I’ve been arguing for some time that media-conservatives’ vehement reliance on whatboutism has led to some of the dumbest and laziest political debates in our country over the past four years, and I’m looking forward to it largely going away — at least on the right — now that Donald Trump has left the building.
No longer under immense daily pressure to defend the indefensible when it comes to the president, righties’ forced abandonment of this embarrassingly weak deflection tool should ultimately prove to be a healthy thing for Republicans and conservatives. Sure, Trump’s shadow will loom for a while (especially with the Senate likely taking up his impeachment trial), and the former president will continue to insist on loyalty from the GOP, but he shouldn’t be nearly the intellectual liability he’s been for Republican leaders and “conservative” pundits since 2016. The new political landscape will hopefully provide a stronger opportunity for principled ideas and substantive policy battles.
What I’m not as optimistic will disappear is the partisan media’s narrowly focused, binary hold on our country’s political debates. It’s been a big problem on both sides for a while, but it worsened significantly in the Trump era.
I vented a little about this issue on Twitter the other day:
5-year frustration as a Trump-critical conservative columnist: Trumpers angrily responding to my columns by slamming arguments I’ve never made, but that they’ve seen presented by FNC commentators (often inaccurately) as the prevailing “anti-Trump” argument.
— John A. Daly (@JohnDalyBooks) January 16, 2021
When one relies on cable news commentary and other partisan-media outlets for their political news, they are conditioned to believe that there are exactly two arguments to every single issue:
- the argument presented and promoted by the partisan commentators they listen to.
- an opposing argument crafted and presented by those very same partisan commentators.
In other words, it’s the same partisan entity who is putting forth both sides of the same story, with their side reliably being the far more compelling argument, and the other side (which often doesn’t reflect what political opponents are actually saying) reliably being the patently ridiculous argument.
It’s a binary choice, as far as partisan consumers are concerned. Third, fourth and fifth arguments (which are usually much better ones), put forth by less partisan individuals (who typically don’t enjoy as large of platforms), aren’t even recognized. Thus, they’re not considered… even at their very source.
Case in point, I’ve written three pieces for this website regarding the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and its aftermath. In each, I laid out the prominent role the president played in inciting the violence by describing how he spent two months (actually longer than that) selling millions of Americans on the perverse lie that our nation’s democracy had been hijacked, that he had actually won the election, and that January 6th at the U.S. Capitol would be the day of reckoning.
Here are some of the rebuttals I’ve received to those columns:
“You see, I’m a free speech absolutist, and to suggest that Trump saying ‘we must fight this injustice’ is tantamount to calling for physical violence is a dangerous road down which to travel. Every politician says ‘we must fight’ the political enemy, for Christ’s sake!”
“I am no Trump fan but if people weren’t so lazy and actually read or heard what Trump said there would be no blame of this on him. The people that were planning to storm the Capitol were already were motion while Trump was still speaking. Not to mention that the lax security sure looked like it was a setup.”
“Individuals are free to make their own judgments, tell me how this fits high crimes and misdemeanors and if it does would it not also apply to others who’ve made incendiary statements?”
You may notice a common theme among those responses. Each of them is working off the premise that my “incitement” argument is defined specifically and solely by what Trump said to his supporters in front of the White House on January 6th, not long before they moved over to the Capitol where the attack occurred.
The problem is that I never made any such argument. I never quoted a line from that speech, never directly blamed what was said in that speech for what happened, and never argued that common-use political terms like “fight,” on their own, are dangerous. My argument was about conduct and rhetoric that spanned more than two months… not just a snippet of speech from the day of the attack.
The proper context was even included in the Articles of Impeachment filed by the Democrats (though I think it should have been expanded): “In the months preceding the Joint Session, President Trump repeatedly issued false statements asserting that the Presidential election results were the product of widespread fraud and should not be accepted by the American people or certified by State or Federal officials.”
So, who were these commenters responding to, since they clearly weren’t responding to me? The answer is a conservative-media opposition narrative, tailored and repeated ad nauseam by Fox News commentators and right-wing talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, in an effort to diminish the case for why Trump should be held accountable for his actions.
To be clear, no one is arguing that select lines from one speech, by themselves, incited the attack. At least, I haven’t seen anyone making that argument. Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign leading up to January 6th is why it happened. His speech that day was just the cherry on the cake.
That reality would have been very hard for Trump’s toadies in the media to defend. Reducing the entire issue to a soundbite or two, however, has made things much easier. So easy, in fact, that all they’ve had to do is present another soundbite or two in return.
Dennis Prager demonstrated this in a column on this website last week:
“Over and over, in every left-wing medium and stated repeatedly by Democrats, Trump is blamed for ‘inciting’ the riot in his speech just before it took place. Almost never is a Trump quote cited. Because there is none. On the contrary, he did say, ‘I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard’.”
Notice how Prager also attributed the incitement claim purely to the left, despite the fact that numerous prominent Republicans and conservatives have stated the same thing. That’s how the binary game is played.
Bill O’Reilly did the same thing this week:
“The Trump case is subjective, an opinion that he directly incited a mob to violence. However, he used the word ‘peacefully’ in public remarks to the protestors so that is certainly exculpatory.”
To Bill and Dennis, it’s as if those two months prior to January 6th never happened.
I would say you can’t make this stuff up, but you clearly can. And a number of media-conservatives have had extra incentive to do so, being that so many of them (as Bernard Goldberg recently pointed out) ran interference for President Trump as he tried to steal an election he unequivocally lost, helping to legitimize the false narrative of massive voter fraud that ultimately infuriated enough people to provoke a domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The alternate reality they helped spread is further proof of the intellectual ineptitude of binary political arguments. On Fox News commentary shows from election night until January 6th, how many right-leaning voices were given air-time to unequivocally shoot down Trump’s demonstrable lies about massive voter fraud? That work was left almost entirely to the network’s vastly outnumbered liberals like Juan Williams, which effectively deemed that position to be the “liberal” (and thus wrong) argument in the eyes of the network’s viewers.
Imagine if there had been serious, frequent debates between conservative commentators on Fox’s highest rated shows about Trump’s claims of election fraud, with one of those commentators explaining precisely why those claims were total nonsense.
In the past on Fox News, honest brokers like Charles Krauthammer would have been invited on to prime-time (by hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly) to transcend the hyper-partisan B.S., and call things straight. Instead, viewers tuning in were largely handed the binary choice of agreeing with angry grifters like Dan Bongino that something screwy was going on with the vote counts, or buying the supposedly “liberal” argument that Joe Biden won fair and square.
Poll after poll has shown that a strong majority of Republican voters believe that the election was stolen for Joe Biden, and that Trump actually won. What we saw on January 6th demonstrated why that fiction is so dangerous. What we heard from many prominent media-conservatives, for two months, helps explain why that fiction was (and still is) subscribed to by so many people.
It’s a result of binary politics, and it’s only worsening our culture.
Note from John: I’ve been writing a weekly non-political newsletter since October, covering topics like art, music, humor, travel, society and culture. I’ve been surprised by, and thankful for, how many people have been signing up for it. If it sounds interesting to you, I’d love for you to subscribe (it’s free).