Of course, their belief was unfounded. But these weren’t election experts; they were ordinary people who had gotten bad information from others they assumed were in a position to know. Which is (uncomfortable thought) the same way we all learn most of what we think we understand. If we were similarly misled, some of us might well become similarly unhinged.
Though that can’t excuse insurrection — every member of the mob who attacked the seat of American democracy should be identified, arrested and tried — it does point us toward the people who bear even greater responsibility for the debacle.
Their delusion was carefully nurtured by the crybaby in the Oval Office, who was too much of a loser even to admit he lost. President Trump was abetted in his attempt to overturn legitimate election results by every politician or pundit who refused to denounce him, every one of whom must have known very well that there was no meaningful evidence of the alleged fraud. If they didn’t, they remained ignorant only through strenuous personal effort. Even a brief glance at Trump’s many lawsuits revealed his arguments as baseless tripe.
Trump’s apologists are now chattering fast and anxiously about everything else, and particularly the public’s righteous anger at out-of-touch coastal elites, Democrats and of course a hypocritical mainstream media that wasn’t nearly so hard on Democrat Stacey Abrams when she refused to concede in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election — nor so eager to see an overwhelming use of police force against Black Lives Matter protests. If you want to know why Trump’s followers didn’t trust you when you said he’d lost the election, they suggest … well, look in the mirror.
Most of my colleagues in the mainstream media have justifiably refused to respond to this disingenuous deflection. Yet there’s just enough truth buried in there to make it worth addressing — and explaining why, in the end, it just won’t do.
For I agree that the mainstream media has a dangerous credibility problem on the right. Trump’s followers increasingly live in an epistemic bubble that inconvenient facts simply can’t penetrate because Trump-friendly media doesn’t report them, and their audiences assume, with some reason, that mainstream media is actively playing for the other team. We like to tell ourselves it’s all the fault of Fox News, but we’ve contributed our share to causing this epistemic closure. (We’ve also helped harden the epistemic bubble on the left, but that’s another column.)
Those on the right can see the many journalists on Twitter who deride them as racist troglodytes. They can see how easily stories find purchase on mainstream news pages if they flatter left-wing ideas or make the right look bad. They can see how hard it is to find stories that go in the other direction, and how gingerly such stories are treated if they do surface elsewhere. Much of this has been going on for longer than four years.
The right is also well aware that Trump excited the media’s special ire — for good reason, but nonetheless. So, yes, we do bear some responsibility when Trump’s supporters ignore our assurances that the 2020 elections were about as fair and honest as elections ever are. Our leftward skew may well be a major reason Trump’s followers are ignorant of the truth about November’s elections. And yet, we’re not the reason that they actively believe a passel of lies.
Someone — the president — made grave and groundless accusations aimed at undermining the integrity of a democratic election. A lot of other someones bolstered his lies when they humored him because “what can it hurt?” . . . or deflected any questions into metacriticism of the mainstream media . . . or joined him by “just asking questions” . . . or called for investigations of something they knew hadn’t happened . . . or simply stayed silent while the president of the United States conned his voters and tried to steal an election — and, having failed, whipped up his marks into a dangerous mob that attacked the seat of government and got four insurgents and a police officer killed.
The mainstream media didn’t do any of that. Trump did, and his enablers helped. And if you could witness that disgrace, and then decide to talk about the mainstream media’s faults instead? Well, at that point, it’s not our credibility that’s at stake.