In a lawsuit filed last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton claimed that last month's elections in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia “suffered from significant and unconstitutional irregularities.” The suit asked the Supreme Court to allow the Republican-controlled legislatures in those states to appoint delegates of their own choosing to the Electoral College. As those legislatures would almost certainly appoint pro-Trump electors, a win for Paxton would’ve effectively flipped four states won by President-elect Joe Biden to President Donald Trump, invalidating Biden’s win and handing the president a second term.
Legal experts eviscerated the suit, calling it “frivolous,” “anti-American,” and “procedurally defective.” But other Republicans couldn’t resist joining. In total, 126 Republican members of Congress, along with 18 Republican state attorneys general signed on in support of Paxton’s attempt to steal the election for Trump.
On Friday, the Supreme Court declined to hear Paxton’s case. But the press can’t let Republicans who signed onto his efforts to overturn the election off the hook.
Even after Trump is gone, the press must challenge Republicans who supported his attempt to steal the election.
The past four years have been a long-running example of normalcy bias in the press. Normalcy bias is our collective tendency to believe that things will continue as they are currently going, even when we’re aware of serious risks. The way we talk and think about the American democratic system is steeped in normalcy bias. We have assumed there will be midterm elections in 2022, that 2024 will be another presidential election year, and that there will be an orderly and peaceful transfer of power should incumbents be defeated. For the most part, those assumptions are fair. Those things are all probably true, and will probably happen.
In September, however, Trump was asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. All he had to say was “yes.” Instead, he started ranting that mail-in ballots were “a disaster” and that if we “get rid of the ballots,” then “there won’t be a transfer, frankly; there’ll be a continuation.”
It was an alarming thing to say. But the next morning, the story was nowhere to be found on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, or the Chicago Tribune. Trump expressing his willingness to upend democracy was a blip on the press radar.
As my colleague Matt Gertz wrote at the time:
The newspapers’ treatment of the story resembled what happened in July, when Trump baselessly accused former President Barack Obama of treason. If something like that happened elsewhere in the world, it would be interpreted as a sign that the state’s democratic institutions were imperiled. But Trump’s comments were largely ignored by the press.
The emergency lights are flashing, and it’s likely to get worse. With the nation careening toward a democratic crisis, journalists can’t look away.
Those emergency lights may have been flashing, but many journalists couldn’t bring themselves to take Trump’s threat seriously. Normalcy bias is why Trump’s clearly authoritarian proclamation was met with a shrug and reported on as though it was just bluster. In hindsight, it’s obvious journalists should have been taking the threat he posed to democracy more seriously.
To avoid making that same mistake again, journalists now need to apply those lessons to how they cover the Republicans who took part in Trump’s antidemocratic assault.
“Right now, the most serious attempt to overthrow our democracy in the history of our country is underway,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said last week in a straightforward accounting of what’s happening. “Those who are pushing to make Donald Trump president for a second term, no matter the outcome of the election, are engaged in a treachery against their nation.”
Now compare that to the opening line of this December 8 NBC News article: “Talk about another awkward day for a country where the outgoing president has yet to concede to the incoming president-elect who clearly defeated him a month ago.”
In truth, what’s happening is less “awkward” than horrifying. There’s absolutely no reason to discuss the overthrow of democracy the same way one might discuss two women who showed up to a party accidentally wearing the same dress. Attacks on democracy are scary, but normalcy bias helps explain why journalists might downgrade this to simply being “awkward.”
What Trump and Republicans have been doing since November 3 can only be described as an attempted authoritarian takeover of the U.S. government.
No matter how Trump’s defenders try to spin the past month of unhinged conspiracy-mongering and failed attempts to pressure courts and state legislatures into doing an end-run around the election results, this was a serious assault on our system of government. Trump and his allies trotted out a cavalcade of conspiracy theories about voter fraud and “irregularities,” but they haven’t provided any evidence to back up their claims, likely because there isn’t any. In Paxton’s lawsuit, the main argument, insofar as there was one, was that the legally cast votes of millions of people should have been discarded because state election officials overstepped their responsibilities by creating pandemic-specific accommodations for voters without getting the necessary approval from state legislatures.
