Last week I wrote in these pages about the complicity of the mainstream media in the ongoing Republican attempt to undermine American democracy. That high-pitched squealing you hear is the sound of several howling examples on display in the days that followed.
Let’s dive in.
FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION
In The New Yorker—about as mainstream as American media gets—the usually very savvy David Rohde has a profile of US Senator Angus King of Maine, one of only two independents in that once-august body. (The other more famous one, not coincidentally, is also from New England, a certain B. Sanders.) With all due respect to Mr. Rohde, his piece traffics in exactly the kind of destructive bothsidesism that I bemoaned last week, and that plagued the US media in the 2016 election, and that continues to do so with even more dangerous consequences as we speak.
Here’s the operative paragraph:
Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, told me that both sides are increasingly playing to their political base. Joe Biden, after months of largely ignoring his predecessor, has begun calling out Trump and his Republican enablers. In a recent speech in Georgia, the President compared opponents of the voting-rights bills to Bull Connor, the notorious commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, in the nineteen-sixties, who unleashed attack dogs on peaceful civil-rights protesters. Biden’s rhetoric won praise from his party’s liberal base, but it sparked a rare rebuke from Senator Mitt Romney, who said that the comparison was offensive.
Did you catch that?
In saying that both Republicans and Democrats are “playing to their political base,” Rohde makes no distinction between the former, who are spreading outright lies in the interest of electoral subversion, and the latter, who are calling that effort out and the risks it poses for our democracy. (He literally uses the words “both sides.”)
It’s as if a group of armed robbers burst into a bank and took hostages, and when a SWAT team assaulted the building and arrested them, the headline read, “Cops and Robbers Both Break Into Bank, Take Prisoners.”
Rohde then sets Mitt Romney up as a wise old man condemning that state of affairs, and not a partisan engaging in the same false equivalence himself.
For the record, what Romney said was, “President Biden goes down the same tragic road taken by President Trump, casting doubt on the reliability of American elections. This is a sad, sad day.” That is a shameless and specious comparison, and Romney knows it. And I would remind you that Mitt “Don’t Let Me Dog-Sit For You” Romney is supposed to be one of the BEST Republicans. (A very low limbo bar, admittedly.)
At the other end of the Republican Respectability Spectrum, in an escaping-prisoner-underground tunnel twenty feet below that bar, Mitch McConnell not surprisingly went even lower, saying, “The president’s rant yesterday was incoherent, incorrect and beneath his office,” accusing Biden of giving “a deliberately divisive speech that was designed to pull our country further apart.”
I guess Mitch is used to the quiet dignity and eloquent “Kum-ba-ya” approach of that very stable genius who previously brought such honor to the Oval Office.
He capped his criticism by saying, “”Unfortunately, President Biden has rejected the better angels of our nature. So it is the Senate’s responsibility to protect the country.”
I’ll just let that sit there like the steaming pile of feces it is.
Rohde ‘s piece is called “The Senate’s Dangerous Inability to Protect Democracy.” For once, the headline is more accurate than then piece itself, which is not the usual pattern. But even that title is misleading, as if the whole Senate is trying to protect voting rights and somehow failing. The reality, of course, is that fully half of the Senate—the GOP half, 50 Senators strong—is against any bills to protect voting rights, even ones that they wholeheartedly supported in earlier, less viciously partisan times….like a law that 17 sitting US Senators voted to affirm in the past, a law so patently decent that as recently as 2006 it was reauthorized in the Senate by a vote of 98-0, a law that even McConnell himself is on tape that year lavishly praising as a great moment in American legislative history.
Meanwhile, two Democrats, while putatively in favor of these voter protections, are unwilling to modify an arcane rule of parliamentary procedure to break the impasse and get them passed. (Even though as recently as last month they’ve voted to modify that rule for other reasons, like to raise the debt ceiling.) Which effectively means that they don’t really support those bills at all when push comes to shove, which is when it fucking counts.
A better headline, then, would be, “Voting Rights Blocked by Senate Republicans (Plus Two).”
So in other words the Senate is happy to change the rules to protect the global financial system, but not to protect the rights of black and brown people or anyone else who might vote against the status quo.
As Midnight Oil says, the rich get richer, the poor get the picture.
LET’S GO BRANDON—SOOOO HILARIOUS
Only a few days after that New Yorker piece went to press, the trope escalated after Joe Biden gave a marathon two-hour press conference on the eve of his first anniversary in office and, among other things, said that the next election might not be legitimate if voting rights protections aren’t passed.
