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Hammergate and GOP Cowardice
There really are no good Republicans.
Last week I wrote about the attack on Paul Pelosi and tried to highlight the fact that the assailant - David DePape - got sucked into a world of conservative conspiracy theories that inevitably made him violent. I linked to his blog (which has since gotten taken down), but then focused more on the people who enabled him in conservative media. I sent out the Jackal quickly (and with lots of typos, sorry) that Friday and started day-drinking with my parents, a.k.a., a normal start to the weekend.
Since then, the story has become a parody of itself. Not only did conservatives refuse to do any self-reflection on how DePape became violent, they instead came up with an alternate theory to explain why he attacked: It turns out he was Paul Pelosi’s lover and was actually there for some sort of sexual encounter gone wrong, which led to a fight where both of them struggled over a hammer. Seriously. An octogenarian had a sex partner who lived in a bus somewhere in San Francisco who was also a nudist and he got into a fight with him at 2 A.M. This is what the most gullible people on the planet chose to believe instead of the bleeding obvious.
And when I say conservatives believed it, I don’t mean the QAnon nutcases; prominent Republicans such as Ted Cruz floated the theory, and then Twitter’s new owner tweeted (and then deleted) an article supporting the conspiracy theory. Jonathan Chait details the “anti-anti-DePape”1 right:
He was a former hippie nudist, and therefore couldn’t have migrated to the right. Or maybe he was a sex worker involved in an illicit tryst. Republicans needed to believe there was some account for his actions other than the obvious one sitting in plain sight, on DePape’s online commentaries: He subscribed to the same right-wing conspiracy theories held by millions of Republicans. “He really believed in the whole MAGA, ‘Pizzagate,’ stolen election — you know, all of it, all the way down the line. If you go to Fox News, if you go on the internet and you look at QAnon, you know, he had all these theories,” his former boss told the New York Times.
A story that sounded obviously insane to any rational person was floated and then believed by many on the Right. But like a lot of things swirling around in conservative media, the rot is actually deeper than it seems.
Consuming mostly conservative media on a daily basis is largely an exercise in exposing yourself to disinformation. This isn’t to say all of it is bad; I link to The Bulwark and The Dispatch a lot here, but even the less squishy places like National Review, The Daily Wire (!), and The Washington Examiner all occasionally have good pieces. The problem is that no one reads these interesting and reflective pieces (on why Blake Masters is losing in Arizona; the protests in Iran; and how the GOP can do better than Trump in 2024, respectively) from a conservative point of view. Instead, they go for the clickbait.
It should surprise no one that the most visited conservative website in the country is FoxNews.com, which is home to a lot of good journalists (there are few and far between on their TV counterpart). But the second-most popular conservative website? Epoch Times.
It should come as no surprise that a Fake News™ propaganda rag currently published by a cult on Long Island (BILLY JOEL) is the second-most prominent conservative website. The Republican Party as a whole has been building towards this moment since Barack Obama took office.
I want to touch on some of the things DePape believed because I think it is instructive. But I should also note off the bat that the San Francisco Police Department has confirmed the official story (as has DePape himself): He was sucked into a rabbit hole of disinformation and when you got him talking about it, he tried to pull you in with him. A lot of conservatives will point to the fact that DePape previously had a lot of Left-wing tendencies (living in San Francisco is SUS), but Tim Miller explains that a lot of people have made the transition from Nutty Left™ to Crazy Right™ over the past few years, and DePape’s conversation shouldn’t be a surprise. A lot of that boils down to our current media environment.
COVID contributed to DePape’s radicalization.
I feel like I have written this about a thousand times in the Jackal and elsewhere, but COVID shutting down the planet was a truly life-altering, seismic event that fundamentally changed our world forever. It changed the way a lot of people interacted with their family and friends, but it also changed the way people consumed media.
As conservatives tell this story, the reason public trust in institutions and media have collapsed is because the media and experts obviously got a lot of things wrong during COVID. How that gets you from being merely angry at CNN to breaking into the Speaker’s house with a hammer is beyond me, but let’s keep going anyway and see if we get there.
