You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Atlantic and the Limits of Reasonableness

Is the magazine’s tradition of argument equal to the crises of the Trump era?

A silhouette of Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Nevada
Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada, on October 18, 2020

The Atlantic is perhaps the quintessential American magazine. Founded by Boston abolitionists in 1857, its role in the media ecosystem stands in contrast to that of The New Yorker, which, despite regularly featuring excellent reporting, is first and foremost a literary magazine. Among political magazines, it is neither overtly right-wing like the National Review nor overtly left-wing like The Nation (or, for that matter, The New Republic). The Atlantic is a magazine not precisely of the center but rather of a set of liberal civic ideals; more than any other publication, its purpose seems to be the continual renewal of educated Americans’ commitment to high-mindedness.

The American Crisis: What Went Wrong. How We Recover.
by the writers of The Atlantic
Simon & Schuster, 576 pp., $20.00

The past four years have severely tested those ideals, and under the leadership of Jeffrey Goldberg, who became editor in chief the month before Donald Trump’s election, The Atlantic has dedicated itself to the defense of American liberalism in the face of Trump’s clownish barbarism. Now, with the publication of The American Crisis: What Went Wrong. How We Recover.—a 500-page collection of 40 articles published in print or online between 2016 and mid-2020—the editors have curated a kind of museum of their efforts.

Although I had read many of these articles online, I dutifully went through the entirety of The American Crisis in the order in which it was intended to be read, including the introduction by Goldberg, the conclusion by staff writer Anne Applebaum, and the transitional sections between each article by editor-at-large Cullen Murphy. While built from standalone pieces, the book is meant to tell a unified story, with the articles slotted thematically into four sections—one on America’s wider social crises, one on the failure of politics in general, one specifically focused on the Trump administration, and one calling for a civic renaissance. On these narrow terms, it generally succeeds, but it does so in a way that can be exhausting to work through and unsatisfying to complete, doing justice neither to the best nor the worst writers the magazine employs.

More notable than the story the editors have tried to tell is the tone they have aimed to create, the parameters they believe appropriate for political debate in this country in 2020. The book features contributions by Atlantic staffers such as Caitlin Flanagan, McKay Coppins, Annie Lowrey, Vann R. Newkirk II, George Packer, David Frum, Adam Serwer, and James Fallows, as well as some high-profile contributors like Drew Gilpin Faust, Angela Nagle, James Mattis, Ibram X. Kendi, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who left The Atlantic in 2018, has an article included, while some other prominent voices associated with the magazine, like Conor Friedersdorf or Yascha Mounk, do not. Kevin D. Williamson, the right-wing troll who was controversially employed by The Atlantic for about two weeks in 2018, is nowhere to be found. By my very rough count, about one in three contributors are women and about one in five are people of color—both of which fractions, it’s only fair to acknowledge, are probably higher now than they would have been in any previous four-year period of the magazine’s history.

But what really comes through is the institutional voice of The Atlantic, which makes itself felt in nearly every contribution: clean, authoritative, high-minded, rigorously empirical, more than a bit self-righteous—and, once you’ve heard it enough times, utterly tedious.

To understand where that voice comes from, it helps to look at any job posting on the Atlantic Media website. The company looks for two “pillar gifts” from all its employees: “force of ideas” and “a spirit of generosity,” defining the latter as manifesting itself in writing that is “critical on the merits but informed by charity and forbearance in measuring motive and personal character.” This is not, in other words, a publication for alums of Gawker or The Baffler (which published what might be the single best read on The Atlantic back in 2012). This is a publication that selects for a certain mode of gentility and then further polices how its writers are permitted to express themselves.

To be spoken to in the Atlantic tone, and to adopt the Atlantic view on America’s problems, must be luxuriously comforting. The Atlantic believes our country is flawed and complex, born in slavery but always aspiring to a more inclusive definition of freedom. It believes that Trump presents an unprecedented authoritarian threat to America’s democratic institutions, a threat that has pre-Trumpian roots but is also singular and, we can only hope, temporary. It believes America has always held within it the capacity for rebirth and renewal; that in spite of our diversity and divisions, we can and must seek unity; that partisan strife can be overcome; that lessons from history, which seem to appear about 20 percent of the way through any given article, can inspire us to embrace our better angels; that old-fashioned concepts like honor and duty and fairness have a place in twenty-first-century America; and that our many pressing problems—inequality, a broken public health system, online radicalization, right-wing conspiracy theories, structural and environmental racism, climate change, all of it—can be dispassionately diagnosed and addressed. The Atlantic believes that you are a well-meaning, Ivy-educated white-collar professional, a member of what contributor Matthew Stewart calls “the 9.9 percent” and “the new American aristocracy”; that you listen to NPR and shop at Trader Joe’s and are vaguely embarrassed not to know any Trump supporters; that you are trying your best to understand how America has gone astray; and that you can do so without ever making yourself too uncomfortable.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that there’s a lot of truth to the worldview I’ve outlined above, and that there’s a real audience it speaks to. Under Goldberg’s leadership, with Trump as a foil, and with the sponsorship of Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire widow of Steve Jobs, The Atlantic has set new subscription records—and the state of the media industry being what it is, it’s hard not to celebrate that.

