It is not surprising, then, that, given the chance to host a show in prime time for the network (versus his usual appearances on the network’s morning programs), Hegseth approached the news of the day with a distinctly Trump-sympathetic flavor. As his guest on Tuesday evening made very explicit, to Hegseth’s obvious discomfort.
The particular news on that particular day was about an effort by Democratic legislators in Texas to prevent the state from passing new restrictions on voting by leaving the state. If the legislature can’t reach a quorum, it can’t pass bills, and without Democrats in Austin, it can’t reach a quorum. So by decamping to D.C., those legislators could block any law from passing — and gain a platform to advocate for a cause that’s at the center of Democratic politics at the moment.
Hegseth welcomed one of those legislators, Texas state Rep. James Talarico (D), to serve as a foil for his own frustrations about the Democrats’ tactic. After contextualizing Talarico’s appearance by noting that he flew to D.C. with his colleagues on a private jet (elitist!, viewers were meant to think) and accusing him of having talking points saying that “Republicans are authoritarians and racists” (anti-White racism!) — all before Talarico said a word — Hegseth asked the legislator to explain how he wasn’t just a “prop or a puppet” for the national party.
After a brief bit of biography, Talarico replied.
“I swore an oath when I first got elected two years ago to uphold the Constitution, the Constitution of the United States and also the Constitution of the great state of Texas,” he said. “And after our former president, Donald Trump, started his big lie that the election was stolen, Republican legislators in capitals across the country started to push voter suppression methods.”
That last bit was hard to hear because Hegseth, as he would do repeatedly, interrupted with another question.
“How did you make this about Donald Trump in 20 seconds?” he said, overlapping with Talarico’s comments. “That’s a bit of a record.” (Trump derangement syndrome!)
Of course, Talarico’s right. A massive surge in new legislation aimed at scaling back voting access — often access expanded in 2020 — has been proposed by Republican legislators. Those restrictions are often framed as being about revisiting voting rules in a post-pandemic world. (As Hegseth asked, “If covid’s not there and — or ultimately minimized in our application, shouldn’t we be making sure that the rules go back to something that makes sense, that’s reasonable?”)
The restrictions, though, are often obviously or explicitly also predicated on Trump’s incessant dishonesty about the security of the election itself. Republicans are trying to both convince their pro-Trump base that they’re tackling rampant election fraud that Trump has convinced voters occurred (although it didn’t) and trying to preserve the ability to describe their actions as being simple reexaminations of voting processes. But, as Tuesday night’s interview progressed, the inferior durability of the latter rationale was made obvious.
Talarico explained how the Texas law would scale back voting access, by reducing voting hours in some places, including overnight (“It’s voting at 2 a.m. in the morning that is the key issue,” Hegseth scoffed) and by adding a requirement for mail-in voters to provide a driver’s license number or part of their Social Security number. This is a central point for Democrats: Many people, often lower-income or older, may not have a license or have their Social Security numbers readily available, necessitating going through a layer of bureaucracy to obtain the necessary information before they can cast a ballot.
“If the bill passes,” Hegseth taunted Talarico, “will there be any ... minority or a woman that’s not able to vote?”
The answer is: of course. Of course there will be someone who suddenly discovers that they can’t get away from work to vote or who can’t get a Social Security number in time. The question is how significant that burden is as a deterrent. In most states, we’ve agreed that the burden of registration is worth it; where states disagree is on requirements beyond that.
But Talarico’s response to Hegseth was important. He cited a Republican official who runs the state’s elections.
“She actually said that Texas’s elections in the past two cycles were safe, smooth and secure,” he explained. “Those were the three words she used. So we know this is a nonexistent problem.”
This is the flip side of the deterrence question. Hegseth and other Republicans are arguing that these changes are necessary to protect the election results, but there’s no evidence at all that those results have been in any way tainted by illegal voting. In testimony before the legislature over the weekend, a Texas elections official told lawmakers, “I don’t think we have any evidence of actual fraud” in the 2020 election.
