There are many political writers with worse views than Chris Cillizza, the Washington Post-turned-CNN blogger—see anyone in the Breitbart/Daily Caller/Heat Street constellation of disingenuous right-wing blowhards. But Cillizza’s work most embodies the cynical world view where all political activity is part of an endless horse race, in which perception trumps morality. In Cilliza’s world, Ivanka Trump isn’t a stone-faced actor whose supposedly ameliorating effect on her father is entirely negligible; she’s a boss who’s just trying to defend her dad. Greg Gianforte winning his congressional race despite body slamming political reporter Ben Jacobs wasn’t a new low; it was, in fact, a savvy political bet on the Republican behalf. And Donald Trump isn’t a half-senile sexual abuser who grifted his way into the most important job in the world—he’s just a troll!
Trump once described him as “One of the dumber and least respected of the political pundits,” a quote that Cillizza features in his Twitter bio without realizing that it’s not really a joke.
In Cillizza’s defense, he makes quite a lot of money to play the field. Still, all the money in the world doesn’t explain why he signed up to do a Reddit AMA on Tuesday afternoon. Instead of a considerate discussion of his work, Cillizza was subjected to a merciless roasting over the course of his AMA, which didn’t last very long. He answered thirteen questions, culled from a thread of 832 posts, many of them insulting (“are you and benny johnson the same person in disguise or is it a sort of gremlins thing where someone poured water on one of you or fed you too late at night and now you both exist”) or generally bewildered about his purpose (“Do you think news networks that have been pandering to the lowest common denominator amongst us by valuing entertainment over fact for the last decade bear any responsibility for the current state of affairs in American politics?”)
Here are some other rude questions, all unanswered:
- “Why do you adopt such a shallow writing style that focuses on subjective emotional reactions towards important political events and not on any type of cognitive analysis that could provide further insight into current events?”
- “Are you aware that real, actual horse races exist? I ask this because you seem desperate to cover a horse race, to the point that you take life-and-death political struggles that affect a nation of 300 million people and a planet of billions and treat them like they’re a horse race. Why not just ‘cut out the middle man,’ so to speak, and cover an actual horse race?”
- “You, Wolf Blitzer and S. E. Cupp play Jeopardy. Do any of you end with a positive amount of money?”
- “Is there any possible political event that could occur that you wouldn’t treat like a sports match?”
- “Chris, if you were around in 1941, who would have had ‘The Worst Week in Washington’ in the first week in December?”
- “Chris, do you believe in meritocracy? If so, why do you get paid so much? If not, why do you get paid so much?”
- “Do you enjoy being corncobbed?”
- “Why do so many other journalists think you suck?” (This one actually got answered.)
In one telling exchange, Cillizza was asked about a 2014 statement he made about his work: “My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be.” He replied:
But has he really evolved? Take this February piece called “Winners and losers from President Trump’s big speech to Congress,” in which Cilliza described Trump as “presidential” because he forcefully defended his world view despite missing “the factual mark by a wide margin.” This is a particularly cynical, circular logic: Trump lies, but because Cillizza believes people don’t care about his lies, he has to also note that Trump appears presidential because of his forceful speech delivery. “Critics” may complain about the lying, and rightfully so, but it doesn’t matter to the people, so why should he linger on it, or find a way to address it in his analysis? In the process, he overlooks his role as a highly visible “journalist” in perpetuating a cycle he claims to think is bad.
Here was an exchange about a Cillizza piece called “A second-by-second analysis of the Trump-Macron handshake,” which is exactly what the headline says:
“The look on Trump’s face,” he wrote in his handshake analysis. “It’s so so good. I can’t get enough of it. I know it’s a darkhorse but it’s my favorite moment of the entire handshake.” It closes with a Drake quote: “What a time to be alive.”
A protracted breakdown of Macron and Trump’s dick-measuring contest was never going to win a Pulitzer, but Cillizza’s writing is particularly banal. It’s silly to get too offended by this type of work, because there’s only so much time in the day, but it remains galling that in a world where millions of Americans are at risk because of decisions made by the Trump administration, a theoretically smart person is intentionally analyzing the political landscape as though it were a fun meme. It’s work that could only be done by someone with no skin in the game, whose cushy salary and D.C. bubble will insulate him from any harsh realities.
The idea of politics as theater conjures the image of a serious setting in which adults watch an elaborate, considered narrative play out. Instead, Cillizza’s writing is more like politics as popcorn-chewing farce—pure entertainment with no stakes. You don’t have to spend your days “swimming in a sea of negativity,” as he said when talking about not taking his haters too seriously, to understand why people are intensely bothered by that.