The Habits of Bothsidesism: A Bizarre Defense of Georgia's Voting Law from Someone Who Should Have Known Better

by Neil H. Buchanan
After a cataclysm, there is an understandable urge to return to whatever felt like normal in the before-times.  Unfortunately, some of those normal things were bad habits to which we should not want to return.  Although I could be talking about how people will act in a post-pandemic world, I am instead thinking about the post-Trump-cataclysm world of politics and commentary.

In both the pandemic and during Trump's time in Washington, people do/did things that they were absolutely unhappy about doing.  No one wants to wear masks and social distance, to stop taking trips or going out to eat.  Perhaps a few people do not mind or are not affected by any of that, but certainly millions upon millions of people do things differently, because the threat to the world is too great.
For a much smaller number of people, the Trump presidency caused them to do things that they never could have imagined.  Journalists were calling lies lies, threatening their self-image as neutral arbiters.  Not all of them were able to respond even to this threat in an appropriate way, and many thus became the journalistic equivalent of pandemic skeptics: "Oh, it's not clear that these are lies.  I want to be fair to all sides.  Who's to say what's true?"  Even so, there were notable changes in journalistic culture, because the threat was so serious.

Similarly, small but important numbers of Republicans gave up on being Republicans, or at least became NeverTrump Republicans who were appalled that their party had become a Trump cult -- only a few of whom think that it can be deprogrammed.  These people found themselves in league with their ideological foes, but they were able to put the interests of the country -- the defense of the rule of law and the peaceful transition of power, and the belief that voting should be encouraged -- above their instincts to stick with their tribe.

This is all to the good, but it also means that the return to something like normal will see people reverting to form.  Some people will go back to being jerks to servers in restaurants, others will pretend that the threat to the Republic ended on January 20 of this year.

There is a wide range of behaviors and attitudes in play here.  Much of it is unremarkable.  Some, however, is outright insane.  By far the most inexplicably crazy reversion to the old normal can be found in an April 14 op-ed by Gabriel Sterling, the Georgia elections official who became famous last Fall when he held an angry news conference begging Trump to tone down his rhetoric, lest someone be hurt or even killed.

The title of Sterling's piece, addressed to Joe Biden, says it all: "Mr. President, Your Misinformation on Georgia’s Voting Law Is Dangerous."  Say what now?

Before I get to Sterling's piece, however, I should offer a few less extreme examples.  Post columnist Max Boot is a conservative hawk who fully and completely disengaged from his old party, and he has not relented in the time since then.  His version of a return to normal involves devoting some of his op-ed space to non-Trump issues, which allows him again to discuss matters from his militaristic perspective.  He was surely in his comfort zone, then, when he was able to criticize President Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.  I disagree with him about that, but this is simply a policy difference.

Similarly, former Gingrich-wave Republican congressperson and current talk show host Joe Scarborough continues to be scathing in his attacks on Trump and Trumpist Republicans.  This is especially easy, I suspect, because of Trump's personal insults of Scarborough's wife Mika Brzezinski as well as Trump's repeated claims that Scarborough had killed a congressional staffer.  Even so, Scarborough indulges his old habits by, for example, claiming completely falsely that Republicans succeeded in passing the Contract on America and that Democrats criticized it but then in large numbers "quietly" voted for it.  He is also still a mindless deficit hawk, and he blithely gives Trump undue credit for developing anti-COVID vaccines.  Still, he is trying to find a way into a post-Republican future.

A less admirable version of this is former House speaker John Boehner, who has been pushing his book and delighting liberals by trashing the much-hated Senator Ted Cruz.  As his interview on Stephen Colbert's show last week demonstrated, however, Boehner is fully committed to bothsidesism, even when Colbert tried to give him a lifeline.  Worse, Boehner has elsewhere admitted that he voted for Trump in 2020, basically offering the "tax cuts and judges" excuse.

Speaking of bothsidesism, and moving us back in the direction of Sterling's column, journalists are once again lapsing into false equivalence about the current and most recent president.  A news article in The Post earlier this month, "‘A moment of peril’: Biden sees infections climb on his watch," included this: "[L]ike President Donald Trump before him, [President Joe Biden] has few tools when governors decide to lift coronavirus protections at the wrong moment, manufacturers botch vaccine production, or Americans refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated."
Yes, but Trump actively egged on people to oppose governors' protections and to refuse to wear masks, and he has been notably unwilling to encourage his cultists to get jabbed.  Both men have/had "few tools," but what they do/did under that constraint could not be more different.  As I noted above, however, presuming equivalence in this way must surely feel refreshing to mainstream reporters.  "See, we're not liberals!  We treat all presidents equally, no matter what they do or don't do."

Sterling, however, is a truly unique case.  Shortly after his rant went viral late last year, he announced that he continued to support the then-incumbent U.S. Senators in what turned out to be losing runoff elections in January.  Why?  Even though Sterling's diatribe had also pointed the finger at those two Republicans for stoking possible violence, Sterling's response was simple: They're Republicans, and so am I.  Of course I support them.

