by Joshua Cho
If liberal democracy were threatened by the undeniably bad faith efforts of one major political party in the US to steal the 2024 presidential election, as they have tried to do (successfully, even) in previous elections, could Americans count on establishment media to report on this open subversion of liberal democracy?
Before and after the 2020 elections (FAIR.org, 9/15/20, 11/5/20), I wrote that the few corporate journalists sounding the alarm about Trump’s blatant efforts at election theft were all relegated to the opinion section, where they could be more easily dismissed as partisan ax-grinding.
For a brief period after the 2020 election, particularly after January 6, corporate media stopped betraying their journalistic duties and straightforwardly reported Trump and the Republican Party’s subversion of elections as a matter of fact, rather than opinion (FAIR.org, 11/25/20, 1/7/21).
More transparent coverage of election subversion efforts after they have occurred is not as useful, of course. But even this glimmer of journalistic responsibility was only temporary, as establishment media have largely reverted back to their dishonest habit of false equivalence, the “both-sidesing” of vital issues that was so characteristic of the Trump era (FAIR.org, 8/2/21).
There is plenty of evidence of the GOP’s election subversion strategy for 2024, as the occasional clear-eyed report makes clear. ProPublica (9/2/21) reported on the efforts of former Trump adviser and white supremacist Steve Bannon to mobilize a mass of like-minded right-wing extremists to seize control of the GOP from the bottom up.
Bannon is focused on flooding the precincts, the lowest rung of the party structure. Precinct workers are responsible for routine tasks like making phone calls or knocking on doors, but collectively, they can also influence how elections are run, since they have a say in choosing poll workers, and pick members of boards that oversee elections in some states. Bannon had also been one of the biggest supporters of Trump’s election theft efforts, and even broadcasted support for the January 6 insurrection attempt by saying on January 5, “All hell will break loose tomorrow.”
ProPublica contacted GOP leaders in 65 counties, and 41 reported an unusual increase in signups since Bannon’s campaign began, with no similar surge for Democratic Party posts. The news service reported that the new movement is based on Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him, and is intended to reshape the machinery of elections themselves rather than to merely win them.
The Washington Post (9/28/21) reported on Democrats, constitutional scholars and election experts contemplating a “worst-case scenario” in which “Trump and his supporters emerge in 2024 more sophisticated and successful in their efforts to steal an election.” It also outlined another scenario in which “Trump—or an acolyte with similarly anti-democratic sensibilities—runs and wins legitimately in 2024,” and uses this emboldened position to legally remake the electoral system to consolidate power and erode democratic institutions.
The experts the Post contacted hold that the “most precipitous recent threat to American democracy” remains Trump’s lies about the 2020 election:
“Democracy depends on the belief of losers in a given election to trust the process, and to marshal support so they can win another day,” said Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford/MIT Healthy Elections Project. “If we have entered a phase where the process is simply not trusted, that is a dangerous situation to be in, where people do not trust elections as being the way that we replace authority.”
CNN (1/6/22) and the New York Times did publish rare reports (12/11/21) on “a wave of mobilization” in which “Republican candidates coming out of the Stop the Steal movement are running competitive campaigns.” The Times noted that
legislation that state lawmakers have passed or tried to pass this year in a number of states would assert more control over election systems and results by partisan offices that Republicans already decisively control.
However, these reports are the exception to the rule, rather than the norm.
‘An apparatus of election theft’
The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman (9/23/20) was one of the few people in corporate media who took the possibility of Trump refusing to concede the 2020 election seriously. In an article late last year (12/6/21), Gellman laid out a detailed and very plausible scenario in which Trump successfully steals the 2024 election:
For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft.
Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie….
By way of foundation for all the rest, Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response….
Amid all this ferment, Trump’s legal team is fine-tuning a constitutional argument that is pitched to appeal to a five-justice majority if the 2024 election reaches the Supreme Court. This, too, exploits the GOP advantage in statehouse control. Republicans are promoting an “independent state legislature” doctrine, which holds that statehouses have “plenary,” or exclusive, control of the rules for choosing presidential electors. Taken to its logical conclusion, it could provide a legal basis for any state legislature to throw out an election result it dislikes and appoint its preferred electors instead.
Gellman further explained in an NPR interview (12/9/21) that although for 150 years, every state has decided to choose electors for the Electoral College through a popular vote, that isn’t a constitutional requirement. The GOP legal strategy is to get state legislators to assert a constitutional authority to directly choose electors.
The “independent state legislature” doctrine being pursued argues that because state legislators have the authority to decide how electors are chosen, any deviation from state law on electoral procedures (like a governor sending mail-in ballots during a pandemic, or a judge keeping polls open when snafus result in long lines) justifies the legislature taking the selection of electors away from voters (Salon, 9/27/21).
‘A sign of Republican weakness’
Like 2020, one can find opinion pieces (e.g., New York Times, 12/3/21, 12/13/21), pointing out that “increasingly untethered from any commitment to electoral democracy, large and influential parts of the Republican Party are working to put Trump back in power by any means necessary,” and that “American politics today is not really normal.”
Other opinion pieces, like the Wall Street Journal editorial “Democracy Isn’t Dying” (1/5/22), argue the opposite, claiming that “America’s democratic institutions held up under pressure,” and that the question for “Pelosi Democrats” is whether they will “ever let January 6 go.”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (12/8/21) has argued that the notion that the “officially nonpartisan news media will have been an accessory to Trumpism” is “very wrong.” A press that takes the GOP’s threat to American democracy seriously, in Douthat’s view, is the kind of news that “empowers demagogues” and “feeds polarization,” which “makes crises in our system much more likely.” Douthat (1/12/22) maintains that the GOP’s anti-democratic measures are “worth worrying about but not at all the likeliest scenario, let alone one that’s somehow structurally inevitable.”
