The Morning Dispatch: The Alternate Reality Machine

A deadly riot's enablers.

Happy Tuesday! We here at TMD are very proud to announce that the Treasury Department has never linked us to a Russian disinformation campaign, implicitly or otherwise.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • House Democrats officially introduced an article of impeachment against President Trump on Monday, saying he “gravely endangered the security of the United States” and “threatened the integrity of the democratic system.” A vote in the House is scheduled for Wednesday.

  • Dozens of large corporations have announced they are suspending political donations in the wake of last week’s attack on the Capitol. Some, like Goldman Sachs, will cease all donations entirely, while others, like AT&T, Dow, and Marriott, will cut off only those members of Congress that objected to the certification of the presidential election.

  • The Pentagon has authorized the deployment of up to 15,000 National Guard troops from states across the country to Washington, D.C. ahead of and during President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week.

  • The State Department announced plans to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization amid ongoing United Nations peace talks and a humanitarian crisis in the country. “These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

  • The State Department designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism on Monday, accusing the island nation of “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbor to terrorists.” 

  • Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf resigned on Monday, nine days before the Department—which oversees the Secret Service—is set to help facilitate the transfer of power from the Trump administration to the Biden administration.

  • Illinois Democrat Mike Madigan, whose decades-long tenure as the state’s speaker of the House made him perhaps the most powerful state legislator in U.S. history, suspended his campaign to remain speaker following allegations of bribery and corruption.

  • The University of Alabama won its third college football national championship in the last six seasons on Monday, defeating Ohio State 52–24.

  • The United States confirmed 206,563 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 10.7 percent of the 1,934,736 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,738 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 376,060. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 129,748 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 25,480,725 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, and 8,987,322 have been administered.

The Alternate Reality Machine

In the roughly eight weeks between the election on November 3 and the Capitol riots on January 6, the populist-right media ecosystem created an alternative reality for those who’d come to rely on its outlets for news. If you got your information from certain pro-Trump websites or certain talk radio and cable news hosts, you were told—all day, every day—either that the election was outright stolen from Donald Trump, or that there were serious enough concerns about its legitimacy that dozens upon dozens of frivolous lawsuits from Team Trump were both prudent and necessary.

As the legal challenges got knocked down one by one, the scope of the conspiracy only grew. By the end, seemingly everyone—from local election officials and state-based Republican leaders to Trump’s own attorney general and Supreme Court nominees—was supposedly “in on” the plot to deny the president another four years in office. It was a fantasy world cultivated by Trump and his media boosters, and anyone who punctured the bubble—CISA Director Chris Krebs, Attorney General Bill Barr—soon found themselves outside the administration looking in.

And to a degree, it worked. 

Trump’s election loss was apparent in early November, and each court defeat or failed electoral ploy only served to solidify the president’s loser status. But among Trump’s supporters, public perception didn’t track these developments. Poll after poll finds that approximately three in four Republicans believe there was widespread voter fraud in the presidential election—that the contest was actually stolen. It was this combustible belief—seeded by the president and cultivated by his media backers—that led to the insurrection at the Capitol last week.

And just hours after that insurrection, at which five people died, including a police officer, the same right-wing media ecosystem that convinced millions of Americans that the election was fraudulent kicked right back into gear. “I am hearing from some people on the ground that there is a question of if Antifa has infiltrated the Trump rally-goers and are fomenting some kind of unrest,” Newsmax’s Emerald Robinson said on air just minutes after the siege began. Fox News’ Brit Hume told his followers “not [to] be surprised if we learn in the days ahead that the Trump rioters were infiltrated by leftist extremists.” Laura Ingraham heavily insinuated Antifa was involved.

An article published that evening by the Washington Times dropped the insinuation entirely. “A retired military officer told The Washington Times that the firm XRVision used its software to do facial recognition of protesters and matched two Philadelphia Antifa members to two men inside the Senate,” reporter Rowan Scarborough wrote. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz cited the story on the House floor when Congress reconvened Wednesday night. “I don’t know if the reports are true,” the Republican said right before he injected them into the public consciousness. “But the Washington Times has just reported some pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company that some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters—they were masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa.”

