Instead, he took aim at the nefarious throughline to all of those acts: the rank dishonesty on which all of it was predicated.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” Biden said in his inauguration speech. “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
The central lie which led to the recent unrest is that there is reason to believe that Biden’s electoral victory was tainted by or the direct result of rampant voter fraud. It’s a lie that President Donald Trump actively promoted, from the hours after Election Day until the final days of his presidency, according to reports. For months he promoted any and all conspiracy theories which claimed to show that fraud had occurred, most of which were quickly rebutted and none of which was substantiated.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found that 3 in 10 Americans say they believe that false claim. Nearly a third of adults, that is, accept as accurate a claim that derives first and foremost from Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of what occurred.
To some extent it’s hard to blame them. Trump wasn’t the only one promoting that falsehood. He was aided by the most prominent voices in conservative media, including various anchors on Fox News and the motley assortment of personalities at the further-right Fox competitors. His allies and friends promoted the lies on social media and in speeches. Republican elected officials, wary of riling Trump’s base of support, either declined to opine on the claim or actively supported it.
One result of that dishonesty was that hundreds of Trump supporters overran the legislative seat of the federal government, leaving five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer. Biden’s comments, though, weren’t constrained to the lie that led to the storming of the Capitol. Instead, he challenged the country to reject falsehoods broadly, using the election-fraud lie as an example of why that challenge must be met.
That overt rejection of dishonesty as a tool for maintaining power was a repudiation of Trump without saying his predecessor’s name. According to The Post’s final tally, Trump made 30,573 false claims as president, an average of 21 per day. All of those were aimed at the same goal: bolstering his political position or vanity. Dishonesty was Trump’s political calling card, and Biden’s request to set that aside was as close as he would come to criticizing the man he replaced.
But the embrace of dishonesty over the past four years has hardly been limited to Trump, nor was Biden’s comment isolated to his predecessor. He called out leaders who have sworn an oath to the Constitution for failing to “defend the truth and defeat the lies” — leaders such as several of those in attendance at his inauguration.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), for example, tweeted a photo of the view he enjoyed at the ceremony — despite having led the effort to reject Biden’s victory in the hours before the Capitol was overrun. He tried to frame his objections as being rooted in addressing the fraud concerns of his constituents, but that framework was obviously and simply an effort to leverage the energy Trump’s fraud claims had generated for his own political gain. He could have flatly informed his constituents that their claims weren’t warranted and endured the political blowback of doing so. But, to Biden’s point, he didn’t.
Nor did House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who presented Biden with a gift on behalf of his caucus shortly after the inauguration, in keeping with tradition. McCarthy, too, supported the effort Jan. 6 to block Biden’s presidential victory, a futile effort but one which inherently accepted the false claims about fraud instead of challenging them.
Perhaps Cruz, McCarthy and other Republican officials will find the fortitude in a post-Trump world to address the Republican base honestly. If the path being forged by conservative media is any guide, though, that’s unlikely.
Fox News’s recognition of Biden’s victory in November and, particularly, the network’s prediction that Biden would win Arizona, spurred a massive backlash from its audience. A number of viewers decamped for fringier networks such as One America News or Newsmax, where for weeks the reality of Biden’s win was denied specifically to gin up a bigger audience. The question that emerged was whether this heralded a shift away from the network’s frequent pro-Trump cheerleading over the past four years and back toward a more objective slate of programming.
In recent days, though, the network’s new direction seems to be firming up. The political director who made that Arizona call was ousted and a 7 p.m. news program axed in favor of more political commentary. Among those auditioning for that coveted slot is Maria Bartiromo, whose once positive journalistic reputation was ravaged by her obsequious treatment of Trump and her elevation of his dishonest claims.
At the other networks, the effort to undermine Biden without any evidence continued even as he prepared to take the oath of office. At Newsmax, for example, former Republican Party attorney Liz Harrington claimed Wednesday morning that Biden’s election was “a fraud.”
These are, in fact, lies told for power and profit. The play for profit is obvious; as Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy told the New Yorker in late November, promoting false claims about fraud is “great for news.”
“The news cycle is red-hot,” he said, “and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute, according to Nielsen, tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good.”
Fox News, eager to reclaim those people, is engaged in a similar calculus.
The play for power is equally obvious. Cruz and McCarthy directly or through omission misled Republican voters because they feared what honesty might do to their support and understood how dishonesty would foster enthusiasm. And, again, this was Trump’s tactic all along.
By naming these lies as his opponent, Biden provides a politically graceful way for his opponents to de-escalate. He’s not calling out McCarthy or Cruz by name, he is encouraging them to do their duties without risking direct confrontation with them. But by calling out the current of dishonesty that runs in opposition to his presidency, Biden also allows America to focus on how lies are used by those who are his opponents.
About a week after Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election, I wrote about how right-wing misinformation remained unvanquished in response to an interview former president Barack Obama had given to the Atlantic.
“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work,” Obama said in that conversation. “We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”
That statement became only more obviously true over the intervening months. But, now as then, uprooting the dishonesty continues to rely on the goodwill of the dishonest actors. Which, as Biden’s comments highlight, is the root of the problem.