Is the Federalist trying to wean the base away from “Stop The Steal”?

When Trump’s interests diverge from the Republican party’s, where does right-wing media land? The Federalist, at least, is tipping its hand: they land with the Republican party. Recently, while Trump is still pumping out messages about overturning the 2020 election, the Federalist has run two articles with headlines that start with “The 2020 election wasn’t stolen.”

Sure enough, they each go on to say that while the election wasn’t stolen, per se, it was “bought”, or “vandalized”—or “rigged” in the title of Federalist editor Mollie Hemingway’s new book. But in import, that is a world away from Trump’s “stolen” formulation. In Trump’s own words, if “a thief robs a jewelry store of all of its diamonds…the diamonds must be returned.” This follows straightforwardly from the meaning of theft. Thus, reinstating him as President is the only remedy.

However, the Federalist’s message is more subtle. “Rigged” can mean that they claim the playing field itself was tilted or that their side faced undue headwinds. At best, one can remedy the situation for the future but one has to move on.

I’m guessing that that is exactly what the Federalist would like its readership to do—move on from 2020.

Diamonds

This comes as grievance about 2020 threatens to hurt turnout for Republicans in 2022 and the next Presidential election. Trump himself laid out his marker in a recent statement: that if the 2020 election is not “solved”, Republicans should desist from voting in 2022/2024.

It may sound like hyperbole from a man desperate to regain the shield from the law that the Presidency gave him. But his words have an impact. It’s quite possible that suspicions over fraud in 2020 discouraged Republican voters in the Georgia Senate Runoff election in 2021, leading to defeat for both Republicans.

Even today, a year after the 2020 election, Republican voters are embittered over what they see as “proven” fraud in 2020—to the point where on MAGA forums, talk of future elections brings forth a chorus of disenchantment with the very idea of voting itself, when, in their view, fraud was so widespread as to make their votes irrelevant.

You see this sentiment on QAnon channels on Telegram:

…on the [.]win forums that inherited the famous The_Donald subreddit’s users:

…and on Gab.

Alarm

While these are just anecdotes, an internal survey conducted by Republican strategists in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district found that around 10% of Republican voters would stay home if the 2020 election wasn’t audited to their satisfaction. Clearly, this has spread alarm among Republicans. It prompted Greene to tweet out a thread warning the base that while they push the audits of 2020, they must not forget to “VOTE!” As a side note, she indirectly called Trump a grifter:

Even Byron York of the Washington Examiner, who normally does not let any daylight pass between his own positions and Trump’s, has an article out calling Trump’s focus on 2020 “boring”:

Putting aside the question of whether Trump should or should not run again, the greatest threat to his chances is his own obsession with the processes of the 2020 election and his apparently irresistible urge to bombard audiences — anyone, actually — with long diatribes about the results. To be more than a grievance candidate, Trump needs to move beyond that.

Byron York: “Trump’s choice: build a 2024 campaign or become a 2020 bore

Given that Trump is fundamentally a showman, it is obvious that York is trying to appeal to his sense of showmanship to get him off the subject.

Offramp

Leaving aside Trump, how does one convince the base, who have spent months stewing in election grievance, to get off the subject? Responsible Republicans who have come out to tell the truth—that Biden won 2020 legitimately—have found themselves ostracized. The only possible answer is to give them an offramp. This way they can continue to stew in grievance, but in a way that makes them more likely to vote, in order to swamp whatever rigging they perceive, rather than spend months more pushing for pointless audits in state after state, or worse, give up on voting entirely. The magic bullet is to shift their beliefs from “stolen” territory into “rigged” territory.

This is precisely what Federalist editor Mollie Hemingway seems to be attempting with her new book Rigged, published in October. In it, she makes the explicit argument that no actual fraud was found in 2020, nor could it be found:

People, including the president, colloquially use the term “fraud” to refer to any type of election rigging, but technically it only refers to actions that affect the election that are not just illegal but committed knowingly. It’s almost impossible to find conclusive evidence of election fraud, particularly after ballots are counted. 

Mollie Hemingway, excerpt from Rigged

Instead, she goes on to say, the election of 2020 was rigged in small and large ways to benefit the Democrats. Of course, her arguments don’t hold, as I will show below. But this “rigged” formulation is clearly a coordinated attempt by right-wing opinion-makers to get people off the “stolen” train, which is counterproductive and does not help them win elections.

Hemingway was invited on Tucker Carlson’s influential show to make her case. Notice how carefully she frames it: that the methods of “rigging” that she is talking about “made it almost impossible to detect fraud”. Ergo, one has to stop focusing on election audits in state after state and move on.

Right when Hemingway’s book came out, The Federalist ran three articles in three days pushing the “rigged, not stolen” formulation. The same week, Fox News personality Brit Hume tweeted that Hemingway’s “rigged” made more sense than Trump’s “stolen”, because the 2020 election’s outcome was entirely legal.

“Rigged”?

Hemingway’s case for Rigged rests on two main pillars.

One, that due to the pandemic there was an unprecedented reliance on mail voting, and rules in many states were relaxed in order to accommodate the difficulties it caused.

Two, that the media and Big Tech helped the Democrats by pumping out hoaxes that shed Trump in a negative light, while suppressing stories about Hunter Biden.

On the way, she names some villains. Her list is long, but here are a few. She faults Marc Elias from the Perkins Coie law firm for funding the Steele dossier and for his many election-related lawsuits. She faults Pfizer for not releasing news about their Covid vaccine until after the election so that Trump could not claim credit for his Operation Warp Speed. She blames Fox News’s Christopher Wallace for aiding Biden during the first Trump-Biden debate, where Trump interrupted constantly. Social media companies are faulted for shadowbanning and “fact-checking” right-wing content (the quotes are in her original).

