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The Media Is Already Rehabilitating the GOP—and Walking America Into a Trap

There will be grave consequences for President Biden and our democracy if the right’s many sins are flushed down the memory hole.

Erin Schaff/Getty Images

On Monday, as White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany delivered a baseless rant about voter fraud to reporters and the American public, Fox News host Neil Cavuto decided to pull the plug. “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue showing you this,” Cavuto said. The move almost immediately drew ecstatic praise from media observers. The anchor’s decision was described as “not unprecedented for Cavuto.” He was further credited as being one of the staffers at the right-wing media machine who has “called out Trump multiple times over the years.” The Daily Beast joined the chorus, approvingly declaring Cavuto “one of the few Fox News hosts to challenge President Trump’s lies, especially over the past several months.” 

For a host at Fox, one of the most effective right-wing propaganda machines on the planet, to receive such outsize praise after providing the mildest of pushback against one of the president’s surrogates is a warning sign. The presidential election is barely concluded, Republicans show no real sign of accepting its results, and their flamboyant willingness to proceed as if they got cheated on a vote they worked so diligently, for so many years, to literally rig in their favor will do real harm to our democratic institutions. Nevertheless, the media outlets that liberals have come to rely upon during the illiberalism of the Trump era are already trying to rewrite the history of the last four years in a way that places the American right wing as somehow in opposition to President Donald Trump and Trumpism, even as Joe Biden prepares to take office in January in a transition of power the party has so far shown no real sign of recognizing.

Biden has used both his victory speech and remarks after Election Day to call for unity and for Americans to come together in the aftermath of one of the most hyperpartisan moments in U.S. history. On Tuesday, the president-elect again assured reporters that Republicans would work with him once he takes office—“They will, they will,” he said—despite the fact the vast majority of the party won’t even recognize his victory.  

This kind of messaging is de rigueur for winning candidates, not objectionable in and of itself. There are various schools of thought on whether Biden is being naïve about the prospect of thawing relations between the two parties or whether he knows the score and his continual promises of a pending epiphany are merely intended to cast Republicans in a bad light. Still, it’s a message that has been flatly rejected by Republicans. This reality, however, hasn’t always been rendered with perfect clarity: The media figures from whom liberals have learned to take their cues have, during this fraught period, been of many minds as to how to characterize the GOP.

NBC News reporter Kasie Hunt said Friday that many Republicans currently in Congress deserve credit, that they “actually do the work that keeps the country on track.” Never mind what “on track” means to a party devoted to deregulating the state, exacerbating inequality, and using the immigration system to pursue various ethnic cleansing schemesto say nothing of a do-little-to-nothing approach to a pandemic that’s already claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives. Material reality just doesn’t have any bearing on the situation. It can’t, in a world in which the GOP is presented as a reasonable counter to liberalism, studded merely with mild disagreements about the direction of the country for which everyone shares an abiding affection. 

Jake Tapper, in a tweet Tuesday, complained about the existence of the Trump Accountability Project, a group devoted to ensuring those complicit in the administration’s crimes don’t escape the stench of their time in the White House. “An organized attempt by former Dem officials to blackball from employment anyone who worked for the US government during the Trump administration seems the exact opposite of the calls for unity and healing we’ve heard from President-elect Biden,” wrote Tapper. Left unsaid by Tapper was at what point, exactly, the balance of complicity in crimes against humanity tips toward harsh consequences.

And MSNBC’s Joy Reid, who has built her career on telling the Democratic Party’s base only what it wants to hear, struck a conciliatory note early Friday morning by framing the president as a man defined by Greek tragedy, suggesting via Twitter that “there is a pathos to his story.” For Reid, whose broadcast career has enjoyed a rocket-fuel boost from the constant deployment of “Resistance”-style language over the past four years, now to liken Trump as a man merely possessed of humanizing tragic flaws is remarkable. Whether she knows it or not, she’s provided the platform for what should be an impossible project: the eventual rose-tinted view of the Trump presidency; the story of a man more sinned against than sinning.