It was a bad legal argument, but it was also disturbingly antidemocratic. Voters in other states chose Biden as president, but the Texas attorney general wanted to have the election handed to Trump on a technicality, itself based on a dubious understanding of election law.
This is uncharted territory for the U.S., even if Republican hostility to democratic principles is hardly a new phenomenon.
A study released in October from the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden meant to measure the health of democracies around the world had some disturbing findings about U.S. political parties. On its “illiberalism index,” which measures a commitment to democratic norms compared to authoritarianism, V-Dem found that while the Democratic Party’s position on that chart hasn’t shifted significantly since 2000, the Republican Party has been rapidly abandoning democratic norms. At this point in time, the report says, the Republican Party is more similar to authoritarian parties like Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Hungary’s Fidesz than it is to either the U.S. Democrats or even the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party.
“This rise of illiberalism is not like mere disagreement about policy issues,” V-Dem Deputy Director Anna Lührmann said in the report. “Lacking commitment to democratic norms signals a willingness to also erode these norms once in power.”
What Lührmann described is exactly what we’re seeing right now in the Republican fight to overturn the election. The Republican crusade against democracy is being fought in the name of the very thing the GOP is trying to restrict. White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern recently appeared on Fox News to make the audacious, Orwellian claim that Trump’s attempts to disenfranchise millions of voters are part of a commitment to “free and fair elections.” This only goes to show that enemies of democracy rarely come right out and say what they’re trying to do.
In their 2018 book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain how subtle democratic breakdowns can be:
The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. With a classic coup d’état, as in Pinochet’s Chile, the death of a democracy is immediate and evident to all. The presidential palace burns. The president is killed, imprisoned, or shipped off into exile. The constitution is suspended or scrapped. On the electoral road, none of these things happen. There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.
Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal,” in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy—making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption, or cleaning up the electoral process. Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticize the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy. In 2011, when a Latinobarómetro survey asked Venezuelans to rate their own country from 1 (“not at all democratic”) to 10 (“completely democratic”), 51 percent of respondents gave their country a score of 8 or higher.
Because there is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.
Trump’s defenders keep moving the goal posts, making their arguments and excuses even more transparently insincere.
As votes were being counted, Trump’s supporters in the media and government grumbled about news outlets calling the race for Biden.
“The media do not get to select our president,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in an interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo. “The American people get to elect our president.”
Once that failed, and it became clear that the media calls were correct, they shifted to arguing about states needing to certify their results.
“Attention media! Why are you claiming Biden is president-elect when not a single state has certified electors?” tweeted far-right Fox News host Mark Levin. “Why are you ignoring the Constitution?”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) brushed off questions about the validity of Biden’s win, claiming on November 10, “Until the Electoral College votes, anyone who's running for office can exhaust concerns about counting in any court of appropriate jurisdiction.”
Once it was clear the Electoral College would vote to confirm Biden’s victory, a number of Republicans began entertaining the possibility of objecting to those votes when Congress convenes to count them on January 6 and replacing them with alternate slates of electors who support Trump.
Once that fails, it’s safe to assume a number of these legislators will increasingly point to January 20 as the day when they’ll acknowledge Biden’s victory. Even after his inauguration, it’s possible some of these Trump loyalists still won’t accept reality.
The goal posts keep moving, and the justifications keep changing. This ever-changing exercise is not about fraud, irregularities, or even state election laws. Simply put, this is about one of the country’s two major political parties making clear that the only valid election is one where it comes out the winner. An election with only one possible legitimate outcome isn’t really an election at all.
As it becomes increasingly obvious that Trump’s attempted coup will fall short, expect to see his supporters backtrack and downplay what happened.