From the reaction of the MSM, you’d have thought he’d announced that he was moving the nation’s capital to Wilmington, DE, that puppies aren’t cute, and that he was ordering Republican Senators to wear clown costumes to work in the interest of truth-in-advertising. (Not the worst idea.)
On CNN the next day, Susan Page of USA Today and her conservative colleague at that paper, former Bush advisor Scott Jennings, practically had the vapors, bemoaning how Biden was repeating Trump’s assault on public faith in our elections. Philip Bump in the Washington Post offered similar criticism, along with many others. (Even before Biden’s presser, as if on cue, Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor Geoff Duncan was on Chuck Todd’s MSNBC show—of course—making the “Biden is undermining electoral integrity” argument. Chuck didn’t feel that required any pushback.)
I understand that perhaps the worst thing Trump did—on a CV full of strong contenders—was that undermining of faith in free and fair elections. But here’s the rub: In the 14-plus months since his humiliating defeat, his side has gone out of its way to make his claim a reality by brazenly sabotaging electoral integrity under the guise of protecting it, and seeking to put a chokehold on the voting process both in terms of who gets to vote and who counts those voters, all to ensure that it will regain and retain power.
This, my friends, is not news….except when Joe Biden is impolitic enough to point it out.
This is also not hyperbole but a matter of demonstrable fact. Heather Cox Richardson reports that even as Biden spoke in Georgia about voting rights last week, “a state court in North Carolina upheld redistricting maps that are so extreme they would give Republicans 71–78% of the seats in a state Trump won with just 49.9% of the vote. This, voting rights journalist Ari Berman noted, “is exactly the kind of partisan & racial gerrymandering [the] Freedom to Vote Act would block[.]”
Enjoy the coming autocracy, everybody!
For Biden to call that out is not engaging in the same behavior as Trump, but quite the opposite. It is his civic duty as our head of state to announce what is plainly obvious to anyone who is paying attention. Are we supposed to not acknowledge the armed robbery the GOP is in the midst of perpetrating? Hell, that is precisely what it would like us to do. But if we do point it out, they accuse us of hypocrisy and being as bad as Trump. (Whom they still worship.)
So now, in a bitter irony, Trump’s claim is correct, if backwards. Very soon we may no longer have free and fair and credible elections in the US, because the Republicans have seized control of that system at almost all levels. In fact, one might even suspect that the GOP consciously used Trump’s attack on Americans’ faith in elections as cover for that effort, one which is merely an acceleration of a longstanding reactionary campaign going back to the very origins of this country.
But that would be cynical.
So would the notion that the Republicans have laid a trap where their critics cannot call them out for this attack on the credibility of American elections without being—unjustly—accused of the same sin. (Remember: they’re evil, not stupid.)
This is exactly the double standard that the Republican Party counts on: for Biden and the Democrats to be held to the responsibilities incumbent on reasonable players in a free society, while Trump actively assails our democratic institutions, openly encourages his supporters to political violence, and creates space for his allies to destroy the system, and we’re supposed to take him “seriously but not literally” (or is it the other way around?) while the press shrugs and chuckles and says “Well, that’s just Trump being Trump.”
Get ready for this to be the standard Republican tactic and talking point going forward. It follows the pattern of many of the previous ploys over the past years, such as complaints about “uncivility” from the left after the GOP chose as its standard bearer in 2016 a flaming bag of dogshit with an M-80 stuck inside it. (Indeed, the Republican claim to be defending “electoral integrity” is itself the ur-example of this Orwellian inversion of the facts.)
I am not saying that we are not entering fraught terrain. But I am saying that the right wing dragged us into that terrain, and now we have to deal with it, even as they try to exploit our response as a means to legitimize their ongoing crime spree. The hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about Biden’s remarks, and the reckless naivete of journalists who want to equate his warning with Trump’s lies, is itself extraordinarily dangerous.
COMMON VS. EMMA GOLDMAN
As a professional screenwriter, I would never dare script a scene where the President of the United States is lambasted for comments like these on the same day when 52 US Senators line up to kill a landmark voting rights legislation in the World’s Biggest Gathering of Do-Nothing Gas Bags, er, I mean, World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Wayyyy too on the nose.
I understand why Chuck Schumer brought a purely symbolic vote on voting rights to the Senate floor, which is fine as far as it goes. But after the past five years, do we really think Republicans can be shamed just by being forced to state publicly their opposition to the fundamental precepts of democracy?
