Commentary

The Republican onslaught against democracy is upon us — and we must act

This morning at 9:00 am, an "Open Letter in Defense of Democracy" was published, simultaneously, by The New Republic and The Bulwark (see here and here).

The letter was co-signed by around 40 public intellectuals across the political spectrum, from Noam Chomsky and Adolph Reed to prominent former-neoconservatives Max Boot and Mona Charen.

It was drafted by me along with two collaborators: Todd Gitlin and William Kristol.

A few years ago I am pretty sure that neither Todd nor I ever imagined collaborating with Bill, just as I am pretty confident Bill never imagined collaborating with either of us. Indeed, a couple of years ago I locked horns with Bill at a New School conference.

And yet the threat to liberal democracy has never been greater in our lifetime. Each of us has been sounding the alarm in our own way for some time. And as the situation darkened, some e-mail exchanges became a one-off conversation which became a regular Zoom meeting which eventually became a collaboration and a friendship.

The Open Letter is one outcome of this friendly collaboration, an effort for us to reach beyond our normal comfort zones, and to see if we could bring together a range of friends and collaborators from left to right in support of a general statement about the importance of democracy. The statement locates Trumpism and the Republican Party as twin dangers to U.S. democracy, and it calls for serious voting rights legislation and a broader effort to defeat these twin dangers.

From its opening words, the Letter enacts a kind of "common front" among people who disagree about much but who are steadfastly committed to liberal democracy as the best and most legitimate political arrangement for expressing and acting on disagreement. Some of our signatories have long been aligned with the anti-war movement and with the Sanders wing of the Democratic party. Some have been aligned with the more centrist Obama-Clinton-Biden wing. Some were supporters of John McCain or Mitt Romney, and some—most notably Bill Kristol—were supporters of George W. Bush and of Ronald Reagan before him. (It's a pretty diverse list. Check it out.)

And yet we have come together behind the Letter, which has a pretty clear political message. And we have brought together two very different journals, the New Republic and The Bulwark, behind this effort—and it is virtually unprecedented to see such a collaboration between journals such as these. We have not checked our differences at the door. And yet we have come together precisely because we regard these differences as important, and we believe that if the forces of Know Nothingism, racism, and reaction associated with Trumpism prevail, we will all suffer. Our political differences are real. And our joint commitment to democracy is grounded in those very differences.

Many who will read this will be angry about what some of our signatories have said or done in the past. This is understandable. And I hope that it will not get in the way of seeing that the current battle over democracy is very real, the stakes are very high, and some of those with whom you have strongly disagreed in the past are now allies in this struggle.

Many who will read this will believe that it is impossible to talk about democracy without talking about the global climate crisis or the inequalities of global capitalism or the scourge of racism. This is understandable, and I share these concerns. And at the same, I know that there are others to my right—as well as to my left—who think about these things differently than I do, and who are nonetheless fellow citizens who are engaged in their own processes of rethinking, and who wish to join now in defense of democracy. Now is not a time to slap away a handshake—and, to be clear, a handshake is not a marriage vow, it is simply but crucially a form of friendship borne of common experience.

The struggle against the injustices of capitalism remains important to many. So too the struggle against environmental degradation and racism and sexism.

And the best way to further these causes is through education, advocacy, social movement organizing, and participation in electoral politics.

And each of these things—education, advocacy, movement organizing, and participation in at least minimally free and fair elections—is now threatened by the Republican onslaught against democracy.

And so my collaborators and I believe it is important to come together with all of those who are willing to join in defense of democracy.

This does not require us to like all of those with whom we join—though we have made some real friendships through this collaboration—nor does it require us to forget about their pasts or our own pasts.

It simply requires us to acknowledge the ethical and political importance of coming together, across differences, to defend the things that we value in common.

Perhaps Benjamin Franklin said it best, at another moment when some very different people came together to oppose the tyranny of their time: "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

How Fox News is prepping its audience for fascism

Since well before Donald Trump's election, Fox News has served as one of his movement's most powerful and effective propaganda outlets. In numerous ways both large and small, Fox News has mainstreamed fascist and authoritarian talking points, circulated Trump's thousands of lies and massaged, minimized or falsified the events of Jan. 6 and the ongoing coup against American democracy.

On a near-daily basis, Tucker Carlson and other Fox News hosts amplify white supremacist lies about the "Great Replacement" — even if they don't use that precise term — claiming that white people are the victims of a genocidal plot to "replace" them with nonwhites. New public opinion research shows that this type of white supremacist stochastic terrorism has been internalized by tens of millions of white Americans — specifically white Republican and Trump voters — to such an extreme that many of them are willing to condone or participate in acts of political violence in to overthrow Joe Biden's presidency and American democracy.

More than 700,000 people have died in the United States from the coronavirus pandemic -- and this is a low estimate. More than a million Americans are expected to die before the virus is brought fully under control.

Public health experts have documented the direct role that Fox News and other right-wing media have played in encouraging their audience to not be vaccinated against the coronavirus. This is part of a much larger pattern of behavior, in which Fox News has consistently fueled and amplified coronavirus denialism. In total, Fox "News" has been a public health threat, and bears both direct and indirect responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Because Fox News has such pernicious influence control over its public that it has caused discord, chaos and other forms of dysfunction — almost certainly including interpersonal violence — within families, among friends and across entire communities. When and if American democracy finally succumbs to authoritarianism, its obituary should include Fox News for helping to kill it.

For almost a decade, Jen Senko has been documenting the personal impact of Fox News on the American people. In her 2015 documentary "The Brainwashing of My Dad," she showed in painstaking detail, how Fox News and the right-wing propaganda machine transformed her father into an angry, paranoid, bigoted, political extremist. Her father is only one of the millions of Americans who have fallen under the spell of Fox News and the right-wing hate machine — and by doing so became the base of support for Republican fascist movement.

In her new book, also called "The Brainwashing of My Dad," Senko continues to explore the damaging influence of Fox News and the larger right-wing echo chamber in America's worsening democracy crisis.

In this conversation, Senko details how Fox News functions like a type of cult that uses anger and fear to seduce and control its audience. She also explains how right-wing media creates an alternate universe that offers meaning, community and friendship for the confused, alienated and lonely people — predominantly older white men — who are its primary audience. Senko shares more personal anecdotes about how Fox News and its allied media have destroyed loving relationships,. She also warns that Fox News is priming its audience for political violence to support Donald Trump and the Republican-fascist ongoing coup attempt.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

With your documentary, you tried to warn the American people that Fox News and the right-wing media are an extreme danger to the country. But here we are several years later, with America's democracy crisis continuing to escalate as the right has increasingly embraced fascism. How do you feel watching this disaster?