Moreover, a lot of talented writers work for The Atlantic, and they’ve gotten a lot right. The first essay excerpted in this collection is science writer Ed Yong’s “When the Next Plague Hits,” originally published in the summer of 2018—an eerily accurate preview of what would become, a year and a half later, apocalyptic reality. Only a true media obsessive is likely to remember that when Yong’s essay first ran, it was hidden away in the corner of a cover mostly devoted to Jesse Singal’s much-criticized report on transgender kids who decide to de-transition. That version of The Atlantic, the one that trolls its readers and sets off weeks-long internet wars, is barely evident in The American Crisis. Choosing from among thousands of published articles, the editors have selected the ones most likely to be read by future generations of earnest liberals, but not necessarily those given most prominence at the time of publication.

In some cases, the writer’s voice transcends The Atlantic’s. In “The First White President,” Ta-Nehisi Coates demolishes the trope that Trump voters are laid-off factory workers seeking refuge from the opioid epidemic in small-town diners. In forceful prose, Coates reels off statistics showing that while such voters do exist, they are no more representative of Trump’s base than affluent suburbanites are; that the only real through line connecting Trump voters across class, gender, and region is whiteness. Notably, he goes after an article by George Packer, then a staff writer at The New Yorker, accusing it of “white tribalism.” Only Coates could have written Coates’s essay, and it’s admirable that the editors included it, given that Coates no longer works for The Atlantic and that Packer, who took real affront at “The First White President,” does.

Similarly, Adam Serwer’s writing is more hard-edged than the institutional voice. In the eminently quotable “The Cruelty Is the Point,” he succeeds in cutting through Trumpian exceptionalism, and through any conceit that the fundamental problem the president poses is toward norms and institutions. Trump, as Serwer demonstrates, is not only a sadist himself; his politics plays to a widespread and deeply rooted American sadism, and the inhumanity he shows to the most vulnerable Americans in deed as well as in word is exactly what he campaigned on, and exactly what his supporters voted for.

And while her political leanings differ from mine, and she has her own trollish streak, Caitlin Flanagan’s two contributions to this collection—one on her experiences as a college admissions counselor for wealthy high schoolers, and one on living with stage 4 cancer at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic—both, in different ways, showcase a distinctive and deeply human style that is alternately funny and shattering. She is permitted to be herself, and the magazine is richer for that.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the stunt contributors. It’s one thing to interview James Mattis, as Goldberg himself has done for The Atlantic; it’s another to give Trump’s former secretary of defense his own space to pontificate about Abraham Lincoln and leadership. And it’s all well and good to enjoy the musical Hamilton, but to offer Lin-Manuel Miranda the second-to-last word in this collection—his mind-blowing thesis is that art is always political—is self-parodic pandering to The Atlantic’s presumed audience. Other recent stunt contributors, like the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, didn’t make the cut. Every time The Atlantic runs someone who isn’t a professional journalist, the substance of the article in question seems less important than impressing upon readers that The Atlantic hosts fancy events where top editors like Goldberg get to hang out with celebrities.

This might be the central tension in the present incarnation of The Atlantic. Good journalism isn’t free, and many publications have subsidized it using digital ads attached to cynical clickbait, among other questionable and increasingly ineffective techniques. The Atlantic prefers to tie itself to high-profile gatherings (remember those?) like the Aspen Ideas Festival, which may seem like a classier strategy but has the effect of aligning the top editors a bit too closely with the power elite. I thought about this while reading Stewart’s critique of the upper-middle class, the so-called 9.9 percent that presumably includes nearly everyone on the magazine’s staff as well as most of its readers. A little self-flagellation might be appropriate for that set, but the effort to steer anger over the American crisis away from the oligarchs at the very top feels like a message tailor-made for the magazine’s backers and their peers.

I have a lot to say about Jeffrey Goldberg, but his haughty, insidery voice has only partially defined the Trump-era magazine’s—mainly by establishing an editorial line that is anti-Trump without indulging “the Resistance” or veering anywhere near the revived socialist left. The Atlantic’s current voice is no less shaped by, for instance, Executive Editor Adrienne LaFrance (who has an article in The American Crisis on QAnon) or Ideas Editor Yoni Appelbaum (on “How America Ends”). Appelbaum is a former lecturer on history at Harvard who joined The Atlantic after drawing its attention as a regular participant in the comments section of Coates’s then-active blog, where he helped Coates develop his interest in the Civil War, which would come to define Coates’s most influential subsequent work. The tendency of so many of the articles in this volume to harken back to nineteenth-century American history—to Frederick Douglass and Seneca Falls—points to Appelbaum’s influence.

There is, to be sure, much to be learned from the nineteenth century that directly informs the present. But the danger of leaning so heavily on the long arc of history is that it obscures how at key moments, history is propelled forward with radical force. For all their gifts of oratory, and for all their political acumen, Lincoln and Douglass participated in a transformation of America that was fundamentally violent: the Confederacy was suppressed by armed force on a continental scale; the constitutional amendments that ended slavery and guaranteed Black citizenship were passed without the rebelling states’ initial consent; and the enslaved people of the South themselves actively resisted, fled captivity, and fought their would-be masters in defiance of the law. These are lessons of history that many Atlantic readers would be extremely hesitant to apply in our own time.

Instead, we have Anne Applebaum’s conclusion to this volume, in which she calls for “evolutionary rather than revolutionary” change, citing Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive era, Britain’s Victorian-era reforms, and Japan’s Meiji Restoration as appealing models. “We have found the ability to make deep changes without destroying those elements of our system that are useful and good,” she writes. “And if we did it once, we can do it again.” It’s an encapsulation of the tradition of reasonableness that the magazine has traded on for so long. But after reading about the many existential crises rigorously detailed by the staff of The Atlantic over the past few years, it’s not at all clear that high-minded argument will be enough.