A reason for the frustration is that the experts were ultimately wrong about the vaccines, which they basically forced on people without researching whether or not they worked. And that’s all before you get to social distancing, masks, closing schools, the lab leak, etc.
Looking back, I did a pretty good job assessing the outcomes throughout 2020 and 2021 mostly because I followed an epidemiologist I really trust, Regina Phalange, Ph.D. In April of 2021, before the Delta and Omicron variants showed up and proved that COVID can evade vaccine efficacy, she warned that the COVID vaccines may not 100% protect against transmission:
“There are always breakthroughs regardless of what the efficacy of the vaccine is…even if a vaccine fails to protect against infection, it often protects against serious disease.”
That was a pretty good and measured response, because in our current environment it feels like lots of people may be getting COVID, but those who are vaccinated are having exponentially better outcomes when it comes to severe disease, even if they still get COVID.
But going back even further to May of 2020, Dr. Phalange refused to totally rule out the lab-leak theory (which is still not 100% settled!), while adding a caveat that even if COVID was leaked from a lab in Wuhan, that means it was “already in the wild to begin with,” which kind of makes the point moot. That was pretty prescient!
In July of 2020, she was arguing that the kids should probably be back to school in person:
Given the unintended downstream, ripple effect, negative consequences of keeping children out of school, as a default position 40,000 feet, we should try as best as we possibly can to get the children back to school and to keep children in school. […] SO if you can get the children back to school and do the things in a way that’s safe, you should try as best as you can. Because we live in a big country, that’s very, very heterogenous with regard to the level of virus, so there may be some counties, some cities with a level of virus that is so low that with impunity you could bring the kids back to school and not worry about it.
Here is where I pull the rug out from underneath you: There is no Regina Phalange. All of those statements were from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is now a certified villain on the Right. People forget, but he was the go-to person within the Trump Administration during the pandemic and he did a lot of interviews and made lots of correct predictions.
The reason Fauci was cited to a lot in 2020 is because he was seen as the voice of reason in an Administration run by a man-child who easily bought into misinformation about COVID. In April of 2020, Fauci was trusted by 85% of conservatives. What changed? In a lot of ways, Trump changed the narrative around Fauci, but conservative media - whether it was Plandemic, Rand Paul, or Fox News - singled him out as someone to be attacked, and his approval rating dropped by 30 points among Republicans.
Demonizing Fauci is really only a small part of the GOP’s COVID trutherism, but it has led to him being a recipient of death threats, to the point where he now has a private security detail. But it’s not just him that is being hurt by the conservative media bubble created around COVID. Since they have been continuously and provably been wrong about COVID from day one, red states are the more likely to have an outsized number of COVID deaths than blue states. Here are the current numbers:
No one really wants to talk about COVID anymore, but if you look at the death rates of the top 20 states, 14 are Republican. Another wild thing that happened while no one was really paying attention: Florida overtook New York in deaths per capita. This happened after the vaccine was already rolled out and after we knew a ton about the disease. Here was the COVID death rate in August of 2020 before all of that:
And here it is in June of 2021, after the vaccines were fully rolled out:
At that time, Florida didn’t even make the top 20. What happened? Because vaccine hesitancy became a major talking point in the GOP and conservative media, fewer Republicans got vaccinated. A study from this summer showed an outsized number of COVID deaths among Republicans:
Covid deaths are unevenly distributed among Republicans and Democrats. Average excess death rates in Florida and Ohio were 76% higher among Republicans than Democrats from March 2020 to December 2021, according to a working paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Excess deaths refers to deaths above what would be anticipated based on historical trends.
A study in June published in Health Affairs similarly found that counties with a Republican majority had a greater share of Covid deaths through October 2021, relative to majority-Democratic counties. But experts are still puzzling over why these differences exist. Are lower vaccination rates among Republicans responsible? Or did mask use and social distancing guidelines prevent more deaths in counties run by Democrats?
