Eight years ago, at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan gave a dishonest speech in which he blamed President Barack Obama for the closure of a Wisconsin General Motors factory that began shutting down during the George W. Bush presidency. Even so, Washington Post lead fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave Ryan a pass. What’s more, he objected to the fact that anyone else thought it significant. The headline above Kessler’s column read: “The truth? C’mon, this is a political convention.” In it, Kessler wrote that “the whole point is for the party to put its best foot forward to the American people. By its very nature, that means downplaying unpleasant facts, highlighting the positive and knocking down the opposing team.”
He did not explain why a vice presidential candidate lacked the option of doing so without lying. But he did have an idea as to why “Ryan was so quickly labeled a fibber by the Obama campaign.” One suspects, he mused, that “it was a deliberate effort to tear down his reputation as a policy expert.” As it happens, Ryan’s reputation as a “policy expert” was invented by a conservative-leaning punditocracy that was desperate to find a Republican, any Republican, they could admire in those days. But what is rather incredible about this episode was that it apparently did not occur to the Washington Post fact-checker that Ryan was “so quickly labeled a fibber” because he was fibbing.
In what deserves to be one of the founding documents of the history of journalistic false equivalence or “Bothsidesism,” Kessler then went on to complain that during Obama’s entirely accurate convention speech four years earlier he had “knocked McCain for voting 90 percent of the time with his own party,” but failed to mention that during his own brief Senate career, Obama had “voted 97 percent of the time with Democrats.” Got that? The Democratic nominee for president, according to Kessler, was guilty of not attacking himself at a Democratic convention for being a loyal Democrat. This was the edifice upon which he rested his judgment that the 2012 GOP convention “was strictly in the mainstream for such party celebrations.”
Now scroll forward eight years to Thursday and check out a report appearing in the same newspaper about this year’s Republican convention. Beneath a headline reading, “GOP convention spins alternate reality with torrent of falsehoods aimed at rebooting Trump’s flagging campaign,” the Post’s Toluse Olorunnipa explained that “the Republican National Convention this year has stood out for its brazen defiance of facts, ethical guidelines and tradition, according to experts on propaganda and misinformation. While Trump, a former reality television star, has long trafficked in mistruths and innuendo, the broad cast of characters who took up his tactics during prime-time speeches underscores how his brand of politicking has taken root in the GOP.”
There is a direct connection between so many supposedly savvy pundits’ equating four decades of brazen Republican lying with Democrats’ normal political desire to put their best foot forward and the current threats to the Republic. (I happen to have just published a new book on this topic.)
It’s not just Trump’s lying, of course. In fact, as the Post story above indicates, the mainstream media is finally on to the lies as a feature—rather than a bug—of Trump’s campaigning and governance. (It only took more than 20,000 of them.) There’s also the racism, the comical level of hypocrisy, the naked nepotism, the cultishness, and, perhaps most importantly, the lawlessness. There was barely a moment during the entire four-day fiesta that did not involve a violation of both the Hatch Act, a law barring federal employees and property from being used for political purposes, and common decency. Incredibly, former right-wing Republican foot soldier William Kristol compared Thursday night’s festivities to one of Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies. Walter Shaub, the former director of the United States Office of Government Ethics, called this “abomination” of a convention “the most visible misuse of official position for private gain in America’s history. It is an abuse of the power entrusted to this man, the breach of a sacred trust. It is the civic equivalent of a mortal sin—maybe a religious one too. And it is a harbinger.”
It’s the “harbinger” part that worries me. When the convention was only two days old, Politico’s smartypants “Playbook” described all the obvious violations of law in place in Trump’s plans and then proceeded to dismiss them—just as Kessler had done with Ryan’s lying. “But do you think a single person outside the Beltway gives a hoot about the president politicking from the White House or using the federal government to his political advantage?” its writers asked. “Do you think any persuadable voter even notices?”
In addition to the contempt it demonstrates for the rule of law, it also makes clear that this kind of faux-sophistication—while endemic among insiders—is purposefully stupid. They have zero evidence for their “single person” thesis. But even leaving aside the obvious hyperbole, if it is accurate, is this not a choice of the press to treat it as such? Does anyone think voters would have cared about whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton read her e-mails on an iPad or a secure phone without being beaten over the head about it more than all other “issues” combined in 2016? Did voters decide on their own to focus relentlessly on the security arrangement of the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, before being instructed to do so by a similarly obsessed media? Campaign “issues” do not arise out of thin air. They are pushed by one side and adjudicated within the media. We already know that Fox News, Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and their boosters on Facebook are fine with Trump and the Republicans’ consistent disdain for the rule of law. Does that mean that it is by definition unimportant? And what other laws do the smart folks at Politico and elsewhere consider to be unimportant? Do they agree, for instance, that it’s OK to encourage white militia men to murder peaceful protesters? Is it also cool for cops to shoot unarmed Black men in the back seven times in front of their families (and then handcuff them to their hospital beds)? Where does savviness end and an invitation to fascism begin?
Finally, while the coverage of the dishonesty of the convention has been heartening—making a hero, finally, of CNN’s incredible lie tracker, Daniel Dale—I want to call attention to one aspect of the show that has gone under the radar: the dog-whistle anti-Semitism. Pompeo’s illegal speech from the roof of the US Embassy in Jerusalem—about whose cost, by the way, Trump lied by a factor of 40, according to Dale—was clearly aimed not at Jews but at the Republicans’ evangelical base. Sorry to say it, but a lot of these folks love Israel but hate and fear Jews. Yes, the Republicans managed to put the kibosh on their Protocols of the Elders of Zion–spouting speaker at the last minute, but we were still treated to a crazed Kimberly Guilfoyle complaining of “cosmopolitan elites,” together with Senator Tim Scott promising that Democrats “want to take more money from your pocket and give it to Manhattan elites, and Hollywood moguls.”
Just who do you think they have in mind?
Oh, and one more thing: Literally no one, during the entire convention, made reference to how many Americans have died from the coronavirus. Not one.