There is a simple truth that’s getting glossed over here: Trump is the natural culmination of the past five decades of the American conservative movement. But that’s not stopping the effort to reshape reality and separate conservatives into “good” and “bad” silos, which furthers the false idea that Trump is an aberration. That kind of mentality leads to visual atrocities like a political cartoon showing GOP Senator John McCain and Democratic Representative John Lewis looking down on the election results from heaven in delight. It’s a nice image until you remember that McCain supported Trump in 2016 long enough for him to beat back a Tea Party challenger and voted with the president 90 percent of the time until his death.

The Republican Party’s spurning of Biden’s outstretched hand is the latest example of how the GOP uses power—by rejecting established norms when it’s politically expedient and wielding them like a war hammer at their enemies when convenient. That Democrats and their allies have not adapted to this new reality continues to be worrisome. After all, you can’t win when you’re volunteering to play by a more restrictive set of rules than your opponent.

Whether it’s hand-waving the Iraq War away because former President George W. Bush has developed a quirky friendship with Michelle Obama, exempting the Lincoln Project founders from accountability for past behavior that all but rolled out the welcome mat to Trump, or elevating members of the intelligence and war communities to venerable statesman, liberals spend a considerable amount of time whitewashing the images of their ideological adversaries, even as those same enemies work behind the scenes to continue to push forward policies and ideals that are disastrous for the country and the world. The media offers its more ostentatious plaudits for these efforts at comity than it does for fighting back.

The memory-holing of the record of the American right-wing movement will have detrimental consequences. The reality reversal is harmful to history. It allows those who were—at best—complicit in the destruction of the U.S. regulatory state and democratic institutions over the last four years to skate on the consequences they have earned and provide the means by which they can reinvent themselves to do it all over again. The right depends upon the nation being fitted with a goldfish memory of its deeds to prevent larger accountability beyond occasionally, and narrowly, losing elections. It expects this cycle to continue. 

And conservatives are hardly passive agents in this scheme. Behind every Neil Cavuto providing occasional fodder for liberals and their media allies to cheer, there’s a conniving and connected right-wing media infrastructure that’s thriving beneath these distractions and manipulating the discourse in uncanny ways. 

Like clockwork, once the call was made by the major news outlets on Saturday morning and Trump’s defeat was official, members of the right-wing media apparatus quickly began using a bastardized form of the “woke” language of left-wing social justice movements to deflect criticism and attacks. Former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, whose presence atop the administration’s communications department during the run-up to the Iraq War was pivotal in propagandizing the American people to supporting the conflict, said on Fox News of the loss that “the decent thing to do is let the president himself take the time he wants to absorb this.”

“If the president needs to take a few days or longer to absorb, ultimately accept, and I think he ultimately will accept the outcome of the people, you have to allow that to happen,” Fleischer continued.

It’s a long way from the “fuck your feelings” gloating from Fleischer and others on the right that followed Trump’s win four years ago. The shock and despair felt by many on the left as they faced down the barrel of a Trump administration was ridiculed by the president’s supporters. But that didn’t stop the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, an ostensibly liberal voice, from declaring on Twitter Saturday afternoon, “Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump.”

“Empathize with them,” said Bremmer. “Tell them you know how they feel.”

Former Fox News and NBC personality Megyn Kelly complained to Bremmer Sunday that Trump supporters had been “unfairly demonized” and “viciously attacked” by the left throughout the last four years. Reading Kelly’s tweets you’d almost think that the right wing had not been in power for nearly half a decade. 

Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at the questionably funded Federalist, jumped in, declaring that “the behavior of some prominent people on the left is downright toxic and abusive.” 

“If a woman you know were being horrifically abused and then told to make peace with her abuser, you’d recognize it as such,” Hemingway added in a breathtakingly cynical attempt to defend supporters of a man who has been credibly accused of no fewer than 26 instances of sexual harassment and assault.

The right’s scramble away from an increasingly unpopular president, toward some future in which all of the balances have been reset by the media’s key gatekeepers, is as cynical as it is obvious. Conservatives are nevertheless being helped along by their handmaids in liberal media institutions who are either unaware of what they’re doing or just don’t care. 

