Bret Stephens got mad yesterday because people were making fun of him. They were making fun of him because he wrote a bad column rebuking Democrats for not having a winning election message, after which he got his feet tangled up in the late-breaking returns and he took a pratfall. The column itself was just his usual zero-constituency routine about how the Democrats need to “stop manning imaginary barricades” (i.e., defending their voters and their interests) and “start building real bridges to the other America” (i.e., being nice to people like Bret Stephens, who are embarrassed by Trump but otherwise would like to see the Democrats destroyed). Where Stephens really shone bright, not-mad red was on Twitter:
For the record @NateSilver538, @soledadobrien: I’m glad Dems are expanding House lead. I’ve been anti-Trump from Day 1. But GOP holds Senate and result pales next to GOP waves in 10 & 94. My point stands. My advice is worth heeding. Too bad you’re a Twitter troll. Unbecoming.
Seven sentences in one tweet! The original grain of sand around which Stephens got irritated enough to secrete this pearl was Osita Nwanevu of the New Yorker pointing out that Stephens had pegged a column about Democratic failure to an election where the party “flipped the House with at least 29 seats, took well over 300 state legislative seats, and took seven governorships.” Nate Silver joined in to add that his analysis at FiveThirtyEight was that the Democrats were on track to pick up 37 seats, and to call Stephens’ column “dumb” and a “hot take.” Soledad O’Brien evidently retweeted it.
And that left Bret Stephens fuming about Silver being a “Twitter troll.” This obviously makes Bret Stephens the loser, in Twitter terms—in fact, his being on Twitter at all makes him the loser, since (as @thetomzone reminded him) he’d previously written an entire column about how he was going to stop using Twitter because it was “political pornography.”
But it also illustrates what a fundamental mistake it was to ever put Stephens in the Times. If Bret Stephens can’t handle criticism from Nate Silver or Osita Nwanevu or Soledad O’Brien, why is he writing where they can read him? Or why isn’t he writing better columns, so they don’t make fun of him?
It would be absurd to claim that having a Times column means a writer has to be smart or good, or even that they have something to say. But they have to at least pretend they know what they’re doing. At the Wall Street Journal, his previous job, all Stephens had to do was tell the readers that the liberals were really wrong, and the readers of the Journal were right.
From the moment he first appeared in the Times—just asking some questions about global warming, while brandishing a link to a report that said the opposite of what he claimed it said—it’s been clear that Stephens has no idea who his new readership is or how to even approach them.
As one of the Times‘ token conservatives, he finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being an underqualified quota hire. He figures he’s now supposed to tell the readers they’re wrong, but he’s never developed the skills of argument or persuasion that might allow him to do that. Because a conservative columnist’s job is to strike a series of tough-sounding poses—pro-war, anti-welfare, disdainful of plans for reform or improvement—he formed the sadly mistaken belief that he, himself, was tough. Now he’s discovering how soft he really is.