A certain snake oil has saturated our civil and political discourse, not to mention the national consciousness. It comes from a medicine show where lies pose as truth and fiction as fact.
Take, for example, an op-ed Kellyanne Conway recently contributed to the New York Times called “The Cases for and Against Trump.” Or, from where I live in Nevada, an article in our local weekly under the headline “Nevada GOP Communications Made Public By J6 Committee.”
The New York Times and our local paper clearly exist at the extremes. One is the venerable newspaper of record for the country, the other a homespun, last man standing amid the mass extinction of local journalism.
The articles are predictable and of no importance in and of themselves. But from their most disparate viewpoints, they peddle the same snake oil from the medicine show that won’t ever pack up and leave town—let alone end.
Kellyanne Conway is a Trump advisor and surrogate who served as Senior Counselor to the President through most of his time in office. She invented the oxymoronic “alternate facts,” to describe the easily exposed falsehoods often promulgated by the Trump administration.
Her op-ed ostensibly assesses the pluses and minuses of Trump’s run for President in 2024. It also reads like a job application, concluding with the admonishment that Trump will need advisors who tell him what he needs to know, not just what he wants to hear.
Meanwhile, a close reading reveals the playbook guiding the medicine show sales pitch. Sell the snake oil by talking about everything but the snake oil itself. Talk about what it looks like, or even smells or tastes like; talk about how everyone imagines it; and most of all talk about the haters and how afraid they are of it.
It makes you wonder, does Trump even exist without the foils and strawmen? Without “Trump Derangement Syndrome?” Without the arrogant pundits, news media, and political consultants whom Conway tells us cannot get over his 2016 victory? Without the Trump haters blind to the failings of the Biden / Harris administration?
Conway is as polished and sophisticated a huckster who ever took a breath. She describes Trump as someone who “endures persecution and eludes prosecution like no other public figure.” This is a brilliant, baffling combination of groundless assumption to reassure Trump followers (persecution?) and textbook irony (eludes prosecution) that simultaneously provokes admiration and maddening frustration, depending on who’s listening.
But it’s only a description. She stays away from what Trump is, although she ventures to say what he does. Once even that threshold is crossed, we reach bedrock, which is lies.
Take, for example, her statement that, among his other accomplishments, Trump “stared down Mr. Putin before he felt free to invade Ukraine.”
The snake oil cures cancer. The image of Donald Trump staring down Vladimir Putin is not just an alternate fact, it could only happen in an alternate universe. In the real world, Trump openly solicited Russian help in the 2016 election; admired and fawned over Putin; valued his word over our own intelligence community; sought to undermine NATO; and callously gambled with Ukraine’s survival in his prescient fear of Joe Biden.
Putin invaded Ukraine because of his deluded vision of himself as a modern-day Peter the Great, and his ill-informed assumption that his armies would roll through Ukraine while the US and NATO wrung their hands and dithered on the sidelines.
In other words, once you sort through the chaff—the deflections, false equivalencies, victimhood—you always end up at the same place. Lies.
This is also how it works at the other end of the earth from the New York Times.
We are fortunate where I live to have a local, weekly newspaper. It’s small, tabloid format, usually about twenty-five articles over a dozen pages or so. It includes news articles, columnists, historical features, and—important at my age—obituaries.
I support our newspaper. I buy a copy every week from the machine just outside the door of the post office. It is the sole survivor of a once healthy local news scene, which traces its ancestry back to Mark Twain. In fact, over the decades some good friends of mine have made a go of it with this same newspaper.
They were motivated by, respectively, a commitment to and romantic idea of journalism. They were ultimately brought down to earth by the harsh economic realities of the endeavor, which eventually outlasts your willingness to sacrifice any semblance of a normal life for the sake of printing the news.
That was then and this is now. If today’s version lacks anything, it is a consistent commitment to basic journalistic standards. It does fine telling us the who, what, where, when, and the why, most of the time. It does fine telling us about local businesses, important events, landslides and off-roaders stuck in the mud, and reminding us of our history.
It’s the politically tinged stories that expose a basic lack of professionalism. The absence of proofreading and fact checking practically jumps off the page, but the real problem is that news and opinion are so mixed together you can’t tell which is which.
That takes a toll. The result is, on occasion, a less nuanced version of Kellyanne Conway that uses the same snake oil playbook, but skips the chaff and goes straight to the lies.
The article I mentioned earlier reports on the January 6 Committee making public the various communications among Nevada Republicans and Trump administration figures before and after the 2020 election.
Well and good, but then comes the trick of simply stating an “alternate fact” and moving on without looking back. Nevada’s alternate elector scheme (the subject of the communications) is described as an effort to “redress” the election results necessitated by “The sudden stop in the counting of ballots in Nevada and a two-and-a-half-hour gap between that stoppage and the counting continuing, with Joe Biden moving from behind to leading Donald Trump.”
We don’t know if the reporter found this out himself, or just heard it on cable news. But it is made up out of whole cloth, as even a cursory fact check or Google search would have shown.
Nevada’s seventeen counties are responsible for counting the votes in an election. They begin after the polls close, continue through election night and into the next few days. They process and count early votes, election day in-person votes, mail ballots received before election day, on election day, and for a few days afterward, and provisional ballots.
The counties report their results to the public at various intervals. They also forward them to the Secretary of State, who compiles and periodically reports the state-wide tallies.
The counting does not go on twenty-four hours a day. For example, in 2020 Washoe County election workers started counting the evening of November 3, election day, and continued until around 12:30 a.m. on November 4. They stopped for the night and resumed work at 8:00 a.m. that morning.
County and state officials updated their progress, and their results, at regular intervals from election night until the deadline for receiving the last mail ballots. No part of the process was ever suddenly “stopped” in any county, let alone the whole state, as the article would have you believe. There was no mystery. Biden won because when all the votes were counted he got more than Trump.
The article goes on to state, as unquestioned fact, that the Republican State Chair Michael McDonald presented Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske with boxes containing “120,000 instances of voter fraud.” Again, a simple Google search would have led to Cegavske’s thirteen page letter addressing and debunking each and every one of the examples contained in the boxes left at her door. She made the simple, devastating point that allegations of voter fraud do not amount to evidence, and nothing in those boxes supported the contention that the 2020 election was plagued by widespread voter fraud.
There is nothing unusual about Conway’s op-ed or the article in the paper I took home after checking the mail. You could, figuratively speaking, shut your eyes and throw darts and hit a dozen just like them.
They deserve a closer look because even though they come from diametric opposites—one the ultimate in big time political sophistry and the other a little paper doing what it can with what it’s got—they end up in the same place. They lie.
Sometimes things really are simpler than they appear. Welcome to my world, and yours.
Erich Obermayr, a columnist for the Sierra Nevada Ally, is an author, community activist, and career archaeologist specializing in sharing historical and archaeological research with the public. He writes about Nevada politics and social issues. He lives in Silver City, Nevada, with his wife. Support Erich’s work in the Sierra Nevada Ally here.
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