I think it’s fair to say that ‘the establishment’ treated Trump with smug cluelessness in 2016. I’m not sure why, but the thing I most associate with this attitude is the mockery he received for (literally) hugging American flags at his rallies.
But, at least in the early days, Trump was mocking the emptiness of the political rituals favored by the establishment. The crowd loved it, and so it became part of his shtick – one of the many favorites that his fans expected to see at the Trump show.
I find the mainstream reaction to Trump’s “admission” that he wanted Pence to “overturn” the election vaguely reminiscent of that cluelessness. Commentators ranging from Seth Meyers to Chris Christie have treated it as some kind of accidental admission of wrongdoing. But it’s only an admission if you believe the election was legitimate. If you’re a Republican voter, odds are that you don’t – that saving democracy required overturning the election.
Will Saletan does a nice job of explaining why this matters.
It turns out that you don’t have to renounce any of our nation’s founding principles to betray them. All you have to do is believe lies: that real ballots are fake, that prosecutors are criminals, and that insurrectionists are political prisoners. Once you believe these things, you’re ready to disenfranchise your fellow citizens in the name of democracy. You’re ready to cover up crimes in the name of fighting corruption. You’re ready to liberate coup plotters in the name of justice.
And that’s where we are. Donald Trump and his party have sold these lies to more than 100 million Americans. He has built an army of authoritarian followers who think they’re saving the republic.
Indeed, Trump voters are, at least for now, the most motivated to “save democracy.”
Among voters as a whole, Trump’s party—despite its embrace, defense, and extension of his authoritarianism—is seen as no worse than Democrats in adhering to democracy. In a Marist poll taken in October, when voters were asked which party was a “bigger threat to democracy in the United States,” 41 percent named the Republican party, but 42 percent named the Democratic party. And in a Fox News survey taken three weeks ago, when voters were asked which party would do a better job of “protecting American democracy,” 50 percent chose Democrats, but 48 percent chose Republicans. In both surveys, by margins of four to five percentage points, independents viewed the GOP as the more democracy-friendly party.
These numbers, combined with the corresponding patterns in Trump’s, McCarthy’s, and the RNC’s propaganda, teach an important lesson. We’re in a battle to save democracy, but the battleground isn’t values. It’s facts. We’re up against a party that spreads, condones, excuses, tolerates, and exploits lies—lies about our political process, and lies about an attempt to overthrow our government—in order to make Americans think that the party of authoritarianism is the party of democracy. And we’re in serious danger of losing.
I fear Saletan is correct. Part of the reason is the continuing failure of the Democratic party to adapt to the extensive right-wing media ecosystem – from FOX News to Gateway Pundit – devoted to the endless repetition of GOP lies about the 2020 election and January 6.
Democrats still rely on the mainstream media to carry their message. But the mainstream media, right-wing propaganda notwithstanding, is not devoted to promoting the issues and narratives favored by the Democratic party. The party shows little sign of developing the kind of disciplined messaging that it would need to effectively push back.