Major media outlets have largely come around—a day late and a dollar short—to calling out Trump’s extremism and lies, particularly the Big Lie that the election was stolen (FAIR.org, 1/7/21). But this rejection of Trumpism and the Big Lie goes hand in hand with the elevation of a “reasonable” or “admirable” wing of the GOP, whose own extremism and undermining of democracy are thereby whitewashed.
Exhibit A is Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who jumped on the Trump bandwagon early and was only kicked off it when he rebuffed Trump’s infamous demand to “find” 11,780 votes in order to overturn the state’s election result.
Eager to find Republican heroes to help prove that their own escalating criticism of Trump wasn’t partisan, media fawned over Raffensperger. Reuters emphasized his “reputation as a ‘straight shooter’” (1/3/21), while New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called him “brave” (2/12/21). CNN.com ran a piece by former Obama adviser David Axelrod (1/4/21) drawing on the idea of JFK’s “Profiles in Courage,” those “rare acts of political courage, in which politicians placed duty and conscience ahead of public opinion or their own political well-being,” to describe Raffensperger’s “admirable stand.” Meanwhile, Mika Brzezinski (MSNBC, 1/4/21) raved, “He’ll end up being the American hero out of all of this, and that’s amazing, and he’s amazing.”
The biggest paper in his home state, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published an editorial (1/5/21) devoted to praising Raffensperger, vaguely alluding to “past actions” the board had been “critical” of, but arguing that he “has shown that he’s up to the rigor of standing courageously on the side of what is proper and right.” “Thank you, Mr. Raffensperger, for remaining steadfast in safeguarding the rights of Georgians and Americans,” the board concluded.
It’s a measure of how abysmal standards of integrity have become within the GOP when simply refusing to engage in blatantly illegal efforts to overturn election results merits media panegyrics. Surely one can commend Raffensperger’s stand against Trump’s Big Lie while at the same time holding him accountable for his support of the little lies that made that Big Lie possible.
Indeed, only a few weeks before the AJC‘s uncritical editorial, the paper’s reporting side published a front-page investigative report by Brad Schrade and Mark Niesse (12/17/20), who revealed how Raffensperger, while claiming Georgia’s elections were “fair and honest,” simultaneously touted “inflated figures about the number of investigations his office was conducting related to the election, giving those seeking to sow doubt in the outcome a new storyline.”
Raffensberger repeatedly suggested—including on national television—that he was investigating “over 250” ongoing credible election fraud allegations related to the 2020 presidential election. In fact, according to the AJC report, there were only 132, and the vast majority concerned procedural errors rather than claims of fraud.
As Stacey Abrams, who knows a thing or two about Georgia elections, told Stephen Colbert on the Late Show (1/4/21):
Lionizing Brad Raffensperger is a bit wrong-headed. This man is not defending the right of voters. He’s defending an election that he ran. Because at the exact same moment that he is pushing back on Trump, he’s also working hand in hand with Republicans to put together a list of ways to constrain access to the right to vote, starting with the next election.
Raffensperger’s voter suppression tactics included launching vote fraud investigations into four progressive voter registration groups, including Abrams’ New Georgia Project (AJC, 11/30/20). And independent journalist Greg Palast (Democracy Now!, 1/5/21) found that Raffensperger oversaw the illegal purge of 198,000 voters—mostly people of color—from the Georgia voting rolls before the 2020 election.
Aided by Raffensperger’s misleading claims about vote fraud, the Georgia state legislature is currently rushing through a host of restrictions on voting that would disproportionately disenfranchise the Black and brown voters who tipped the state to the Democrats in the 2020 elections. And with the GOP takeover of the Supreme Court and the lower courts, there’s vanishingly little those disenfranchised voters are likely to be able to do about it.
Raffensperger is just the tip of the iceberg. In its desperation to find a “reasonable” GOP so that it can continue to play its both-sides game, corporate media let some of the most anti-democratic among them play the hero with little pushback, so long as their brand of authoritarianism is in line with the time-honored US tradition of restricting the vote so the (white) minority can rule, not in support of full-on coups.
Covering the position of longtime obstructionist-in-chief Mitch McConnell on the subject of Trump’s second impeachment, for instance, the New York Times (1/12/21) implied the Senate minority leader actually supported the move, under the headline: “McConnell Is Said to Be Pleased About Impeachment, Believing It Will Be Easier to Purge Trump From the GOP.” (Of course, McConnell ultimately—and unsurprisingly—voted “no” each step of the way.)
The piece, by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman, uncritically quoted McConnell: “Our nation was founded precisely so that the free choice of the American people is what shapes our self-government and determines the destiny of our nation.” Admirable sentiments; if only there was the slightest truth behind his commitment to allowing “the free choice of the American people” to shape the government.
Or take the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump; at least three different editorials boards held them up as “profiles in courage” (Washington Post, 2/13/21; Houston Chronicle, 2/15/21; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2/15/21). Or Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, whose support for impeachment made her a “hero” (Houston Chronicle, 2/15/21) and “the conscience of Republicans” (CNN.com, 1/12/21).
Cheney, whose role as one of Washington’s greatest torture apologists alone ought to disqualify her eternally from deserving the label “hero,” voted in line with Trump’s positions nearly 93% of the time in the House. The Republican senators who voted to convict Trump also voted, in almost every instance, to seat Trump-appointed justices eager to gut voting rights protections.
Sure, media will fret about voter suppression as Republican-held states around the country push through draconian restrictions in an attempt to thwart the “free choice of the American people.” But their own credulous coverage of the little lies of vote fraud, which went on for decades (Extra!, 11–12/08, 10/12), and their willingness to lionize purveyors of those lies to this day, have played no small role in allowing it to happen.