Right now, I'm very, very frustrated. When I made the documentary, I was naïve. I thought to myself, "I'm going to save the world. I'm going to save America." It was cathartic for me to make "The Brainwashing of My Dad."

Now the American people are like the frog in the boiling water. It was lukewarm at first, nice and comfy, and they were all just splashing around a little bit. Then the water gets hotter, and they don't notice. By the time they notice, it's too late and they're boiling.

Given all that has happened and is happening with Trump and the Republicans, my feelings are now panic and despair. I always still have a seed of hope. There are many more people now who did get the message that I was trying to explain about Fox News and where the country was headed. I also have hope because it seems that more Americans are organized to resist.

What do people outside Trump World and the MAGAverse — or who are just generally in denial about the existential threat the country is facing — not understand about what's happening?

Too many people still do not seem to get that what the Republicans and Trump are doing to undermine democracy was long in the planning. It is all like an octopus and it has many tentacles. The head of the octopus is the media.

As fast as perhaps the FBI can catch those who are working to betray the country and commit treason, Fox News is everywhere. There truly is a vast right-wing conspiracy, as Hillary Clinton described it back in the 1990s. This is true whether you like it or not.

Basically, a bunch of oligarchs, evangelicals, racists, mega-corporations and right-wing libertarians got together and planned how they could get rid of government and any policies that serve the public good. What they want is no public schools, no libraries, no post office, no Social Security, no public health option. These right-wing forces want privatization across the board so that they can make as much money as they want, unrestrained, and won't have to pay taxes. Then these same forces got control of the media, and could inject their message right into the public's collective mind.

This right-wing movement also did other things too, such as running for school boards and in other local elections. They used gerrymandering and created a panic about nonexistent voter fraud. But it is the right-wing media that drives the campaign. What shocks me the most is that most Americans still do not understand the big picture.

In your documentary, you showed in painful detail how Fox News and the right-wing machine literally changed your father's personality into a person you no longer recognized. Other Americans have experienced this — perhaps millions of them. What is your dad an example of? How do we understand what Fox News and the right-wing echo chamber did to him as representative of a much larger phenomenon?

My father was seduced by the anger and the excitement. People know that something's wrong, that the system is rigged somehow, but they don't give much thought to how. My father was also retiring from his job, and he found the right-wing media. This gave him something to occupy his mind and thoughts.

Now, suddenly, there's all this excitement in his life. There is some right-wing media person telling him that the government is in his personal business too much. There are very persuasive big personalities pushing my father's buttons and those of the audience in general. And you know what? That feels good. There is an addictive quality to anger like that. It was exciting for my father. It also provided him a group to belong to.

I believe that a lot of white men feel like, "Well, what am I supposed to do? And who am I?" They needed help in figuring themselves out, and the right-wing media and that world provided it. Too many such men developed a victim mentality, telling themselves, "I'm a victim, I'm mad, I've always wanted to fight back."

How was Fox News and the right-wing media machine able to take people such as your father and get them to a point where they would support a coup or political terrorism or conspiracy theories like QAnon? Were they always prone to such behavior or did Fox News and the right-wing machine make them that way?

On Twitter, a lot people will say to me, usually Democrats or liberals, "Oh, these people, they were always like that. They're just finding a port to park their boat in now." I do not believe that is necessarily true.

My dad hadn't been racist. He hadn't been anti-"illegal immigrant." After listening to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, he got brainwashed. When I made the documentary, I did not know if I believed in brainwashing. Now I know that brainwashing does exist, it is real.

There's the brainwashing that happens through force, what we were all familiar with from movies. But what Fox News and the larger right-wing are doing is brainwashing by stealth. I believe this to be more insidious. There's only one type of information going into the brain. There's isolation. There is repetition. That is how they brainwash their public.

I feel like there has been a massive brainwashing campaign, something unlike anything we've ever seen before in this country. That's what's happened in America through Fox News and the right-wing media and movement.

Through your website and other outreach, many people have contacted you about how Fox News and the right-wing media machine have impacted their relationships. What are some of the common themes you are seeing?

One of them is anger. The relative, the loved one, the friend, whoever it may be, suddenly is angry more and more, it's their predominant mood. These people also become very argumentative. Many of these people who are watching Fox and are part of the right-wing echo chamber are incapable of having conversations that somehow do not turn to politics. They become obsessed with this new right-wing way of thinking. It becomes the person's mission. It is all of who they are.

What are some personal stories that jump out at you?

A woman recently shared with me how her husband was a good, sweet guy and a really quiet person. Right before Trump ran for office and became president, he started watching Fox News and his personality completely changed. He would yell at her and their child more. He would criticize her, his wife, because she was a Democrat, yell at her, yell at her kid, start criticizing her. The husband was becoming emotionally abusive.

The woman who reached out to me was afraid that it was going to traumatize her child and that she might have to leave her husband. She was really sad about it because she had once been very much in love with him.

Another person who contacted me lost several members of her family to COVID. Her father still wouldn't get the vaccine. He got COVID, and still wouldn't get the vaccine — or said he wouldn't — and he died because Tucker Carlson and other people on Fox News were telling people like him not to get vaccinated.

What is going on, emotionally and cognitively, where someone would listen to a person on TV who is telling them to do things that will cause them personal harm, that will hurt their family members, friends and other people they care about?

They're not thinking rationally. The part of their brain called the amygdala has been hijacked. That is the fight-or-flight part of the brain. When it is activated, the cerebral cortex is not functioning 100 percent. These people are responding from panic. In that moment, they go to the source that they have learned to trust. That source, in this case Fox News, is telling them, "You can only trust us." That source is angry all the time. It tells its public that the government has screwed them over and the politicians that have screwed them over. The response to Fox News and the right-wing machine actually becomes something physiological.

How does Fox News make friends with its viewers? Because what Fox News and other right-wing propaganda outlets are doing on a fundamental level is establishing an intimate relationship with their public.

There is a feeling that there is an in-group and an out-group. Fox and other parts of the right-wing media make their audience feel special, like they are in on something special. It is a very seductive feeling. Being part of a tribe makes people feel safer. That dynamic is also an example of groupthink.

Many Fox viewers and people who consume that right-wing media just want to belong to the group, to think the same way as everyone else in the group. You trust your people. You don't want to doubt them. They are your friends.

Are the people who watch Fox News awake, or are they asleep?

I think they're in a trance. They are definitely not awake. They're almost on autopilot. They are going to accept anything they are told by Fox.

