May 9, 2021
Dan Rather and Steady Team
This Sunday Essay opens with a fair warning. You may find what I’ve written below to be a little different in tone and style from some of the previous fare on Steady.
For starters, let’s consider the idea of “steady.” I remain committed to the concept and the community we are building here where we try to take a long view on the news of the moment with a sense of, well, steadiness. But being steady doesn’t mean you can’t also get more steamed than a locomotive. And that’s where I find myself today. So usher out the children. Cover sensitive ears. Because this old reporter is full of a little fire.
The topic at hand is the truth, and not some esoteric notion to be debated in a college philosophy seminar. This is a truth so urgent, so important, so obvious, that attempts to undermine it would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous. So here it is.
Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. It wasn’t particularly close. He won the total national vote overwhelmingly and won decisively in the Electoral College. There is no credible suggestion to the contrary. Election officials confirmed it. The courts confirmed it. It is apparent to everyone who doesn’t live in an alternate reality, who doesn’t harbor seditionist impulses, who isn’t a craven opportunist, or who doesn’t marinate in the cesspool of these forces, otherwise known as Fox News. For those who suggest otherwise (who say that Biden is not the legitimately elected President of the United States), many have been deceived and others are willfully deceiving them for their own cynical, and dangerous, ends.
And yet that’s where a majority of Republicans find themselves today, if you believe the polls. And it is certainly where a majority of elected officials are if you just listen to what they say, or more importantly don’t say. Now the origin of this lie-laden authoritarianism is the former president, who couldn’t fall back on his usual playbook of suing, sulking, and skedaddling to get himself out of the loser spotlight. So he decided to do what he does best, the tool he used to propel himself to the presidency. He lied. Not a small half-truth. Not a wee fib. Not even a bald-faced lie. A lie so big it deserves to be written as a proper noun — the Big Lie.
This Big Lie led to violent insurrectionists storming the United States Capitol, attempting to stop final certification of election results. It has led to Republican state representatives falling over themselves to try to cut back on voting rights. And how do they try to justify it? They say their supporters have lost faith in the voting system. But that is because their supporters have been lied to by the same politicians who are now using that as an excuse to stifle democracy. Propaganda and authoritarianism play on in a destructive feedback loop.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) speaks during a press conference following a House Republican caucus meeting on Capitol Hill on April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Now to be fair, not EVERY Republican has fallen in line. Take the high-profile case of Liz Cheney, the daughter of former vice president, Dick Cheney. She’s certainly no liberal (her voting record has been solidly pro-Trump), but she has had the temerity to say what her colleagues won’t, that the would-be emperor has no clothes (please spare yourself the mental image). For this act of bravery her fellow House Republicans are coming for her like a political version of Murder on the Orient Express, except in this case they have no problem brandishing their guilt for the world to see.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) stands as she's acknowledged by President Trump as he speaks one day after the U.S. Senate acquitted on two articles of impeachment, February 6, 2020 in Washington, DC.
So who thrives in such an environment? Craven opportunists like Elise Stefanik. You would think this Harvard-educated congresswoman from upstate New York would know better about the Constitution and the ridiculousness of the Big Lie, but she long ago pegged her future to prostrating at the altar of The Donald. And now she is poised to replace Cheney in Republican leadership. Some conservative groups are grumbling that Stefanik’s voting record is far more “liberal” than they would like, but Trump broke whatever tenuous links the Republican Party had to a consistent ideology. It’s now a cult of personality, not a political party. And fealty is prized over all else. Of course as many associates of Trump have learned over the years, loyalty for him is like most streets in Manhattan — it only goes one way.
It brings me no joy in saying that one of the factors that is exacerbating this dangerous era in our national history is a Washington press corps that is struggling to make sense of a disorienting landscape. The bedrock of American democracy, for better and worse, has been a stable two party system — with some notable moments of exception. The press is used to two opposing forces waging battle over policy. At least nominally. Now the no man’s land between Republicans and Democrats is over a belief in democracy itself and not things like taxes or foreign policy.
Once again, this is not a theoretical musing. Is it too much to say that giving oxygen to the Big Lie, let alone actively espousing it, is a form of sedition? Full stop. Think about it. Is lying about the truth of last November making a mockery of any pledge of patriotism? No matter how many flag lapel pins you wear or how often you quote the “Founding Fathers,” to deny a fair and honest election and the orderly transfer of power risks placing you squarely in the camp of dictators and autocrats, and helping with the demise of democracy.
The press needs to start taking this even more seriously than it does now. Every elected Republican who has played footsie with the Big Lie should have to defend that record before they can speak on any other topic. They can’t be allowed to dodge. The questions aren’t difficult. Did Joe Biden win the election? Where is your evidence to the contrary? And because there is no such evidence, if they try to quote something, they should be pressed on the truth. Live interviews are particularly problematic because politicians can stretch out a string of lies so long that they can spin their way to a commercial break. Those with a history of such actions should not be given prominent platforms for their performance art.
The Big Lie must be the context for everything that is taking place in Washington, and political stories across the country. It is not old news. January 6 is not old news. This denial of reality is the animating principle driving the Republican Party. We can’t talk about legislation in Washington, immigration, climate change, fiscal policy, foreign policy, civil rights, education, or any other issue politicians are “debating” without talking about the Big Lie. Because if we have roughly half of elected officials espousing rhetoric and taking actions that undermine our elections and the legitimacy of our chosen leaders then our ability to do anything productive, to respond to the needs of the American people, will be undermined.
Republicans desperately want the mainstream press to cover the daily news cycle through the lens of traditional party politics. At the same time, they go on their propaganda channels and stir up their base against the mechanics of fair and open elections. They spread the poison of illegitimacy to attack the Biden Administration. On Fox News you get a concerted and coordinated attack. Outside of that echo chamber you get what was once the normal news diet of a spectrum of different stories. But this is not a normal news environment. This is an attack on American values, and our ability to continue to function as a government that represents the will of the majority of Americans. The Big Lie is everything right now and the press and the American people must not provide safe harbor for it to continue to metastasize.
I want to end with a note of some optimism. I believe the Big Lie is so ludicrous and outrageous that it can be made to collapse under the weight of its own perfidy. If it is put into the proper spotlight, if it becomes so radioactive that big business, the press, and the public at large refuse to bestow any legitimacy to those who traffic in it, then it can and will be defeated. American democracy might even emerge stronger in its wake. That will take perseverance, stamina, and yes, remaining steady.