Wajahat Ali

False Equivalency Created The Big Lie

Air Date: March 15, 2021

Daily Beast columnist Wajahat Ali discusses a culture of false equivalence that has normalized domestic terrorism and disinformation.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. “If we want to preserve this fragile, but vital experiment called democracy, it’s time to acknowledge, confront and call-out this obvious painful truth, one side’s disregard for the democratic project.” These are the words of our guest today, inspiring and democratic enthusiast, Wajahat Ali. He is a journalist and author. You have read him in the New York Times, and he is now a columnist for the Daily Beast. Thank you so much for joining me today Wajahat.


ALI: Thanks Alex. Thanks for having me on your show. Appreciate it.


HEFFNER: You called out so clearly, it was a clarion call in your debut Beast column the fact that one party has supported the violent insurrection against our government. And I just want you to assess how successfully, so far, we are as a society in acknowledging that fact?


ALI: I think we’re at a perilous crossroads, right, because if you want to be the optimist number one 80 million people, a record amount of voters, came out during a pandemic, a once in a lifetime pandemic, to give the most votes ever to a presidential candidate, Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Amazing. At the same time, 73 million came out and gave the vote to Donald Trump, more votes than he got last time, to a president who willfully lied to them during the middle of a pandemic, attacked science, abused his power, is impeached twice. There’s currently an impeachment trial happening as we are speaking. As the video and tweet evidence in his own words lays out very clearly how he took a sledgehammer to democracy and fomented a violent mob that overtook the U.S. Capitol and killed five people. And we have a good chunk of this country, I would say, if you look at the stats, it seems like a third, a third of this country that lives on earth three, that literally believes in a deep state conspiracy and QAnon in Jews, powerful Jews, who are part of the international cabal who fund this international ring of a sex predators and cannibals who are trying to overturn democracy and weaken the white race. That includes us Muslims and Latinos and immigrants and black people who are all part of this conspiracy. And, you know, they don’t believe in vaccines. They believe that Bill Gates is trying to mind control them through the vaccines, right? They don’t believe in masks. And so you’re seeing this radicalized cult, which is not just a small minority, right? It’s not 5 percent, 10 percent. We’re talking about a third of this country that has been, I feel bad for them. You know, they’re not, they’re not devils, they don’t have horns on their head.


They’re fellow Americans who have been willfully radicalized by a right-wing media ecosystem. And now what we’re going to see is an acquittal of Donald J. Trump, a president who literally promoted the Big Lie to cancel our free and fair election and Republican senators because they worry about their future, are going to acquit him and essentially rubber stamp, a violent insurrection and a violent white supremacist mob that will try again, to take power by all means necessary. And that’s, that, that’s the answer to that your question is that’s where we are, is my takeaway from this impeachment is that he’s going to get acquitted. We all know that. And the signal that sends out is, okay, Republicans, try this again, next time succeed. And so we’re still at a very perilous point where I still do not believe that most of American society acknowledges and realizes where we are because we are paralyzed by this both-sides, false equivalence that is unfortunately further entrenched by the media and the media landscape, which puts on an equal pedestal, violent insurrectionists. And there are enablers and the democratic party with all its flaws that is still trying to fight for democracy. And so, what happens, what happens when one of the two political parties doesn’t believe in democracy? You tell me Alex.


HEFFNER: Right? Well, that’s what we’re grappling with here. And that’s what your column most articulately describes. When you have a political, not a faction but one of two major parties that is overtaken by the conspiracy theory and by the commitment to undermining the franchise, by the commitment to politics by any means, and accomplishing your goal as an authoritarian force, rather than as an elected office holder or community or culture. When you described that constituency of the radicalized and present the fact that acquittal is likely. Conviction and disqualification would probably, you would argue, help in the de-radicalization, but acquittal is a cop-out and a lack of accountability. But the question I really had for you is of the Trump voters, have you come to a conclusion, not just the Trump voters, but the voters who would elect the Congresswoman from Colorado and Georgia, specifically new this cycle who have engaged most perniciously in that Big Lie, the fraudulent claims about fraud and of course the crazy nutty conspiracy theories. But have you come to any conclusion about the extent of the radicalization within the voters, for instance, in those two women that Congress people’s districts?