An analogy is useful here. Imagine that someone shows up at your door selling Internet-connected window locks. He argues forcefully that a burglary ring is operating in your neighborhood and that these locks are a way to keep criminals at bay. They’re not free, sure, and he profits from them, but he’s just looking out for your safety. But you know that crime isn’t rampant and, after speaking with police, they tell you that after an extensive review of their records they have found no evidence of anything more than a couple of guys taking Amazon packages.
Would you buy the locks?
Talarico’s point was that the effort to impose new restrictions on voting were necessarily predicated on the idea that elections are at risk without them, something for which there’s no evidence. Hegseth tacitly reinforced this point.
Hegseth asked Talarico if he supported voter ID laws and Talarico said he didn’t.
“You oppose voter ID?” Hegseth sputtered. “You don’t think the most sacred obligation of our republic, you should have to prove who you are in order to vote?”
That’s the issue in a nutshell. Which is more important, letting more people vote or doing more to verify that people who are voting are who they say they are? In each scenario, the number of exceptions is fairly small: A small percentage of people won’t be able to obtain the necessary ID (even if it’s their fault that they can’t) and a handful of people might try to vote illegally (though, of course, there are other checks in place to protect ballots).
A critical issue in the moment is the extent to which the impulse toward restrictions is based on dishonest claims about election security. Talarico kept coming back to Trump’s false claims, eventually simply asking Hegseth his view directly.
Talarico: Do you remember a second ago when I talked about the big lie? This is exactly what I'm talking about. And the reason that so many folks believe in this country is because folks like you get on television every night and repeat the lie over and over again.Hegseth: You just went on national television and said you don’t want voter ID, revealing exactly what Democrats — and it’s so condescending to say that people can’t get identification. Have you found someone in your district that can’t get identification?Talarico: You have made a lot of money personally and you've enriched a lot of corporations with advertising by getting on here and spewing lies and conspiracy theories to folks who trust you.Hegseth: Now it's about my enrichment. I see.Talarico: So what I'm asking you to do is tell your voters right now that Donald Trump lost the election of 2020. Can you admit that?Hegseth: At least you resolved the lie that is: Democrats are now for voter ID.Talarico: Did you catch what I just asked? Did you hear what I asked?Hegseth: It’s not your show, sir. But at least at least you got the idea that Democrats are now for voter ID.Talarico: Did Donald Trump lose the election in 2020? Can you answer the question? Did Donald Trump Iose the election in 2020?Hegseth: I think I'm answering questions. I don't really feel any obligation to answer anything to you.Talarico: Is this an uncomfortable — an uncomfortable question for you?
Talarico gets at an important point here that also overlaps with his political opponents in Austin. It’s not just that there are a lot of people who believe Trump’s false fraud claims, it’s that there are a lot of people for whom bolstering those claims provides an ancillary benefit. Political support. Viewership. Advertising dollars.
Even if Hegseth does think that Trump’s fraud claims are false, there are a number of reasons that he would be disinclined to admit it on air. For one, Fox News is at least somewhat concerned about losing audience to further-right networks like One America News or Newsmax that proudly echo Trump’s claims. For another, Trump himself was probably watching and Hegseth would likely be wary of picking up his phone for a few months if he had admitted that Trump’s claims were invented.
That’s a central part of what’s happening. There is a big incentive for Republicans to pretend that rampant fraud occurred and an even bigger incentive (curtailing often-Democratic votes) to passing laws addressing the putative issue. At the same time, there are disincentives to pointing out Trump’s falsehoods, as those who have done so can attest.
This is at the heart of the current debate. Trump’s falsehoods are in fact inextricable from the proposed changes — just as similar proposed changes in the past have been inextricably linked to other false claims about election security. Trump picked up on an existing rationale the party had used to pass voter restrictions for years, weaponizing it to his political benefit. And now it’s driving a slew of new proposals.
After declining to answer Talarico’s question, Hegseth pivoted back to more favorable terrain: Why weren’t the Democrats on that private plane wearing masks?
Hypocrites!, his viewers were expected to think. Hegseth wins again.