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The Pathetic Both-Sidesism of Republican Inc.

How to be a Good Republican in the Age of Trump.
August 31, 2020
The Pathetic Both-Sidesism of Republican Inc.

On Sunday, President Donald Trump described a vigilante Trump Truck caravan whose purpose was to instigate #war on the streets of Portland through attempted vehicular homicide as GREAT PATRIOTS.

Later in the day former Vice President Joe Biden issued a considered statement that unequivocally condemned the violence in Portland “whether on the left or the right” and called on us not to become a country that “accepts the killing of fellow Americans who do not agree with you” or “vows vengeance against one another.”

So there’s one candidate who wants vengeance and another who wants not-vengeance.

There’s one who eggs on his most radical supporters and another who calls them out.

There is one candidate who repeatedly, time and again, speaks and acts responsibly. Another who fires off screeds that demonstrate that he is at best mentally unstable and at worst attempting to incite violence against political foes.

All of this is an inconvenient truth for the Republican political class. They avoid it at all costs because their livelihoods depend on ensuring that they remain seen in public as True Republicans. And in the current climate, True Republicans are no longer interested in small government or balanced budgets or originalism. True Republicans are defined—entirely—by their fealty to Donald Trump.

This is not an exaggeration. They actually put this in writing. Last week.

And here’s what their assignment editor says the message is when it comes to Black Lives Matter, protests, and civil unrest:

Now this is . . . hard to parse. So rather than deal with the particulars, the Republican political class just blows right by it and instead pretends that the election 64 days from now actually pits Trump against Antifa or against the mayor of Portland.

And—in fairness to the members of Republican Inc.—if those fantasy match-ups were on the ballot, they would have a point. The agitators who set fire to Kenosha are acting unconscionably. The mayor of Portland has bungled his response to the protests, which then grew into riots.

But here’s the deal: Antifa and Mayor Wheeler aren’t on the ballot.

Joe Biden is.

And when it comes to both the protests and the looting, Joe Biden has done the right thing at pretty much every turn. You might be able to nitpick him on the margins.  Maybe you wish he condemned them louder, with bells on, in the attic, in the form of a rap.

But Biden’s righteousness in contrast to Trump’s recklessness is an observable fact. If you don’t believe me, just put a transcript of Biden’s and Trump’s words about the civil unrest next to each other and compare. Anyone who hasn’t been jerking it to Race Wars Fanfic for the last 12 years will come to the same conclusion.

Which—again—is a problem for those who are trying to make the violence a political issue for Biden so that they don’t have to acknowledge the guy who instigated some of it and is now presiding over all of it. Ben Shapiro compared Biden’s unequivocal statement about this to an out-of-context line from the same Charlottesville speech in which Trump praised the “very fine” neo-Nazi protesters. (Note: Biden did not compliment any members of Antifa.)

Ted Cruz linked to a clever prank that linked “” to Joe Biden’s website. (Case closed!) Tim Carney’s not convinced that Trump is actually stoking the fire because some unnamed people somewhere also said that Ben Shapiro is just as bad. Dan Crenshaw tweeted that whatever Biden said was “too little too late.” (If that’s the case maybe Crenshaw can make a comment on the right-wing vigilante justice from On High.)

Laura Ingraham agreed with Crenshaw and attacked Biden for issuing a statement three months too late. But then she accidentally linked to a similar statement Biden made three months ago. (I wish this were a joke.)

It does not matter to any of these concern trolls that Trump’s own assistant secretary for threat prevention at DHS has testified that Trump “gave permission” to white-nationalist and right-wing domestic terrorists.

It does not matter that Trump tweets ALL CAPS praise to people who are escalating the violence.

It does not matter that Trump had peaceful protesters gassed. Or that Trump has threatened them with “vicious dogs” and “shooting.”

It does not matter that Trump refused to condemn vigilante murder when asked directly about it. Or that Trump refused to weigh in on a video of a cop emptying his clip into a black man’s back.

It does not matter that Trump spent Sunday tweeting weird-ass conspiracies and “black crime” videos and golfing while this unrest that he and his Republican enablers are so concerned about continued.

It does not matter that the violent actors on the right are literally parading through Portland with fucking Trump flags on their trucks or that the Antifa looters, like most of the radical left, almost certainly hates Joe Biden. (When was the last time you saw a “No Malarkey” sticker on a truck that had dudes in tactical gear menacing a crowd. I’ll wait.)

None of this matters because the middle managers at Republican Inc. understand that, no matter what, they can’t support Biden. They can “grudgingly” be for Trump if they have to. They might even be able to pull off saying that they’re disgusted by “both sides.” But they cannot—no matter what they will do privately on November 3—be publicly in favor of Biden.

And with that basic truth fixed in their minds, they work backwards.

The right’s commitment to the frame that Joe Biden is responsible for the violence then penetrates a broken legacy media that has still not yet figured out how to deal with having a sociopathic demagogue as president of the United States. For these outlets, if one “side” of the debate is consistently and loudly stating that the other side is in crisis/scandal/disarray, then the media just reports and analyzes around that claim. As Brian Beutler writes,

The way mainstream journalism seeks to inoculate itself from bias accusations in situations like these is to emphasize lawbreaking and corruption most particularly when one of the parties gets mad or pretends to be mad about something. In those cases, the unwritten rules of journalism say that thing has entered the realm of controversy, and thus merits sustained attention.

The result is a discussion framed as: “How much is Joe Biden being hurt by these uprisings?” And they skip right over the responsibility to assess whether that question is at all fair or reasonable based on Biden’s actions.

Earlier this week, a friend to The Bulwark, Matt Labash, made this point in the pages of the New York Times. I don’t mean to pick on Labash but his framing is the most vivid depiction of this that I’ve seen.

Democrats lie about “peaceful protests,” as cities are torched and ransacked. Republicans lie about COVID-19, a virus we didn’t even know existed 10 months ago, but which is now our third-leading killer, having taken nearly 185,000 American lives. These are the choices, folks: bunco men vs. flim-flammers. Bloods vs. Crips, engaged in gang warfare for its own sake.

Labash is correct that some Democrats have lied or dissembled in conflating peaceful protests with criminal riots. But the presidential contest this fall is not between Donald Trump and the worst-behaving Democrat on Twitter.

It is between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. If we’re actually talking about Trump and Biden, then the bunco man and the flim-flammer are the same person. The Bloods are led by a strongman who wants to see the other gang get the shit knocked out of them and Crips are led by a guy who wants to host a bipartisan caucus of senators discussing the David Brooks column they read in hard copy that morning.

You may not like bipartisan caucuses or David Brooks. You may prefer to have the man-child with the AR-15 and an itchy trigger finger. Or you may think both are equally bad. That’s fine; that’s your call.

But we must at least be honest about the choice that voters face and let them decide which path they want the country to take.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.