Will Wilkinson is about as mainstream and conventional a thinker as one can find, and is unfailingly civil and restrained in his rhetoric. But yesterday, he was fired by the technocratic centrist think tank for which he worked, the Niskanen Center, and appears on the verge of being fired as well by The New York Times, where he is a contributing writer. This multi-pronged retribution is due to a single tweet that was obviously satirical and sarcastic and for which he abjectly apologized. But no matter: the tweet has been purposely distorted into something malevolent and the prevailing repressive climate weaponized it against him.
Neither Wilkinson nor his tweet are particularly interesting. What merits attention here is the now-pervasive climate that fostered this tawdry episode, and which has unjustly destroyed countless reputations and careers with no sign of slowing down.
During the Bush and Obama years, Wilkinson worked at the libertarian CATO Institute but, even then, he was not much of a libertarian. As he himself explained, he is far more of a standard-issue neoliberal that one finds everywhere throughout DC think tanks, the op-ed pages of large newspapers, and the green rooms of CNN, just with a bit wonkier style of expression and a few vague libertarian gestures on some isolated issues. That self-description was in 2012, and he since then has become even more of a standard liberal during the Trump era, which is why the Paper of Record made him a contributor opinion writer where he published articles under such bold and groundbreaking headlines as “Trump Has Disqualified Himself From Running in 2020.”
On Wednesday, the night of Joe Biden’s inauguration, Wilkinson posted this now-deleted tweet in which he was obviously not calling for violence. He was instead sardonically noting that anti-Pence animus became a prevailing sentiment among some MAGA followers over the last month, including reports that at least a few of those who breached the Capitol were calling for Pence’s hanging on treason grounds, thus ironically enabling liberals and MAGA followers to “unite” over that desire:
The next morning, a right-wing hedge fund manager and large-money GOP donor, Gabe Hoffman, flagged this tweet and claimed to believe that Wilkinson “call[ed] for former Vice President Mike Pence to be lynched.” Hoffman also tweeted at Wilkinson’s New York Times bosses to ask if they have “any comment on your ‘contributing opinion writer’ calling for violence against a public official?,” and then tweeted at Wilkinson’s other bosses at the think tank to demand the same.
It is unclear whether Hoffman really believed what he was saying or was just trying to make a point that liberals should be forced to live under these bad faith, repressive “cancel culture” standards he likely blames them for creating and imposing on others. This is how he responded when I posed that question:
I was not attempting anything. Numerous major news outlets reported on Wilkinson's tweet, including Fox News. I simply documented the events on my Twitter feed yesterday. Clearly, many liberal journalists were outraged at his firing, noticed my documentation, and decided to inexplicably blame me for his firing. It's ridiculous that many liberal journalists apparently had nothing better to do on Twitter, than blame a guy with less than 10,000 followers documenting events, for getting Wilkinson fired, considering many major news outlets reported on Wilkinson's tweet.
When I pressed further on whether he really believed that Wilkinson’s tweet was an earnest call for assassination or whether he was just demanding that perceived “cancel culture” standards be applied equally, he responded: “I did not take a position either way on the matter. Wilkinson is perfectly capable of explaining the tweet and his intended meaning, since he wrote it. Clearly, given the content, the least one can expect is that he should give that explanation.”
Either way, intentional or not, Hoffman’s distorted interpretation of Wilkinson’s tweet produced instant results. That afternoon, Wilkinson posted a long and profuse apology to Twitter in which he made clear that he did not intend to advocate violence, but still said: “Last night I made an error of judgment and tweeted this. It was sharp sarcasm, but looked like a call for violence. That's always wrong, even as a joke. It was especially wrong at a moment when unity and peace are so critical. I'm deeply sorry and vow not to repeat the mistake. . . . [T]here was no excuse for putting the point the way I did. It was wrong, period.”
At least for now, that apology fell on deaf ears. The president and co-founder of the Niskanen Center, Jerry Taylor, quickly posted a statement (now deleted without comment) announcing Wilkinson’s immediate firing, a statement promptly noted by Hoffman:
Wilkinson’s job with The New York Times is also clearly endangered. A spokesperson for the paper told Fox News: “Advocating violence of any form, even in jest, is unacceptable and against the standards of The New York Times. We’re reassessing our relationship with Will Wilkinson."
So a completely ordinary and unassuming liberal commentator is in jeopardy of having his career destroyed because of a tweet that no person in good faith could possibly believe was actually advocating violence and which, at worst, could be said to be irresponsibly worded. And this is happening even though everyone knows it is all based on a totally fictitious understanding of what he said. Why?
It is important to emphasize that Wilkinson’s specific plight is the least interesting and important aspect of this story. Unlike most people subjected to these sorts of bad faith reputation-wrecking attacks, he has many influential media friends and allies who are already defending him — including New York Times columnists Ezra Klein and Ross Douthat — and I would be unsurprised if this causes the paper to keep him and the Niskanen Center to reverse its termination of him.
