“Our politics now resemble those of lesser developed countries,” Jeffrey Goldberg told me. He was on campus Monday evening—first to record a podcast with the prodigious David Axelrod, and soon after to publicly discuss President Trump’s foreign policy with Dr. Rachel Bronson. Following this event, I found an enthusiastic Goldberg willing to field a few of my questions for the Gate.
Late last year, the eminent journalist was promoted to editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, and has since interviewed Henry Kissinger and Senator Tom Cotton, as well as some of the most prominent diplomatic voices in the nation. Most notably, Goldberg has become the unrivaled authority on Obama’s foreign policy legacy. His conversation with Bronson was, appropriately, grounded in the context of how President Obama paved the international landscape during his time in office.
Bronson then looked for Goldberg to make sense of the most unsavory elements—and generally chaotic unveiling—of Trump’s initial diplomatic efforts. Aside from usual talking points, some of which he has already written about, Goldberg ran a common thread through a notable feature of both Obama and Trump’s worldview: that free-riding among our allies is untenable. It is certainly a contention that strongly animates Trump, and Obama had expressed the same to Goldberg in their series of discussions. However, the two presidents diverge sharply from there, with Trump’s bellicose rhetoric driving this notion to new heights.
Though foreign policy is clearly his home field, Goldberg and I took a bit of a step back from the questions that guided his earlier session with Bronson. Within the current political moment, crucial issues have emerged: ideological discord has broken the continuity of the American idea. Competing visions of politics seek mostly to diminish each other, rendering any notion of united progress obsolete.
“It used to be that American politics rewarded people who moved to the center,” Goldberg explained. There are vast forces, he elaborated, that have driven our nation to a point in which “extremism, bombast, and even demagoguery, are now rewarded.” His structuralist mentality elucidated how the rhetorical guidelines that govern political discourse have eroded. This coarsening of American politics began well before last year’s raucous election, he was quick to note, and can be traced back to the advent of televised Congressional hearings and cable news programs—the medium is truly the message.
Goldberg’s colleague David Frum recently penned a thought-provoking article that identified threats to our democratic ideals. Frum argued that a sort of democratic erosion is born of the gradual, deceitful (i.e., kleptocratic) processes that thwart a healthy pushback. What resonated with Goldberg, as we spoke of this dynamic, was the notion that long-standing currents have “eradicated civic education,” as he said, and caused many to “abandon patriotic virtues.” This increasingly hollow undertaking of our rights and responsibilities as citizens created a void that was quickly politicized: what the left ceded in these terms was readily embraced by the right. Such a partisan weaponization of patriotic symbols seemed quite disheartening to him.
The patriotic binding principle that America itself emanates from a series of core democratic understandings is one he cherishes deeply. “It’s almost holy to me,” he explained. Goldberg was less intent on playing partisan games with his words, and keen on the unique exceptionalism that characterizes our modern democracy—whose legitimacy is what seems to be at stake. But Goldberg is well aware of this, and maintained a sense of level-headedness as we pressed on.
Above all, he duly noted that our nation’s leaders have “done a poor job of explaining why a binding idea is superior,” referencing the disconnect between Americans and the unifying vision for our country’s politics ostensibly offered to them. Despite the critiques that are now reflexively leveled against his occupation, there was little elitism evident in his thoughts. Instead, Goldberg was self-aware and spoke with an encompassing clarity on these issues.
Finally, I asked him to offer guidance to my politically-minded peers, who will soon be navigating a tense professional world. What he believes would be the hammer to nail this uncertainty is essentially a sense of pragmatism. Goldberg admonished Americans to “realize there is more that unites them than separates them—differences are grotesquely exaggerated for short-term gain.” His advice was a boldly-blended mixture of cautionary words and impelling motives—Jeffrey Goldberg certainly maintains an effective reach atop his Atlantic perch.