In a Donald Trump-influenced era of through-the-looking-glass politics, everything seems upside down, traditional loyalties are scrambled, history can be rewritten and truth is just what anyone wants it to be.
A Republican-run House hearing Thursday encapsulated the current political circus ahead of another tense election. In a head-spinning spectacle, a Kennedy family scion and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination was greeted as a hero by Republicans. But he was slammed by Democrats, including by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries as “a living, breathing, false flag operation.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was given a platform by pro-Trump Republicans because his conspiracies about vaccine and Covid-19, and claims that the government has tried to censor him gel with their efforts to shield Trump by claiming that the political weaponization of government is a Democratic and not a GOP transgression.
The marriage of convenience in a fiery hearing underscored how populism and the bending of truth pioneered on the right by Trump also has significant currency on the left. It illustrated how the character of mainstream American politics is under siege from fringe voices and extremist positions that once struggled to be heard but in recent years found a footing on social media, the campaign trail and even in Congress and the White House.
As an example of his creation of alternative realities – a tactic frequently used by Trump – Kennedy forcibly denied that he had ever been anti-vaccine, racist or antisemitic. Yet CNN fact checks show he has repeatedly shared unfounded conspiracy theories with a false link between autism and childhood vaccines. He has also claimed that man-made chemicals could be making children gay or transgender. And just last week, he was hit by new claims of conspiracy mongering, racism and antisemitism over remarks at a dinner in New York City in which he claimed that “Covid-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
Despite this controversy, Kennedy brazenly appeared to be inventing new truths even during the hearing. He said, for instance, “In my entire life, and while I’m under oath I have never uttered a phrase that was either racist or antisemitic.” At another moment he said: “I’ve never been anti-vaccine,” then added: “But everybody in this room probably believes that I have been because that’s the prevailing narrative.”
In an odd flipping of the normal political order, Democrats in the hearing effectively sought to undermine the candidacy of the son and nephew of assassinated party heroes, former Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy. The top Democrat on the House Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, Virgin Islands Delegate Stacey Plaskett, for instance, condemned committee chair Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan for letting Kennedy air what Democrats regard as extreme views. “It’s a free country. You absolutely have a right to say what you believe,” she said, adding: “But you don’t have the right to a platform, public or private.”
Plaskett’s comments did raise serious questions about whether there are limits – if any – on a prominent personality’s right to free speech even if they are saying things that are not true, as well as the extent to which misinformation has swamped politics and elections. But most of the hearing stayed away from such topics and was dominated by Republican attempts to score points and shield Trump and Democratic attacks on Kennedy.
One of the ex-President’s top allies, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the fourth ranking House Republican, revived conservative claims that the Democratic-leaning officials in the federal government suppressed a story about a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden before the last election, a move she argued had been instrumental in his father beating Trump for the presidency. She cited this theory when asking Kennedy whether he believed there was censorship amounting to government interference in the 2020 election.
Former Twitter executives admitted under oath this year that the social media network temporarily suppressed a story about the laptop but said there was no government interference in the decision. CNN has previously reported that allegations the FBI told Twitter to suppress the story are unsupported, and a half-dozen tech executives and senior staff, along with multiple federal officials familiar with the matter, denied any such directive was given.
But the specific truth in this case isn’t necessarily important to Republicans who were using Kennedy to further create the impression of government interference to prevent Trump retaining the White House. The more public confusion there is the better it is for the ex-president politically. Of course, claims that Democrats are the ones really guilty of election interference are a direct attempt to whitewash Trump’s own behavior – since he used the tools of his office to try to subvert the 2020 election and to stay in power.
Thursday’s hearing is not the first time political reality has seemed mixed up or traditional loyalties subverted. Just last week for instance, Republicans subjected FBI Director Christopher Wray to a fearsome grilling in a hearing while Democrats unusually defended the bureau – long regarded as one of the most conservative organs of the US government. The GOP storm was whipped up by allies of Trump who want to discredit investigations into his effort to overturn the 2020 election and his hoarding of classified documents in his Florida resort. Trump has already been indicted in the latter case and there are growing signs he will be charged in the former. He denies any wrongdoing and claims the investigations are politically motivated.
It’s not that Republicans don’t have genuine ground for oversight. Independent government watchdog reports and internal investigations for instance have found deficiencies and mistakes in some investigations involving Trump. In the Russia probe, there were mistakes in the use of a dossier complied by a former British spy and in applications for surveillance warrants. More recently, an agreement with the Justice Department under which Hunter Biden pleaded guilty to two tax misdemeanors and struck a deal to resolve a felony gun charge is within the right of Congress to investigate. But neither case so far supports the wild claims that a corrupt liberal deep state is conducting schemes designed to suppress conservatives that are often made by Trump and his fellow Republicans.
There is plentiful evidence that the ex-president is the one who weaponized government to go after his political enemies and to evade accountability. For instance he sacked former FBI chief James Comey and told NBC News it was because of the Russia investigation. He used his position as president and the prospect of military aid to seek to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into opening an investigation into Joe Biden and his son in a phone call that later led to his first impeachment. And Trump, by pressuring multiple officials in key swing states and by lambasting poll workers and making claims of widespread voter fraud, apparently used executive power to try to defy the will of voters in 2020.
Voters also risked being misled by Washington’s hall of mirrors on another occasion this week. In a more frivolous, but still misleading example of the way it’s often hard to work out what is true, the Biden campaign debuted a campaign video that appeared to show one of Trump’s most fervent allies, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene praising Biden as fulfilling the historic mission of great Democratic presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The words were those of Greene but they were selectively edited from a speech in a video that disguised her true intent, which was to condemn historic government spending by Democrats on education, health care, and social safety net programs that Republicans claim are akin to socialism.
This example of things being not quite what they seem was more of a cheeky case of campaign trolling than the wholesale refashioning of truth evident Thursday. The hearing at one point degenerated into both Republicans and Democrats accusing each other of trying to censor their questions and witnesses.
One veteran Democrat, Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, summed up how the session had in itself warped reality. “I never thought we’d descend to this level of Orwellian dystopia. Suddenly, the tools of the trade are not to get at the truth but to distract, distort, to deflect and dissemble,” Connolly said.
Oddly, several members on the Republican side of the committee nodded their heads in agreement – apparently convinced the Orwellian behavior in question was on the part of what they see as a tyrannical, censoring government rather than in the obvious truths turned upside down.