On Friday, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) went into damage control mode, tweeting that he signed on to the court briefing because it was simply a request “to allow this case to be elevated to the Supreme Court."
Crenshaw went on to express just how concerned he was that “authorities other than state legislatures unilaterally made sweeping changes to election law and therefore diminished integrity and faith in the system.” If that were true, the lawsuit would have targeted all states that expanded early voting or made other pandemic-related accommodations — such as Texas and Montana. Unsurprisingly, Paxton didn’t seem to have a problem with those two states that Trump won.
Other Republicans will surely follow Crenshaw’s lead and try to downplay the severity of the position they took at this moment in history. There will no doubt be attempts to draw false comparisons to other events.
Journalists can’t act like everything is normal. It’s not, and it won’t be for a long time.
Since the election, little has changed about how journalists interview Republicans on TV. George Stephanopoulos interviewed Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) during the December 6 episode of ABC’s This Week. Braun spent his time pushing a debunked conspiracy theory and making vague claims that unspecified irregularities were “surfacing more and more each day.”
On November 22, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) stopped by NBC’s Meet the Press to chide people for being “so easily offended” that Trump was pushing to overturn the election, and added, “I think everyone ought to calm down a little bit.” Host Chuck Todd failed to push back against Cramer’s condescending comments, and he went on to set the senator up for another line of attack by asking, “I’m curious what happens when you have your own constituents that say to you, ‘Senator, I know this was stolen. I just don't believe it.’ What are you going to -- what is it going to take to these, to tell those folks, your constituents in North Dakota, ‘Look, I know you don't like the results, but it was fair and square’?” Rather than even hinting that Cramer’s denial of reality was the force fueling such a sentiment, Todd made such concerns seem legitimate.
On November 29, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) appeared on CNN’s State of the Union. On air, Blunt refused to say whether Biden won the election, ridiculously pretending that it would be improper to call him “president-elect“ until the Electoral College votes were tallied. Guest host Dana Bash briefly challenged his lies before changing the subject and eventually thanking him for being on the show.
On the December 8 edition of MSNBC’s MSNBC Live With Hallie Jackson, host Hallie Jackson asked Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) if he would acknowledge Biden as the legitimate winner after the Electoral College officially casts its votes for him. Palmer said that he was not “willing to acknowledge a winner in this race until we’ve gone through the legal battles.”
There’s no value in inviting someone, elected official or not, to appear on TV to offer their incorrect opinion about an objective fact. Asking a politician who won the election as though there is more than one correct answer is like asking whether a member of Congress believes in climate change or thinks vaccines cause autism. The truths (yes, climate change is real; no, vaccines don’t cause autism) are not subject to opinions, and journalists are doing viewers a disservice when they present them that way.
Blunt, Braun, Cramer, and Palmer are not owed airtime. Not today, not tomorrow, and not six months from now. If they say or do something newsworthy, that should be covered with an appropriate level of skepticism and news judgment. There is absolutely no reason, however customary such appearances have become, to invite them on to spew lies and conspiracy theories at audiences.
The media insistence on giving people time to share lies has long-reaching consequences. Had serious media outlets not made the decision to repeatedly book a reality TV star for interviews in 2011 about his baseless belief that the then-president was actually born in Kenya, the world may now be a very different place.
Mainstream news organizations need to take a firm stand in the name of democracy and no longer allow themselves to be vectors of election disinformation.
The press is incentivizing authoritarianism by continuing on as though there’s nothing particularly wrong with an attempted coup by the sitting president and his party.