ALI: Yeah, I mean, Marjorie Taylor Greene is a fantastic example. We have the memories of gnats, but just last week, over half of the House GOP gave her a standing ovation and was willing to support her and put her on an Education and Budget Committee, even though she has aided and supported and celebrated the violent insurrection, you know, patrolled the halls of Congress searching for a merciful some Congresswoman that she can like, you know, troll and says that, you know, they, they need to put their hands on the Bible to take their oaths. You know, she believes in Jewish space lasers and literally white supremacist conspiracy theories about Jews funding black people and Latinos to weaken the white race. Right. This is all that she believes openly consistently, not to mention her obsession with guns and what happened? Half the house GOP said, we’re okay with this. Standing ovation.


And using her as an example, I said that she is the present and future of the GOP. Fascism in America will have a female face. I don’t think people are really understanding that, right, because it plays on these gender stereotypes that somehow a mom, mama bear, mama bear, Sarah Palin mama bear, Boebart, mama bear, Marjorie Taylor Greene. It softens the image,




ALI: Plays with existing gender stereotypes. And so, what we’re seeing is not a moderation. What I’ve been saying for four years is that we’re witnessing the death rattle of white supremacy that will become a death march and the Republican party, the entire GOP infrastructure, it’s not just the party, the funders, the party, the base, the media, the ideologues, they will further radicalize and weaponize, and includes the base where I wrote an article for the New York Times a couple of months ago saying I spent time reaching out. I spent time going to the rust belt. I told them, I speak, can’t you just send me to these folks, you know, let me talk to them. And what happens is, you know, no fisticuffs, no blood, no yelling matches, no shouting matches, but they said, Oh, you’re one of the good ones. I’m okay with you. You’re, you’re, you’re an okay Muslim. Or when I talked to them right before the 2016 election, ah, Donald Trump, he he’s politically incorrect. He takes on all of them. I like that about him. He takes on everybody. He’s an equal opportunity offender. He’s mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore. I don’t like some of his racism, but I’m okay with it. And that’s what you’re seeing is the Overton window of what is considered acceptable has shifted. What was once considered fringe is now elected to the House GOP and given a standing ovation. What was once, you know, made you cringe is the President of the United States who still has considerable power over his party from Mar-a-Lago what literally got Steve King, the original white supremacist GOP from Iowa of his committees, right? Let’s, let’s not forget two years ago, the GOP stripped Steve King because he was too extreme. Marjorie Taylor Greene, is it like him times 10 and she’s now a martyr. So that just gives you a kind of a snapshot of what we’re dealing with. And I’ve said this before. I think we have lost, in our lifetimes, at least Alex, about a third of this country, in a major villain. I always, at least once a month, I try to tweet out about his villainy is the Murdochs, Rupert and Laughlin, because the radicalization of a third of this country happened due to disinformation.


When I talked to them, I’m literally talking to someone who lives on earth three, and it’s very hard to reach out to them. And the final thing I say is I was a little bit of an optimist. I thought, I think it was on Chris Hayes’s show like two, three years ago where I said the only thing that will peel away some Trump voters is immense personal pain. I thought it would be a recession. Well, we had a recession, and we had a once in a lifetime pandemic that killed over half a million people. And they’re still with them.


HEFFNER: It is stunning: The extent to which there is the stubbornness of the coalition that would refuse to be influenced by any fact-based event, even if it happened to their loved one. But when you say we’re living, some of these folks are living on another planet in their districts, do you think that that because of the disinformation and the extremism, there is a demand from the constituents of those congressional districts in Colorado and Georgia, that there is an outward demand for that kind of Sarah Palin, but you know, far more extreme, but like that is what these voters are searching for? Or do you think that these congresswomen came along and said, I can speak this language and I can ratchet it up further and use sort of the GOP’s tactics to do that. And you know, it will be acceptable enough. So, is it a supplier or demand problem more?


