By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A unified theory of Jan. 6, Glenn Youngkin and existential dread

Glenn Youngkin. Photo (cc) 2021 by Glenn Youngkin.

The Washington Post last week published a massive investigative report on the insurrection of Jan. 6 and its aftermath. The story is filled with horrifying details, but there’s little that we didn’t already know — that Donald Trump incited the deadly violence both before and during the attack, and that the people around him as well as nearly all Republican members of Congress didn’t dare to challenge him. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell comes off as deeply cynical, a soulless shell. His House counterpart, Kevin McCarthy, is depicted as a worthless tool. Again, nothing new.

Then came the elections this past Tuesday and the triumph of Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Virginia over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. We all sensed it might be coming, but it left me with a feeling of something approaching despair. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I don’t like McAuliffe, a Big Money ally of the Clintons who represents a lot of what’s wrong with his party. I’m not a Democrat. I don’t live in Virginia.

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As I thought about it, I concluded that my reaction was connected to Jan. 6. There’s been a lot of stupid talk about how Youngkin is charting a new course for the Republicans by showing that you can distance yourself from Trump and win. The problem, though, is that he didn’t distance himself from Trumpism. He appealed to racists with his false claims that critical race theory, an obsession on the right, is being taught in public schools and by running an ad in which a white supporter talks about how her precious child was so, so disturbed at having to read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” He also benefited from a story circulating in right-wing circles that a boy in a skirt sexually assaulted a girl in a school bathroom. The story was false, but it fanned the flames of hatred toward transgender people.

More to the point, Youngkin isn’t a Republican who’s trying to tear down Trumpism and build something new, like U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. He’s a Trumper. And that wing of the party — which, let’s face it, is most of them — should be banished, shunned, defeated, consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, voters are treating them as normal politicians, and the media can’t resist their primal urge to get back to business-as-usual, both-sides political coverage. It’s nauseating. As Jon Allsop wrote in his newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review:

Youngkin was too often characterized as a passive actor who deftly rode abstract culture-war forces rather than driving them himself, and hailed for his political savviness more than scrutinized for the substance of his message. As many media watchers have argued, that lens has failed much coverage of racial issues, in particular.

We all know that democracy is in crisis. Authoritarianism looms. It doesn’t matter whether you like the Democratic Party or not. At this point, it is the one major party that, for all its flaws, is dedicated to small-“d” democracy. The Republican Party, sadly, is seeking to tear everything down. The public should consider all but the  most anti-Trump Republicans to be disqualified from public office until further notice. Instead, they’re voting for them. And the media are more interested in what that means for the politics of the reconciliation bill and the midterms than for the future of the country.

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  1. Marcus Breen

    Dan – it is indeed terrifying for liberal democracy that Trumpism has unleashed the authoritarian, anti-statist, white essentialist supremacists. If you are convincied that the “old” system, that is, pre-Trump Republicanism, was good then OK. As critical analysis indicates – as it usually does – liberal democracy was too full of fatal flaws to sustain the abuses of liberalism it allowed, such as the rise of the wealth gap, poverty and the emergence of oligarchical power by and for the billionaires and super-rich families and corporations.
    Unfortunately, as you suggest, and I agree, the future is bleak for liberal democracy.
    The left is gradually organizing to do better, but against enormous odds – primarily, a Republican Party that has difficulty comprehending the idea of democracy in a representative system. One hopes that the left will offer a better system to the electorate and work out a method of persuasion. I am not optimistic.

  2. MagellanNH

    While there are plenty of grifters and even racists latching onto progressives’ recent fixation on so-called DEI and CRT based programs, imo it’s a huge mistake to dismiss the overall concern.

    Telling parents their child’s high school will no longer offer Calculus or other gifted programs in the name of equity will most definitely cost democrats votes. While the republican talking points may be overdone, there are numerous outrageous examples of these programs going too far, including several on the record quotes by Kendi himself (supporting ending gifted programs in the name of equity).

    Matt Yglesias makes a great point that folks should ignore the rhetoric and focus on specific policy proposals being brought forward around the country. What specific changes are being proposed and are they good or bad? How much money is being spent on DEI programs and administrators and are these effective and worthwhile? Would the money be better spent on educators rather than more admin staff?

    If advocates for DEI efforts can’t/won’t answer these questions and only deflect with allegations that questioning these policies is racist, democrats will continue to lose voters and elections over this issue.

  3. Donna Halper

    And I also have to point at the Beltway media and political press, who seem to have never met a Republican talking point they didn’t like. I watch the Sunday Shows, Meet the Press especially, and see Republican pols making outrageously false or disingenuous claims about Democrats, yet hosts rarely push back. FL Senator Rick Scott, for example, said with a straight face, that Dems lost in VA because “people are tired of Democrats wanting to defund the police.” Of course, I don’t know any major Democrats who want that (including Joe Biden), and it might have been helpful for Chuck Todd to point that out, but alas, he did not. He never does. And he is not alone.

    Democrats do in fact deserve critique by the press, but too often, it devolves into a “one side vs the other side” or “both sides do it” narrative, or worse yet, it devolves into framing the discussion the way Republicans want it framed. If, as the right claims, “the mainstream media are liberal,” these reporters are doing Democrats no favors by continually misrepresenting the views of the party, and helping the GOP to paint Democrats as out-of-touch radicals or craven pols who tax-and-spend. I don’t recall such media fury directed at Republicans when they voted to give tax breaks to the wealthy in 2017, ballooning the deficit (which Republicans only care about if a Democrat is in office). And yet, the fact that Republicans have NO governing strategy other than inflaming culture war battles is okay, and somehow Democrats are the problem. But they’re not. The real problem is the unwillingness of the Beltway Press to call out the many Republicans who seem just fine with supporting pro-Trump authoritarianism. (And of course, another problem is the folks who need to hear that critique of the GOP are not listening: they are safe within the right-wing media bubble, listening to voices that tell them the Insurrection didn’t happen and Joe Biden is a commie. No wonder democracy in our country is in trouble.)

    • Dan Kennedy

      Donna, you’re right that Chuck Todd is not alone — but he’s the worst.

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