Her logic is tendentious in every grievance that she names.

The Republican jihad against mail voting is a case in point. There is absolutely no reason that mail ballots should favor Democrats. In fact, for years, Republican operatives ran up early vote totals by leaning on the absentee vote. In reality, the logic of 2020 ran like this: Trump and the Republicans hoped that Covid would give them a strong advantage because Democrats were more afraid of Covid, and would stay away from voting booths. This is probably the reason that Trump relentlessly called Covid a hoax and taught his base to take it less seriously. But state governments foiled their plans by broadening access to early vote-by-mail options. Trump’s next gambit was to cast mail balloting as rife with fraud (in fact, it is an automatic paper trail). But that only discouraged his own base.

So a situation they thought would benefit them turned into a millstone instead. This is what is driving the anger.

The other cases she makes are also slanted and often factually wrong.

For example, while it is true that Perkins Coie funded the Steele Dossier, and while it is true that it contained some disinformation, it doesn’t follow that Perkins Coie set out to create a hoax about Trump (and by the way Russia did actually interfere to aid Trump). While it is true that right-wing posts get flagged as fake news more often than left-wing posts, this is simply because the right-wing media lies more and has lower standards. While it is true that Biden told Trump to “stop yapping” at their first debate, this was after much frustration with Trump’s constant interruption—which she mentions, but acts as if these were unrelated facts. And so on.


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Zuck Bucks

Of all social media barons, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg comes in for special disparagement in Rigged.

Late in the 2020 election cycle, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he was giving away $300 million of his own money to help with election processes. He entrusted the money to the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a nonprofit, to hand out to election offices that needed it. There was so much money that the CTCL did not turn away any office that asked for it: ultimately about a fifth of offices in the country applied and were given funds. The largesse appears to have made a meaningful difference in the 2020 election, helping offices pay for security cameras, high-speed tabulators, masks, gloves, and the like.

The donation made conservative activists come out in hives. Before the election the conservative law firm Thomas More Society sued in four states to halt the disbursement of the funds, comparing it to the country’s “dark history of voter suppression“. This despite the fact that CTCL’s disbursement of funds went to whoever applied for them—without selecting for partisanship of the county—and helped nonpartisan efforts such as training poll workers and obtaining ballot boxes.

All those lawsuits were dismissed. But these “Zuck Bucks” form one of the main pillars of Hemingway’s thesis that the election of 2020 was “rigged”. She calls it a “private takeover of government election offices“. However, there is no actual allegation that he had any control over who got the money, or what they did with it.

But since Zuckerberg’s money went towards funding some of these offices, Republicans have used the “but for” logic to pin any perceived problems on “Zuck Bucks”. For instance, Republicans objected strenuously to the hiring of Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein of the National Vote At Home Institute as an election consultant in the city of Green Bay, WI. They made many dark allegations about Rubenstein; for instance that he was given keys to the ballroom where absentee ballots were stored. These allegations have been debunked; Rubenstein was hired for his expertise, and was not involved in counting or running the election. In any case, all of these dark imaginings are blamed on Zuck Bucks.

Anger over Zuck Bucks has spread like a mini-wildfire in right-wing forums since Hemingway’s book came out. Always in tune with the right-wing Zeitgeist, FL governor Ron DeSantis held a press conference where he ostentatiously banned “Zuckerbucks”. This ban, like Hemingway’s whole effort, has the added benefit of signaling to the base that the problem of 2020 has been solved and they can trust elections again.

Where Rigged falls in the right-wing landscape

The MAGA movement is currently splintering. One one end of the spectrum, The Federalist is trying to wean the base off of the self-destructive “stolen election” formulation and back into normal Republican politics, with their sense of grievance intact. They make nice with Trump (Hemingway spent hours at Mar-a-Lago interviewing him for this book), and though she rebukes him gently for his rambling way of talking, does not hold him to account for pushing the “stolen” idea in the first place.

National Review seems to have moved past Trump already, like they could not get there fast enough, though they spent the years of his administration never daring to call him out forcefully. If you look at their front page, you see no sign that Trump ever existed or that he is the front-runner for the 2024 nomination.

Another outlet, American Greatness, seems to be focused on reframing Jan 6 as a freedom struggle, Ashli Babbit as a martyr, and the insurgents as political prisoners. Interestingly, they have criticized Trump the most harshly of any of these outlets, but from the right. Recently Julie Kelly from American Greatness was on Tucker Carlson’s cable show excoriating Trump for not helping the Jan 6 defendants financially.

But all these outlets collectively have less clout among the base than all the unofficial media that gets play on Telegram, Rumble, Gab, BitChute, and other channels; and here, Stop The Steal is alive and well.

On the [.]win forums and on Telegram, for instance, commenters found Hemingway’s Rigged thesis intriguing, but found it weak, precisely because, in the words of one commenter, “it was 100% stolen in addition to everything in this article”:

Other influential channels like Stew Peters’s Red Voice Media and X22 Report are still oozing in the swamp of election audits, antivax, Durham news, and back again. One splinter group of QAnon believers led by Negative48 (Michael Protzman) spent last week in Dallas hoping for JFK Jr. to reappear and become Trump’s Vice President when he is reinstated, any minute now. QAnon believers on the QAnon channel on Telegram continue to squabble over whether there is, indeed a Plan, and if The Storm will ever arrive, or whether they were fooled.

Most ominously, among the part of the Trumpian Right led by Gen Flynn, Stop The Steal was always a coup attempt, and it hasn’t ended. If these reports are to be believed, he and his acolytes continue to plot to overthrow the US government. For people who are still under his sway, and many in the Trumpian Right continue to be, Hemingway’s “Rigged” formula is not going to hold much appeal.


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