What do I like most about the advent of The Biden Era? All the national unity and healing. To be fair, today’s the day that a not-insignificant number of Trump supporters learned for the first time that January 20 wouldn’t turn into a mass-arrest event that would leave Donald Trump in charge at the White House, so talk of “detox” isn’t exactly out of left field (or right field, if you will).
On the other hand, MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace and Ben Rhodes — not exactly known for his own slavish devotion to the truth — manage to take an arguable concern and turn it into the kind of broad-brush smear you’d expect. You might not expect a free-speech gag to be part of their demands, however:
.@NicolleDWallace calls for the permanent expulsion and punishment for any and all forms of conservative media that run counter to her political views. She says Republicans should be BANNED from speaking unless they first speak "the truth."
So, what camp am I going to, Nicolle? pic.twitter.com/h0cpvxitKd
— Curtis Houck (@CurtisHouck) January 20, 2021
“A Republican must assert the truth,” Wallace proposed, “before they’re allowed to share any other views.” Can we apply that standard to MSNBC as well? Of course not, nor would I want it applied. Free speech means free speech, and the First Amendment explicitly states that Congress cannot infringe on it, especially in political speech. Everyone has a right to be wrong, to be stupid, to be insulting, and so on. Government has no authority to apply prior restraint on even defamatory speech that is actionable in other ways, let alone apply it only to members of a particular political party.
It never ceases to amaze me that people who make their living in the political-speech sphere fail to support that basic, natural human right, let alone the obvious constitutional principle involved. Aren’t we supposed to rebuild our institutions during this new era of healing? And who would Wallace want in charge of “Speech Licenses” in the next Republican administration, especially when they decide to apply it to media pundits?
On the other hand, this isn’t as surprising coming from Rhodes, who once bragged about how easily he manipulated reporters by having “created an echo chamber” regarding the Iran deal. Ladies and gentlemen, Rhodes 2021:
Ben Rhodes calls for there to be "years" of a firm and brutal "detox" of "lies" and "hate" from the entire right side of the aisle in America and that it must be done through the use of "national security" and "Homeland Security" officials. pic.twitter.com/PmWtcV2f6k
— Curtis Houck (@CurtisHouck) January 20, 2021
“Echo chambers”? Did Wallace really call out “echo chambers”? Ladies and gentlemen, Rhodes 2016, emphasis mine:
Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
In this environment, Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them — ”
“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.
Price laughed. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,’ ” he continued, “but — ”
“In fact it’s a sign of strength!” I said, chuckling. …
As Malley and representatives of the State Department, including Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in formal negotiations with the Iranians, to ratify details of a framework that had already been agreed upon, Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
When I suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.
We can look at this one of two ways. Either this conversation involved people who have no business casting shade on political opponents for lying, manipulation, and propaganda, or we’re blessed to have a couple of real pros on hand for it.
If we want to get back to a healthy politic, everyone needs to learn this mantra — the best cure for bad speech is more and better speech. Those who work in the First Amendment industry shouldn’t have to be reminded of it. But also, those on the Right who cheered on the attempts to demolish small-R republican institutions, like state sovereignty in elections and proper constitutional restraint on Congress and the executive, should learn a lesson about how nihilistic populism will always backfire on conservatives.