ALI: It’s a good question. I think it doesn’t really matter anymore because of the outcome is the same, right? I’m not, God, I don’t know what’s in people’s hearts. I can’t judge their intentions. I can only see their actions. So, when I see Congresswoman Stefanick from New York, who was allegedly a moderate, Harvard-educated Republican, go full Trump, at the end of the day, I don’t know what’s in her heart. I judge her by her actions. with Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, I believe, if you’re asking me to make an assessment, I think they’re true believers. Other folks like Ted Cruz would sell out his own wife and father and mother and his spine to get power, right, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It depends on their actions and intentions, excuse me, on their actions. And what we’ve seen is the radicalization of the Republican Party going full Trump to retain any credibility with the base. And the base has become radicalized. Now was the base always radical or was the base radicalized? I’ll give you one example where recently in the last two weeks, let’s go with Fox news. Will Fox news moderate? No, they’re now competing with the Newsmax and One America News Network. And they’re like, we’ll out crazy you. And so they’ve stripped their nightly news hours and replaced it with ideologues, right? They’ve given the talk show hosts and the Trumpists such as Maria Bartiromo her own hour, right? Yeah. They got rid of Lou Dobbs, but only because Lou Dobbs was mentioned in the lawsuit where Dominion and the other, a voting booth are very intelligently and strategically hitting them hard for defamation. So like it ain’t worth it. Let’s get, let’s get rid of that old dinosaur Dobbs, but show me where they have moderated. You got Tucker, Laura Ingram, right? You got Hannity. You got right-wing ideologues who whitewash white supremacy to the point where Tucker Carlson on his show said white supremacy is a hoax. And then he had to take a vacation for a week. Right? Laura Ingram said that the poor kids who were kidnapped and separated at the border were actors. This is what is fed to the base. And so if you are a part of this base, if you ever watch Fox News, and it’s not just Fox News, Big Tech, right? Dan Bongino and like, you know, the Daily Caller, right? Talk radio. It is a right-wing ecosystem. It’s a closed information ecosystem that repeats and regurgitates these same fears, enemies, talking points. You go to Fox News, you get it, you get your hit at Fox News. You wake up and get your hit on talk radio.


You’re walking, you get your hit on the podcast. And then you get your hit from your local Congressman, right? And so I believe they have preyed upon their fears and insecurities and radicalized. Otherwise, I would think majority of good Americans and we’ve and enough studies have come out that shown the radicalization process of otherwise moderate Americans, right? You’ve heard the stories where like my dad watched Fox News for a year. I can’t recognize him anymore. And at the same time, we have to acknowledge that this is nothing new. Trumpism is an extension of the Southern Strategy, which is an extension of the KKK, which is an extension of Jim Crow laws, which an extension of the Confederates, which is an extension of white supremacy. That, that ideology dies hard in America.


HEFFNER: Explain to our viewers why there’s not a false equivalency. You know, people talk in terms of silos, right, in terms of disinformation being equally problematic on the right and the left, so you just articulated, you explicated this cycle of disinformation and being fed the most egregious and base bigotry. And those who conduct themselves, on those podcasts and media properties, to which you refer, spend their time on their programs often saying on the left, there is this similar dynamic, but I want you maybe once and for all to explain why it’s not the same thing.


ALI: It’s actually not the same thing. I was a commentator at CNN. You know, I’ve written for New York Times, I’ve been calling this double standard out for years. You have one side, flawed, which at least stands for democracy. The radical on the liberals want Medicare for All. And they say, defund the police. The mainstream on the Republican Party voted to decertify a free and fair election and fomented of violent insurrection that took over the us Capitol and killed five people. What both sides? One side believes in climate change, they go about it a different way, how they want to combat it. Another side believes that climate change is a hoax created by China. What both sides? One side, the first thing that he did when he got in, in office, Joe Biden canceled the Muslim ban. The other side, the first thing that they did when they got into power was implement a flawed Muslim ban that then they use the five, four Supreme Court to put into practice, right? What both sides? There are no both sides. One side condemns white supremacy and Proud Boys. The other side, Donald Trump said, “Stand back and stand by.” And the Proud Boys, which is now considered a domestic terror threat in Canada, excuse me Canada, called it a terrorist organization was part and parcel of the violent insurrection that tried to overturn the election. And that’s the problem. The media cannot help it. It just, it’s trained this way, the mainstream media, right? They, they can’t, they think they’re being fair. And they say, well, the left said this, well, there’s not, there’s nothing close. And after a while you’re doing a disservice to democracy and the truth. And I said this, and I off a few journalist friends of mine. You’re doing journalistic malpractice in this day and age by giving an equal platform to proto-fascists and authoritarians, and saying, they’re just as bad as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who wants Medicare for All,




