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Shawn Vestal: Again and again, our congresswoman tells us to ignore the tiny ‘man’ behind the curtain

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers speaks at a ceremony in this August 2020 photo. McMorris Rodgers sponsored legislation that would extend an international cybersecurity program. It was passed by both chambers of Congress and is now headed to becoming a law.   (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

At any moment now, I expect our congresswoman, the avatar of civility in American politics, to issue a condemnation of Tuesday night’s debate.

A condemnation of Joe Biden, I mean.

If you watched the debate, you know what happened: A depraved individual dragged civility – along with honesty, decency, belief in racial equality, and trust in the democratic system – into the mud and ground his heel on it with a snarl. It was a new low in our ever-deepening rock bottom.

Of course, by now, using the creative magic of rhetorical framing, it has been turned – in GOP circles and by some media outlets – into a two-sided “raucous debate,” a series of “contentious exchanges,” a “spectacle of our current moment,” a “reflection of our national divisions” …

Joe told the president to shut up, for Pete’s sake!

It’s a common ploy by now, and McMorris Rodgers has mastered it in other contexts, as she works to keep the curtain tight behind the screen of mighty Oz. When you can’t defend your guy, you make it seem like your guy’s not really the problem.

It’s everybody. It’s divisiveness. It’s incivility.

It’s the stars.

And anyone who says otherwise is engaging in the national tragedy of bias against Republicans.

McMorris Rodgers has not taken this line on the debate, per se, and I’m guessing she won’t. Some things are too embarrassing, in terms of displaying the price you have paid for your political soul. But she’s been very busy lately trying to deflect the hot rays of attention from the president’s repellent and dangerous public behavior – calling, ludicrously, on Joe Biden to accept the results of the election (!) and going after Twitter for daring to notice that the president lies and provokes violence on its platform.

She did not mention Facebook, which is where Russian propaganda efforts have thrived in the past and where QAnon conspiracies and pro-Trump lies are currently outsprinting truthful information by a mile.

But no. It’s Twitter that is a threat to free and fair debate, she hollered into her Zoom screen in a recent online hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on big tech.

As she tweeted later, “Is this a fair & safe platform for free speech & the battle of ideas? Or is content bias acceptable as long as it influences elections in favor of the political whims of the woke mob?”

McMorris Rodgers has had a complicated relationship with the president, including a moment that seemed orchestrated by Trump to humiliate her for daring to criticize, in the mildest terms, some of his sleazier comments. She showed up at Trump Tower in December 2016, on a wave of speculation that she was being nominated for the position of Interior Secretary, only to be met with a folder of news clips of her critical comments – and no Interior offer, according to several accounts of the event.

She’s since doubled down on being a good follower.

This isn’t breaking news. It’s context for what brings us to the current moment, where the president is actively, dishonestly, ragingly trying to sow doubt about the coming election; encouraging his followers to go to polling places and intimidate early voters; employing the Department of Justice to issue an unforeseen announcement about the opening of an investigation into errors with nine ballots; and making it clear that he wants to rush a justice onto the Supreme Court so she’ll help rule for him if need be in an election dispute.

This is banana republic stuff. Trump is setting the stage for a third of the country to refuse to accept his loss – a refusal that, given the comfort and support he provides to the Proud Boys and other radicals and white supremacists generally, is potentially more than mere bloviation.

This is the moment where someone sworn to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic has an obligation to do more than be a toady.

Which is why McMorris Rodgers, in comments made last week when Trump’s rhetoric was still ramping up, were so refreshing.

She really made it clear that Joe Biden simply must knock it off.

“In America, we cherish the peaceful transition of power,” she said in a statement responding to inquiries about Trump’s repeated statements that he did not plan to accept the results of the election unless he wins.

“It remains one of the most important parts of this great experiment in self-governance, as is the integrity of our elections. I encourage people to have their voices heard this November and believe whatever the result, we must accept the outcome.”

“That also means that Joe Biden and the Democrats should accept the results, even when it isn’t what they wanted.”

It was a spectacular degree of toadying spin, even for her. As someone with firsthand knowledge of the safety and effectiveness of mail voting in Washington – someone who could, with facts and personal experience, flatly rebut the frantic nonsense emerging from the White House about voting by mail, she instead chose to muddy the waters for the president.

She has been engaging in similar activities in her battle against Twitter. This is a funny ground for her to defend the president on, given that his squirming defenders have often kinda-sorta indicated that they wished the president would tweet less, but there she was again recently, claiming political victimhood for Republicans because Twitter had dared to fact-check the president and flag his obvious incitement to violence – when he echoed that noble statesman George Wallace by tweeting the dog whistle “when the looting starts the shooting starts” – as an obvious incitement to violence.

Come on, Twitter! You can do better!

What would be hilarious if they weren’t tragic were the comparisons McMorris Rodgers made to demonstrate this supposed anti-conservative bias. She pointed to an unelected, controversial left-wing activist who has doxxed people online and not been sanctioned by Twitter. She noted that the Chinese Communist Party has gone unsanctioned on Twitter. And she noted that Iran’s Supreme Leader has also gotten away with incendiary talk on Twitter.

In other words, McMorris Rodgers asks: Why can’t our president get away with the same kind of rhetoric as the Islamic autocrat who runs Iran?

She was greeted with applause in the right-wing mediasphere.

That’s the way that this presidential disaster has continually been absorbed and rationalized by his defenders, which has paved the way for Trumpism to boil American democracy like a frog – adjusting the terms to try and fit the incumbent’s individual depravity into the broader conventions of normal political behavior.

The way in which the media can pick up and reflect this through-the-looking glass framing as an expression of balance dramatically distorts reality. It’s how the rot spreads in a system built to rely on good-faith actors, when confronted by a bad-faith actor and those who will betray their principles to support him.

It’s a terrible cycle, and it won’t change until people with something to lose stand up for the principles they stood for back when they didn’t have anything to lose – like civility.

Contact Shawn Vestal at or (509) 459-5431