For years, media and political elites refused to acknowledge the growing racism and radicalism of the Republican party. Their “both-sidesism” led to Trump’s GOP takeover.
By Joan Walsh for THE NATION
I’ve always resisted the notion that new decades are news events, bestowed on us in pre-measured pallets of history to be analyzed later as self-contained units of meaning. But as we ring in 2020, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been through an epoch we should pause to acknowledge. Being ornery, I’ll date it to 2009, and the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency. However we count them off, we have to admit: These last 10 (or 11) years saw the rise of a sometimes violent right-wing American extremism, fueled by racism, and an even bigger story — the utter failure of political elites and mainstream media to figure out how to handle it.
I finally became convinced I had to write about this decade—or as I like to call it, “this f&$%ing decade”—when I read the Rolling Stone interview with Meet the Press host Chuck Todd that burned down the Internet just before Christmas. The decent person in me, who is withering to nothing given the lack of nutritive decency around us, wants to give Todd credit, however belated, for realizing the obvious: that the Trump administration, but more important, Republicans generally, have used his show to spread lies and then double down on them when caught, for a long time.
From Trump toady Kellyanne Conway’s mind-fracturing “alternative facts” defense in the first week of the administration, to alleged anti-Russia hawk Senator Ted Cruz inviting himself on Todd’s show to spout pro-Russia talking points nobody thinks he believes, just weeks ago, Todd is Patient Zero in terms of how the modern GOP has spread a fatal virus of lies. And now he says he knows it: “So I mean, look, if people want to read my answer to your question, ‘Boy, that Chuck Todd was hopelessly naive.’ Yeah, it looks pretty naive.”
Oh Chuck. I’m just not sure “naive” is the right word here. (Jay Rosen unpacks it better than I can.) Rosen and many more of us have been pointing out exactly what’s going on for (more than) a decade. Many of us have been at best ignored, at worst mocked, and sometimes threatened (ineffectually so far, at least when it comes to threats against me).
I had a strange spot from which to regularly witness this f&$%ing decade: cable news green rooms, tiny flash cam cubbies and convivial tables of televised political-panel chats; mostly on MSNBC, occasionally on Fox, and lately CNN. Once the euphoria of Obama’s inauguration subsided, it quickly became clear to at least a few of us that we were witnessing a profound racial backlash. In the early days of the anti-Obama Tea Party, journalists were required to say the uprising was about government spending run amok (I covered San Francisco’s first Tea Party event, on Tax Day 2009, and tried to give attendees the benefit of the doubt, though I couldn’t miss the guy demanding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi examine Obama’s birth certificate, an early “birther.”)
Fox News, always a site of white racial anxiety (remember when Barack and Michelle gave one another “terrorist fist jabs” during the 2008 campaign?) immediately became a clubhouse for white panic. Fox went from hyping the lame thuggery and purported voter intimidation of the tiny, impotent New Black Panther Party, to “exposing” some past controversial political views of Obama’s black “green jobs czar” Van Jones (which led to bipartisan demands for Jones to resign), to promoting doctored videos “showing” the black-led community empowerment group ACORN supposedly helped a “pimp” avoid paying taxes (which led to a bipartisan push to defund ACORN), to pushing another Andrew Breitbart (RIP) story that former NAACP leader Shirley Sherrod used a government job to discriminate against white farmers when the truth was the opposite (which led to bipartisan demands that Sherrod be fired).
Yes, my point is: Fox is evil, but it sometimes succeeded because Democrats are cowards, and utterly unprepared to fight evil enemies. Hosts like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and the rising Sean Hannity regularly peddled those and other racial panic stories, while the mainstream media generally, and even leading Democrats, tried hard to avoid seeing what was happening.
Then there was the almost immediate uptick in political violence. In April, 2009, a Glenn Beck fan killed three police officers in Pittsburgh. In May, an anti-abortion terrorist murdered Dr. George Tiller in the Wichita church where he served as an usher. In June, an elderly white birther murdered a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. In August, anti-Obama protester William Kostric brought a loaded gun to a New Hampshire town hall meeting with Obama, and carried a sign referencing Thomas Jefferson’s famous credo, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” Folks in the media debated what Kostric was trying to say. (You can understand why I insisted on roping in 2009 into this decade.) But the political violence continues and has worsened—from Charleston to Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to El Paso—ever since.
I covered all of this, and I had the distinction of being mocked, at least twice, by the cable hosts I loved the most, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. After I debated disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in July 2009, over whether his violence-tinged rhetoric contributed to the climate that led an anti-abortion zealot to murder Dr. George Tiller, Stewart played our heated exchange and distilled it down to each of us saying the other had blood on their hands (admittedly not my finest moment), and mocking us with the zinger “No backsies!”
The fact that I got thousands of hateful emails and a few old fashioned snail-mail letters, some of them threatening harm to me and my daughter, while O’Reilly railed at me every night for almost a week from his top-rated multi-million-dollar Fox perch, didn’t figure in the sketch. We were simply “both sides.” It prefigured Donald Trump’s “many fine people, on both sides” after Charlottesville—but for laughs.