Why would anyone listen to Fox News, or the right-wing echo chamber more generally, telling them to hurt people, to engage in violence? Why would a formerly reasonable person listen to these commands? What has gone wrong with them?

Because they are in such a rage. They are primed to take that next step. They're in such a rage because they believe, in their heart of hearts, that the 2020 election was stolen away from Trump. They really believe that their country is being taken over illegitimately.

Mix that in with the rage that they already have, where for example they truly believe, "Democrats are horrible, they're the devil's spawn. Anything that's wrong in my life is because of them. Now they're stealing the election, they stole my guy who speaks to me, who's like me." They're just ready to fight.

An anti-trans narrative pushed by the right wing completely collapses

Republicans thought they had a live one in Loudoun County, Virginia. But, as happens with most right-wing panics, things were not as they were made to seem.

Ever since same-sex marriage was legalized, the right has been casting for a new villain in their endless culture wars. They swiftly landed on an even smaller, and therefore less understood, minority than gay people to demonize: Trans people. Their main weapon for driving up fear and hate was a myth that trans women — or cis men pretending to be trans women — lurk in women's restrooms to rape unsuspecting cis women who enter these newly tolerant spaces.

The problem was that it was nonsense.

Research repeatedly shows that trans-inclusive bathroom policies have no link to sexual assault. It's trans people who are at higher risk of being assaulted if denied access to the facilities that match their gender identity. But after two girls in Loudoun County schools — which, in a remarkable coincidence, also happens to be ground zero for other astroturfed right-wing freakouts over "woke" school policies — were sexually assaulted, the right pounced. Rumors spread that this was a real, live example of a man pretending to be a woman in order to rape strangers in the bathroom.

This was also not true.

The sexual assaults absolutely did occur, and the school district appears to have mishandled the situation, but the assaults themselves don't resemble the trans panic urban legend. One assault happened in a classroom. The other did happen in a bathroom, but the school did not have a gender-inclusive policy at the time. Instead, the victim testified that she and the rapist had repeatedly snuck off to meet in the bathroom, as kids often do. Like the majority of rapes, this was a case where the victim knew her attacker, who was identified in court as a boy.

So the story is not, in any way, evidence that gender-inclusive bathrooms are a threat to women and girls. This is the kind of acquaintance rape that the right usually finds themselves minimizing, as happened after accusations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh were made public and the release of a taped sexual assault confession from Donald Trump. Instead, the case is reminiscent of the "Satanic panic" that swept the country in the 80s and 90s, which was driven by similar reactionary fears and wildly misguided ideas about the realities of sexual violence.

Back then, the urban legends accused imaginary Satanists of raping and killing children, which led all too often to actual miscarriages of justice. In some cases, crimes were made up entirely whole cloth, as happened in the infamous McMartin preschool case. In other cases, the crime was real, but the public's understanding of it was completely false. That's what happened in the West Memphis three case, where a very real murder of three young boys was spun as "Satanic ritual," resulting in the conviction of three innocent teenagers and the actual killer walking free.

As Sarah Marshall of the "You're Wrong About" podcast explained to Vox earlier this year, the Satanic panic first arose because "women and mothers were entering the workplace" in record numbers. Stories about daycares being dangerous places where Satanists rape children were a handy weapon to shame women who rejected the housewife role.

Now, it's easy to see the parallels to the panic over trans people in bathrooms. In both cases, the right is wielding lurid but misleading stories of sexual violence to provoke anger and panic over changing gender norms and expanding human rights. And unfortunately, innocent people are getting attacked.

Thankfully, in the Loudoun case, it appears the correct person was convicted of the actual crime. But the situation is still being weaponized against innocent people, specifically trans people whose safety depends on having access to bathrooms that align with their gender identity. And, as happened with the Satanic panic, the titillating but misleading stories completely flip reality on its head. In the real world, patriarchy is the cause of sexual violence. In the world of reactionary fantasies, it's people who reject patriarchal norms — working women, trans people — who are the problem.

In an essay that recently went viral, Marshall's podcast cohost, Michael Hobbes, identified one of the telltale signs that what you're dealing with is a moral panic and not a real problem: Irrelevant examples, which often turn out to be cases where "these anecdotes actually demonstrated the opposite of the panic's core thesis."

The Loudoun case is a crystal clear example of this. The rape definitely occurred, but it had nothing to do with gender-inclusive bathroom policies. On the contrary, it's yet another story in the long litany of #MeToo stories, where sexual violence is downplayed and ignored by sexist institutions. Which is the exact opposite of the pro-patriarchy story that the conservatives stoking trans panic want to tell.

The trans panic resembles the Satanic panic in another way, reigniting the unfortunate tendency of a minority of feminists to play the useful idiots to reactionary forces, giving cover to what is ultimately an anti-feminist movement.

In the 80s, a lot of feminists were understandably glad that the public was finally starting to pay attention to the problem of sex abuse, after decades of feminists raising the alarm. This gratitude, however, all too often manifested as an unwillingness to be skeptical of the wild stories of Satanists and rape being pushed by the reactionary right. To be clear, plenty of feminists pushed back at the time, but a handful of feminists, fearful of returning to a time when victims were routinely disbelieved, were overly credulous to these impossible stories of Satantic ritual abuse.

The same thing goes on today with the trans panic.

The majority of feminists support trans rights, but a small and outspoken minority — the most famous being J.K. Rowling of "Harry Potter" fame — have sided with the reactionary right in seeing trans people as a threat to cis women. The BBC recently ran an article headlined, "We're being pressured into sex by some trans women" that passed talking points from an anti-trans organization off as "research." As happened when feminists gave credence to the Satanic panic in the 80s, these anti-trans feminists give moral cover to reactionaries bashing trans rights.

The moral of the Satanic panic should, after all this time, be clear: Be skeptical of reactionaries masquerading as the "protectors" of women and children. Unfortunately, however, moral panics over gender, sexuality, and young people tend to cloud the judgment of all sorts of people, including some — like feminists — who really should know better. The reality of sexual violence is as it always has been. It's not caused by letting women and sexual minorities have rights. It's caused by eons of patriarchy and the male entitlement that it has engendered. And we should all be very wary of hysterics peddling urban legends who want to distract us from that reality.