I want to be absolutely clear here about two things.  First, Sterling's warning about Trumpist violence was important and incredibly brave.  Second, especially because he has so clearly revealed himself as an extreme partisan -- endorsing two of the most powerful people who were endangering his life and those of people he knew and cared about -- his willingness to stand with his boss, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in refusing to falsify his state's election results is even more impressive.

This is not, then, a matter of a hack like Boehner tossing out some easy applause lines about "wacko" Tea Partiers, in the process of a book tour and from the safety of retirement.  Sterling, no matter what else anyone will ever say about him, did something truly patriotic.  Even if, as I continue to predict, this was merely a pause rather than an end to Republicans' assault on constitutional democracy, Raffensperger and Sterling did something against their own interests, in the face of intense pressure, and with virtually no hope of being rewarded for what they did.

Apparently, however, Sterling has decided (like his state's governor, Brian Kemp, who also did the right thing in the post-election period) that he must try to win back the hearts of his fellow Trumpist Republicans.  Sterling's op-ed consists mostly of disingenuous attempts to minimize or explain away various elements of the Republicans' bill in Georgia that is designed not only to suppress voting among minorities but also to give the state's Republicans the ability to negate presidential election results.

I am not inclined to rebut Sterling's disingenuous claims about the contents of the bill, which are not my focus here.  I will, however, point out that Georgia Republicans' longtime nemesis Stacey Abrams made news yesterday by responding to Sterling-like disinformation from Republican Louisiana Senator John N. Kennedy.  In addition to owning Kennedy, she also provided details about the new law, showing how the law is racist and partisan.  Sterling's "there's really nothing to see here" approach is pure nonsense.  If it were true, Georgia Republicans would not have been so eager to pass the bill.

My interest here is in the particularly loaded way that Sterling tried to atone among Trumpists for his apostasy in criticizing Trump's violent rhetoric.  Sterling directly equated Trump's post-election conspiracy theories and Biden's supposedly similar sins:

"The reaction to Georgia’s new election law has me worried again. Though I have not received any threats yet, thankfully, that same foreboding is creeping up again as the president of the United States and others once again spread lies about what is going on in Georgia.

"So I plead with the president once again: Someone is going to get hurt. Your words matter. The facts matter."

The only fact that Biden has gotten wrong is in misstating a provision about poll closings.  He could and should correct that record clearly, but where is the connection between that and the "foreboding" that someone is going to get hurt?  Remember, when Sterling spoke out on December 1, he was especially upset about this:
"Sterling said Tuesday that for him, the last straw came when a 20-year-old technician for the state’s voting machine contractor, Dominion Voting Systems, was targeted by far-right social media users who falsely claimed they’d caught him on camera manipulating election data. Some people called for the worker’s imprisonment, torture or execution. One tweet accused him of treason and included an animated image of a hanging noose."
If Sterling has any current examples of anything that is even in the same time zone as that insanity, he is not providing it.  Instead, he is simply trading on the credibility that he gained in his earlier claim to fame, using that to say that Biden and the Democrats are just like Trump and the Republicans.  But at most, Sterling does little more than say that the new law is misunderstood, even though he admits that it is not great: "While this isn’t necessarily how Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, or I, would have written this law, it is not what President Biden claims."
He even goes so far as to dismiss as "wild allegations" the claim that the law would allow the legislature to overturn the election, but his explanation merely shows that the new law requires several steps to do so, not that it does not allow it focuses on one aspect of the law, ignoring another provision that allows the gerrymandered Republican legislature to put loyalists in place who would do what Raffensperger (and Sterling) refused to do.  Moreover, he defends this provision with a diversion: "That is an ill-conceived part of the law. But it isn’t voter suppression."  Right.  Not everything in the law is voter suppression, and this element is worse.  Even without suppressing votes, it would allow the legislature to set aside predetermine the election's outcome without admitting what they have done.
[Update on 4/22: I have updated the text above to reflect the fact that the Georgia law does not explicitly allow the legislature to say, "We hereby negate the voters' will."  Unsurprisingly, they have been less obvious than that.  I've left the original text in strike-through form, and I've put replacement text in bold.]

There truly is something marvelous ('s 2nd definition: "such as to cause wonder, admiration, or astonishment") about this kind of bothsidesism.  It is especially interesting, however, to see it from someone who is acting in the vain hope that Trump and his supporters will ever forgive and forget.  If that is not his motivation, then he is so far off the deep end as a Republican partisan that he actually believes this load of humbug.

Old habits die hard.  Acting as if Democrats' rhetoric presents the clear and present danger that Donald Trump's created is beyond irresponsible.  It is a shame that Sterling chose to spend all of his hard-won goodwill like this.