The Yale researchers behind the new working paper say vaccine hesitancy among Republicans may be the biggest culprit.
This is a real conspiracy theory that did extreme damage to actual people, and it was enabled and pushed by conservative media. Emily Oster recently wrote a piece for the The Atlantic, in which she called for a “pandemic amnesty:” The too long; didn’t read: Lots of people got things wrong and we should move to forgive them. But as Jonathan V. Last points out, she only wants amnesty for the people who were too cautious:
But the contemporaneous Republican response—not universally, but generally—was to downplay the risks of COVID, argue against mitigation efforts, and keep life normal. […] The post-COVID truth and reckoning we see today is only for the people who, it turned out, were too cautious. The people who contributed to the death total by advocating recklessness? Meh. Whatever. They’re fine.
He adds this, which is spot on:
By and large, the Democratic response to COVID was to try to save as many lives as possible.
By and large, the Republican response to COVID was to avoid any actions which might inconvenience those who survived COVID.
It’s pretty clear that, as a political matter, the Republicans understood where the voters were—and would be.
Future voters would give Democrats no credit for saving lives and give Republicans no blame for costing them. In fact, future voters would see COVID only as a liability for officials who tried to mitigate its impact and would blame them for any policy choices which turned out—in hindsight—to be sub-optimal.
The key problem is disinformation.
There is really no doubt that the vast majority of Republicans in office are vaccinated, but are forced to engage in vaccine hesitancy in order to remain in power or appease their voters. In the same way, the vast majority of Republicans in office know that the 2020 election wasn’t stolen, but they are boxed in by a base who feverishly believes in Trump’s alternative history.
There is a great video from David Frum that is now 10 years old (!) but it is becoming more and more permeant. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, I’ll link to the whole video, but here is the pertinent part:
The conservative followership has been fleeced, exploited, and lied to by the conservative media complex. Because the followers, and the donors, and the activists are so mistaken about the nature of the problem that the country faces…just a simple question, and I went to Tea Party rallies and I would ask this question: Have taxes gone up or down in the past four years? They could not answer that question correctly. Now, it’s true taxes will go up if the President’s reelected, and that’s why we’re Republicans. But you have to know that taxes have not gone up in the past and do we spend a trillion dollars on Welfare, is that true or false? It is false. But it is almost universally believed. That means that the leaders have no space to operate and…what happened to Mitt Romney [who] could’ve been a really good President, really good. But what happened to Mitt Romney was he was twisted into pretzels. The people who put the cement shoes on his feet are now blaming him for sinking.
It’s a great video. At one point, Joe Scarborough interjects and says that “conservatives have been lied to,” and that those lies come from people who engage in “niche marketing,” which makes them tens of millions of dollars but doesn’t help the Party. In a world where Alex Jones is worth tens of millions of dollars, it is obvious that the problem has gotten exponentially worse.
Relatedly, an exchange Frum had with Mark Levin - a member of the conservative media complex - has always stuck in my mind. Years ago (probably around the same time) Frum called into Levin’s radio show and tried to explain to him that his style of rhetoric didn’t help because he set expectations too high for his audience and they lashed out when the grand vision of conservative radio never came to fruition. Levin’s responded by asking Frum how many copies his book had sold, and when Frum said in the tens of thousands, Levin said he had sold millions. Basically, none of Frum’s points mattered because he didn’t sell enough books. That is a neat way of highlighting the major problem within conservative media right now.
The criticism Frum was making at the time was mostly related to electoral strategy, but the problem with the GOP’s current penchant for conspiracy theories is that it leads to real-life harm. For instance, crime is a major issue in the midterms as rates have steadily risen since 2020.
It is one of the main concerns of GOP voters, especially those in blue states. But watch this amazing clip from the most recent debate for Oklahoma governor:
It is truly amazing that the Republican candidate goes to the crowd to affirm his stance, and they readily oblige. But Hofmeister is correct: Oklahoma has almost double the rate of violent crime as New York State.