'I want you gone. Dead': Fox News host who told audience to get COVID vaccine gets extreme hate mail

On Oct. 20, Fox News host Neil Cavuto released a statement saying that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Cavuto made it very clear in his statement that his was a breakthrough case, as he had been vaccinated against COVID-19. The fact that an on-air Fox News TV personality was vaccinated against COVID-19 was not news, as the company has some of the strictest COVID-19 vaccination policies in the private business sphere. What was news was that he went one step further and told his audience that the vaccine was a lifesaver because Cavuto himself has underlying health conditions, and credited the vaccine with saving his life.

Writing, "I hope anyone and everyone gets that message loud and clear. Get vaccinated, for yourself and everyone around you. Everyone wins," Cavuto went very hard against the prominent anti-vaxx mythology that because breakthrough COVID-19 cases exist, this means the vaccine is somehow not effective at all. Predictably, Fox News tried very hard to be the single media outlet NOT TO COVER its own host's statement, and when finally acknowledging Cavuto had tested positive, didn't report on his statement at all.

Well, Neil Cavuto has heard back from Fox News viewers and it turns out they heard about his statement—and would have preferred that he die rather than promote the vaccine.

On Monday, Cavuto appeared on a segment with one of the other dark-haired, more somber-looking, likely less popular Fox News host's shows. Once again he made a plea to viewers to set aside their partisan politics and do the right thing in the name of public health. Saying he understood that people had strong feelings about being mandated to do anything, Cavuto implored the Fox News audience to think of all the people like Neil Cavuto, who are immunocompromised (Cavuto has been very public about his decades-old multiple sclerosis diagnosis). He rightfully pointed out that while he is open about his medical conditions at his workplace, there are many people who you work around that have conditions that you are likely not aware of, and getting vaccinated can help protect them as well as you and your family.

Cavuto returned to his show on Tuesday, though he broadcasted remotely from his home, and before launching into attacking the infrastructure bill for being a "tax and spending" bill, he brought on someone to go over the reactions he's received via email for his statement on public health. Those reactions were … not shocking at all.

An important reminder here: The Fox News audience has been told in no uncertain terms that besides being "experimental" the vaccine might be poison, and might symbolize some New World Order communist plot to feed your grandchildren to Muslims that live in Jewish globalist cages inside of China and want to replace white people with atheists who believe in a Black Jesus.

One viewer who went by the name "TJ" wrote: "It's clear you've lost some weight with all this stuff. Good for you. But I'm not happy with less of you. I want 'none' of you. I want you gone. Dead. Caput. Fini. Get it? Now, take your two-bit advice, deep-six it, and you!"

A fellow named Vince Langman wrote: [sic]

Hey guys I bought a new car after being told it was the best
Then it blew up after I left the car lot
So now I'm begging everyone to please buy the same car
Sorry I'm just pretending to be Neil Cavuto

It's sort of reads like the world's worst attempt at a joke, an opinion, and a haiku, maybe? Then someone going by the moniker "Ignis, Aspiring to Aspire," wrote that:

Cavuto is the Tigger of talking heads: a head full of fluff, just not cool like Tigger.

Besides that not being the defining characteristic of Tigger, it is hard to honestly understand how this Fox News slam was supposed to work. Finally, SoylentGreenIsPeople writes that "When the asses gather, they call Cavuto boss..."

Ummm. Okaaaaaaaaaaay?

Well, in Cavuto's case, he and his colleagues have worked very hard to cultivate this warped angry reality-television viewership. So in one way, they've earned it.

Cavuto fans have an interesting way of showing support www.youtube.com

A sociologist explains how moral panics serve the right-wing agenda

ProPublica detailed a pattern of suppressing cases of sexual assault at Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia. After female students reported being assaulted, campus officials submitted them to victim-blaming, suggesting they violated campus policy against drinking and fraternizing with the opposite sex. Students told ProPublica that staff did not even report their cases to the Title IX office, a legal requirement. This has been going on for years. How?

How can an institution of this size and visibility carve out this immoral space and thrive in it for so long? What allows staff to feel justified in minimizing complaints of sexual assault? There are many explanations, including the obvious one that Liberty University was concerned about its image of producing good Christian women and men. But I want to offer an explanation that may not be obvious.

Moral panics are the taking of anecdotal instances and making them seem more prevalent than they actually are (the panic), then demonizing groups associated with these instances (the morality).

The moral panics engineered by a philosophically bereft and culturally out-of-step Republican Party allow pockets of America to continue patterns of behavior that most of society would deem problematic.

Let me explain.

Moral panics and immoral action
Social scientists and faculty administrators have been aware for some time that women endure all forms of sexual aggression on college campuses, from unwanted sexual advances to inappropriate touching to rape. It is a long-standing problem. It is well understood in progressive and academic spaces. A common statistic shared in these spaces is one in five women are sexually assaulted on campus.

The Harvey Weinstein case of 2017 and the subsequent #MeToo Movement was a watershed moment, inaugurating a wave of women coming forward about their experiences with sexual aggression. For many, it was simply making public what was already known.

But conservatives turned the #MeToo Movement into a moral panic, suggesting that hapless innocent men were in danger of being persecuted by liberal feminists. News organizations frequently ran stories saying the movement had "morphed into a career-destroying mob," "gone ridiculously too far" and that it was a "scary time for men."

Liberty University could then position itself as being against these feminists and what they support, and double down on practices we know are harmful. Administrators at Liberty University can operate under the assumption that they are a place free of progressive, pink-haired "feminazis." At the same time, they routinely dismiss legitimate claims of sexual assault from their students.

This is how moral panics sustain immoral practices.

The panics keep coming
I chose the Liberty example, because it is the most recent and one of the more disturbing. But also because the links between Liberty's practices and the moral panic that helped sustain it are not readily apparent. Other instances are much clearer.

Consider "cancel culture." The idea is that a hypersensitive irrational "woke mob" will call for the firing or the deplatforming of someone based solely on their ideas. A few cases where people have lost economic opportunities (rarely is someone actually canceled) are used to suggest a pervasive phenomenon. We now live in an oppressive society, they say, where people cannot speak their minds.

This narrative allows people to continue to disseminate damaging ideas without considering their impacts on vulnerable populations. They can say they are against "the wokies" and will not be silenced. So instead of operating in a moral space where people are mindful that speech is an action with consequences, people propagating racist, sexist and transphobic ideas can do so with no qualification or filter.

The panic around critical race theory (CRT) is even clearer, with candidates making the banning of it a significant part of their platform. Liberal, unionized public school teachers are the demonized group in this panic. Because scholars and K-12 teachers themselves have pointed out the ridiculousness of K-12 teachers discussing an esoteric set of ideas oriented towards law school students, anti-CRT advocates have stretched the idea of what CRT is. It now includes anything deviating from Martin Luther King Jr.'s phrase of judging one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin.