Maybe worse, I was apparently mocked at the stupendously awful “March to Restore Sanity” Stewart and Colbert sponsored in October 2010, for calling the people behind the uptick in political murder “gun nuts.” I say “apparently” because multiple people told me I was in some compilation video of the divisive people on “both sides,” the partisan “crazies” who needed to be called out so that bipartisan “sanity” could be restored, but I’ve never been able to find it online. Whether or not I was mocked doesn’t really matter; we know the “march” occurred, and was intended to promote nonpartisan solutions to the rising climate of hate. Which was mostly, can we now admit, coming from one side? But again, in this f&$%ing decade, criticizing “both sides” was apparently the only way to acknowledge the rot emanating from one side.
But I didn’t only face this on Fox or, occasionally, from folks I admired on Comedy Central. I ran up against it sometimes on MSNBC too. On “Hardball,” longtime political analyst Pat Buchanan regularly attacked me as an elitist for deriding the racism of the growing Tea Party, even as he recognized them as the descendants of the George Wallace voters he’d welcomed into the GOP four decades earlier. The first time he did it, I was gob-smacked, thinking I’d won the debate. But new rules, put into place under Obama, meant you couldn’t even dismiss George Wallace voters as racist anymore. Back-dated by Buchanan, and a precursor to the right’s Trump analysis, the Wallace voters’ problem was merely “economic anxiety” combined with resentment that “elites” like me didn’t like them. Never mind that Buchanan came from a wealthy Washington D.C. family and I grew up a working-class New Yorker.
Meanwhile, I lost my regular invite to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” the day in early 2010 when I failed to correctly identify the person Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski believed was the MSNBC equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. I can still find the video and transcript, courtesy of the right-wing Web that loved how a “clueless” me was schooled, especially by Brzezinski:
JOE SCARBOROUGH: …I think it helps us all to say there are extreme voices on the left, there are extreme voices on the right, and it’s our responsibility to call out people, I believe, on our side.
JOAN WALSH: Who would you have me call out? I mean who would you say on the left is comparable to Rush and…
SCARBOROUGH: Don’t do it.
MIKA BREZEZINSKI: Mmm-mmm! No thanks, Joan. We’re good. We’re good.
SCARBOROUGH: Can we talk about the Chinese now?
MIKA: I think it’s all very obvious.
WALSH: Is it obvious? Who on the left is comparable to Rush and Glenn on the right?
MIKA: Okay, Joan, if it’s not obvious to you I’ll talk to you off-set. I mean, my God! Alright so let’s read from the Washington Post…
SCARBOROUGH: We’ll talk off-set.
MIKA: Seriously, it’s like BLIP… BLIP… BLIP… right in front of you and you’re like [imitates willfully clueless Walsh] “I’m sorry, I don’t see it!”
A shocked Walsh was left with her mouth hanging open.
I am sure my mouth did hang open. It just hung open again, reading that exchange. “Off-set,” and also later on the Web, it was “revealed” to me that the correct answer was then-MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. Folks, Olbermann has had his career and personal ups and downs, and I have had my own with him, but there is no way that he ever—then or now—spewed the crazy hatred, let alone the casual racism, of Limbaugh or Beck. Of course, the history of this f&%^cking decade shows that “Morning Joe” later opened its airwaves to candidate Donald Trump whenever he chose to phone in—and even later turned on him, to the hosts’ credit. But “even later” was too late. The damage had been done.
And so it went. A man I regularly called a “carnival barker,” the oft-bankrupted New York grifter Donald Trump, emerged as an influential Republican leader early in Obama’s presidency merely by insisting the president had been born in Kenya, or anywhere but in the U.S. Many of the 2012 presidential candidates went along with the racist hoax, or at least refused to debunk it. Long-ago Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum refused to correct a Florida voter who insisted Obama wasn’t eligible to be president during his short-lived 2012 campaign. “I don’t feel it’s my obligation every time everyone says something I don’t agree with to contradict them, and the president’s a big boy,” he told CNN. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich groveled for Trump’s 2012 endorsement, and Romney won it.
“There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life,” Romney told reporters as he announced Trump’s big gift. “This is one of them. Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight. I’m so honored and pleased to have his endorsement.”
In the end, Obama won, fairly easily, which covered up the mess the 2012 campaign revealed. And here I’ll admit: I missed the depth and breadth of the post-2012 mess, too. I covered the GOP “autopsy,” in which Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus warned that the party’s hardline stances on immigration and gay rights were driving away young voters. With some skepticism, to be honest, I also covered the “deep bench” the GOP was assembling for 2016—“popular” governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, Florida’s Jeb Bush, Texas’s Rick Perry and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal; young senators like Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Florida’s Marco Rubio…I can’t even muster the spirit to keep writing those names, so thoroughly did they all fail. (LOL, Scott Walker RIP.)
All of that failure dates back to 2012, when Romney chose Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan as a running mate instead of a woman or person of color, which would have been a gesture, however vain, toward a multiracial GOP future. Instead Romney (and yes, I said this at the time) “doubled down on whiteness.” Ryan was a failure as a VP nominee and then as a House speaker; now he’s on the board of Fox News. Romney is a United States Senator from Utah who some of us hope will at least vote for fair Senate trial rules on impeachment.
