The long month since Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump has brought inordinate attention to the Republican Party’s most and least toxic figures.
This was perhaps inevitable once Trump set out to dispute and overturn the election. His inane plot against America attracted the greediest and most spellbound members of the Republican Party magnetically, but he lost by substantial enough margins that executing a procedural coup would have required a handful of functionaries in swing states and on federal courts to accept a lifetime of infamy, and they declined. These are thus the characters we’ve focused on: the ones who would destroy American democracy and the smaller number (now anathema in their own party) who followed the rules.
In between are a large but shrinking number who have deflected and evaded, who have refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory without explicitly echoing Trump’s lies, who don’t assert that the election was rigged, but support Trump’s frivolous lawsuits as a routine pursuit of “legal means,” who are complicit but seek plausible deniability in the event of any future reckoning.
Most of the reporting on these officials has centered on their sheer numbers–a sign of how in thrall Republicans remain to their lame duck president, and evidence first and foremost of a party gripped by cowardice.
Many of them are surely cowards, but cowardice assumes a great deal about these actions that isn’t in evidence. As Greg Sargent explained last week, “The conceit that ‘cowardice’ is the driving motive here imagines that these Republicans secretly harbor principles that they’d like to honor if only they could do so safely.”
These Republicans are better understood as bet-hedgers, people far more calculating than impulse-driven nihilists or cowards. If Trump and his loyalists vanished from the scene tomorrow, and their lies about the election were suddenly muted, the bet-hedgers wouldn’t pour forth to admit it was all bullshit. They aren’t captive—they’re playing the long game. And a question that will soon confront the leaders of institutions who still believe in democracy is how to treat the bet-hedgers as they parlay into the Biden era.
In observing this slow-motion crime play out, national media elites at all levels seem to realize that making no changes to their professional standards would amount to mission failure, but they also lack a collective vision for retrofitting those standards to account for the bad-acting of one party. “One thing that’s going to be tough about journalism in the Biden era,” explained HuffPost reporter Ryan Reilly, “is there are like three elected Republicans you can quote that aren’t going to require, at minimum, a lengthy paragraph about their blinding hypocrisy.”
On Wednesday, Chuck Todd and his colleagues at NBC’s Meet the Press addressed the same challenge elliptically in their daily news and analysis roundup, on the topic of “Republicans who criticize Biden for committing transgressions—but who stayed silent when Trump did the same (or, as may likely be the case when it comes to corrosive political rhetoric, far worse).”
“If you want guardrails in a democracy—for Democratic and Republican presidents—you can’t set them so low that they fail to work,” they wrote. “And you should reward those who have been consistent about the guardrails for both parties, not those who only want them for one party and not the other.”
Awareness is better than delusion or denial, but without even a general indication of what constitutes “reward” or its antithesis, there’s no standard for anyone at the program, the network, or the broader media to follow. Todd in particular has established a pattern of acknowledging Republican mass deceptions (about climate change, the mainstream media, even the existence of truth itself) and promising belatedly to hold the party accountable for it—only to continue welcoming climate change deniers, bad-faith media critics, and propagandists on to live television.
And yet, something has to give, whether it’s old way of doing things or the credibility of the national press corps.
Republicans in swing states and their representatives in Congress have already begun citing widespread belief in Trump’s lies about the election as a justification for further suppressing Democratic votes, and even for hijacking the entire democracy. When those Republicans who’ve hedged their bets through this transition poke their heads up to endorse these pretexts, when they pretend to believe restoring faith in elections requires closing polling places and paring back absentee voting, will they be welcomed as people of good faith? Or as dishonest brokers, scheming to steal the next election?
Thinking ahead, now, through scenarios like these is critical, because old habits will start to look seductive otherwise, and quickly. Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—one of the Republicans in a position of authority over elections who, to his credit, followed the rules—has already stipulated, in a truly disgraceful op-ed, that the Republican subversion of this election, bad as it is, simply follows a precedent Stacey Abrams set when she argued that voter suppression cost her the governor’s race there two years ago.
Abrams, in conceding the governorship (if not fair-and-square defeat) argued quite plausibly she would have won had Republicans—particularly, her own opponent—not purged voters from the rolls and made it harder for those still registered to cast ballots. The millions of Republicans who’ve turned on Raffensperger, by contrast, did so based on allegations of fraud that Trump fabricated whole cloth to steal a secure election. Equating these two acts is a smear, and the purpose is to fuel propaganda to absolve his team of a crime against democracy. Raffensperger, along with the much larger group of Republicans who refused to admit Trump lost, will happily downplay all that happened this month, pretend to believe both sides do it, to neutralize stigma that should attach solely to the Republican Party. They will serve up false balance on a platter, knowing political journalists find it irresistible, in the hope that those journalists will relent, and allow themselves to be played.
The purpose of tolling the enemies of democracy (or, as Todd and his colleagues wrote, “reward[ing]” democracy’s friends) is to change incentives, so these saboteurs and their copycats see new downside in trying this again. But the Republicans who hedged their bets (or, as Todd and his colleagues wrote, “stayed silent”) are part of this group, too. Their bet was to play along with Trump’s effort to steal the election; the hedge was to do it quietly in the hope of escaping notice, playing innocent, then looting through the wreckage, in the event that Trump failed. They deserve to lose both wagers.