In response, citizens uncomfortable with talking about racial inequality can hide behind the anti-CRT banner, and legislators are now emboldened to narrow what children learn. In effect, they are upholding a white supremacist version of our history and reducing the ability of our young people to think with any depth about racism.

Let's do one more example, shall we?

Society continues to move forward on recognizing trans rights. It is inevitable that conservatives will generate moral panics giving people the cover needed to continue practicing their transphobia.

But this particular moral panic comes from an unusual space. Within the conservative media sphere, stories about trans women prisoners raping female inmates are becoming more numerous. While this does happen, and we need to find ways of preventing this, these instances are exaggerated (the panic) and they demonize trans persons (the morality). In an odd twist, conservatives have finally developed some sympathy for our incarcerated population only because it allows them to push back against what they see as "trans ideology."

The politics of panics
Moral panics have utility for people who want to resist change and continue operating in ways becoming increasingly inappropriate. People attracted to Liberty University do not want to accept a world in which women are not at the sexual disposal of men. Many white Americans are uncomfortable with a school system that critiques their ancestors and our nation's history. People are uncomfortable with the visibility of trans people and chafe at requests to treat them as equals.

Panics are tools for these people.

But they also serve a broader purpose.

The Republican Party of the 21st century is struggling with rapid change. It has always been the smaller party in terms of registered voters. Recent polling suggests it is getting smaller. Few policies Republicans can offer appeal to voters who are young, educated, less economically secure or of color. One of the ways they can maintain competitiveness is to make sure their voters are energized and vote.

My concern is that progressives legitimate these moral panics by participating in the discourse. By generating an argument against them, we operate on the battlefield conservatives chose. If these panics are at best distortions, at worst lies, maybe the most effective strategy is to double down on our own, more truthful narratives.

I have invested too much time discussing why CRT is not in our schools. Why did I do that? The anti-CRT folks and the political party supporting them were not invested in the truth. My engagement as a progressive academic only helped validate an anti-CRT opposition.

I will be doing that much less now.

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.

Dr. Birx admits the truth about Trump's crime against humanity

Is playing politics with a deadly pandemic a crime against humanity? The Brazilian Senate thinks so, and has backed a report calling for charges against President Jair Bolsonaro over his handling of COVID-19.

The committee that prepared the report had originally called for Bolsonaro to be charged with genocide and mass homicide against the indigenous people of Brazil as well but those charges were removed by the larger Senate before the vote. Whether the crimes against humanity charges will be sent to the International Criminal Court for investigation and adjudication is unknown. If they are, it will be a first.

The 1,300-page report also calls for eight other charges against Bolsonaro, including misuse of public funds and spreading fake news about the pandemic as well as falsification of documents and incitement to crime, which they referred to Brazil's top prosecutor, an ally of the president who is unlikely to prosecute.

Brazil's death toll is huge — second only to the United States — with over 600,000 deaths and counting. That nation's first wave was monstrous, with mass graves and overwhelming hospital overload. When the second hit, medical facilities were so ill-prepared that they ran out of oxygen. Bolsonaro's response has been to tell people to "stop whining" about "the little flu." He refused necessary lockdown measures from the beginning and relentlessly pushed snake oil cures like hydroxychloroquine. He has disparaged vaccines, masks and other public health measures.

Brazil is a signatory to the International Criminal Court so it could theoretically agree to hear the case should it be forwarded to them. The law seems pretty straightforward, according to this analysis by Jen Kirby at Vox:

A crime against humanity exists "when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack." "other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health."

Kirby spoke with David Scheffer, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, who told her that the "catchall nature" of the last part of the statute was deliberate:

It is obvious that other types of assaults on your civilian population are going to emerge in the future, and you have to provide for that in the statute. It's hard to think of a better example than intentional mismanagement of a Covid-19 pandemic or some other pathogen. And so I would argue that, yes, that's fair game.

Bolsonaro defiantly says that he is guilty of "absolutely nothing" despite his decisions to allow the virus to spread through the country in pursuit of "herd immunity" which basically translated to "let 'er rip." And he has continued to spread disinformation. Just this week, Facebook and Youtube removed a video in which the Brazilian president falsely claimed a link between COVID-19 vaccines and AIDS.

You will no doubt recall that Bolsonaro and Donald Trump were great friends and kindred spirits during Trump's term. They saw eye to eye on many things, but perhaps on nothing so much as the proper response to the pandemic.

In March of 2020, as the virus was starting to spread quickly, the Brazilian leader visited Trump's private club, Mar-a-Lago, and that became one of the earliest Trump super-spreading events when Bolsonaro's press secretary tested positive for the virus after meeting with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and others. Bolsonaro came away from the meeting inspired by Trump, telling his health minister "that life was normal at Mar-a-Lago, everything was cured, and that hydroxychloroquine was the medicine that was supposed to be used. From that time on, it was very hard to get him to take the science seriously."

We all saw the similarities between Bolsonaro and Trump's reaction to the pandemic in real-time.

They both downplayed the virus and were obsessively concerned with the economic fallout, leading them to lean on scientists to fudge the numbers. Both of them were constantly out in public exposing themselves and others to the virus and they each recommended unscientific cure-alls while ignoring the public health recommendations that actually mitigated the worst of the virus. Trump really wanted to take credit for the vaccines, but has been forced to downplay that achievement due to skepticism among his followers, while Bolsonaro just comes right out and says they don't work. Their record in the pandemic is astonishingly similar.

Here in the U.S., the task of investigating what happened with the pandemic has fallen to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which has kept a pretty low profile these last few months. But on Tuesday they took the testimony of Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump's COVID-19 coordinator. According to the New York Times, Birx reiterated her earlier shocking claim that at least 130,000 lives were unnecessarily lost because the administration refused to do everything it could to ensure the nation followed the public health recommendations to mitigate the spread of the disease.

But in her testimony this week she also said that as the pandemic wore on into the summer and fall, the administration became distracted by the presidential campaign and pretty much lost interest in the crisis. In other words, a lot of people died so that Donald Trump could get elected.

When asked if she felt Trump did everything he could to save lives, Birx replied, "no."

She also complained about the malign influence of Dr. Scott Atlas, the radiologist who caught Trump's eye on Fox News and was brought in to push the idea that the country should seek "herd immunity," just as Bolsonaro had tried to do in Brazil. Birx testified that Atlas even brought to the White House the three physicians who later authored the "Great Barrington Declaration," which called for deliberately hastening herd immunity. Trump was all in:

Bolsonaro and members of his family are under fire for corruption as well and there is a good chance he may face jail time as well as a tough re-election campaign next year. And then there is the little matter of the crimes against humanity charges that could be before the International Criminal Court.