During the November 9 episode of CNN’s The Lead, host Jake Tapper asked senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson whether it was likely many Republicans would be breaking with Trump on his attempts to invalidate the election. Henderson responded with a depressing truth about the types of incentives in place for Republicans.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON (CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER): I think we know from what we’ve seen with Republicans so far, they’re going to get on board with this president. There’s no evidence to suggest that there are Republicans who want to cross this president, even though he has lost this election. They know he wants to remain in power out of office, and they’re going to do everything they can to show this president loyalty. They’re going to do that because they know if they don’t, this president will tweet something. Maybe he will back a primary challenger against them. So no, I don’t think there’s going to be any division. The choice that Republicans have had to make is either be fully on board with Donald Trump or essentially leave the party.
This CNN segment was one of few high-profile examples of news organizations accurately describing just how grim the current situation seems to be. In other such instances, Tapper called it a “non-violent coup,” and a recent New York Times article bluntly accused Republicans of being “willing to damage American democracy by embracing a partisan power grab over a free and fair election.” Both the CNN segment and Times article portray Trump’s Republican backers as hopelessly loyal toadies willing to do virtually anything to stay on Trump’s good side. Understanding that relationship is crucial to understanding what must happen next.
Trump’s control over the party has created a powerful incentive for fellow Republicans to line up behind him, even if what they’re lining up for is an attack on democracy. Until there is an equally powerful incentive for Republicans not to join Trump in his attempted coup, whether from voters or the media, there’s no reason for them not to embrace authoritarianism.
If the Republicans who supported Trump’s coup must appear on TV, journalists should add a disclaimer noting that the person they are about to interview was an active participant in Trump’s assault on democracy and failed power-grab. If the press doesn’t take a hardline stance against this sort of treachery, then the press is incentivizing additional and perhaps more successful attacks on democracy.
On Twitter, HuffPost reporter Ryan J. Reilly suggested a simple template that could be used when mentioning or introducing these politicians moving forward: “[Name], who sought to disenfranchise millions of American voters and install former President Donald Trump to a second term after his decisive loss in the 2020 election, [TK].”
This coup is not a political strategy; it is a career-defining moment that must be treated as such. Whether it’s six months or six years from now, the public needs to be reminded of what nearly happened in the aftermath of this election.
The most accurate and informative description of what’s happening in the world right now didn’t come from a journalist, but it should serve as an example for the press.
During a recent episode of NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, host Seth Meyers explained Trump’s attack on democracy with the type of clarity we should expect from nightly newscasts, not late-night comedy shows:
SETH MEYERS (HOST): The most horrifying thing about this whole charade is the idea that the GOP doesn’t just want to invalidate the votes of millions of Americans, they want state legislatures to override them. That’s why Trump has been cold-calling officials in Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. He’s been asking them to overturn the results in their states. There’s nothing you can say about this other than the fact that it’s authoritarian behavior. They’re actively trying to light our democracy on fire. We need to state that plainly. The Republican Party and the modern conservative movement are opposed to democracy and want to destroy it.
The simple, horrifying fact is that it’s now going to become canon in the right-wing cinematic universe that Trump actually won this election, and Biden is an illegitimate president. That’s why only 26 congressional Republicans are willing to say on the record that Biden is the president-elect. It’s why Republican leaders shot down a simple resolution yesterday saying as much. It’s why Republican wingnuts, like Newt Gingrich, insist that any victory by their Democratic opponents is illegitimate and must be the result of fraud.
Anyone who thinks this will all go away once Biden is sworn in should think again. The modern Republican Party is an unhinged authoritarian movement bent on toppling our democracy in the service of powerful interests and their wealthy patrons. Trump didn’t create that. He just revealed it, and supercharged it, and it will definitely outlast him.
On Twitter, Late Night writer Sal Gentile explained the motivation behind the segment: “Nothing gives us more joy than writing jokes but sometimes you just gotta say stuff as plainly and directly as possible so we can all be clear about the reality we’re living in.”
Journalists should read, internalize, and learn from that quote. They need to say stuff as plainly and directly as possible, so we can all be clear about the reality we’re living in. Currently, that reality is one where more than 120 Republican members of Congress tried to have the results of an election thrown out because their candidate did not win.