By now it is obvious that the filibuster is a wildly anti-democratic anachronism (with racist origins and history to boot), one that almost no other developed democracy harbors, and that would keep the US out of an organization like the EU were we an emerging “democracy” applying for membership. But the inability of the Democratic Party to corral its two rogue, crypto-Republican Senators and take the most basic steps to protect the republic is beginning to be an argument for why more radical change—and more aggressive champions—will be needed to beat the GOP in ’22 and ’24, especially given its control of the playing field, the goalposts, and the refs.
What will history say when it looks back at a moment when well-meaning Americans of all political persuasions had a chance to protect the most basic aspect of our democracy—the right to vote—and couldn’t get it together enough to do so? It may depend on just how dark the road is down which that failure leads. I am confident, however, that history will be plenty hard on that third of our countrymen who are all onboard with taking those rights away from their fellow Americans.
And Joe Biden is criticized for pointing this out? (That bombthrower!)
Here is the exact reference to Jim Crow-era segregationists that raised such hackles in Atlanta:
I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the sides of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?
Predictably, tout le monde in the MSM—to say nothing of the Washington Times, the WSJ, Ross Douthat, and Pat Buchanan—went apeshit, again comparing Biden to Trump as an insult-slinger. (Mitch “Gravedigger of Democracy” McConnell, again looking to see just how hypocritical he can be before the time-space continuum cracks open, called it “pure demagoguery.”)
In other words, the people pushing a racist attack on voting rights—and indeed, spearheading an entire “populist” movement greased with appeals to white grievance—were deeply offended at being compared to previous generation of racists.
(As Andrew Gillum memorably said of Ron DeSantis during the 2018 Florida gubernatorial race, I’m not saying they’re racists, I’m simply saying the racists believe they’re racist.)
In my too-cool-for-school youth, I used to be fond of the quote, “If voting could really change anything, it would be illegal,” a quip misattributed to many, including Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, and Phillip Berrigan. (To my knowledge, its true provenance is unknown.) In Land of the Blind, I film I wrote and directed in 2006, a decade before Trump’s rise, I put it in the mouth of the revolutionary leader Thorne, played by Donald Sutherland, who offers that sneering observation to Ralph Fiennes’ character Joe by way of justifying violent revolution over peaceful reform from within the system. It’s pithy, for sure, and carries the aura of sardonic cool, and it might even be correct when it comes to many oppressive regimes. But as regards the US, it has become a dangerously jaded point of view, one that encourages cynicism and apathy and that can be readily exploited by the reactionary right. I am sorry I ever deployed it, even in a work of fiction.
Today I would not even toy with such a toxic sentiment. These days I have come to favor an opposing view, that of Common, who in 2018 tweeted “If your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to keep you from voting.”
BOUQUETS AND BRICKBATS
Credit where it’s due: there were moments last week when the MSM did a great job. In particular there was Steve Inskeep of NPR, politely but firmly pressing Trump so hard that the irate Former Guy cut the interview short. The dude just ain’t used to having to answer real questions from real reporters, and not sycophants like Fox & Friends.
Others, however, did not do so well.
Right from the jump, the Washington Post’s coverage of Biden’s press conference was in full-tilt “Hillary sucks just as bad as Trump, amirite?” mode, beginning with this lede:
President Biden escalated his partisan rhetoric Wednesday during his first news conference in 10 months, laying the blame for his stalled agenda at the feet of Republicans….
As if it is somehow “partisan” to drop the gloves and state the facts, or blame-shifting not to let the bastards get away with what they’re up to.
I humbly propose an alternative:
President Biden dropped his heretofore overly generous indulgence of Republicans Wednesday during his first news conference in 10 months, calling them out for their lies and wanton, policy-less obstructionism at the expense of what is best for the American people….
Then there is the coverage of Kyrsten Sinema, one of those two (allegedly) Democratic US Senators who, for their own indefensible reasons, are blocking Congressional protections for voting rights.
So how does the Washington Post describe her in this piece (with the snotty headline “Kyrsten Sinema Preempts Biden, Dashing Democrats’ Illogical Hopes She Would Move on the Filibuster”):
As a, quote, “centrist.”
I’m sorry, but person who abets the theft of voting rights from tens of millions of her fellow Americans and allows the GOP to gleefully carry on with its evisceration of the electoral process is not a “centrist,” or a “moderate.”
And thus does the WaPo help move the Overton window of American politics closer to that of Hungary.
(Sidenote: Searching for examples of the MSM taking cheap shots at Democrats runs the real risk of taking one down a rabbit hole, as one finds some appalling stuff. For example, this New York Times story from last month, titled, “Biden Catches a Cold and Blames His Grandson.”)
Of course, there are far worse offenders.
