A panel discussion Thursday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe raised the prospect that far-right candidates winning Republican primaries could guarantee Democratic victories in the midterm elections. The problem with such an assurance is that there really is no such guarantee, because of the mainstream media track record of normalizing those candidates in the general election.
After all, media outlets held Donald Trump to a lower standard than Hillary Clinton in 2016, and then spent the next four years downplaying his outrageous behavior and publishing sympathetic profiles of his voters. There is no reason to think far-right candidates will be treated any differently in 2022.
Much of the MSNBC discussion centered on next week’s primary elections in Pennsylvania, where state Sen. Doug Mastriano — a QAnon conspiracy theorist who participated in the January 6 insurrection and has close ties to antisemites — now appears to be the front-runner in the race for governor. Also in the discussion was Senate candidate Kathy Barnette, who has also built her campaign on 2020 election denial and now has Republican insiders worried about her surge in the polls. (Barnette has also claimed that her 19-point loss in 2020 for a safely Democratic U.S. House seat was really the result of fraud.)
“You look at who the Republicans may be electing in Pennsylvania,” host Joe Scarborough said, “Democrats, they may just go to France for the next six months and win.”
Scarborough further commented on how these candidates were “all-in on stolen elections, all-in on QAnon” surmising that victories by these right-wing candidates “would be Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party's worst nightmare.”
In a later discussion, Scarborough also recommended that Democrats campaign against these Republican candidates by calling them “crazy as a shithouse rat.”
“I’m telling you, and I do mean this, if I were on the campaign trail, I would just, one, ‘Oh, and they said this. Oh, look at this, they actually believe, y’all, they actually believe there’re Jewish space lasers,’” Scarborough elaborated. He further added: “And I would go from town hall meeting to town, and I’d say, ‘No, no, no, this is funny — except for the fact these people want to run your republic.’”
The fringe candidates aren’t really fringe — they’re regular Republicans
The fundamental problem here, which mainstream media outlets still haven’t fully grasped, is that these far-right candidates are not some fleeting aberration. Instead, they honestly represent the thoughts of regular Republican voters — a message that should have sunk in after all these years.
For example, Mastriano and Barnette’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election are repeatedly echoed in polling research showing that the majority of Republican voters still insist that President Joe Biden is not the legitimately elected president. (Right-wing media have assisted, of course, in spreading those election lies to their audiences.)
To further illustrate the point that these candidates are really just in touch with the normal conservative base, look no further than how even some Republican-aligned media figures are treating Barnette's recent polling surge. Last night, Fox News host Sean Hannity read a number of Barnette’s past tweets in a concerned tone of voice during his program. In addition to her tweets from 2016 in which she had called out Trump’s personal immorality, Hannity also highlighted Barnette’s “even more disturbing” tweets accusing then-President Barack Obama of being a Muslim, along with her anti-LGBTQ comments. The problem here is that Hannity himself spread claims about Obama having “an affinity for” Islam and “the practice of Sharia,” and he has his own record of anti-LGBTQ vitriol. But suddenly, when confronted with an upstart candidate disliked by GOP leaders, Hannity puts on his hat as a Republican political operative and denounces similar statements as a bad thing.
How mainstream media normalize far-right Republican candidates — and their voters
During the MSNBC discussion this morning, Scarborough also cited the Senate candidacy of former pro football player Herschel Walker in Georgia as an example of “the madness” taking hold in Republican politics. In fact, Walker is a perfect representation of how mainstream media outlets will go easy on a Republican candidate once the party unites behind them, as illustrated by Politico’s record in downplaying the multiple allegations of domestic violence by Walker, followed by a glowing front-page magazine profile.
Furthermore, media outlets have covered Trump’s continued election lies as part of a political horse race, rather than as an active threat to American democracy. In the event that Mastriano or Barnette potentially win their primaries, the more likely result will not be mainstream media outlets explaining to the public the clear danger that these candidates pose — it will be continued visits to diners, to speak with voters who support the lies.
And to be very frank, Scarborough ought to look back at his own behavior in 2016, when his show had a symbiotic relationship with Trump. (Scarborough was not alone in this, many other mainstream media outlets found that Trump’s campaign was great for ratings.) In his own strange progression, Scarborough accused people of overreacting to Trump’s false and bigoted claims, then he compared Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric to Nazi Germany, before then just saying this was a “character he's playing,” and then after the election holding private discussions with Trump on transition-related matters.
As the Trump years carried on, however, the relationship between them broke down, resulting in threats against Scarborough from Trump supporters, as well the then-president using his Twitter account to spread the unhinged conspiracy theory that Scarborough had murdered one of his political staff.