And yes, Mitt is Lucy and I’m Charlie Brown.
But I need to come clean with a “both sides” of my own. My party, the Democratic Party, was utterly unprepared for the carnival of racist bigotry the Republican Party was becoming, and remains mostly unready to confront it even as it has become unmistakably what it is. After Obama’s insufficient stimulus (I know, he didn’t have the votes for more, but he didn’t need votes to at least talk about what economic recovery, and more important, economic justice in the wake of the financial meltdown required), he pivoted to preaching deficit reduction and attempting a bipartisan “Grand Bargain” that would have trimmed or gutted Social Security and Medicare. (Which makes me rejoice that at least in one case the GOP defeated my president.) We suffered through Obama’s Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission and endured idiotic movements like “No Labels.”
And when a thoroughly compromised bipartisan immigration reform bill passed the Senate in 2013, only to be locked up in the Tea Party-controlled House, not enough of us realized that the GOP was on its way to becoming a nativist party. It didn’t happen when Trump descended that gilded escalator and called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals;” it happened when Senator Jeff Sessions and Santa Monica’s white nationalist Stephen Miller took charge of GOP immigration policy. Still, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told in a television debate that Democrats don’t “want” comprehensive immigration reform, or else a bill would have passed. “Both sides” profit politically from the immigration stalemate, we’re told. I calmly recite the terms of that 2013 “compromise” to pundits who should know better — usually to no avail. That’s how a country that once protected young “Dreamers” wound up putting brown kids in cages instead.
Obama got older and wiser in his second term, and his legacy, including the Dreamers, will reflect that, except for two words: Merrick Garland. Still, it got worse: Even after Garland’s Supreme Court nomination was bottled up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (the decade’s worst human, worse than Trump because he knows better), Obama gave McConnell veto power over whether to tell the country the truth about the extent of Russian government meddling on behalf of Trump, and against Hillary Clinton, in the weeks before the 2016 election.
Now the Democratic frontrunner is Obama’s vice president Joe Biden, who has repeatedly waxed nostalgic about segregationist Democrats and the anti-Obama Republicans he’s somehow managed to work with, and who, on Monday, unbelievably, said he might pick a Republican running mate. To be scrupulously fair, a voter in New Hampshire asked if it was possible, and here’s what Biden said:
“The answer is I would, but I can’t think of one now,” Biden replied. “Let me explain that. You know there’s some really decent Republicans that are out there still, but here’s the problem right now … they’ve got to step up.”
Luckily (or not), after this awful decade, we can be reasonably confident they won’t step up. But why is Biden pretending they will?
What if anything happened this f&$%ing decade makes me hopeful about the next? For better or worse, it’s that the victims of the worst people who’ve prevailed are fighting back, and often winning.
I never got mocked for deriding “gun nuts” after a gun nut showed up at a Tucson “Congress on Your Corner” meeting in January 2011 and shot 18 people, killing six, and almost murdered Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Since then Giffords has helped ignite a gun safety movement that has sadly been strengthened by the survivors of hundreds of other mass shootings, especially those in Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida. I cannot be fully heartened by their courage, because I would wish the circumstances away if I could, but I can and will always be grateful, and cheer them on.
Millions of victims of sexual violence and abuse have fueled the anti-Trump resistance, starting with the stunning Women’s Marches in 2017 and going on to win back thousands of state and local offices for Democrats over the next three years, while putting the House of Representatives in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hands in 2018. Pelosi and her allies will likely write the political script for the early years of the coming decade. I have at times questioned Pelosi’s political choices, but not her overall judgment. She sees the modern GOP for what it is, and has rarely been gaslit by either Republicans or their enablers in the media or in her own party.
I’m still encouraged by the overall quality of the 2020 Democratic presidential field, while disappointed by the lack of diversity in its top tier—four white people, three of them men. Along with Biden, there is centrist South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who boasts of his appeal to “Republicans of conscience.” Though I reject comparisons between Buttigieg, who still feels young and callow, and Obama, it reminds me of how our first black presidential nominee once claimed he would attract “Obamacans”—Republicans who’d cross the aisle to support him and his policies. It turned out there were almost no Obamacans, and today, Buttigieg should realize that true “Republicans of conscience” have already become Democrats. Only Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem to see clearly the economic and social destruction wrought over the last decade; here’s hoping their followers can turn most of their criticism toward the centrists in the race instead of training it at one another. (I promise to delve into these issues in more detail in the coming decade.)
The last decade showed that the United States can be dramatically changed by a minority of people seized by grievance, convinced that they’re the real victims and determined to get revenge, as long as an elite consensus insists that “both sides” are just as bad. That consensus may finally be coming undone, if Chuck Todd’s better-late-than-never Christmas epiphany endures, and spreads throughout our media and political elites. Here’s hoping. I’m looking forward to seeing 2020, in all senses of the word
Source: This F#$%ing Decade | The Nation