Normalizing the Little Lies That Support the Big Lie
by Neil H. Buchanan
I confess to remaining interested in news about a range of policy and legal matters. Indeed, I still write about many of them, as I did last week in discussing the first indictments from the Manhattan DA of Trump associates. Is it good news that, say, the Democrats seem to have agreed to move forward with an ambitious infrastructure plan via reconciliation? Sure. Should we still care about income redistribution, the environment, and everything else? Yes.
Even so, all of these issues must increasingly be seen as a matter of watching the proverbial rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. Whatever Democrats accomplish on policy now will not matter -- and most of it will be reversed in short order -- unless democracy is saved. And although I salute the Democrats in the Texas legislature for their ingenuity and energy in fighting against the latest round of anti-democratic legislation in their state, they are the first to admit that their efforts are merely a matter of buying time. National legislation is needed, and even as the clock ticks toward midnight, Senators Manchin and Sinema continue to live in a fantasy land.
Doom and gloom is thus still the order of the day on Dorf on Law. Evidence-based doom and gloom, yes, but doom and gloom nonetheless.
The unmissable ongoing problem is that state-level Republicans are singlemindedly pushing through voter suppression laws, laws that also include provisions allowing their partisans to reverse election results. This is all based on the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. But for the Big Lie to have its maximum impact, it has to be backstopped by little lies that make it possible for some people to publicly disagree with Trump's deranged conspiracy theories even while supporting the larger Republican agenda of turning America into a one-party state. Consider one pernicious example.
One of the most annoying aspects of U.S. political commentary is the frequency with which false narratives are reaffirmed, even when someone is saying something otherwise reasonable. Sometimes that is a matter of consciously signaling one's reasonableness -- "I'm saying something unusual here, but don't worry, I'm still safe to be around!" -- and sometimes it is simple laziness.
The particularly egregious example at hand comes from the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal -- never anything but a hard-right bullhorn -- which decided to weigh in (warning; pay wall) on Liz Cheney's side when the increasingly radical Republican Party canceled her two months ago. To its credit, the board did continue to say that the 2020 "election wasn't stolen," but those fine gentlemen and ladies could not stop themselves from tossing in this insane paragraph:
Republicans will look foolish, or worse, to swing voters if they refight 2020 in 2022. They can truthfully say that Democrats used lawsuits to exploit the pandemic to change the election rules in some states. They can also say Democratic judges on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court let Democrats get away with it. Democrats did a better job of exploiting the pandemic election rules than did the GOP.
No one who is paying even a little bit of attention could write those words and sincerely believe them. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not "let Democrats get away with" anything. The Court found that a law that the commonwealth's Republican-led legislature had passed overwhelmingly in 2019 was challenged too late, and they dismissed the suit as an exercise of their equitable powers (which means that they did so only after being sure that the dismissal did not perpetrate an injustice).
Democrats, in other words, did not "exploit" the pandemic; or if they did, this is not evidence of it (nor has any other evidence been presented). Where they could, they responded to a once-in-a-century public health crisis by trying to allow people to vote without having to put at risk their own lives or those of their fellow citizens. But again, it was Republicans who had acted in Pennsylvania, pre-pandemic.
In some cases, Republican-dominated courts actively prevented adjustments to the new reality, as in Wisconsin, only to see people respond in anger by turning out in sufficient numbers to boot conservatives out of office. In Texas, by contrast, the Republican governor -- not the legislature -- engaged in an egregious action to limit ballot drop boxes to one per county, which famously left Houston's millions of voters with exactly one drop box. Texas's Republicans had no problem, moral or otherwise, engaging in anti-democratic exploitation of their powers.
As the WSJ would say, the Texas Supreme Court let the Republican governor get away with it. And later, when Texas's Attorney General put together his absurd lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's election laws (a suit that the U.S. Supreme Court easily swatted away), and when nearly every Republican AG in the country signed on, the irony and chutzpah were overwhelming.