His good friend and inspiration, Donald Trump, is in a similar situation — although he has three more years to try to make everyone forget his terrible response to the pandemic. Trump needn't worry about the ICC, of course. The U.S. isn't a signatory. The powers that be thought signing on to it might result in U.S. troops being accused of war crimes. I doubt they anticipated that a U.S. president might be accused of facilitating the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens. Donald Trump has always been a very lucky guy in that way.

'Is he embarrassed?': Biden baits Trump in mocking speech for the Virginia governor's race

President Joe Biden on Tuesday called out Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin for trying to distance himself from former President Donald Trump in his bid to win the increasingly blue state.

Youngkin has tried to walk a fine line in his race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, hoping to avoid alienating both the Trump base that he needs to turn out on Election Day and independent and suburban voters who view the former president far less favorably. The former private equity executive has not campaigned with Trump and at one point even seemingly sought to tie McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, to the ex-president, prompting Trump to reassert his "complete and total" endorsement for Youngkin's campaign.

"Terry's opponent has made all of his private pledges of loyalty to Donald Trump. But what is really interesting to me is he won't stand next to Donald Trump now that the campaign is on," Biden said during a McAuliffe rally in Arlington. "Think about it. He won't allow Donald Trump to campaign with him in this state… He is willing to pledge his loyalty to Trump in private, why not in public? What is he trying to hide? Is there a problem with Trump being here? Is he embarrassed?"

During the Republican primary campaign, Youngkin refused to acknowledge Biden's election victory and has called for a voting machine "audit," an apparent signal toward Trump's false claims of fraud — especially since Virginia conducts such audits on a regular basis. Biden on Tuesday argued that Youngkin has "embraced" Trump's "big lie."

"I ran against Donald Trump. And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump," Biden said. "Terry's opponent doesn't like to talk about him very much now, but to win the Republican nomination, he embraced Donald Trump. He started his campaign by saying that the No. 1 issue in the race was… election integrity. Now, why did he do that? Because he wanted to hear Donald Trump? It was a price he'd have to pay for the nomination, and he paid it. But now, he doesn't want to talk about Trump anymore. Well, I do."

Former President Barack Obama also hit the campaign trail for McAuliffe over the weekend, calling out Youngkin's attempt to dance around Trump's false election claims.

"Either [Youngkin] actually believes in the same conspiracy theories that resulted in a mob, or he doesn't believe it but he is willing to go along with it, to say or do anything to get elected," Obama said on Saturday. " And maybe that's worse ... because that says something about character."

Christian Martinez, a spokesperson for Youngkin, told NBC News that Obama's speech promoted "the fantasies of Terry and the left because they can't run on their failed record and radical vision for the future."

The McAuliffe campaign has seized on Youngkin's attempt to distance himself from Trump, who is widely unpopular in Virginia, where Biden won by 10 points last year and Democrats have dominated most recent statewide elections. McAuliffe, who previously served as the state's governor from 2014 to 2018, has offered to pay for Trump's travel expenses so the ex-president can campaign for Youngkin. Democrats have also sent out mailers touting Trump's endorsement of Youngkin.

But despite Biden's popularity in 2020, his approval in Virginia has slipped nine points from earlier this year to 48%, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. McAuliffe won his 2013 race by just two points, and polls currently show him with a very slim 1.5-point lead, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling average. (Virginia governors may not run for re-election, but a former governor is not barred from seeking the office again.)

Youngkin has largely focused the final days of the campaign on education amid widespread conservative panic over "critical race theory," calling for parents to dictate their children's school curriculum. McAuliffe fired back at a recent debate, arguing that parents should not be "telling schools what they should teach." Youngkin this week launched a new ad featuring a mother who tried to get Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel "Beloved" banned from schools, claiming that her nearly college-aged son suffered from "night terrors" due to the book's graphic depiction of slavery. The state legislature twice passed bills that would allow parents to opt their children out of reading books with explicit content but McAuliffe vetoed both bills.

"Just look how he's closing his campaign," Biden said on Tuesday. "He's gone from banning a woman's right to choose to banning books written by a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison."

Obama also attacked Youngkin for focusing on manufactured outrage over school curricula.

"We don't have time to be wasting on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage that right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings," he said Saturday. "And the fact that he's willing to go along with it, instead of talking about serious problems that actually affect serious people. That's a shame."

The modern Republican brainwashing plot is the latest outgrowth of McCarthyism

Three things need saying. One, that "critical race theory" is becoming the most destructive political boogeyman since Joseph McCarthy fear-mongered about Communists hiding behind every bush and tree.

Two, that this political boogeyman is being used by Republican state lawmakers to achieve what they have wanted — to use the power of the state to censor information and to police thought. We are close to updating the old Cold War pursuit of "un-American activities."

Three, that by censoring information and policing thought, the Republicans can replace knowledge and understanding with lies and propaganda advancing a preferred way of seeing America, to wit: In America, everyone gets a fair shake in life. Social ills like poverty and racism are individual failings, not societal ones. Everything is fine. Nothing to worry about. Except "those people" making trouble.

The desired outcome of such rhetoric, of course, is preempting serious and legit challenges to a social order in which white men are on top.

All of this is happening at the same time. It can be dizzying! But make no mistake. It is a backlash against the political gains made in the wake of George Floyd's murder. The movement against anti-Black white supremacy has been (somewhat) successful. The backlash is proof.

Now, remember. No one is learning critical race theory in K-12. That's what college students study if they choose to. What's being debated is make-believe. (Hence, my quotes around "critical race theory.") So when people like Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate for governor in Virginia, say they're going to ban "critical race theory," strictly speaking, that's not possible. "Critical race theory" doesn't exist.

But thanks to the efforts of Republicans and right-wing propagandists, there are now lots of things associated with "critical race theory" that have nothing to with critical race theory, without the quotes, and they pretty much include all discussion of race and racism that might make respectable white people conscious of their race, uncomfortable with heightened awareness of their race and even pained by the knowledge of a social, political and legal establishment that protects them on account of their race while punishing others on account of theirs.

So there's some highly coded rhetoric here. When Youngkin says he's going to ban "critical race theory," the message isn't that he's going to ban ways of thinking about and engaging the world, which is, in fact, what he's proposing, but instead "ban" the discomfort and pain respectable white people and their kids may feel as a consequence of the political gains made by Black activists after George Floyd's murder.

