The Atlantic dropped a whale of a think piece this week, a David Frum immigration special that was posted online first thing Monday morning, drumming up condemnation, hand-wringing, and #NeverTrump praise. The article, which graces the cover of the magazine’s April issue with the eminently reasonable, “just asking!” headline “How Much Immigration Is Too Much?” appeared online with the rather more incendiary headline, “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will,” framing Frum’s proposal to cut legal immigration as a commonsense approach that splits the difference between Trump’s deplorable xenophobia and the left’s refusal to consider any restrictions whatsoever.
Frum begins his argument by pointing out that in “the 60 years from 1915 until 1975 … the United States admitted fewer immigrants than arrived, legally and illegally, in the single decade of the 1990s.” This, in his view, was a period of midcentury domestic bliss, a time when “the United States became a more cohesive nation: the years of the civil-rights revolution, the building of a mass middle class, the construction of a national social-insurance system, the projection of U.S. power in two world wars.” To prove his point, Frum looks to 1970, when “every U.S. resident” was capable of “enjoying all the political and civil rights of citizenship.” Never mind that it was in 1970 that César Chávez was jailed for leading a lettuce boycott on behalf of the mostly Latinx farmworkers of California’s Salinas Valley, or that, only the year before, Black Panther icon Fred Hampton was murdered in his home by Chicago police. Those particular citizens, in Frum’s estimation, don’t count.
Unfortunately for Frum, resetting immigration to 1915 levels isn’t feasible. Given that birthrates among native-born Americans have been below replacement level for decades, the only way for the nation’s population (and by extension, its glorious GDP) to keep growing is by minting new citizens. Still, he reasons that a “rethink” of asylum policy and a shift of “intake sharply away from family reunification (by, for example, ending preferences for adult siblings),” could make it possible to drop annual immigration “back to the 540,000 a year that prevailed before the Immigration Act of 1990.”
If this “moderate” proposal sounds familiar, it’s because it mirrors the plan that the Republican party’s leading immigration hawk, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, put forth two years ago. Shortly after Trump took office, Cotton proposed eliminating “preferences for certain categories of extended and adult family members” and capping the number of refugees who could resettle in the United States. Though he isn’t mentioned in Frum’s piece, Cotton—whom The Atlantic once labeled a “conservative superstar”—must be ecstatic with this nativist missive. Cotton’s initiative to cut legal immigration down “to about 500,000” went nowhere in the deadlocked Senate, but here it is again, resurrected by the magazine founded on the declaration, “Of no party or clique.”
Frum himself, of course, is very much of a party or clique. He penned the infamous “Axis of Evil” line that presaged the invasion of Iraq, and thinks Richard Nixon had more reasonable grounds to contest the 1960 election than Al Gore did in 2000. Since his hiring in 2014, The Atlantic has preposterously positioned him as the conscience of the Republican Party, howling from the wilderness. He’s been given a cover slot before (for the unconvincing essay “How to Build an Autocracy,” which did little but burnish his reputation as a reasonable conservative), but this latest piece represents the metastasizing of the magazine’s fixation with the think piece. It’s a form that has included endless dispatches on the plight of women in society (an obsession that led n+1 to observe that their articles on the subject descended “upon their target audience with the regularity and severe abdominal cramping of Seasonale”), now expanded to offer purportedly centrist messaging around a policy goal of one of the Republican Party’s most conservative young stars.
And Frum is hardly the only Republican blowhard Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg has brought into the fold in recent years. The most notable example was National Review’s Kevin Williamson, whom Goldberg lauded for his writing “on many of the most contentious and urgent topics in America—from the opioid crisis to poverty and pornography” when announcing his hiring last March. Goldberg seemed somewhat surprised at the level of opprobrium—including from his own staff—that met this decision, and when Williamson’s tweet suggesting that women who have had abortions should face capital punishment came to light a few days later, Goldberg took a mulligan, firing Williamson with just one column under his belt.
The day after Williamson was fired, the magazine held a previously scheduled staff presentation featuring Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates, by far the magazine’s most prominent contributor, which was repurposed as an impromptu town hall on the affair. When confronted by staff about Williamson’s hiring, Goldberg demonstrated a telling lack of contrition. “I’m not going to hold everything that anyone ever said about anything against them when making those decisions,” he said, and noted that the magazine’s editors had a responsibility to “constantly think about where the parameters are and where the lines are.” He admitted that Williamson’s abortion tweet had crossed a line, but mused, “Why can’t a journalism institution that is diversifying—I hope people understand—fairly rapidly in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, why can’t it also continue to develop in an ideologically diverse way?”
Only a few months later, Coates, whose work in The Atlantic had catapulted him to stardom, exited stage left. He told the Washington Post that he had become “the public face of the magazine in many ways” when what he wanted was simply “to be a writer.” Though Coates had loyally defended Williamson’s hiring, the backlash seemed to force a reckoning. What could black America’s foremost public intellectual really hope to gain from a magazine that was shifting farther and farther right?
In Coates, The Atlantic had a bold byline who pushed the limits of progressive orthodoxy, most notably in his landmark “The Case for Reparations.” Having lost him, Goldberg seems intent to test his magazine’s readers’ readiness for the Republican-Party-in-waiting. In September, he launched an online “Ideas” section that he advertised as “a place where writers of varied persuasions engage one another in good faith.” In practice, that has meant giving a platform to Charlie Sykes, Reihan Salam, and Conor Friedersdorf, three writers who squarely fit the David Frum mold of the conservative (or, in Friedersdorf’s parlance, “civil libertarian”*) standing athwart Trumpism to defend the GOP’s traditional values of disenfranchising black people and ensuring the poor have no access to healthcare. Meanwhile, the progressive alternative offered in the Ideas vertical is best summed up by a column from Rahm Emanuel that ran earlier this week, admonishing liberals that “Republicans are telling you something when they gleefully schedule votes on proposals like the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, and a 70 percent marginal tax rate.”
If there’s a common intellectual thread here, it’s that these writers all insist on their appeal to the center. In an overwrought “dissent” on Williamson’s firing, Friedersdorf wrote that the event was “of a piece with burgeoning, shortsighted modes of discourse that are corroding what few remaining ties bind the American center. Should that center fail to hold, anarchy will be loosed.” In its October issue, the magazine doubled down on his cry, asking, “Is Democracy Dying?” “Americans on both the left and the right now view their political opponents not as fellow Americans with differing views,” wrote two contributors, “but as enemies to be vanquished.” Another determined the country was suffering from “ideological warfare between parties that directly channels the passions of their most extreme constituents and donors.” And there, of course, was David Frum, setting the stage for his smoke-and-mirrors immigration feature by wondering, “How far has the country rolled down the road to autocracy?”
Look deeper, though, and it seems clear that the conservatives Goldberg has brought into the fold are far more interested in plotting Republicans’ return to glory than in quashing polarization. Following the midterms debacle, Salam wrote that his party needed to “start thinking about the post-Trump landscape”; during the shutdown, Sykes reprimanded his party for having abandoned its Obama-era obsession with reducing the budget deficit. It’s one thing for The Atlantic to provide a forum for Republicans to hash out these issues among themselves, but quite another for the magazine to allow itself to be hijacked in service of a nakedly partisan policy agenda. If there’s such a thing as an American political center, surely it doesn’t align with Tom Cotton’s thinking, nor does it harbor nostalgia for twentieth-century white supremacy. No matter how loudly The Atlantic protests “Of no party or clique!” putting Frum’s essay on the cover makes clear that it should now be read as the house organ of the anti-Trump right. And once the president’s time in office ends, we can look to its pages for the triumphant new agenda of the Grand Old Party.