Other commentators, like Timothy Noah for the New Republic (1/24/22), have criticized Gellman’s arguments as hyperbolic and overly pessimistic. Trump failed miserably in 2020, Noah says, downplaying Trump and the GOP’s 2024 election theft efforts as merely “considerable mischief.” They are actually “a sign of Republican weakness, not Republican strength, and they’re mostly being waged in inhospitable venues: the courts and the ballot box.”
Even though Noah cites Gellman pointing out the GOP is taking anti-democratic measures in multiple states, he still appears to miss the significance of the fact that the 2000 election was stolen by the Supreme Court for George W. Bush, based on blocking vote-counting in a single state, Florida.
Downplaying GOP assault on democracy
Despite this very alarming and plausible scenario, many corporate media outlets are omitting the Republican Party’s efforts to subvert the 2024 election for Trump or another Republican candidate, or reporting on US politics as if whatever democratic institutions still exist in the US aren’t facing serious decay or delegitimization.
Politico’s “Trump Builds ‘Turnkey’ Campaign Operation for 2024” (9/7/21) managed to discuss things like Trump’s “boots on the ground in Iowa” and “accelerated fundraising,” signaling his “heightened interest in reclaiming the White House—and laying the necessary groundwork to do it”—while omitting the GOP’s groundwork to facilitate election theft efforts. Politico’s “Trump 2024 Is Here, if He Wants It” (1/14/22) merely discussed how Trump hasn’t “suffered from his banishment from social media,” and that he still has “his gift for drawing attention,” with the nomination seeming “almost certainly his if he wants it.”
In an earlier report, Politico (11/29/21) reported on Trump’s 2024 preparations, with people “familiar with his thinking” claiming that “his [running mate] selection will be determined by two factors that rate highest in Trump’s estimation: unquestioned loyalty and an embrace of the former president’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.” An article on Trump wanting a dependable accomplice for the GOP’s 2024 election theft efforts seems to be a particularly relevant place to mention the GOP’s plans to subvert the election, yet Politico prioritized reporting gossip over threats to US electoral democracy.
In another example of a “politics as usual” horserace article, Business Insider’s “Trump Drops the Biggest Hint Yet That He’ll Be Running in 2024, Calling Himself the ’45th and 47th President’ in a Video” (1/26/22) reported that Trump “remains immensely popular with his base.”
Likewise, the New York Times’ “When Will Trump Answer the Big 2024 Question?” (9/7/21) talked about “the biggest question in Republican politics: When will Mr. Trump announce his plans for 2024?” Is that really a more important question about Republican politics than whether or not the party is preparing to undemocratically seize the 2024 election? While the Times notes Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election and the “phony idea that any election that Democrats win is a fraud,” it says nothing about the GOP’s active undermining of US election institutions, even while reporting on “signs that Republicans are more energized across the country.”
The Times’ “Trump May Run in 2024. So Might They. It’s Getting Awkward” (10/7/21) seemed to imply that “Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to cede the spotlight” is primarily a problem for the “political futures of an entire group of Republican politicians who have suggested that they might someday want to run for president.” The Times could instead have framed it as a problem for Americans, who will have to deal with potential election theft and the likely erosion of democracy under another Trump administration, rather than for the political futures of GOP presidential hopefuls. But that would require reporting on the GOP’s efforts to seize the 2024 election on behalf of their candidates.
None of these horserace reports give any hint or indication that there is a serious crisis facing the integrity of US elections, and give the impression that US electoral politics is carrying on as usual.
The Times (1/23/22) published a profile on Trump loyalists who participated in the January 6 mob, who view the “next chapter of January 6” not as “the ashes of a disgraced insurrection, but an amorphous new movement fueled by grievances against vaccines and President Biden, and a deepened devotion to his predecessor’s lies about a stolen election.” The Times reported on their “sense of community” and the “sentiment” that has “given them new purpose,” without devoting any serious challenge to the reality of their beliefs. Given the Times’ previous reporting on the GOP’s 2024 election subversion efforts, this kind of coverage is especially egregious.
‘Accessories to the murder of democracy’
Whatever pundits in corporate media might think, both US and non-US political scholars are warning of 2024’s threat to US electoral democracy and the possibility of the US being under a right-wing dictatorship by 2030 (New York Times, 12/15/21; Guardian, 1/3/22). But despite arguments based on little more than optimism about the “resilience of our political institutions” (Bloomberg, 12/28/21), or faith that Republicans won’t succeed in their 2024 election theft attempt because “we aren’t going to let them” (New Republic, 1/24/22), robust democracies depend on media that take plausible disaster scenarios seriously, and act to prevent such disasters from occurring.
The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie (12/3/21) pointed out:
When people plot to do wrong, they often do so in plain sight. To the extent that they succeed, it is at least partly because no one took them as seriously as they should have…. None of this is happening behind closed doors. We are headed for a crisis of some sort. When it comes, we can be shocked that it is actually happening, but we shouldn’t be surprised.
There appears to be some self-awareness of establishment media’s contributions to the US’s current political predicament, as numerous opinion pieces have pointed out the penchant for “both-sidesism.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank (12/3/21) acknowledged that his own “colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” and that his “peers across the media have fallen victim to our asymmetric politics,” with “too many journalists” being “caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction.”
If Democratic candidates aren’t talking about America’s anti-democratic movement, and if President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer aren’t doing it every day in Washington, then the coverage will reflect that. That is not a defense of the political/media ecosystem but just a description of it.
So what the “left doesn’t get” is that even in the face of “an unprecedented crisis of democracy,” corporate media are likely to allow an authoritarian coup to happen because they’re too unshakably committed to business as usual to sound the alarm. That isn’t what the left doesn’t get; that’s precisely what the left is afraid will happen.