I am rapidly coming to think that The Week’s national correspondent Samuel Goldman, who is also a professor of political science at George Washington University, is one of the most dishonest voices in the “respectable” conservative press, rivaling Hugh Hewitt or Marc Thiessen. (We can leave out the Carlsons and the Levins and the Bannons.) Goldman publishes in a legitimate, well-regarded magazine—a good one, and among those I rely on for the views of the sane members of the center-right (an endangered species, to say the least). Yet in contrast to much of that magazine, Goldman’s pieces are, consistently, thinly veiled apologia for Trumpism, dressed up with the veneer of “reasonableness” and the pedigree of academia and legitimate journalism.
A recent article of his, about what Republicans should promise voters in ’22 by way of a new “Contract with America,” is a case in point, in that it is both absurd and insulting.
First of all, it’s absurd to believe the GOP has any platform at all except Trump’s ego and the advantages the slavish devotion of his fan base offers to down ballot candidates.
Secondly, the things Goldman advocates for, as if they really matter to Republican voters, comprise the usual wishlist of reactionary crap. (Militarize the border! Stop teaching CRT! Tie the hands of the CDC!) Incredibly, for a magazine that claims to represent intelligent conservatism, this list also includes “election security,” or what Goldman describes as “a commission to review the 2020 election and propose measures to encourage secure, credible results in the future, including a national standard of in-person, election day voting.”
That, my friends, is Stop the Steal by another name.
A modest proposal: Let’s not let Sam Goldman and The Week get away with this, or pretending that he (and it, in this case, for giving his propaganda that platform) are good faith players in our democracy. That would be a step in the right direction toward “election security,” IMHO.
This normalization of what the GOP is up to, and the press’s largely ho-hum attitude about it, is a severe danger to say the least. For all the supposedly hair-on-fire pieces about the death of democracy that are being mocked by the chattering class, much of the American media remains unwilling to call a shovel a shovel.
The Danish director Camilla Nielsson has a powerful new film out called President, which details the 2018 presidential election in Zimbabwe, which the incumbent Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, a former henchman of Robert Mugabe (whom he helped overthrow the previous year), shamelessly stole from his challenger, the 40-year-old pro-democracy activist Nelson Chamisa. (It is short-listed for the Oscar for best documentary feature.)
Not long ago, we Americans could have watched that film and felt all superior about how hopelessly screwed up the developing world is. Now we watch it and see damn near a blueprint for what is happening in the US right now headed into 2024.
Nielsson lays out an appallingly brazen electoral theft, from the army brutalizing Mnangagwa‘s opponents, to partisan control of the supposedly independent electoral commission, to ballot stuffing and manipulation of the vote count, to the apparent complicity of the Zimbabwean Supreme Court, and more.
But if you search the web, most of the Western reportage about the election is along the lines of, “The incumbent President Mnangagwa won, the losers alleged cheating, but the Supreme Court ruled against them.” And that’s it.
US press coverage of the ongoing Republican coup d’état here in America is approaching that level of ostrich-gullibility, which by extension equates to complicity. And we are all paying the price.
THE MYTH OF NORMALCY
In addition to the fish tale that Biden-is-as-bad-as-Trump, a parallel narrative developing in the press is that Biden promised normalcy and is not delivering it. According to this line of thought, Biden wants to be FDR, but we didn’t elect him to do that; we elected him to bring back the good ol’ status quo….you know, when middle class white people didn’t have to worry about the entire world crashing in on them, or a historic pandemic, or the establishment of a neo-fascist kleptocracy that would interfere with their (read: our) safe and well-ordered lives.
The complaint is stomach-churning.
As I wrote over a year ago, echoing many others, there can be no return to normalcy, if indeed such a thing ever existed. Trump, the pandemic, rising economic inequality, the legacy of slavery and virulent institutional racism, resurgent white nationalism, the plague of firearms, planet-threatening environmental catastrophe, the threat of aggressive autocracy abroad….these things are not going away on their own. It may be time to recognize that “normalcy” gave us those blights in the first place and put us in the state we are in. Therefore, to address them and make a brighter day, far more substantive change is in order.
That is the sort of thing, as Prof. Nikole Hannah-Jones reminds us, the esteemed Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in and fought for, even as his legacy is now being dishonestly co-opted by the very segment of people who during his lifetime opposed him with every fiber of their collective Confederate being.
If mainstream Democratic politics ultimately fails to save America, perhaps a more robust King-inspired kind of activism will rise up in its place, which would be a silver lining to end all silver linings. But if that happens, the failure won’t be because Joe Biden finally pointed out that the emperor has no clothes. It will be because it took so long for us collectively to say so.