

This common-sense assessment finds support among the majority of Americans who support a ceasefire, in contrast to the political leadership of both parties who are in lockstep support of Israel, despite growing internal dissent among younger staffers both within government and outside it. This reflects the broader situation that nourishes reactionary centrism, in which an established and largely homogeneous opinion elite is challenged from below by diverse groups it finds alienating or distressing. 

While the U.S. gives lip service to Palestinian rights and claims to support a two-state solution, the reality has been almost limitless support for Israel, even as it moves inexorably toward an increasingly extreme apartheid-style ethnostate. The gap between rhetoric and reality has become increasingly evident, especially to younger voters.  

There’s a long tradition of the U.S. claiming to respect universal human rights but ignoring that principle whenever it’s convenient. Now there’s a rising demand to set that right, and reactionary centrists meet that demand with panic, inflammatory rhetoric and wild accusations. There is nothing reasonable, objective or moral in what they’re doing, which is to defend genocide and aid Trump. 

It promotes fake “alternatives”

One serious challenge to Biden that could help Trump win is the potential promotion of a “moderate” third-party alternative. The most obvious threat is No Labels, a donor-driven group that pretends to represent "the commonsense majority," basically meaning the broadly unpopular combo of modestly liberal social views and staunch economic conservatism. The No Labels sales pitch is all about image: It claims “independence” from both parties, portraying them as equally insular, intransigent and extreme, and claims that No Labels will give voters “a choice,” even though voters will play no role in choosing the group’s potential presidential ticket, which could feature program-killer Joe Manchin and will have no chance of winning the election. To be blunt, it’s a reactionary centrist’s wet dream — and it would only need to draw off a small percentage of voters in a few key states to hand the election to Trump.

This should be sufficient to make the point that right-wing authoritarianism is not the only threat facing American democracy this year. Without the help of reactionary centrism, Trump and his followers are likely headed for history’s trash-heap. But the more Trump’s “moderate” handmaidens muddy the political waters, the darker our future looks.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Centrism Commentary Donald Trump Elections Joe Manchin Jonathan Chait Moderates