Both Sides Now

As expected, Senate Republicans yesterday blocked a House proposal for a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of January 6th

They did so even though Democrats had agreed to every Republican demand regarding the makeup and operating procedures of that commission (i.e., called the GOP’s bluff). They did so even as members of the Capitol Police who lived through the Insurrection and the surviving family members of one of their number who was killed in it, Officer Brian Sicknick, stood outside their offices and pleaded with them to investigate the matter. (So much for “Back the Blue.”) They did so even though they represent the same party that bypassed even the pretense of bipartisanship in standing up a House committee that spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars investigating Benghazi, for what Rep. Kevin McCarthy openly admitted—bragged, in fact—was a partisan attempt to hurt Hillary Clinton

The Republicans’ reasons for this refusal are laughable and can find purchase only among the most tribal and already Kool-Aid besotted. Only six of 50 GOP Senators voted yes (Romney, Murkowski, Cassidy, Portman, Sasse, and Collins), one less than voted to impeach Trump over that same atrocity last February. The others, even those who briefly broke with Trump in the immediate aftermath of the Insurrection, have apparently come to believe that it’s in the Party’s best interests to pretend it never happened. 

What about the country’s best interests, you ask? 

Don’t make me laugh.

But of course, this was all to be expected, given that the GOP is complicit in the events of January 6th. Obviously the last thing Republicans want—on orders from the Florida Retiree-in-Chief—is for it to be investigated. As MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan quipped, “Al Qaeda was against the 9/11 commission too.”

It may yet come back to haunt the GOP: at the polls in 2022, and in behind closed doors discussions between Joe Biden and Joe Manchin, as the latter clings to absurd fantasies that the Party of Trump will ever act in good faith. Currently Manchin is sticking to his refusal to eliminate the filibuster, and his enviable position as veto-holder for the Democratic Party, continuing to mouth empty platitudes about “bipartisanship” at a time when the word has become nothing more than a loaded gun that Mitch McConnell is holding at head of American democracy. Manchin even said in advance of Friday’s vote that a GOP kibosh would not change his mind. But we shall see, now that Republicans have shown how far they are willing to go to block even the most basic functions of government. 

It may prove a strategic error in the court of public opinion as well, when the GOP instead could have allowed the commission to proceed, hamstrung its efforts, and then—a la the Mueller probe—proclaimed exoneration when its incomplete results were turned in. 

But they weren’t willing to risk even that. Perhaps that is how deeply in thrall Republicans are to the batshit faction of their seditionist, neo-Confederate base….or how scared they are of the facts that might come out even in an investigation that they could partially control. 

For now, this much is clear, as The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser writes: 

“A country that cannot even agree to investigate an assault on its Capitol is in big trouble, indeed.”


Glasser’s recent New Yorker piece is titled “American Democracy Isn’t Dead Yet, But It’s Getting There.” She quotes Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard, one of the authors of the 2018 book How Democracies Die, as saying that post-Trump, “things are much worse than we expected,” and that “he had never envisioned a scenario like the one that has played itself out among Republicans on Capitol Hill during the past few months.” 

How could he have? It’s hard to imagine anyone in America, even when How Democracies Die was published, a year into Trump’s term, seriously contemplating an American President who would unleash an insurrection in order to steal an election that he clearly lost—and then still commanding the support of his party after doing so.

Yet here we are, four months after Trump left DC like a WWE heel who got beat in a “Loser Leaves Town” match, and Republican craziness is worse than ever. 

Glasser goes on to note one recent survey which reported that “nearly thirty percent of Republicans endorsed the idea that the country is so far ‘off track’ that ‘American patriots may have to resort to violence’ against their political opponents.”

You don’t need two Harvard professors to tell you that sort of reasoning is just what could lead to the death of a democracy. 

Damn straight. This is a truly terrifying state of affairs, and the people who perpetrated it have a lot to answer for. But they could never have succeeded to the extent they have were there not a ready and willing market for it. 

I don’t care how much brainwashing you do: when millions of people buy into an utterly insane argument that justifies both the wanton abrogation of basic democratic norms, and even violence against their fellow countrymen in the interest of spurious fever dream of racial purity and the defense of their Precious Bodily Fluids, it’s time to stop blaming the con men and start blaming the marks. 

