Members Only | December 15, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Will the Democrats learn? When you think you’re winning against bullshit, you’re actually losing
On covid, the Republicans are swiftboating Biden.
It started just over two weeks ago with a Wall Street Journal opinion headline: “Biden’s covid Death Milestone: More Americans have died of the virus in 2021 than in all of 2020.” That unleashed the pig pile.
Republican politicians and their right-wing media sock puppets fell over themselves claiming Biden and Trump were somehow the same on covid. Or perhaps – gasp – Trump was better. It’s hogwash.
But it isn’t exactly crazy. This maneuver is actually an intentional, subversive attack on our brains, a gateway drug for an even more devastating reframing of how we think about the pandemic.
A lot is riding on whether Republicans can pull this off.
Brandolini’s Law: “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” By throwing out patently cockamamie ideas, Republicans tie Democrats in knots. The more they flood the zone with bullshit, the harder it is for Democrats to marshal the focus and attention needed to debunk it all.
The pandemic is the fulcrum of our politics, the most important dynamic in all of our lives, the key to most Americans’ economic experience, and the likely reason we aren’t living through a second Trump term. With the omicron wave probably around the corner, Americans are about to rethink our internal narrative on what has happened to us, why and who is responsible. And as our recall of 2020 grows fuzzier – with Donald Trump readying for a comeback and voters souring around perceptions of continued instability under President Biden – the timing is right for Republicans to try to invert voters’ sense of reality and pave the way for a Trump resurgence.
First, let’s dispose of this wrong argument. Then, let’s talk about why Republicans make it so cynically and what Democrats can do about it.
The GOP’s bad faith
A comparison of covid deaths between 2020 and 2021 is asinine. In 2020, we started from a base of zero cases and did not record a death until the last day of February. In 2021, we started with a base of millions of cases, President Biden was inaugurated into a full blown pandemic, and he came into office literally in the week where we saw the peak for deaths in the US. On top of that, Biden dealt with a summertime delta wave, which was like hitting the reset button back to May, 2020, on covid. When we look at much more sensible comparisons on equal time scales or against other countries, they show that Biden has done far better than Trump.
But as stupid as the math is, the underlying logic of the Trump-Biden equivalency is even worse. Through terrible planning, denial, deception, distraction, magical thinking and incompetence, Donald Trump was directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of American deaths when he was president. That’s according to nonpartisan scientists and his own covid leadership team. Even more insidious, he fueled the political movement against covid vaccination that’s causing most of the deaths under Biden’s watch. Even out of office, Trump is tilting the covid scales toward death.
By contrast, President Biden is doing everything he can – mandating vaccinations, pushing boosters and paying for outreach and testing – with Trump Republicans fighting him every step of the way, even giving people financial incentives to remain unvaccinated. (Trump did get one thing right. Operation Warp speed made a real contribution – a small one – to the development of our current crop of highly effective vaccines. But further note that President Biden is the one who led the fastest vaccination effort in American history.)
The facts are clear. Trump made the pandemic much worse, and Trump forces continue making it worse. Biden is making things better, despite bitter opposition. So those same people trying to gaslight us about Biden’s record are a case of the arsonist blaming the fire brigade.
Bad faith works for the GOP
Republicans know that. So why aren’t they afraid to make an argument so obviously vaporous? The reason is most of the time, in this political and media environment, it works. There are three reasons why.
The first is Brandolini’s Law, which states that, “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” By throwing out even patently cockamamie ideas, Republicans tie Democrats in knots. The more they flood the zone with bullshit, the harder it is for Democrats to marshal the focus and attention needed to debunk it all. Not to mention that merely engaging in the argument lends credibility to the BS side and drains credibility from the fact side. Hence, the old adage: never get into an argument with an idiot, because onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.
Second, expending all that effort to win the case with facts may be to no avail. Fact-checking doesn’t make people abandon political fantasy. With right-wing media dominating mainstream media, a giant chunk of our country is only one click away from yet another helping of sugary propaganda to wash away that side salad of facts.
Third, Swiftboating is effective precisely because it goes at your opponent’s strong point. Military historian John Keegan traces this strategy back to Alexander the Great, but look no further than the namesake 2004 attack on John Kerry’s military service. Kerry made his war record his candidacy’s foundation (he opened his convention speech with a salute) when the Iraq War was the biggest issue in the election. But rather than building on that strong base, he ended up having to litigate it. The attack didn’t have to succeed definitively. It merely had to degrade Kerry’s biggest advantage. And it did.
Now President Biden finds himself subject to the same kind of assault, on a topic at the forefront of voters’ minds, and on an issue that should be his biggest strength. What can Democrats do about it? When the other side is flooding the zone, you have to strategically pick your battles, and then you have to go all-out on the ones you do pick.
So congressional Democrats must not shrug this off. They must make this one of the few battles they wage. They must go all-out to win it, not just with facts, but by consistently, concisely reminding Americans of all that Trump has taken away from them. Remember: it may seem easier to win an argument against total bullshit. But it is not.
And Democrats ignore this lesson at their peril.
Matt Robison covers public policy and governance for the Editorial Board. The host of Beyond Politics Podcast and Great Ideas Podcast, for WKXL in Concord, NH, he lives with his family in Amherst, Mass.