If you visit the Washington Times article now, the story looks a little different. “Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that XRVision facial recognition software identified Antifa members among rioters who stormed the Capitol Wednesday,” a disclaimer reads. “XRVision did not identify any Antifa members.” Instead, the Washington Times now reports, XRVision identified a handful of neo-Nazis.

But the damage was done. The initial claim spread like wildfire among Republicans, most of whom were disgusted by Wednesday’s violence and didn’t want to believe their “side” was capable of being the perpetrator. Forty-seven percent of the country—and a whopping 68 percent of Republicans—believe Antifa is “very much” or “somewhat” to blame for inciting the violence that took place on January 6, according to a new poll from Vox. And that’s without Trump—now Twitterless—pushing the narrative himself.

Never mind that fact checkers—from The Dispatch to Reuters to USA Today to CNN—have debunked the claim. Or that the FBI said Friday they have “no indication” that Antifa was present a few days earlier. Or that countless pro-Trump personalities and far-right agitators literally livestreamed videos of themselves storming or inside the Capitol.

The episode demonstrates how too much of the pro-Trump media and punditocracy has operated over the past several years: Reflexively stake out a position opposite whatever the “mainstream” one is, make unverified claims that affirm what their viewers or readers want to believe, and then attack “mainstream” outlets fact checking the inaccuracies as biased or suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” It’s good business, but bad journalism. And as we’ve seen, it has dire consequences for the country.

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth,” Sen. Mitt Romney said on the Senate floor last Wednesday. “That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”

The problem with catering to the whims of your audience rather than just telling the truth as you see it is that the former approach can lead you to some pretty untenable places. RedState—a pro-Republican outlet with a history of suppressing criticism of Trump—published a piece by Mike Ford yesterday accusing the “media” of “gaslighting” the American people by making up what we all saw with our own eyes last week. “Let me be real clear,” he wrote in the piece, which RedState has since retracted. “There was no riot in DC. There was no insurrection. There was no ‘storming’ of the Capitol Building. There was a peaceful rally. There was a largely peaceful protest that was marred by some bad acts by a very few people. There was and is, absolutely nothing to be traumatized or intimidated by.”

At The Federalist, Jenni White makes the exact case The Federalist and others mocked “mainstream” outlets for making over the summer. “Except for the few bad actors, who deserve due process and the just punishments the law calls for,” she writes, “the vast majority of the American citizens who marched on Jan. 6 were guilty of nothing more than a desire to see free and fair elections and of keeping our country a constitutional republic.”

Others in pro-Trump media are trending dangerously close to excusing the violence itself. “For far too long, one side has excused and even normalized violence in our nation. It hasn’t been the conservatives,” Sebastian Gorka—a former Trump White House official—wrote in American Greatness. “A civilian and a police officer have died this week. Their killers must be punished. Nothing can justify those deaths, nor the violence done to the people’s house. Yet it was all too predictable. When you demonize 63 million Americans for four years, starting by calling them ‘Deplorables,’ then racists, white-supremacists and eventually Nazis, when you throttle them from social media, get them fired because of their views, sooner or later some of them will cross the line.” On Fox News, Pete Hegseth host declared “these are not conspiracy theorists motivated just by lies” and said: “The movement is obviously defined by far more than one day. If anything, one person I talked to in the crowd gave voice to how these people feel. They say ‘I’m a born-again American’ ... they see what the anti-American Left has done to our country.” Rush Limbaugh had this to say: “There’s a lot of people calling for the end of violence. There’s a lot of conservatives, social media, who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable. Regardless of the circumstances. I'm glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord didn’t feel that way.”

Your Morning Dispatchers have no desire to get bogged down in internecine media squabbles, and have tried our best over the past year and a half to just write about the news—not how other people cover the news. But sometimes the people who make the news—or make up what they present as news—are the news. And in a moment as precarious as this, we felt it important to dig into why Trump’s baseless claims resonate with so many good and patriotic Americans. The pieces we’ve highlighted may be among the most egregious examples of misinformation bouncing around the internet in recent days, but they’re unfortunately not as much of an outlier in pro-Trump media as you might think.