The common retort to this is that it’s the big, blue cities within those states that have all the crime. Leave aside the fact that in Oklahoma that’s completely wrong (its biggest cities have Republican mayors); it’s wrong just about everywhere else too. The biggest increases in crime over the past two years have come from rural areas, which are dominated by Republicans. If you went to states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri and removed their biggest cities, you’d still have higher murder rates there than in New York. And Oklahoma isn’t even all that high up on the list:
A lot of conservatives are frustrated with rising crime in the U.S., and will vote out Democrats and vote in Republicans as a way of addressing it, but it’s important to note that we have evidence staring us in the face that says Republicans are very happy to talk about crime and do essentially nothing about it. One of the dumbest talking points of the past few years was, “Defund the police!” which followed the George Floyd protests in 2020. It came from the Left and Republicans happily painted the entire Democratic Party with it, but Democrats actually spend more on policing than Republicans, even on a per capita basis. But the GOP doesn’t have to factually rebut any of these points because their base is primed to believe that Democrats are soft on crime.
This is a permanent problem unless the GOP speaks up.
The thing that keeps sticking out to me about DePape is that he’s not really an outlier at all: He represents the baseline Republican voter who is completely divorced from reality. He just happened to get violent.
The most frustrating part of all of this is that Republican officials know that the vaccines are safe, that crime is rising in rural areas, that election denialism is a major problem within the Party, and they won’t say anything publicly because it hurts them politically:
A predictable response from conservatives is that while all of these things cause real damage to people, ultimately the Democrats hurt people too, and have a propensity for violence. And they routinely cite to two pieces of real, Left-wing violence:
The attack on GOP Congressmen by a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2017.
The recent threat against Breet Kavanaugh following the leak of the Dobbs decision.
But the citation to these two events is a tell in and of itself: If you are citing to a (horrific) event from five years ago, and an event this summer that consisted of a guy showing up to Kavanaugh’s house with a gun and then calling police because he was worried he’d get violent, you are grasping at straws. The reality is that 40% of Republicans readily tell pollsters that they believe political violence against people in power may be necessary, which is much higher than the response rate from Democrats (which at 25%, is still too high!).
My main worry is that political violence is going to get worse, especially with a Republican base becoming further divorced from reality. None of this stuff seems to be getting any better. A Democratic candidate was recently assaulted in Pennsylvania. A member of “The Squad,” Pramila Jayapal, had to deal with an armed man who posted up outside her home. And the main problem with these attacks is that political violence begets more political violence: As Republicans get violent and that becomes normalized (or even celebrated), Democrats will feel license to do the same.
Because the GOP doesn’t speak out, they are all to blame.
Someone asked me recently how I felt about Joe O’Dea, the GOP Senate candidate in Colorado. I gave him full credit for saying Joe Biden won the election in 2020 and for distancing himself from Trump. I also said he seems like a really decent guy with a great family, who would probably be a good Senator. But I ultimately said that I flat-out do not trust the GOP. I do not trust any of them to do the right thing when the choice is between that and something easy. I do not trust anyone in conservative media to actually take responsibility for a single lie they have told because the movement left the reservation years ago and has shown no interest in wandering back. Moreover, O’Dea, when recently given the chance to disavow election denialism, he clammed up, which is a previous of what he’d do as a Senator.
So, that’s why I am hoping against hope for the Democrats to hold on Tuesday. It truly does suck that the choice in Pennsylvania is between someone who is obviously still dealing with the effects of the stroke and someone who is obviously still dealing with the effects of being Dr. Oz, but I would make the argument for John Fetterman every time and twice on Tuesday simply because the more power this current GOP accumulates means more pain for regular people. Until they address the major issues with their base, disavow Trumpism, and hold their media empire accountable, they are not worth supporting or engaging in good faith.
I have gotten emails about using “anti-anti-something” as if it were a typo. It isn’t. It comes from someone being “Anti-anti-Trump,” which means that they are not exactly pro-Trump, but they will very much do anything they can to avoid criticizing him whenever possible. See Stephen L. Miller as a prime example.