ALI: What are you doing to democracy?

HEFFNER: Yeah, I think you you’re spot on. And, and also the insinuations and unvetted, uncorroborated statements that were not just outlandish, they were fraudulent, that’s why my construct on The Open Mind has been fraudulent claims about fraud, right? It’s the fraudulent case of fraud. The point though, is that on the conservative media, the way they have attempted to rehabilitate Donald Trump and his allies in the wake of the insurrection and domestic terrorism incident, which they don’t call domestic terrorism, at least in most parts of Fox News, is to make this again, false comparison with incidents of violence during protests over the summer. That seems to be the sort of genesis of their false equivalency or contextualization kind of faux contextualism of what transpired, and even the Trump defense on the impeachment trial kind of made a veiled attempt at rationalizing the conduct this way. So, I think that these are worlds apart, but you know, it seems to me that for the next four years the viewers or listeners of the media you described are going to be hearing why the insurrection was small potatoes or why it was, you know, basically a form of violence that had occurred over the course of the sort of pandemic year. And, you know, I think that the media have been responsible in that respect, except for the conservative or the sort of radicalized extremist properties in not accepting that context and just rejecting it. But do you have any advice for how we can think about de-radicalization as we know, this is, you know, this keeps going on in trivializing, the events of January 6th?


ALI: Yeah. So, first of all, they’ve always done this. Benghazi, right. Her e-mails, Antifa, BLM, perpetual, perpetual victimhood. I mean, look, who’s the biggest whiner? Donald Trump. Look at his tweets. Who’s the person that cancels more folks than anyone? The right wing. Look at Colin Kaepernick. Look at critical race theory, look at the 1619 Project, right? So perpetual victimhood, perpetual grievances, fake outrage, are the fuel of the right-wing movement are the fuel of white supremacy going back to since forever, that’s not going to change. Bad faith actors who work the refs and always whine and complain, that’s never going to change, right? False equivalencies. That’s never going to change ‘cause all they want is a rationalization for their bad behavior. We’re going to give you cruelty, but we always demand civility. You know, let us do what we want to do without accountability. The second you hold us accountable; you’re canceling us. We’re the victim. That is the tried-and-true model, which will continue. And somehow they will be the victims on all of this. They are the victims oppressed by the deep state and the liberal media who are not letting them have their individual liberties. And, you know, just get over it as Nikki Haley said, let’s just move on. Right? Like the violent insurrection. How about unity and healing, right? It’s only a one-way street. It’s never reciprocal. Biden promised unity and healing. Well, what did you promise? It’s very hard to unify with Republican senators who are fomenting a mob who want to kill their colleagues, right? And so, when he talks, when he talks about radicalization, I say this, if you want to use the pandemic language, I use this before the pandemic even started, we have to trace the virus, contain it and inoculate the majority. That’s all the only thing I could see moving forward, inoculate the majority from disinformation, you know, inoculate them with truth, with democratic practices, realize we have about maybe a third, maybe 30 percent, contain it and then hope through time and through de-radicalization efforts, it shrinks, it shrinks, it shrinks, it shrinks. We, we’ll get it to 10 percent. Maybe in this country, we’ll get it to maybe 15 to 20. Right now, it’s at a 30, 35. You’re not going to let the majority contain and shrink the extremist minority, right? And how do you do that? I think as big tech has to step up, we still haven’t aggressively pushed big tech to do its job. You saw what happened when they de-platformed. Look what happened, they de-platformed Trump. And then within a week, they did some research and said, this information went down, right? De-platform people like Milo Yiannopoulos, right? When Simon and Schuster said, you know, first of all, Simon Schuster gave him $200,000 dollars, Milo Yiannopoulos. I’m like, this is a racist and misogynist. They’re like, hey, we’ll get good book sales. And then they took the money away. So, corporations and dollars speak the loudest in America.


