Facebook, Liz Cheney and the Republican push for an end to democracy in 2024

‘If the Republicans come back into the White House in 2024, I have zero doubt that we will become a kind of electoral autocracy,’ one expert told me this week

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
@AndrewFeinberg
Wednesday 05 May 2021 22:25
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<p>Trump and Liz Cheney in the Oval Office when on friendlier terms</p>

Trump and Liz Cheney in the Oval Office when on friendlier terms

If your memory of the events leading up to the initial decision to virtually defenestrate the then-sitting President of the United States from Facebook and Instagram are hazy, let me refresh your memory.

Over the nearly two months that passed between the day Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election and the day Congress met to formally certify his electoral college victory, Trump and a haphazard crew of allies filed 70 different lawsuits contesting election results in almost every swing state. They lost every single one of them. Even Trump’s hand-picked Attorney General declared that no form of election fraud had taken place “on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” 

Despite this, Trump continued to lie. He continued to hold rallies during which he made claim upon unfounded claim about the election somehow having been stolen from him. He continued to promise that he could remain in office under a succession of unlikely scenarios, such as then-Vice President Mike Pence exercising his nonexistent authority to refuse acceptance of swing state electors’ votes for Biden and letting those states’ GOP-controlled legislatures appoint pro-Trump electors in their stead. 

And on the day Pence was to preside over a joint session of Congress to count those electoral votes, Trump, in the words of Wyoming GOP Representative Liz Cheney, “summoned [a] mob, assembled [a] mob, and lit the flame of” a riot that would see enemy flags waved in the Capitol for the first time since 1814. 

After Trump posted to his Facebook account that the day’s riot and accompanying assault on members of Congress, police officers, journalists, and others who’d gathered to do the people’s were “the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long,” Facebook suspended him and later made that suspension permanent. 

While the company’s oversight board ruled Wednesday that the decision to suspend him was the correct one, it also ordered Facebook to come up with clearer rules for when users can be punished for violating rules. The social media network, it added, must make a final decision on whether Trump can come back within six months. 

The decision came on the same day that House GOP leaders made clear they would be ousting Liz Cheney, who has long had one of the most conservative voting records in Congress but has still incurred Trump’s wrath for insisting that Biden won the election and that Trump incited the insurrection. The reaction to both events was similar, with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy — who on Monday told Fox News that he was “fed up” with Cheney’s refusal to embrace Trump’s alternative reality — taking to Twitter with a vow that “a House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech”.

Despite having been stripped of the presidency, Trump remains the sole animating force in the Republican Party, and House GOP leaders’ push to cast Cheney aside has come at his direction, according to people familiar with internal discussions. 

For ex-GOP Representative Denver Riggleman, his former party’s continued embrace of Trump — and his lies — do not bode well for American democracy. 

Riggleman, a former Virginia congressman who was ousted in a party convention after he’d officiated a same-sex wedding, observed that the Republican platform these days appears to be based on two major planks: using government power to force so-called “big tech” social platforms to carry and amplify even the most noxious speech when uttered by self-identified conservatives, and so-called “election integrity” laws that are meant to tilt the scales against Democrats in perpetuity. 

“’Election integrity’ is an absolute cover term for an election being stolen — by them,” Riggleman said. “[Trump] is the one controlling the party right now, and the platform really is about election integrity being a cover for controlling the circumstances in every state so there’s an advantage for the GOP.”

So, too, is his former party’s obsession with “big tech” as evidenced by statements from GOP luminaries such as potential Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, he explained: “Republicans, who are supposed to be about fiscal conservatism and free markets, are calling for the controls of big tech, where they have to allow what the government deems allowable to go through that filter.”

“What I’m worried about are lies, disinformation and propaganda, pushing Republicans for more and more control, so that they have unique advantages in every election,” he continued, before adding, “I think that’s incredibly dangerous”.

Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor and author ofHow Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, said the impending ouster of Republicans such as Cheney from GOP leadership and the continued embrace of so-called “election integrity” proposals shows that the GOP has abandoned any commitment to democracy.

“What we’re witnessing is the seemingly inexorable takeover of the Republican Party by anti-democratic forces — in state after state, we’re seeing these laws being passed that are… explicitly designed so individual US states transform into autocracies, one-party states like Hungary or Poland,” he said. “You’re going to have some states where even though the majority of people in the states vote for Democrats, Democrats will have no chance to take over state legislatures, and if the voters elect a Democratic governor, they’ll do as they’ve been doing with Gretchen Whitmer — they’ll strip them of their powers.”

Stanley said he agreed with the Facebook oversight board’s decision to require the company to come up with more clearly defined rules and penalties than the indefinite suspension it had imposed against Trump. However, he cautioned that any rule framework the company comes up with in response to the board’s directives must include a “general framework about the health of democracy that can’t be weaponized easily”.

“Any such framework is going to result in a permanent ban of Trump,” he added.

But Trump and his GOP allies are counting on Facebook reverting to the pattern management displayed over the last five years, during which the company routinely gave Trump and other prominent conservatives a pass on violations in order to avoid charges of having “censored” them. 

According to New York University Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the very possibility that the ban on Trump could be reversed shows that Facebook still does not understand the harm it’s allowed him to cause. 

“Either they’re not seeing the forest for the trees and they are making short-sighted decisions that harm democracy or they are doing what they have done before… being a partner to the erosion of democracy,” she said. 

Ben-Ghiat, the author ofStrongmen: Mussolini to the Present, said giving Trump another shot would be a shot in the arm for the former president and his increasingly authoritarian party. 

“It would be a huge decision given the importance of Facebook for Trump’s eternal campaign, because Trump never stopped campaigning, just like Berlusconi in Italy, and if he’s not on Facebook and he’s not on Twitter, with the way that our mediatized democracy is right now, it becomes harder for him to be a viable 2024 candidate,” she said. If Facebook rescinds the ban, she added, then the legitimacy it would confer would help him solidify his control over the GOP even further.

In that event, Ben-Ghiat warned that the only thing standing between most Americans and the authoritarian abyss will be a handful of state-level prosecutors in New York and Georgia. 

“If the Republicans come back into the White House in 2024, I have zero doubt that we will become a kind of electoral autocracy,” she said. “We’ve never had more examples of how important the rule of law is, and how fateful the roles of prosecutors can be… What happens to Trump now in New York and in other cases will be vital to whether he can continue his political career.”

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