The Post-Election Contest: A Condensed Symbol of GOP Dysfunction

Behold the intimidation, misinformation, and equivocation of the Trump right.

In the days since Election Day, the American people are witnessing an intensified and especially dangerous version of the worst dysfunctions and deceptions of Donald Trump’s Republican Party and Donald Trump’s Republican media. A combination of intimidation, disinformation, and equivocation are persuading tens of millions of Americans that the 2020 election was illegitimate. Just as critically, they seem to be persuading the President himself that his election loss was unlawful, the result of systematic fraud.

As our team reported in The Morning Dispatch, President Trump is blocking the start of the transition process, in spite of the fact that permitting normal transition activities has precisely zero impact on his pending election litigation or on any state recounts: 

The administration instructed federal agencies on Monday not to cooperate with Biden’s transition team. “We have been told: Ignore the media, wait for it to be official from the government,” one official told the Washington Post

The transition becomes “official from the government” once Emily Murphy—a Trump political appointee who serves as the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA)—issues a letter of ascertainment recognizing Biden’s win. That has yet to happen.

As both a member of the media and an American who lives in the middle of Trump country, I have a distinct view of the inputs and outputs of the conservative media-entertainment complex. While there are many notable and valuable exceptions, the industry is now overrun with proponents of propaganda and vindictive rage. We are watching it corrupt the GOP and poison the GOP base step by painful step. 

One of the core characteristics of Trump media is the conviction that Trump’s beliefs, desires, and actions deserve a vigorous defense, no matter their underlying merit. A corresponding characteristic is the commitment to naming, shaming, and punishing Trump’s enemies. The goal is clear—intimidate opponents into silence or compliance.

What are Trump’s beliefs in this moment? Trump believes he’s going to win the election, and if he doesn’t, it’s because the election was rigged. I can link to any number of tweets expressing these views. Here are two:

Where is the punishment? Here’s the president of the United States personally targeting a city commissioner:

Make no mistake, Trump’s public targets often face extraordinary personal ordeals as Trump’s most unhinged followers respond to the president’s attacks:

The CIA’s most endangered employee for much of the past year was not an operative on a mission abroad, but an analyst who faced a torrent of threats after filing a whistleblower report that led to the impeachment of President Trump.

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Over the past year, public servants across the country have faced similar ordeals. The targets encompass nearly every category of government service: mayors, governors and members of Congress, as well as officials Trump has turned against within his own administration.

Targeting apostates is a favorite tactic of the Trump right. Even the intellectual guardians of Trumpism at the Claremont Institute aren’t above issuing their own threats:

Finally, all weak sisters on the right must be called out. In military doctrine, psychological operations only work on a populace that is already experiencing a defeat. They backfire when conducted against resilient and confident foes. The media and the left right now are trying to defeat and demoralize half the country under the guise of “democracy” and disingenuous cries of “just count the votes!” After the last six months, the last thirty years, the last damned century—conservatives and Republicans who lack steely resolve need to be called out and cast aside for those who will fight!

What does it mean to “fight”? All too often, in Steve Bannon’s memorable words, it means “flood the zone with shit.” Fill the media space with misinformation. It’s honestly exhausting keeping up with the sheer pace of the false claims.

To understand the sheer variety of rumors and prevarications, look at these headlines from the Dispatch Fact Check team:

It simply won’t stop. Even as the specific claims of vote fraud and voting irregularities are being debunked, the conspiracy theorists (and Trump himself) embrace more esoteric, difficult-to-understand claims about computer algorithms and an alleged supercomputer called “Hammer” that deployed a software package called “Scorecard” to change American votes. In fact, we’ve published separate fact checks about each theory of tech interference:

Moreover, much of the conservative media reporting about the Trump team’s election lawsuits has been extraordinarily flawed—beginning with the comparison to the legal proceedings in Bush v. Gore.

In 2000, a razor-thin margin in a single state separated both candidates from victory and defeat. In 2020, by contrast, the margins are considerable, Trump needs multiple states to flip in his favor, and the cases he has filed are, quite frankly, inadequate to the task. In fact, they’ve already led to some rather “embarrassing rebukes” in court as judges have separated rhetoric from reality. This exchange, in Philadelphia, is already famous:

In other cases, lawyers have been forced to admit that they did not possess evidence of fraud when attempting to disqualify a number of ballots in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. In a key Detroit case, the trial court judge rejected the Trump team’s evidence as “inadmissible hearsay within hearsay.”

