WASHINGTON — President John Adams attempted to counter lies and misinformation with the Sedition Act. But the First Amendment prevailed, and the act failed. Lesson learned. It is up to the private sector to step into the breach, relying upon enforcement of libel and slander laws to bring liars to heel.
Enter the liars. Attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas last weekend cheered reports of low vaccine rates and loudly applauded the 2020 election lie, claiming it was stolen through massive voter fraud even though it was one of the most scrutinized elections in the nation’s history with the results accepted by every court, state and federal, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Many if not most Donald Trump supporters promoting these blatant lies know they are promoting and disseminating fraudulent information, and they do not care. They do not fear. And an entire subset of the media is dedicated to spreading what has come to be called The Big Lie, and its biggest promotor is Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
As the voice of the Trumpian Right, Carlson rails against the tyranny of a public health system dictating that everybody who is eligible get vaccinated against Covid-19, yet he refuses to disclose whether (and when) he and his family received the vaccine. The anti-vaccine message he spreads on Fox News night after night is contributing to the rise of hospitalizations we are witnessing mostly in Republican-led states as a deadly new variant of Covid-19 takes hold among unvaccinated populations.
The closest analogy to this demagoguery practiced by Carlson in the name of Trump can be found in the example of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., whose crusade against mostly imagined communists in the early 1950s destroyed lives and careers with baseless claims of disloyalty and even treason. Like Trump and his acolyte Carlson, McCarthy had a following. What he did not have was anywhere near the access to media Trump had during his presidency. This is the ugly underbelly of a fractured information system perpetuated by cable and the Internet.
“Have you no shame?” President Joe Biden asked of Republicans in Congress and around the country during his speech this week at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. Biden called them out for being unwilling to stand up against a wave of anti-democratic voting laws such as the 28 restrictive voting bills enacted in 17 states with almost 400 more in the works in what Biden called a “21st century Jim Crow assault.”
The president’s formulation — “Have you no shame?” — echoes the most remembered words uttered during the McCarthy period. “Have you no sense of decency,” said U.S. Army special counsel Joseph Welch to Senator McCarthy at televised hearings in 1954 to probe McCarthy’s claim that communists had infiltrated the U.S. Armed Forces.
McCarthy was discredited not long after because most Republican lawmakers then were still patriotic. Many had served in World War II just a few years earlier, and President Eisenhower had been the commanding general of Allied forces in Europe. Compare that with today’s GOP where we have members of Congress following QAnon, a bizarre conspiracy theory, together with a significant number of GOP lawmakers who are knowingly undermining the Constitution by refusing to certify the 2020 presidential election results, thereby continuing the canard that Biden was illegally elected.
When McCarthy was finding communists under every bed, the news media covered him and counteracted his claims, not from a partisan attitude but from a reporting of facts. Today, many GOP lawmakers at all levels of government are adhering to the oxymoronic advocacy of “alternate facts.”
But today a fractured news media cannot deliver a one-two punch to silence the lies, not when Trump’s followers only listen to Fox News.
— Twitter: @douglas_cohn