If we're very lucky, respectable white people — that great globular middle of American politics — will see the danger. They will see that, no matter how dangerous "critical race theory" is said to be, that's no reason to ban books and outlaw the utterance of individual words. They will see the Republicans, even at state and local levels, as being people who cheered the former president's attempted coup d'etat.

If we're very unlucky, however, respectable white people — those Americans who view politics through the gauzy lens of respectability between and among white people — will see the GOP as not censoring information and policing thought but instead "banning" Black people from making them feel the pain of being aware of being white. They will see the Republicans, especially at state and local levels, as being not so bad despite cheering the former president's attempted coup.

What to do? First, make it clear the Republicans are lying. No one, and I mean no one, is teaching white children to hate themselves. No one is teaching white children their moral character is determined by their race. No one is teaching white children that one race is superior to another. All of this is a lie that, when repeated often enough, becomes the basis for state laws forbidding such things from being taught. (See legislation passed by the Wisconsin Assembly for a case in point.)

Second, these lies are part of the Big Lie. Donald Trump lies when saying the election was stolen from him. It wasn't. What he means, however, is that people he believes should not have a say in American politics — nonwhite voters — had a say in American politics, and that's wrong. That's "fraud." This Big Lie dovetails with another big lie, which is the belief among authoritarian white people that the United States is being taken from them, being stolen from them. By whom? By those who should not have a say in American politics — nonwhite voters. When they pass laws against "voter fraud," what they mean is passing laws against the "fraud" that is nonwhite Americans having a say.

Third, these lies and the laws these lies are based on are spearheading myriad state and local efforts to do what Republican officials have wanted to do but did not have the chance or justification to do until respectable white people felt first a pang of discomfort on becoming increasingly aware of being white after George Floyd's murder.

Compulsory K-12 public education is the greatest tool the United States has devised for flattening the hierarchies of power that allow the Republicans to maintain an advantage in society. For decades, they endeavored to censor information and police thought among teachers and children for the purpose of keeping white men at the top of the order — for the purpose of replacing knowledge and understanding with lies and propaganda advancing a preferred way of seeing America, to wit: America is the best place in the world. Don't like it? Leave it.

Some even called for banning books and outlawing the utterance of individual words. That seemed extreme before Floyd's murder.

Let's make sure it stays that way.

The right's latest anti-trans hysteria just blew up

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — who is on quite the rampage against the rights, and even lives, of Texas residents — has struck again. On Monday, the governor signed a law barring trans athletes from teams corresponding to their gender. The law requires students to play on teams based on the gender listed on their birth certificate, not the one they live as, even if they take gender-affirming hormones that could affect their athletic performance. This impacts not just minor students in junior high and high schools, but legal adults who are in college athletics.

The cover story for this attack on trans rights is that it's about "protecting" girls and women, on the unevidenced grounds that trans girls and women have unfair advantages in sports. Rep. Valoree Swanson, the Republican who is the lead sponsor on the bill, has been maximally smarmy in her rhetoric about her supposed love of girls, her desire for them to be safe, and her enthusiasm for their ambitions.

"It's very important that we, who got elected to be here, protect our girls," Swanson said earlier this month in defense of what she described as a "need a statewide level playing field."

She is lying.

Swanson doesn't care about girls or women, and, in fact, is a classic Aunt Lydia type, a standard female misogynist. Like Abbott, she has a long track record of backing laws that will derail the ambitions of young women, make their lives much harder, and undermine both their health and safety. For instance, she not only voted for SB8, the infamous Texas law that bans abortion through a literal bounty hunter system, but also has a long history of sponsoring anti-abortion legislation, as well as opposing contraception education that can prevent abortions. Far from wanting young women to have fulfilling lives chasing their dreams, Swanson wants to wield forced childbirth as a weapon to derail their ambitions. The language about "protecting" girls is just bad faith posturing, trying to make a vicious attack on the rights of young trans people sound somehow ennobling.

Unfortunately, time and again, Republicans are able to get away with lying to the press about the motivations behind their anti-trans beliefs and actions, pretending that they're just trying to "protect" women. Their history, however, shows that they will hurt women and undermine women's rights every chance they get. Texas' latest attack is particularly egregious as the anti-trans law comes right on the heels of the state's passage of a draconian abortion ban that has gutted Roe v. Wade and left thousands of women and girls, many of whom are rape victims, facing the dire prospect of forced childbirth.

The extreme bad faith driving the current anti-trans hysteria sweeping the country is also evident in Virginia, where Republicans are campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin by bashing trans people and hiding behind phony postures about the "safety" of women and girls as an excuse.

While most of the theatrical displays of incoherent right-wing outrage at school board meetings has been about white parental anger about kids learning historical facts about racism, there's been a hefty side dose of hysterics at the idea that trans kids might be allowed to use the bathroom and play on sports teams in peace. In the closing weeks of the gubernatorial race in Virginia, the GOP's culture war strategy has zeroed in on Loudoun County.

The deeply troubling situation in Loudoun County involves a rape that happened in the bathroom of one of the county's public high schools in May. Rumors started to fly throughout the community, aided by national right-wing media, that the accused rapist was "gender fluid" and was wearing a skirt during the attack. The implication was that the school's pro-trans policy regarding bathrooms allowed the kid to pretend to be female in order to lurk in the bathroom and attack students.

This right-wing spin on the story, unsurprisingly, turned out not be true.

The rapist — who has been identified in the press as a "boy" and whose gender identity and clothing was not discussed during trial — was convicted in juvenile court on Monday. Testimony revealed that the true story was one of dating violence, and has nothing to do with the bathroom policies at the high school. As the Washington Post reports, the rapist and his victim had been seeing each other and "had agreed to meet up in a school bathroom," and "chose to go in the girls' bathroom because the two had always met in the girls' bathrooms in the past." Once there, the boy the victim thought was her friend raped her.

It's a terrible situation, especially as the school district appears to have mishandled everything, allowing the assailant to attend another school, where he attacked another girl. But notably, this story is yet another example of the ongoing problem of sexual violence being minimized and disregarded — a problem that exists predominantly because of sexism. Indeed, the same Republicans seizing on this story have a robust history of sticking up for accused sexual predators, even in the case of Donald Trump, who has been accused by over two dozen women and is on tape bragging about his crimes.

This case has nothing to do with trans rights but is very much about the ongoing problem of dating violence. But, of course, the same Republicans up in arms over trans kids aren't super interested in doing anything to fight back against domestic violence, which is an actual threat against girls and women.