There’s not a simple solution to the phenomenon, either, as the problem appears to be as much on the demand side as it is on the supply side. The rise of Newsmax and OANN in recent months demonstrate the desire of some news consumers to seek out only what they want to hear—chiefly, that the election was stolen from Trump and that he might still wrest it back. When the news side at Fox (minus some of the primetime hosts) refused to tell that story—and declared Joe Biden president-elect—disgruntled viewers migrated to alternative sources by the thousands.

That isn’t to say more responsible editorial policies won’t make a difference. Cumulus Media—a talk radio company that counts Dan Bongino and Mark Levin among its stars—issued a directive in the wake of last week’s violence that could change their tune. 

“Cumulus and Westwood One will not tolerate any suggestion that the election has not ended,” a memo circulated to the company’s programming and talent divisions read. “The election has resolved, there are no alternate acceptable ‘paths.’ Please inform your staffs that we have ZERO TOLERANCE for any suggestion otherwise. If you transgress this policy, you can expect to separate from the company immediately. There will be no dog-whistle talk about ‘stolen elections,’ ‘civil wars’ or any other language that infers violent public disobedience is warranted, ever.”

On his radio show yesterday, Levin, who spent weeks telling his listeners that the election was stolen, was adamant that he never got the memo, and that no one controls what he does or doesn’t say. “If they did, you’d be hearing about it,” he said. “But they didn’t.” Perhaps. But Levin didn’t talk about a stolen election on his show last night. And that’s progress.

Worth Your Time

  • Russell Moore can always be counted on for a sober and thoughtful take on the news of the day, and this week is no different. “The powers-that-be, Paul wrote, are ‘instituted by God,’ and are to operate within limits: ‘For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad’ (Rom. 13:4), and the sword is to be exercised—not by vigilante mobs—but by those legitimate authorities and only against ‘the wrongdoer,’” he writes in an essay about the events of last Wednesday. “The governing authorities do not have a choice as to whether or not to hold people accountable for inciting and carrying out insurrection. To do otherwise would be to cease to be a just society, and to empower future evildoers to do the same. Everyone who attacked our Capitol or planned or directed such a storming of the Capitol, should be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

  • Washington Post reporters Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey, and Philip Rucker are out with a detailed account of what was going on at the White House last Wednesday, and it’s well worth your time. “As senators and House members trapped inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday begged for immediate help during the siege, they struggled to get through to the president, who—safely ensconced in the West Wing—was too busy watching fiery TV images of the crisis unfolding around them to act or even bother to hear their pleas,” the trio report. “‘He was hard to reach, and you know why? Because it was live TV,’ said one close Trump adviser. ‘If it’s TiVo, he just hits pause and takes the calls. If it’s live TV, he watches it, and he was just watching it all unfold.’”

  • Republicans have for years railed against what they see as an increasing victimhood culture on the left, particularly in academia and other elite institutions. But David Frum argues that, in the wake of last week’s events, the very people who chastised progressive self-pity have co-opted a form of it for themselves. “Again and again since Election Night 2020, Republicans have urged sympathy and accommodation for those who refused to accept the election outcome,” Frum writes in a piece for The Atlantic. “Give them space for their feelings. What harm will it do to humor them a little longer?

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Monday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah break down all your post-Capitol siege questions: Were President Trump’s words technically incitement, legally speaking? Can he be impeached for his role in the violence? Should he be impeached for his role in the violence? Plus, they dig into the Supreme Court’s latest cert grants addressing the issue of off-campus student speech.

  • Haley’s latest edition of Uphill, out this morning, offers a nuts-and-bolts look at what Trump’s second impeachment—now practically a certainty—will look like, and how President-elect Biden is likely to handle the headache of coming into office with a Senate that will be obligated to attend to the trial before turning to his legislative agenda.

Let Us Know

A chicken-or-the-egg question: Do you think your political beliefs are mostly informed by the news sources you read, or do you think you mostly seek out news sources that affirm your existing political beliefs? 

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).