HEFFNER: Wajahat, Final question. What are some tangible things that the Biden Administration can do besides identifying the white supremacy threat and domestic terrorism with a new administration at the Department of Justice? That’s a given, but what are the most important things that this administration can do to deradicalize?


ALI: First and foremost? I think you have to promote democracy. You need transparency, right? If you have transparency, you can restore American people’s trust in this fragile thing called democracy. There’s a reason why people don’t trust those in power. There’s a reason why people don’t trust institutions. There’s a reason why people don’t trust Congress. There’s the reason why people don’t trust the media, transparency, transparency, transparency, ownership of previous mistakes, accountability, right? Showing meaningful diversity, right? Investigations, holding these people responsible, right? I think Voting Rights Act right. Kill the filibuster, promote statehood for DC, right? These are small things that people say, oh, it won’t go a long way. I think it’ll go a big way. A stimulus package, right? Don’t just talk about criminal reform, show it, right. Don’t have a double standard where you give a pass to the economic anxiety of the rustbelt but ignore the economic anxiety and the real-life anxiety of black and brown voters as well. And I feel like already there are on a good start, right? They have tremendous challenges. You have a pandemic, you have the lead up to the Trump Administration, but if you can give these vaccines out, give them out equally, give these stimulus package out, give them out equally, invest in communities, infrastructure spend. And also I say the final thing I’ll say is, you know, people laugh at me when I said this because Biden is prone to like, you know, gaffes, fireside chats, come talk to the people. These are the problems. These are the solutions. This is what I’m dealing with. Go along with me. There’s a lot of problems. I want to reach out. And bring and make that big tent, a broad multicultural coalition, and slowly but surely you can restore and repair some trust. And we’re already seeing in one month, you’re seeing the numbers, Oh wow. Vaccine rollout, masks, science, stimulus package. We like this. This goes a long way. And attack big tech, attack disinformation, call out a spade for a spade. And I think end the both-sides charade. And I want the Democrats to flexible. And I think they have the majority of Americans with them, especially with that violent insurrection. A majority of Americans say, go after these folks, go after the white power movements, the number one domestic terror threat in America, you do all this. It’s doable. I think you can restore some trust and bring some equality and equity back in this country.


HEFFNER: It’s doable, but it’s overwhelming. Final question. What’s the best way to keep folks accountable, right, we know that the change.org petitions, the hashtag activism, none of that really materialized. The grassroots of Georgia and the Senate campaigns there made possible accountability on the national scale, but it does sound overwhelming. It sounds enormously overwhelming. So just for those viewing and listening, what’s the best way to hold account this new administration?


ALI: Everyone has their own role to play. Go after the money, nothing speaks like money. Go after the corporate donors, use your money, whatever your money you have to support those elected officials and those organizations that are doing good at work, organize and vote. If the, if the person you have elected is not doing the job, vote them out. Use whatever platforms you have, whether it’s social media, whether it’s your local community town hall meeting, to speak out and keep pushing, pushing, pushing, right? The work now has just begun. You put in a new administration, but you have to push them. Elected officials have always told me this on the DL. We know what sometimes what the right thing to do is, you know, we know what we have to do, but you sometimes have to push us to do it, right? Build that coalition, build that momentum, make an offer and you make it easier for me.


HEFFNER: Waj, I think you said, so I think the voters have to be intellectually honest about what’s transpiring, keeping people accountable. The politicians of course have to be intellectually honest, but unless the voters themselves,


ALI: That’s right.


HEFFNER: …We as citizens are intellectually honest. We’re no good. So, let’s be good. Waj Ali, read him at the Daily Beast. You read him many, many years, these last months at the New York Times. Thank you for joining me today.


ALI: Thanks so much.


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