Multiple GOP candidates for Senate in the 2022 race have histories of violence against women, and by and large, it doesn't seem to be affecting their chances. The majority — 172 — of Republicans in the House voted against the Violence Against Women Act earlier this year, with nary a ripple of protest from the same people pretending trans people are a threat to women and girls. In Texas, a law that would mandate dating violence education, which could help prevent crimes such as the one in Loudoun, was vetoed by Abbott over the summer.

In a recent speech, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., instructed parents, "if you are raising a young man, please raise them to be a monster," on the grounds that non-monster men are emasculated. Of course, the primary victims of monster men are girls and women, as any look at the epidemic of sexual and domestic violence will demonstrate. There's no universe in which Cawthorne's advice can be squared with claims of "protecting" girls and women.

The abuse of trans people and the abuse of women are tied closely together, both rooted in support for cis male supremacy that depends heavily on rigid gender policing. The reality is that trans people are more likely to be victims than victimizers, and the vast majority of sexual assailants, regardless of the victim's gender identity, are cis men. There's no conflict between protecting cis women and girls and protecting trans rights. On the contrary, both require fighting sexist oppression that normalizes violence, deprives people of sexual autonomy, and demonizes anyone who rejects patriarchal gender roles. Above all, don't get it twisted — the same people who are attacking trans rights are also out to destroy the rights of cis women and girls.

'It kind of blew up in their face': A Texas Republican's plan to find voter fraud appears to have backfired

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Trump backer who offered a minimum of $25,000 to anyone who could find evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election, has finally paid out his first bounty – to a progressive who found evidence of Republican foul play.

The unlikely recipient, Eric Frank, a poll worker from Chester County, Pennsylvania, is set to collect the $25,000 minimum, according to The Dallas Morning News. Frank reportedly caught sight of 72-year-old Republican voter Ralph Thurman attempting to vote twice – once for himself and once for his son, a registered Democrat. Thurman pleaded guilty last month to repeat voting. He was sentenced to three years probation and is now prohibited from voting for the next four years, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Back in November of last year, during the aftermath of Donald Trump's election loss, Patrick announced that he would be offering up to $1 million "to incentivize, encourage and reward people to come forward and report voter fraud." The Republican specifically promised that reports leading to convictions would earn at least $25,000, telling would-be informants to contact their local authorities.

"I support President Trump's efforts to identify voter fraud in the presidential election and his commitment to making sure that every legal vote is counted and every illegal vote is disqualified," Patrick said at the time. "President Trump's pursuit of voter fraud is not only essential to determine the outcome of this election, it is essential to maintain our democracy and restore faith in future elections."

But Patrick's bounty, ostensibly put in place to catch Democratic fraudsters, now appears to have backfired.

"I just think it's extremely ironic…they were trying to see voter fraud from someone that was a Democrat. And it turns out that, at least for me, for my case that I witnessed, it was a Republican voter. So, in fact I think it kind of blew up in their face a little bit," Frank told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in an interview last week. "I never thought in a million years that I would get paid."

It isn't the first time that Republicans have been caught attempting to defraud the 2020 election, CNN noted.

Back in May, a Republican township trustee in Delaware County, Pennsylvania was sentenced to five years probation after he was caught trying to cast a ballot for Trump in his late mother's name.

Republicans seem desperate to make sure 2022 isn't about Trump

Donald Trump has already turned into a drag on the Republican Party's midterm prospects, and GOP lawmakers know it.

That's why Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who's heading up the Senate GOP's midterm efforts, really desperately wants to talk about anything but Trump.

Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told a group of reporters that President Joe Biden is "our best asset right now." Scott rooted his comments in an internal GOP poll of 1,200 suburban voters nationwide, putting Biden's approval rating underwater and showing that a majority of them think the country is on the "wrong track."

From a historical perspective, a president's approval rating is usually predictive of how well their party does in midterm elections. As FiveThirtyEight.com wrote in March, "In the last four (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018), the incumbent president's disapproval rating was higher than his approval, and in all four cases, the president's party lost a sizable bloc of House seats. (The Senate results aren't quite as tied to presidential approval.)"

One recent exception to that rule was in 2002, after the 9/11 attack, when a rally-around-the-flag mentality buoyed George W. Bush's approval ratings, and Republicans netted eight seats in the House.

So Scott isn't wrong to hope that Biden's approvals remain underwater. That said, it's entirely possible that Biden's low approval ratings will recover, at least somewhat, particularly if Democrats manage to deliver both the bipartisan infrastructure deal and his Build Back Better jobs bill. (After notching a major early win with pandemic relief, Biden has been dogged for months by the delta variant, the Afghanistan withdrawal, and the inability of Democrats to push through his major agenda items.)

But the truth is, we have no way of forecasting Biden's approval ratings a year from now—or even six months from now. And what Scott's swagger entirely ignores is the corrosive effect Trump is already having on the GOP electorate, and the candidates to whom Senate Republicans will be asking voters to entrust their futures.

Look no further than Georgia, where Trump has now cleared the field for violence-prone abuser Herschel Walker to be the GOP's Senate nominee. This week, establishment Republicans officially began surrendering to Trump's bizarro pick for the critical race when Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, threw his support behind Walker.

So sure, we can look at approval ratings. But there's simply no historic measure for a party tethering itself to a twice-impeached defeated presidential incumbent who incited an attempted coup to maintain power indefinitely. And there's no historic measure for a party empowering that same mad man to handpick nearly every GOP candidate in all of the most hotly contested congressional races.

Scott bragged of the poll, "If I was a Democrat looking at this, it should scare the living daylights out of me."

But when asked about Trump's dominance in selecting GOP nominees, Politico reports, "Scott — without mentioning Trump directly by name — also insisted that endorsements aren't that important by noting that he won the Florida GOP primary for governor in 2010 despite widespread opposition."

Because according to Scott, the U.S. political landscape today hasn't shifted one iota since 2010, when the Republican Party—by today's standards—still seemed relatively sane and perhaps even interested (or maybe just resigned) to the notion of America remaining a democracy.

Republicans want to talk about President Biden right now for obvious reasons, but there's no guarantee that his approval ratings will stay where they are.

What Republicans absolutely don't want to talk about is Donald Trump and his conspiracy-driven obsession with the 2020 election results.

And while Biden's future approval ratings are a mystery to us all, Trump's preferred topic conversation is not: He will spend the rest of his days on this planet baselessly griping about the unfairness of the 2020 elections. And so long as he controls the GOP, that obsession will drive every election message and nearly every significant candidate selection regardless of what poll Rick Scott waves around in reporters' faces.

Two words: Herschel Walker.

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