You may recall that Biden began his term amid risibly dishonest Republican calls for “healing” and unity,” calls that were, of course, really aimed at shielding their party and its exiled leader from accountability for their sins. Ironically, as president, Biden has given Republicans precisely what they asked for in terms of the former, while cleverly letting others pursue the latter. 

This is not by coincidence. Glasser notes that some political scientists, like Ziblatt and his co-author Steven Levitsky, have advocated precisely this kind of “dialing down the rhetoric.”

Biden, almost certainly for this reason, does not talk much about either January 6th or Republican obstructionism. The words “Donald Trump” rarely, if ever, cross his lips. “He’s deëscalating,” Ziblatt told me, and trying to take some of the “anger and animosity,” heat and rage, out of American politics. 

This is more or less the course recommended by How Democracies Die, although it’s infuriating to Democrats who wish for stronger pushback to daily outrages generated by a Republican Party that has gone all in on outrage as a strategy.

During the battles over the January 6th commission, Biden has continued to maintain this diplomatic silence, but Glasser notes “a shift—a noticeable one—from the Biden of previous months.” Referencing a recent speech he gave in Cleveland, she writes:

He no longer talked of unity. There were no gauzy paeans to bipartisanship. Instead, there was a list that Biden pulled out from his papers and waved in the middle of his speech, an early salvo, perhaps, in the years-long blame game to come. The list, Biden said, was of congressional Republicans who have bragged about the benefits to their constituents from Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-relief bill, which passed without a single Republican vote. 

“Some people have no shame,” Biden said.


Yet still conservatives with a platform in the respectable mainstream media (like the Washington Post’s despicable Marc Thiessen) complain that Joe is not being bipartisan enough. 

This from a party, a strong majority of whose members, led by its undisputed leader, will not even acknowledge that Joe Biden won the election and is the legitimate President of the United States. 

Also in the WaPo, conservative columnist Gary Abernathy recently published a piece called “The Simple Fix to Our Polarization: Befriend Someone You Disagree With.” Masquerading as an innocuous plea for understanding those across the aisle, it casts (you guessed it) both sides as blameworthy in the hyperpolarization of America, and sanctimoniously—and disingenuously—calls for everyone to try to see the other guy’s point of view. 

Sounds nice….except that Abernathy’s plea is based on the premise that both sides are equally valid, rational, and acting in good faith. 

News flash, folks: they ain’t. Only one party facilitated a violent attempt to overthrow the government and is now engaged in both denial that it really happened and a shameless coverup; only one is still (still!) trying to re-litigate an election that was settled seven months ago and is not in dispute by any rational human; only one is trying to undermine free and fair elections in the future and disenfranchise millions to secure permanent political power for itself; only one is actively trying to thwart a mass vaccination program in the midst of a pandemic; only one is at war with objective reality itself in favor of whatever the leader of its cult of personality says and trying to gaslight the rest of us.

Abernathy writes:

With all the fun stuff to watch on Netflix and other services, I seldom watch cable news in the evenings. But if I do choose to focus on politics, I try to watch something other than Fox News to be presented with a point of view I don’t already share. I also enjoy occasional lunchtime conversations with people who disagree with me.

A person whose primary news source is Fox has no standing to talk about seeking “occasional lunchtime conversations with people who disagree with me” as a remedy for relentless, weapons-grade propaganda. And I’ll remind you that this kindergarten-level political discourse—naïve at best, openly deceitful at worst—is being published by a contributing columnist to one of the two most important newspapers in America.

(Big shock: in 2016 Abernathy was publisher and editor of the Hillsboro Ohio Times-Gazette, one of the few US newspapers to endorse Trump.)

Ah, but you say, this is just one faction—the crazies. There are extremists on the left too! But I’m here to tell you, ICYMI, the crazies are the Republican party these days. The “moderates” have all departed, or been made pariahs, like Romney, Cheney, and Kinzinger. (That Liz Cheney is now considered a moderate should give you some idea of the shift.) This is now indisputably the party of Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Josh “Closed Fist” Hawley, who may soon be joined in the US Senate representing Missouri by the guy in the pink shirt who pointed an AR-15 at BLM protestors, whose entire claim to qualification for the office is that he did so.

The same phenomenon is not remotely true of the left. The DNC is not falling all over itself to please the remaining members of the Weather Underground. 

