Until supporters of Bernie Sanders started trashing Paul Krugman—in the midst of a presidential campaign that is shattering every cherished assumption of the political cognoscenti—the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist was celebrated as perhaps America’s leading public intellectual and most influential voice of the liberal creed.
“I’m getting a fair bit of seriously abusive mail,” Krugman confided this week to The Daily Beast, citing the ugly reaction from “Bernie Bros” (his preferred insult for his antagonists, regardless of whether they are actually young males trolling Hillary Clinton fans on the Web) to his recent columns and blog posts criticizing the Vermont senator’s allegedly unrealistic campaign proposals and casting doubt on the 74-year-old Democratic Socialist’s electability. “It started immediately after I first wrote that single-payer is not going to happen,” Krugman added, referring to Sanders’s health-care proposals, “and I got a barrage of mail declaring that I’m a corrupt tool of capitalism and all that.”
He continued: “I’m not sure if people understand that, with some differences, I went through the same basic thing back in 2008”—when he wrote skeptically about Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric of hope and change. “Bernie’s and Obama’s messages are very different. Bernie is about ‘If only we make a stirring progressive case, we can overturn the innate limits of politics.’ Obama in 2008 was saying that we can reach sweetness and light and there will be no confrontation.”
Krugman recalled that in 2002 and 2003, when he argued relentlessly against Bush 43’s military ambitions in Iraq, or later when he scorched Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security and lampooned right-wing Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the feedback was even more voluminous, albeit frequently misspelt and ungrammatical.
“I’ve been through a lot of these wars, “ he said. “This is only the second time I’ve been getting it from the left. …So this is just a replay, and it will pass.”
On Tuesday, Krugman potentially exposed himself to more mistreatment by beginning for the first time to tweet personally on an official Twitter account (boasting 1.5 million followers) that previously had been serviced exclusively by automation.
“There was some discussion at the Times. Because the robot that tweeted my blog posts keeps breaking, we decided I would do a limited amount of direct tweeting,” said the 63-year-old Krugman, who posted a comical photo of himself looking a tad grim at a health club and wearing a T-shirt decorated with a caricature of Donald Trump in the guise of “Trumpy Cat.”
“It’s a T-shirt my nephew gave me,” Krugman explained—no doubt opening himself up to kibitzing from enthusiasts of the reality television mogul who is running the table in the Republican nomination race.
Krugman has compared the onrushing invective to “the kind of correspondence I usually get from Rush Limbaugh listeners, although this time it’s from the left—I’m a crook, I’m a Hillary crony, etc., etc.,” as he wrote recently. But he’s not the only target.
“I think it’s tough to trash Paul Krugman as the conservative or someone who’s out-of-the-gate hostile, but it’s just another data point,” said Nation columnist Joan Walsh, a Clinton sympathizer who has written about being victimized by Bernie Bro trolling. “Senator Sanders has an online cadre of mostly young men… an army of keyboard warriors… who are really abusive to people they disagree with.”
Sanders’ campaign press secretary Symone Sanders (no relation) echoed her boss’s assessment of the Bernie Bro phenomenon: “We don’t want that crap.”
“I don’t think Mr. Krugman needs me to defend him,” the press secretary said. “I do think we’re running a positive campaign and we don’t want our people harassing anyone. People have a right to express their opinion, but they should express their opinion respectfully.”
Clinton campaign spokesperson Karen Finney, meanwhile, emailed The Daily Beast: “As Hillary has said, this campaign should be a robust discussion of the issues Americans are facing; she’s also made it clear that even if you aren’t for her, she will fight for you, so like President Obama has said many times, let’s disagree without being disagreeable.”
Krugman, for his part, has been targeted not only by nasty email and snail mail from the left, including renewed references to his long-ago admission of taking a $50,000 advisory board fee from the Enron Corporation before he launched his Times column; he has also been demonized in published polemics.
The liberal blog Naked Capitalism recently posted a Krugman takedown—claiming that he allegedly misrepresented Sanders’s financial reform ideas because he’s in the tank for Hillary—under a headline that accused the columnist of being “cowardly” and “dishonest.”
“The Krugman that was early to stand up to the Iraq War, who was incisive before and during the [financial] crisis, has been very much in absence since Obama took office,” wrote Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith. “It’s hard to understand the loss of intellectual independence. That may not make Krugman any worse than other Democratic party apparatchiks…”
It is, to say the least, an unusual spot for a guy who writes under the title, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” but who increasingly finds himself defending incremental Clintonian pragmatism.
Krugman cautioned diehard Sanders acolytes in a Jan. 22 Op-Ed column: “Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.”
Until now, Krugman’s place in the nation’s political and policy debates—as described by think-tanker Mike Konczal of Manhattan’s Roosevelt Institute—has been comparable to that of a legendary conservative icon and fellow Nobel Laureate on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.
“The closest thing you can think of is Milton Friedman, writing for Newsweek in the 1970s,” said Konczal, who has joined Krugman in criticizing Sanders’s financial reform plans as woolly-headed and misguided. “Paul is someone who sets the movement agenda, speaks with authority, and is probably the most important liberal columnist in the United States.”
Yet a commenter on the Times website summarized the objections to Krugman with passionate intensity: “What is the deal, Paul? Sanders stands for everything you’ve recommended in your columns FOR YEARS. He’s the one who voted against the… Iraq war. He’s the one calling for Wall Street accountability. He’s the one calling for accountability at the fed [sic] …
“You've advocated single payer all along, which is what Bernie champions. Now you’re telling us we can’t have it? WHY is Paul Krugman now a champion of the status quo, when every progressive policy position he’s ever pushed is now being pushed by a presidential candidate? … why have you forsaken us? Un freaking believable.”
Krugman responded: “Somebody who writes that is actually not paying attention to what I’ve said. If you look at my book The Conscience of a Liberal, I came out for an ACA-like [Affordable Care Act] health plan because I concluded that single payer was not going to happen. That’s a 2007 book.
“I’ve always made a distinction between what I think is real and possible and what I think I would like to get… It’s a little bit of a revelation that with a fair number of people who read me, they’ve picked up a tone and a direction without taking on board the specifics, which is building up an image of me which, let’s say, is a little less complex.”
Krugman said he met “a while back” with Clinton, who periodically cites his writings on the campaign trail, including during Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee, but has yet to shake hands with Sanders. In any case, he said, he has little if any contact with either campaign.
“I can’t be working for any campaign, I can’t be coordinating with any campaign,” he said. “The calmness of my actual life would be startling to people, given all the invective.”
He added: “I’ve been cooking dinner and sitting in the office trying to get the next edition of my textbook out. So it’s not like I’m spending my time in the midst of a fierce struggle.”
As for Krugman’s favorite recipes, “Oh, boy, my wife is away right now. I’m a competent but not a great cook,” he confided. “I can make pretty decent broiled salmon. I can make a quick and easy pasta with bottled sauce and added stuff, and steamed asparagus for tonight, since I’m on my own.”
Crow, however, was assuredly not on the menu.