During the 2016 presidential campaign, journalist and author Salena Zito observed that when it came to Donald Trump, “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Zito deserves credit for coining a memorable phrase that certainly sounded plausible back when we were all trying to fathom how Trump won. By 2020, however, it was clear that Trump’s fans were, in fact, taking him literally. The Capitol insurgency that occurred after months of Trump claiming that 1) the election had been rigged and 2) we were losing our country was proof enough.
I’ve been thinking about Zito’s formulation a lot lately, in part because Trump is back in the news. He repeated false claims that the election was stolen, while also portraying insurrectionists as harmless fuzzballs to Laura Ingraham on Fox News. Dominion Voting Systems also just filed a $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News for advancing the canard that the election was stolen.
But it’s mainly been on my mind because of an assertion made by pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s own lawyers in her $1.3 billion Dominion defamation suit. They claimed that “no reasonable person” would believe the conspiracy theories spun by Powell. This puts to lie the whole “seriously/ literally” shell game that has been going on for the last five years. When people enter into the political arena, invent crazy conspiracy theories, and stoke violence and sedition, millions of Americans do take them seriously and literally.
Let’s begin with the suggestion that “no reasonable person” would believe Powell’s assertions. This is (sadly) false. For example, a February poll from the University of Houston found that 83 percent of Texas Republicans believed there was widespread election fraud. Many average Americans (reasonable or not) seriously believed the kinds of lies Powell was intent on spreading. Could it be that the “no reasonable person” standard no longer achieves its intended goal in modern 21st century America, where surreal is the new normal and where shows like Saturday Night Live sometimes can’t compete with reality? I mean, excluding the “reasonable people” still leaves you with, what, 74 million Americans? Sarcasm aside, we are literally talking about a good third of the country. I am reminded of the woman who told Adlai Stevenson, “Governor, every thinking person would be voting for you.” Stevenson, the story goes, retorted, “Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority.”
It is true that Powell was merely one of the voices pushing bogus claims and conspiracy theories, but her voice was one of the most prominent. A quick refresher is in order. Prior to taking on this cause, Powell represented former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Prominent conservatives like past FEC chairman Trey Trainor personally vouched for her honesty. She was also considered to be part of an “elite strike force” of Trump lawyers (as Trump tweeted, a “truly great team”). Newsmax also identified her as such.
Powell joined Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani at a press conference held at the Republican National Committee. Among her many outrageous assertions, Powell alleged that Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state were paid off; she also claimed that a plot involving deceased Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez helped rig the election for Joe Biden via Dominion Voting Machines. Powell then appeared on various conservative outlets and shows, including Fox News, Fox Business (where she said “dead people” had voted), and even the Rush Limbaugh show (where she was interviewed by guest host Mark Steyn).
This is all to say that, although you and I might have always seen Powell as a crank, she had (on paper) solid professional and mainstream conservative credentials—not to mention the imprimatur of the Republican National Committee, America’s Mayor, and the President of the United States of America.
The reality is, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim to be a serious person engaging in the serious world of politics and ideas, spread toxic poison with a megaphone that reaches millions, and then cry “just kidding” when your attempts to actually overthrow an election fail.
Ideas have consequences, and the ideas we are dealing with now are deadly serious—including the notion that the election was stolen in a coup and that American democracy is in jeopardy. Allowing these serious allegations to be hand-waved away retroactively—just because they didn’t work—under the guise of harmless trolling, political theater, lulz, or satire would not only mean half the country would continue to believe that Biden is an illegitimate president, it would also encourage more irresponsible rhetoric and behavior.
I’m just sad that this is our last line of defense and our only real deterrent. It will likely take a lawsuit from a private company to discourage future demagogues and their accomplices from pursuing perverse incentives. Lawsuits may be the only effective mechanism left to hold irresponsible and dangerous actors accountable for their actions. I guess it’s better than nothing.