Trump-allied plaintiffs have filed a new lawsuit in Michigan seeking an independent audit of the state’s results and a new lawsuit in Pennsylvania seeking to prevent certifying the results of the election. Yet in both cases, the evidence is hardly sufficient to cast doubt on the states’ vote counts, and the relief sought is truly extraordinary.

No one credibly argues that there is zero fraud or zero misconduct in a national election, but that’s not the question. The question is whether there is sufficient fraud or sufficient misconduct to alter the outcome of the vote. We have seen no evidence on that scale. Not even close. 

Some Republicans have asked, “What is the downside for humoring [Trump] for this little bit of time?” But that’s not what’s happening. The Trump GOP isn’t humoring him, it’s stoking his belief that Democrats stole the election, and it’s stoking the GOP base’s belief that Democrats stole the election:

And here’s where the last act comes into play. After the intimidation and misinformation, next comes the equivocation. This is where those folks who often can’t quite bring themselves to defend Trump on the merits have one last card to play—whataboutism.

Don’t the Democrats maintain that Stacey Abrams lost a rigged election in Georgia?

Doesn’t Hillary Clinton maintain that Trump is an “illegitimate president”?

Didn’t 66 percent of Democrats believe the false claim that Russia “tampered with vote tallies” to elect Trump?

The answers are of course “Yes, yes, and yes.” But when Democrats were making those claims, conservative media united in outrage. This was supposed to be wrong. It was supposed to be dangerous. Now, Democratic misconduct and conspiracies are justification for indulging an erratic, angry president and provoking additional (and unjustified) distrust in American democracy.

The effects of intimidation, misinformation, and equivocation are profound. Friends, neighbors, and family members—good, salt-of-the-earth American folks—have listened for years to the very personalities who deceive them today. They’ve grown to admire them, to trust them, and to view other sources of media and information with deep suspicion and mistrust. And now they believe these same personalities when they tell them an American presidential election was corrupt to its core.

As I’ve told many progressive friends, if you lived in the media ecosystem of many millions of Republicans, you’d be MAGA also. In that world, the president is a tough-talking promise-keeper. To consumers of conservative media, Trump’s rough around the edges, sure, but he’s also been the victim of the worst, most sustained, and malicious media attack in the history of the American presidency. If there was a “Russia hoax” and “impeachment hoax,” then why is there not an “election hoax”?

There is a difference between acknowledging that there have been profound media mistakes (and even malicious attacks) during the Trump era and believing the mainstream media is nothing but mistakes and malice. Convince the GOP of the latter position, and Trump’s supporters are automatically inoculated against any allegation of wrongdoing—no matter how well-supported or how severe.

In the weeks and months after Trump leaves office, there will be many debates on the right about the definition and destiny of “Trumpism.” My own belief is that Trumpism is best-defined as the political project of elevating Donald Trump to the presidency and maintaining his hold on power.

There is no core underlying ideology. There is, however, an underlying method, and unless many of the leading lights of conservative media change their ways, that method will continue to drive America to madness long after Trump himself has left the political stage.  

One more thing …

If you want to go deeper and deeper into election litigation and Trump’s vote fraud claims, I’d urge you to tune into Advisory Opinions, my podcast with brilliant co-host Sarah Isgur. In today’s podcast we walk through the election litigation case-by-case, and trust me, it’s far more engaging than it sounds.

One last thing …

On Sunday night during our church small group, the conversation somehow diverted from the book of Ecclesiastes to obscure cult rock bands. And one of those bands was the Shaggs. Have you heard of them? Me neither. But, wow, what a strange story. From the infallible historians at Wikipedia:

The Shaggs were formed by Dot, Betty and Helen in 1968, on the insistence of their father, Austin Wiggin, who believed that his mother had predicted the band's rise to stardom. The band’s only studio album, Philosophy of the World, was released in 1969. The album failed to garner attention, though the band continued to exist as a locally popular live act. The Shaggs disbanded in 1975 after the death of Austin.

The band is primarily notable today for their perceived ineptitude at playing conventional rock music; the band was described in one Rolling Stone article as “sounding like lobotomized Trapp Family singers.”

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The conceptual beginning of the Shaggs came from Austin Wiggin’s mother who, when her son was young, had predicted during a palm reading that he would marry a strawberry blonde woman, that he would have two daughters after she had died, and that his daughters would form a popular music group. The first two predictions proved accurate, so Austin set about making the third come true as well.

And here is one of their glorious greatest hits, “My Pal Foot Foot.” Enjoy:

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.