Below is my column in the Hill Newspaper on the Trump-like rhetoric coming from Democratic leaders as the 2020 election season ramps up. While correctly criticizing President Trump for many of his comments, the Democrats have been engaging in almost identical commentary with little coverage. What is now missing is a high ground in an election season that seems to be getting more and more irresponsible and hyperbolic.
Here is the column:
Whoever ultimately prevails among the more than two dozen Democratic candidates for the presidency in 2020, the clear victor may be Peter Wason. The English psychologist was the first to establish “myside,” or confirmation bias — the tendency of people to gather or interpret facts that confirm their assumptions or preconceptions. With every passing day, the same “myside” bias is becoming more and more obvious but less and less recognized in the media.
Democratic candidates and commentators have engaged in Trump-like comments with virtually no coverage, let alone objection, because it does not confirm their view that Trump is uniquely offensive and divergent from the norm. Trump supporters often are the focus of news coverage for what is viewed as their blind loyalty and their ability to tune out offensive or embarrassing statements by Trump. Yet, the media — and many Democratic voters — have entirely ignored Democratic figures engaging in almost identical conduct or commentary. They just do not hear it because of “myside” media and politics.
The media has correctly objected to such name-calling yet said little when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as “Moscow Mitch,” an allusion to his allegedly being a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin for blocking bills on election security. McConnell took to the Senate floor to decry the “modern day McCarthyism” of labeling opponents as communist stooges over legislative disagreements.
Joe Biden has labeled President Trump as a “clown” or simply the “S.O.B.” New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio refers to “Con Don.” Yet, there was no outrage over those juvenile names — because they are dismissed as just desserts for Trump.
Attacking the media
Many of us have criticized Trump for his “enemy of the people” mantra about the media. Trump often attacks media viewed as critical of him, including most recently (and repeatedly) Fox News.
Yet, there was nothing but crickets when former congressman Beto O’Rourke (R-Texas) described Fox News and other conservative media outlets as being virtual mouthpieces of terrorism. Following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, O’Rourke declared that “the seeds of terror … are transmitted day and night on Fox News, the most-watched cable news channel in the country.” He added that “they are amplified” by conservative media companies like Sinclair Media (which owns ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates) and “right-wing websites” like Breitbart.
Other Democratic candidates have attacked what they view as hostile media, too. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) described Fox News as “a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists” and mixing legitimate coverage with “bigotry, racism and outright lies.” Many people simply do not register these comments as attacks on the free press because they agree with the premise.
Many of us have criticized Trump for his attacks on the integrity of jurists who ruled against him, such as his criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage. Many in the media celebrated when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts rebuked Trump by rejecting the president’s talk of “Obama judges” or Democratic appointees serving on court benches.
Yet, when decisions have gone in favor of the Trump administration, many Democrats and media commentators have immediately referred to those judges as virtual Republican dupes. Democratic members have referred to Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh as the “Trump Justices” and threatened to expand the Supreme Court to dilute their votes. (In reality, both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh voted with the left of the Court on critical cases last term).
Esquire magazine published a column denouncing judges who ruled against ObamaCare, declaring that the Republican arguments “don’t need to make sense. They just need the right judges — and they’re everywhere in the federal judicial system.” One Nation article explained how Trump jurists “swarming our judicial system . . . will linger, like an infected wound poisoning the body politic.” CNN ran headlines about “Republican-appointed judges” supporting the ObamaCare challenge, while Democratic members of Congress denounced federal judges ruling for the Trump administration as examples of why new judges must be appointed by Democrats.
None of these attacks were viewed as casting aspersions on judicial independence — because, of course, they were considered true while Trump’s attacks were viewed as false.
Politicizing the legal process
Trump has been criticized for his campaign mantra to “lock her up,” as if he could dictate the prosecution of Hillary Clinton. He criticized the special counsel investigations and, bizarrely, intervened in Sweden’s prosecution of American rapper A$AP Rocky, demanding bail (which cannot be granted in Sweden) and suggesting a danger to U.S-Swedish diplomatic relations if A$AP Rocky was convicted (which he was this week).
All of that has been disgraceful. Yet, there was virtually no outcry when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a former prosecutor, adopted her own “lock him up” pledge by promising that, if elected as president, her Justice Department would have “no choice” but to prosecute Trump. The same people who found “lock her up” to be offensive found “lock him up” to be thrilling.
Last week, both Warren and Harris commented on the five-year anniversary of the Ferguson, Mo., shooting of Michael Brown, calling it a murder. The “murderer” in this case would be police officer Darren Wilson. Yet, a grand jury rejected all criminal charges in the case and the Obama administration’s Justice Department conducted a full investigation and also rejected criminal charges: “Not only do eyewitnesses and physical evidence corroborate Wilson’s account, but there is no credible evidence to disprove Wilson’s perception that Brown posed a threat to Wilson as Brown advanced toward him.”
Thus, Warren and Harris not only rejected the conclusions of grand jurors and career prosecutors; they declared a police officer to be a murderer without even a charge, let alone a trial. Where was the outrage to that politicizing of the legal process?
None of this calls out for sympathy for Trump, who richly deserves criticism for his comments. However, Democrats have engaged in the same kind of comments with nary a word of remonstrance.
What is most striking in all of this is how many voters do not recognize their “myside” bias. Everything Trump says confirms their position, while similar comments by Democrats are ignored or excused. The result is a type of liberal exceptionalism.
In the 1960s, Wason was able to achieve his results with a couple dozen subjects, but the 2020 election is proving to be the largest Wason experiment in history, on the scale of tens of millions. The reason is that, while Wason actually exposed his subjects to opposing facts (which were still rejected), today’s voters live in hermetically sealed echo chambers where they select news that confirms their bias. For many Democrats, even if they hear Trump-like comments from fellow Democrats, they blame Trump for creating the environment leading to those comments.
What remains is bias protected by a hard shell of hypocrisy: All is fair in combating Trump … even becoming more like him by the day.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.