The GOP has become an American equivalent of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, a far right party of shock jocks, hecklers, and provocateurs whose unabashed objective is to make a mockery of any attempt at governance. In fact, it might be even worse than the AfD. As Ziblatt told Glasser: 

In contemporary Germany….an incitement to violence of the kind deployed by Trump and some of his backers might be enough to get a political party banned. But, in America’s two-party system, you can’t just ban one of the two parties, even if it takes a terrifying detour into anti-democratic extremism.


With apologies to Mr. Abernathy, opening one’s mind to opposing points of views is one thing, but appeasing insurrectionists, autocrats, and domestic terrorists will only encourage them. (Paging SNL’s Dr. Wenowdis.) All these “Can’t we all just get along” pleas for so-called unity and reaching-across-the-aisle-ism are just another form of gaslighting.

At the risk of being accused of the very malady at issue here (that’s one of the right’s neatest tricks), both sides are not equally to blame, and the impulse to pretend they are—both in the media and in the national conversation at large—is truly destructive. It’s yet another example of Krugman’s “parties differ on shape of planet.” 

This is the evil genius of authoritarian politics. 

Try these three easy steps:

  1. Behave in a manner that is beyond the pale and threatens the very foundations of democracy.
  2. Falsely accuse your opponents of that very behavior. 
  3. Denounce those opponents as hypocrites when they try to point that out. 

Works every time.

It is an insidious trap, not unlike the way that Trump howled for months that the upcoming election was rigged, which was a lie, and now Republicans are doing their damnedest to rig future elections, which is true, but makes it hard for us to call that out without appearing to legitimize ex post facto what Trump did in the first place. But that does not mean he was right or we are wrong.

Per Krugman’s famous metaphor, two people arguing about whether the earth is flat or round are not automatically deserving of equal credibility or consideration, not even by journalists covering the food fight and trying to maintain objectivity. It is part of what got Trump elected in 2016, and—incredibly—it continues even now, when we have all seen how dangerous it is.

In a piece for The American Prospect called “Why Journalism Isn’t Really Covering the Threat of Fascism,” Eric Alterman writes:

Two phenomena are occurring at once that make it difficult to see what’s actually happening in real time. The first is that the Republican Party has committed itself to an orthodoxy made up of bald-faced lies, racism, the encouragement of political violence, and the purposeful undermining of democracy. The second is that the ongoing existential crisis of journalism is making it impossible to report the above clearly.

Alterman writes of the devastating impact of the contraction of the print journalism industry in America, and of course the rise of the Fox News juggernaut, and “the age-old problem of journalistic objectivity.” 

The idea has a lot to recommend it, and it worked reasonably well in the past, but again, there’s a fundamental problem: Objectivity has no bias in favor of truth. If one side pays attention to facts and tries to do a reasonable job of respecting all people regardless of race, creed, color, etc., and the other lies all the time, promotes racist lies, and incites its followers to violence, then journalistic objectivity has a lot of trouble telling one from the other…. 

Beginning with Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, then going into overdrive with Donald Trump, Republicans realized that, owing to the unwillingness of mainstream reporters to tell their readers, listeners, and viewers when they are passing along a politician’s lies, they could game the system to their advantage by creating a imaginary version of reality to which sensible politicians and pundits would have no choice but to respond.

In the cruelest of twists, even pointing out that one side is consistently lying also undermines public confidence in the neutrality of the news source. Lose lose, as they say.

So here we are, four years on from Donald Trump’s Bizarro World Joni Mitchell “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville (though only one side runs people over with cars), in a place where Republicans want us to believe that they are still just a respectable, garden variety political party no different than their opposite number, and not at all engaged in an overt campaign to destroy the fundamental precepts of American democracy. 

So take a page from the Ari Melber playbook and jump from Laurel Canyon to Queens, I’ll quote Public Enemy

Don’t believe the hype.


Illustration: Shutterstock

3 thoughts on “Both Sides Now

  1. I am VERY frightened for our country and its citizens. As we become more and more like pre-Nazi Germany, I fear for our future. I’d like to move elsewhere but am too old and won’t leave my family. I had hoped that my six grandchildren would have a good life like I did, but it’s not in the cards, is it? What in the world is wrong with people?


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