All of this is especially ironic given that the president of this colorless, sleepy think tank — last seen hiring the colorless, sleepy Matt Yglesias — himself has a history of earnestly and non-ironically advocating actual violence against people. As Aaron Sibarium documented, Taylor took to Twitter over the summer to say that he wishes BLM and Antifa marchers had “rushed” the St. Louis couple which famously displayed guns outside their homes and “beat their brains in,” adding: “excuse me if I root for antifa to punch these idiots out.” So that’s the profound, pious believer in non-violence so deeply offended by Wilkinson’s tweet that he quickly fired him from his think tank.
Whatever else might be true of them, the Niskanen Center’s president and The New York Times editors are not dumb enough to believe that Wilkinson was actually advocating that Mike Pence be lynched. It takes only a few functional brain cells to recognize what his actual intent with that tweet was, as poorly expressed or ill-advised as it might have been given the context-free world of Twitter and the tensions of the moment. So why would they indulge all this by firing a perfectly inoffensive career technocrat, all to appease the blatant bad faith and probably-not-even-serious demands of the mob?
Because this is the framework that we all now live with. It does not matter whether the anger directed at the think tank executives or New York Times editors is in good faith or not. It is utterly irrelevant whether there is any validity to the complaints against Wilkinson and the demands that he be fired. The merit of these kinds of grievance campaigns is not a factor.
All that matters to these decision-makers is societal scorn and ostracization. That is why the only thing that can save Wilkinson is that he has enough powerful friends to defend him, enabling them to reverse the cost-benefit calculus: make it so that there is more social scorn from firing Wilkinson than keeping him. Without the powerful media friends he has assembled over the years, he would have no chance to salvage his reputation and career no matter how obvious it was that the complaints against him are baseless.
Humans are social and political animals. We do fundamentally crave and need privacy. But we also crave and need social integration and approval. That it is why prolonged solitary confinement in prison is a form of torture that is almost certain to drive humans insane. It is why John McCain said far worse than the physical abuse he endured in a North Vietnamese prison was the long-term isolation to which he was subjected. It is why modern society’s penchant for removing what had been our sense of community — churches, mosques, and synagogues; union halls and bowling leagues; small-town life — has coincided with a significant increase in mental health pathologies, and it is why the lockdowns and isolation of the COVID pandemic have made all of those, predictably, so much worse.
Those who have crafted a society in which mob anger, no matter how invalid, results in ostracization and reputation-destruction have exploited these impulses. If you are a think tank executive in Washington or a New York Times editor, why would you want to endure the attacks on you for “sanctioning violence” or “inciting assassinations” just to save Will Wilkinson? The prevailing culture vests so much weight in these sorts of outrage mobs that it is almost always easier to appease them than resist them.
The recent extraordinary removal of the social media platform Parler from the internet was clearly driven by these dynamics. It is inconceivable that Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos and Google executives believe that Parler is some neo-Nazi site that played anywhere near the role in planning and advocating for the Capitol riot as Facebook and YouTube did. But they know that significant chunks of liberal elite culture believe this (or at least claim to), and they thus calculate — not irrationally, even if cowardly — that they will have to endure a large social and reputational hit for refusing mob demands to destroy Parler. Like the Niskanen and Times bosses with Wilkinson, they had to decide how much pain they were willing to accept to defend Parler, and — as is usually the case — it turned out the answer was not much. Thus was Parler destroyed, with nowhere near the number of important liberal friends that Wilkinson has.
The perception that this is some sort of exclusively left-wing tactic is untrue. Recall in 2003, in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, uttered this utterly benign political comment at a concert in London: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” In response, millions joined a boycott of their music, radio stations refused to play their songs, Bush supporters burned their albums, and country star Toby Keith performed in front of a gigantic image of Maines standing next to Saddam Hussein, as though her opposition to the war meant she admired the Iraqi dictator.
But two recent trends have greatly intensified this mania. Social media is one of the most powerful generators of group-think ever invented in human history, enabling a small number of people to make decision-makers feel besieged with scorn and threatened with ostracization if they do not obey mob demands. The other is that the liberal-left has gained cultural hegemony in the most significant institutions — from academia and journalism to entertainment, sports, music and art — and this weapon, which they most certainly did not invent, is now vested squarely in their hands.
But all weapons, once unleashed onto the world, will be copied and wielded by opposing tribes. Gabe Hoffman has likely seen powerless workers fired in the wake of the George Floyd killing for acts as trivial as a Latino truck driver innocently flashing an “OK” sign at a traffic light or a researcher fired for posting data about the political effects of violent v. non-violent protests and realized that he could use, or at least trifle with, this power against liberals instead of watching it be used by them. So he did it.
It’s exactly the same dynamic that led liberals to swoon over Donald Trump’s banning from social media and the mass-banning of his followers only to watch yesterday as numerous Antifa accounts were banned for the crime of organizing an anti-Biden march and how, before that, Palestinian journalists and activists have been banned en masse whenever Israel claims their rhetoric constitutes “incitement.”
Unleash this monster and one day it will come for you. And you’ll have no principle to credibly invoke in protest when it does. You’ll be left with nothing more than lame and craven pleading that your friends do not deserve the same treatment as your enemies. Force, not principle, will be the sole factor deciding the outcome.
If you’re lucky enough to have important and famous media friends like Will Wilkinson, you have a chance to survive it. Absent that, you have none.