MSNBC has long been a home for right-wing liberal makeovers. Nicole Wallace, former Bush communications director and McCain campaign adviser, hosts a two-hour show on the network. The channel regularly features former GOP officials and lawmakers who provide the occasional mild criticism for the outgoing president. The network regularly exercises its power to change the minds of Democrats and influence their ideology toward the right. One such consequence is already playing out in front of our eyes—the right is taking advantage of a compliant liberal media to push a narrative that credits conservatives, not left activists or party activists, as the driving force in Biden’s election. 

On November 4, Brian Williams, the disgraced former anchor who has somehow resurrected his career to hold down the 11 p.m. hour, put this ball in play by asserting that the Lincoln Project should “take a well-deserved victory lap on the part of all these former leaders and strategists who got together to push the other side.” It’s unclear what, exactly, the Lincoln Project did to “push the other side,” given that the president increased his vote share among Republicans from 2016 and Democrats’ hopes for down-ticket successes went by the boards.

Nonetheless, the take was repeated so many times that it’s now become something of conventional wisdom. Members of the media have largely repeated this analysis uncritically and given platforms for Biden surrogates like former Republican Governor John Kasich to claim that now Democrats need to listen to the right and “make it clear to the far left that they almost cost him this election.”

Tom Nichols, senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, tweeted Saturday night that “progressives get beat as Dems fail to exploit Biden’s coattails; millions of people engaged in anti-Trump, pro-GOP ticket splitting,” in response to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noting in an interview that the left and left ideas are the future of the party. 

But the data shows that Ocasio-Cortez stood on rather firm ground. Exit polling revealed broad support for progressive policies and principles that crossed party lines. And left-leaning members of the Democratic Party had a far better night than their moderate and conservative fellow caucus members—who immediately claimed, with no evidence other than anecdotes and feelings, that their defeats or near defeats were because of progressives in the party calling for the Green New Deal and defunding the police. 

Naturally, the Lincoln Project is claiming the mandate it didn’t earn and is pivoting to a carpetbagger carpet-bombing of the upcoming Georgia runoffs, despite the fact that local organizers are widely responsible for Democrats’ recent success in that state and should be allowed to take the lead in the critical matter of delivering Biden an unlikely but possible Senate majority. So far, the Lincoln Project’s involvement in those runoffs has not been questioneda puzzlement considering its brain trust has never demonstrated a yen for Democrats controlling the Senate. In fact, before this lucrative gig filleting Trump emerged, the organization’s key figures were best known for attacking Democratic politicians.

Ultimately, the effort to rehabilitate the GOP is not going to deliver a return for liberals. Trump has the backing of the majority of the country’s GOP leaders as he casts doubt on the results of the election and refuses to concede. One cannot afford to understate the ramification of these actions: They are designed to sow doubt, confusion, and chaos over a hotly contested election that Biden narrowly won in the Electoral College (while handily winning in the popular vote). 

That the countervailing analysis about the election result from the right is not based in reality does not matter. It’s just the natural result of decades in which liberals have adhered to a misguided sense of a loyal opposition that clings to the increasingly untenable belief that each side has equal legitimacy and equivalent concern for the nation and all its people. So while it’s possible that the GOP might badly overplay the moment and become so extravagant in its efforts to poach the election that it inspires a brief media awakening, it remains likely that we’ll hear and see more of this right-wing image rehabilitation from major media institutions and Twitter personalities alike as Trump’s presidency fades into the background, and the president himself becomes increasingly an afterthought to a Republican Party desperate to leave behind the embarrassment of a one-termer.

There is no doubt that the Trump presidency, at times, blazed a path of corruption and illiberalism all its own, and often in the face of embarrassment and irritation from the Republican establishment. But it should never be forgotten that his administration enjoyedand continues to enjoybroad and sustained material support from the right, even as it put children in camps apart from their parents, gutted the environmental and interior regulatory state, and saw 230,000 Americans die from a mismanaged pandemic. Acting to sweep this recent history under the rug will court disaster. Instead of a return to normal, it will more likely put us on a path back to Trumpism.