America Is Paying the Price for Right-Wing Pandering

An illustration of the U.S. Capitol and politicians
Getty / The Atlantic

In a short Senate-floor speech Wednesday night, Mitt Romney declared that President Donald Trump incited insurrection by deliberately misinforming his supporters about the outcome of the 2020 election. “Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate Democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit,” he told his colleagues. “The best way we can show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth,” he insisted, drawing sustained applause from other senators who were present. “That’s the burden, and the duty, of leadership. The truth is that President-elect Biden won the election.”

His message was lost on the six GOP senators and 121 House Republicans who cast votes objecting to the certification of some electoral votes. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Roger Marshall, John Kennedy, Tommy Tuberville, and others disgraced themselves with their pandering. But the fault goes far beyond elected officials. The right in the United States is rife with influential people who pretend to respect the grass roots even as they disrespect them with lies, glaring omissions, and failures to correct prominent conspiracy theories that they know to be false.

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The Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for instance, while condemning political violence last night, implored his viewers to ask why it was happening. His theory is that political violence happens when a population believes that its elections are fraudulent and that democracy is a charade. Why would they think that? “It’s happened in countless other countries, for countless centuries,” he said, “and the cycle is always the same because human nature never changes. ‘Listen to us!’ screams the population. ‘Shut up and do what you’re told,’ reply their leaders.”

Carlson did not mention that Trump lied to his supporters before and after the 2020 election, telling them premeditated falsehoods calculated to make them regard it as fraudulent. That is a hugely important part of the story, and Carlson must know that no frank accounting of the day can elide it. The leader of their country didn’t tell them to shut up. He told them that he won the election in a landslide and that they needed to fight against a “steal.”

Or consider the strikingly vague statement that the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, released on Twitter after the storming of the Capitol. “As we published in May when violent protests erupted, so we write again,” the tweet declared, “America must have a full accounting of how today’s riots happened, who made them happen, and who let them happen. Those in power must be held to account.” But the most responsible party is already known. Again, Trump told many lies about the election to his supporters, urged them to come to Washington on the pretext that his lies were true, spoke to them Wednesday morning, and urged them to go over to the Capitol building, where, in his false telling, members of Congress were stealing democracy from the people.

At The Federalist, in an article doling out blame for what happened at the Capitol, Ben Domenech indicted the left for its treatment of the Tea Party and Romney, the iconoclasm of Black Lives Matter, the unpreparedness of the Capitol Police, and more. But when it came to the president, he wrote, “blaming this on Donald Trump isn’t just too simplistic, it’s whistling past the graveyard of our norms. Of course, he egged on his crowd to go up to the Capitol and be loud and irritating. But he didn’t tell them to break down doors and crash the gates, and he didn’t need to. Blaming this on Trump assumes this type of attitude will go away when Trump himself does.”

That does not follow––one should give a full accounting of Trump’s role in the storming of the Capitol whether or not the “attitude” of insurrection will remain after he’s gone. Trump’s role, besides, far exceeds merely egging people on to march to the Capitol. Trump and his allies spent years telling followers blatant falsehoods directly relevant to the false belief that the election was stolen from him.

In an instructive contrast, the writers at National Review, who have plenty of complaints about the left, gave full and frank assessments of Trump’s misdeeds.

Here is Kevin D. Williamson a day before the storming of the Capitol:

It is no great surprise to find President Donald Trump and cronies complaining about election fraud even as President Donald Trump and his cronies were recorded in a telephone call attempting to suborn election fraud, threatening the Georgia secretary of state—a Republican, note—with criminal prosecution unless he should “find,” discovering by some black art, enough votes to swing the state’s election Trump’s way...I have on many occasions criticized the abuse of the word coup in our politics, but that is what this is: an attempted coup d’état under color of law. It would be entirely appropriate today to impeach Trump a second time and remove him from office before his term ends.

Here is Michael Brendan Dougherty on the day the Capitol was breached:

Trump’s claims of material vote fraud have no merit. He repeatedly and falsely claimed that Vice President Mike Pence could simply reject the electors sent by the states Trump lost and thereby make Trump president. This was a lie, very likely a knowing lie. And a dangerous one. There are reports that the vice president had to be evacuated to safety. No wonder, when the president preemptively accused him of connivance with a putsch.

These are honest efforts to grapple with Trump’s actions. More people on the right need to speak this clearly about what’s going on, and level with their respective audiences. That’s unlikely, however. For years, talk-radio types such as Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin have built their audiences by pandering and omitting hard truths that their audiences don’t want to hear. I expect them to continue that disrespectful practice, even as some of their listeners are taken in by QAnon and its ilk.

The conservative donor class and the grass roots bear some fault in all of this. Both routinely punish conservatives who level with them in a cancel culture as chilling as at any college in America. But telling such hard truths is not just a burden of leadership. It is a burden of any honorable career as a journalist or a broadcaster or the head of a think tank, even a Straussian one.

What ails the populist right today has roots in the pandering grievance-mongering of Sarah Palin, the chalkboard rants of Glenn Beck, the longtime enabling of Rupert Murdoch, the hypocrisy-laden xenophobia of Lou Dobbs, and all of the people who knew better but said nothing, for years, telling themselves there would be no price for bad faith. But the failure to embrace truth-telling abetted Trump in deceiving his most deluded and dangerous supporters. All of America is paying the price.