2020 Quote of the Year: ‘What’s the Downside for Humoring Him?’

Aaron Blake, writing for The Washington Post back on November 10:

When the history of the Trump era is written, we’ll struggle to find quotes that are as revealing as one recorded Monday evening by The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner, Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Emma Brown.

Speaking about President Trump’s and his legal team’s myriad and baseless claims of massive voter fraud, an anonymous senior Republican official offered a rhetorical shrug.

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” the official said. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

It’s fair to just straight up dunk on this quote. It did not age well. But it’s important to consider that we, collectively, are not good at imagining norm-shattering consequences. U.S. politicians don’t undermine democracy. Presidential successions have always been peaceful. We easily conflate things that merely haven’t happened with things that “can’t” happen.

Trump lied, his supporters believed him (and continue to), and they acted upon that belief. If you truly believe that an election was stolen, riotous dissent is a reasonable course of action. You take to the streets. The downside for “humoring him for this little bit of time” should have been obvious to all: a historic, violent, calamity.

This sort of “What’s the downside?” thinking extends far outside the Republican Party. I think it explains, for example, the aforelinked post today about how Facebook’s leadership ignored warnings from the company’s own data scientists that blatant misinformation was leading to calls for violence in Facebook’s “Groups” in the weeks running up to the election. This stuff is loony, but it keeps them engaged. People post all sorts of crazy stuff, but they’re not really going to riot, right?

Yes, actually, they were.

“What’s the downside?” is the right question. The problem is the way the Republican Party, and to a lesser extent, Facebook and Twitter, approached the answer. There are some ideas that should never be humored. Prank calls to 911. Bomb threat “jokes” in the airport security line. Threats of violence against political leaders. Add to the list: a Big Lie about a fair election having been rigged.