If Donald Trump is not the worst president of all time, then his only competition is Andrew Johnson, his predecessor in the impeached-and-not-reelected category. (To be perfectly accurate, Johnson was never actually elected; he succeeded Abraham Lincoln.) Not coincidentally, the period following Lincoln’s assassination in the aftermath of the Civil War is likely the last time American politics were as chaotic—and perhaps as dangerous—as they are today.
Trump’s election tweets are unhinged, but there is a self-serving logic to his pretend putsch. It allows him to continue his life as a grifter. He raised more than $200 million for this phony fight and invited potential Republican rivals to smear themselves in the bullshit he left behind. An added benefit is the fact of how much attention his shenanigans draws away from the legitimate actions of the man who beat him in the presidential election and even more advantageous is the fact that he is presiding venally and incompetently over what is already one of the largest mass death experiences the nation has ever faced. (I imagine I’d be writing about that if I weren’t writing about this.)
Polls tell us that nearly 80 percent of Trump voters believe their man was the election’s rightful winner. Trump will therefore succeed in undermining whatever faith his 74 million voters previously had in their political system. He may also inspire mass violence against duly elected officials. (We got a taste of this from the Proud Boy stabbing spree in Washington, D.C., last weekend.) We’ve seen worrisome threats against the people responsible for ensuring a fair count in Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona. Michigan had to close the doors of its legislative offices because of “credible threats of violence” before the Electoral College vote. And it’s not just Trump doing the stoking. On Twitter, the Republican Party of Arizona called on supporters to be willing to “die for something” and asked if members would give up their lives for the cause.
The most immediate political concern is the attempt by Trump and 126 Republican House members to overturn the result of the presidential election. They are no doubt among the 222 Republicans in Congress—which is nearly 90 percent of them—who refused in a Washington Post poll simply to acknowledge the fact that Biden won the election. More than 60 percent of Republicans in the House joined Trump’s stupid lawsuit contesting Texas’s election results. And Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, the GOP Senate and House leaders, respectively, voted against recognizing reality when Biden’s victory was put up by the Democrats for an (unsuccessful) vote.
There are a lot of obvious problems with this position. One almost comical one is that if these people think the election was corrupted by whatever conspiracy of the day Trump’s lawyers have come up with in their more than 50 failed attempts to challenge the vote counts, then they were likely not elected either. A second problem is that if they are serious, they are also crazy. And if they’re not serious, then they are trying to overthrow the legally elected government of the United States, which sounds a lot like treason. Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell made this point in a letter he sent to Nancy Pelosi calling on the House to refuse to seat any of the Republicans who joined Trump’s suit because they are violating the Constitution and are “traitors.”
That may be a stretch politically, but logically, Pascrell has a point. And it is one that the members of the mainstream media need to take to heart. We know that our democracy is at stake and that the country may be on the precipice of significant political violence. If ever the mainstream media needed to shake its self-destructive addiction to false equivalence, now is the time. There is only one fundamental truth in this election: Biden won the Electoral College by 306-232 and the popular vote by more than 7 million. The only reason the contest briefly looked close was that Republican state legislators in battleground states purposely prevented the counting of mail-in ballots in advance, apparently to engender a crisis just like the one we now face.
That the Republican Party has been able to get away with its antidemocratic behavior and anti-reality ideology is due in part to the indulgence of network and cable news bookers who pursue conflict without concern for truth. During Barack Obama’s first year in office, Newt Gingrich was the single most frequently booked guest on NBC’s Meet the Press. He was the only ex–House speaker ever to be invited, and the actual Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had a grand total of zero appearances that year. It was also despite the fact that Gingrich had already grown increasingly insane. With little pushback, Gingrich, at the time, professed to detect “a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us,” and spread the lunatic theories of convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza. Gingrich also argued that, under Obama’s presidency, the country was “being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.”
All through the Obama era, as Trump pumped up his racist campaign of lies against America’s first Black president, Republican Party leaders were invited time and time again on these programs to further his falsehoods. Asked on Meet the Press whether Obama was a Christian or a Muslim, Speaker of the House John Boehner could not bring himself to give a straight answer. “Listen,” he told the host, David Gregory, “the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can’t—it’s not my job to tell them.” Majority leader Eric Cantor did much the same. Given this, it should hardly surprise anyone that as late as 2016, long after Obama reluctantly produced official Hawaiian records documenting his birth, fully 72 percent of Republican voters told pollsters they either doubted or actually did not believe that he had been born in the United States.
In other words, Trump was pushing against an open door with his pathological lying and racist incitements. He had learned long ago that there would be no sanction in the media so long as he provided the ratings that stoked their profits. Now those same network executives need to decide which side they are on: democracy or fascist rebellion. Network bookers should refuse to amplify the words of anyone who denies Biden’s victory without immediately pointing out that that person is a liar. Nothing is “disputed.” Nothing is “controversial.” Nothing is “lacking in evidence.” There is only truth or lies. These multimillion-dollar anchors have almost all proven too concerned about their Q-ratings (likability measurements) to challenge the politicians who lie to their faces. But this time, the sanctity of the political system and perhaps the safety of their fellow citizens depends on their growing a spine and insisting that their interviewees acknowledge the truth before opining on any other matter.
This should be simple. The news divisions of the major networks, together with CNN (and to a lesser extent, the liberal-branded MSNBC), have all sacrificed much of their credibility during the Trump presidency. They should welcome the opportunity to win it back. Fox News faces an interesting dilemma. It has always been more of a propaganda outlet than a news network, and this reached ridiculous proportions under Trump. But now, with even nuttier networks like Newsmax and One American News nipping at Fox’s heels, it has a chance to rebrand itself as what it pretends to be: a conservative news alternative to the centrist mainstream, allowing the others to swim alone in the fetid waters that was previously Fox’s own pond. I don’t have any great hopes that this will actually happen anytime soon. Despite Rupert Murdoch’s troglodyte ideological commitments, money has always come first for him—and there is still plenty of short-term profit in pushing Trump’s line. Even so, one can hope that the best long-term bet—at least as seen by his children—will be in participating in American democracy, not offering aid and comfort to those who seek to destroy it.