Speaking of Texas's still-under-indictment AG, he recently bragged that his office prevented Biden/Harris from winning the Lone Star State's electoral votes by preventing counties from mailing out ballot applications -- not ballots, mind you, but ballot applications:
If we'd lost Harris County—Trump won by 620,000 votes in Texas. Harris County mail-in ballots that they wanted to send out were 2.5 million, those were all illegal and we were able to stop every one of them. Had we not done that, we would have been in the very same situation—we would've been on Election Day, I was watching on election night and I knew, when I saw what was happening in these other states, that that would've been Texas. We would've been in the same boat. We would've been one of those battleground states that they were counting votes in Harris County for three days and Donald Trump would've lost the election.
Again, the Texas AG's office stopped counties from mailing out applications, not ballots. I still have in my possession mail-in ballot applications that we received from Maryland in 2020, because we had only recently moved to Florida and changed our voter registration. Maryland, working from a not-updated mailing list, sent ours to an old address that forwarded them to us. If we had tried to use those applications, of course, we would have committed a crime, and Maryland would easily have foiled our nasty little plan.
And even if Texas's AG has been right in thinking that Houston's county was bent on sending out 2.5 million actual ballots, those that were returned would have been validated or rejected under the harsh rules that his party has put in place over the years.
So the two big accomplishments of 2020 for this guy were to prevent Texas from flipping by manipulating his own state's ballot procedures, and then getting dozens of other Republican AG's to join a lawsuit challenging another state's election procedures. Quite a resume builder. Maybe it will help him at Club Fed.
The point is that the Big Lie that the election was stolen is supported not only by pure repetition (as all big lies are). There is also the phenomenon of "respectable" people saying that, well, although the big lie might be a lie, Republicans are still right to fight back against those nefarious Democrats who exploited the system. This, they insist, is simply a matter of putting things aright, even though they admit that the 2020 election saw only a couple of handfuls of individual cases of attempted fraud (most of them favoring Trump).
And this has an impact, even though the completely-wrong paragraph in question appeared in the middle of the op-ed. On Joe Scarborough's cable talk show the next day, for example, they showed that paragraph on the screen, even as the talkers agreed that the attacks on Cheney were based on the Big Lie. Both the WSJ board and Scarborough thus reinforced the little lies even as they distracted everyone by emphasizing their reasonableness about 2020's outcome.
This reminds me of an incident quite a few years ago in which the author John Irving volunteered to speak at a pro-choice event (no doubt because he authored The Cider House Rules), where he said what he was expected to say but then quickly veered into a rant against labor unions. The people on the dais with him, some of whom had been labor activists and still supported workers' rights, could be seen nervously side-eyeing Irving and gritting their teeth, as if to say, "How the hell am I standing next to someone saying this?" When the WSJ says, "Yes, the 2020 election was fair, but Democrats are still evil manipulators of election laws and must be stopped," the juxtaposition is similarly jarring.
I recently argued that this type of background chatter will inevitably cause Serious People to insist that democracy is not ending, even while it is ending. I noted, for example, that when Democrats lose in 2022, the obvious explanations -- voter suppression and gerrymandering -- will be either shunted aside entirely or at least diminished with knowing insinuations that Democrats lost because they "did a bad job recruiting candidates," or they listened to The Squad too much, or they became complacent about the Latinx vote, or similar distractions.
The little lies that the Wall Street Journal's editors told -- and to be clear, I am only calling them "little" by contrast to Trump's lie; they are all complete fabrications -- are unlikely to be repeated directly by liberals, although I suspect that some of them will say that, "to be fair, maybe Democrats overreached in 2020," or something like that. Even so, this is part of the strategy by which the anti-Trump right can have its cake and eat it, too. They can say that Trump's Big Lie is simply terrible, but they can then offer this particular kind of bothsidesism as they smile while their preferred party wins future rigged elections.
To return to one of the overriding themes of the last five years, this is not normal. But even people who decry Trump's depredations are acting as if nothing has changed. Hence the doom and gloom.