Hakeem Jeffries, Fox News, and the Dangers of Sloppy Rhetoric

It would be nice if politicians and cable news outlets were more responsible.

“Confused Democracy” by Steven Taylor is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Yesterday evening I saw this headline via Fox News: Election denier Hakeem Jeffries could replace Pelosi as House Dem leader.

Here are the basics from the piece:

Jeffries was one of many Democrats who questioned whether Trump legitimately won the 2016 election due to alleged Russian interference and collusion. He often made statements about Trump’s 2016 victory that are similar to claims Trump made about the 2020 race being stolen.

“The more we learn about 2016 the more ILLEGITIMATE it becomes,” Jeffries tweeted from his congressional account in 2018. “America deserves to know whether we have a FAKE President in the Oval Office.”

“History will never accept you as a legitimate president,” Jeffries tweeted from his personal account about Trump in 2020.

Jeffries also claimed Trump cheated in the 2016 election, alleging Trump may be “a Russian asset.”

“LIE (more than any administration in the history of the Republic.) CHEAT (2016 election/Russian Interference). STEAL (one or two Supreme Court seats). When will Republicans put country ahead of party?” Jeffries tweeted.

Is Donald Trump?… A. a legitimate President… B. a Russian Asset… C. an organized crime boss… D. a useful idiot,” Jeffries tweeted in 2019. “The American people deserve to know.”

I have several simultaneous thoughts.

Let me address a couple of broad issues first. I do believe that there was Russian influence in the 2016 campaign (I use that word very specifically because I do not think that actual votes was affected). I also do believe that Trump was legitimately elected in 2016. Indeed, I wrote about this in January of 2017, Will Donald Trump be a “Legitimate” President?, and I would say that the post continues to reflect my views on the subject. (See, also, James Joyner’s 2018 post, Is Trump an Illegitimate President? and that post was written in the same general news environment as Jeffries’ tweets).

Still, this story is frustrating in two ways. First, Jeffries’ past words were ill-advised if anything because they are too much trying to play Trump’s own game, which never works for his opponents (the real tip of trying to play the Trump game is the word “fake” and the capitalizations). And one of the reasons it never works is that it just validates Trump’s own rhetorical game. If everyone is running around shouting hyperbole, then what’s the basis for criticizing Trump’s hyperbole? It is just what politicians do, right?

More than avoiding trying to play Trump’s game, it is essential that anyone who takes challenges to US democracy seriously be extremely careful about how they describe electoral outcomes. While there are reasons to be concerned about Russian attempts at disinformation in the 2016 elections, Jeffries in the above simply helps normalize attacks on the electoral system and, worse, helps confirm in the minds of Trump supporters that this is just what partisans do: they claim the other side is fraudulent.

All responsible politicians, but especially Democrats, need to be mindful of this.

The second part of this story that is frustrating is that it is Fox News purposefully blurring the lines about what being an “election denier” is. It smacks of “well, you want to call Republicans, ‘election deniers’? Well, we can call Democrats that, too!” not to mention the more nefarious interpretation that Fox News wants to blur these lines.

Let’s be clear: claiming that Russians attempted to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor it not crazy hyperbole. Two prominent examples off the top of my head: we know Russian assets hacked DNC emails and we know that Donald Trump, Jr. met with a Russian attorney for the express purpose of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. (Not to mention the whole Maria Butina/NRA story). I would note that Jeffries’ tweets were in the context of a slew of reporting and revelations on these matters.

So, in short, Jeffries’s claims were about foreign influence in our campaign processes.

Also in short, when Trump and his allies assertion that the 2020 election was stolen, they are saying that actual votes were changed and/or that substantial numbers of fraudulent votes were cast.

One of these things is not like the other and Patrick Hauf of Fox News surely can tell the difference. Yet the goal here is to taint Jeffries’ past tweets with a deeper meaning than they have while at the same time diluting the election-denialism of Trump, Lake, Mastriano, et al.

It is like the alleged truism that “all politicians lie.” Hence, it makes no difference if one politician dissembles a bit, spins the truth in their direction, or if fails to follow through on a campaign promise while another lies about how much blow he did with hookers last night.

I mean, they all lie, right?

I expect there to be an increased attempt by Republican politicians and their media allies to stress any and all rhetoric that sounds like “election denial” by Democrats. Let me be clear: unless it is real denial about votes cast, such blurring of definition by the media is shameful that will just further make the erosion of democracy possible. And all pro-democracy politicians, regardless of their partisan affiliation, need to be careful not to provide ammunition for those who would gleefully tear down democracy because of the short-term points it score in what they treat as the game of politics.

FILED UNDER: 2022 Election, Democracy, Media, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. steve says:

    This has been going on for a while. I like to point out that both jaywalking and carjacking are crimes, but there really isn’t much comparison between the two.


  2. Scott F. says:

    If everyone is running around shouting hyperbole, then what’s the basis for criticizing Trump’s hyperbole? It is just what politicians do, right?

    I’m not so sure it works that way. If one group of politicians is saying “Everything you hold dear is being destroyed by a cabal of Satan worshipping pedophiles” while the other group of politicians is saying “That infrastructure you like wasn’t voted for by that politician who is now taking credit for it” which is more likely to get out the vote? Hyperbole and lying are both ill-advised. Asymmetric disarmament isn’t the solution, sadly.

    Yet the goal here is to taint Jeffries’ past tweets with a deeper meaning than they have while at the same time diluting the election-denialism of Trump, Lake, Mastriano, et al.

    There’s the rub right there. Fox “News” has a “goal” that goes beyond informing the public of the news. Propaganda is also ill-advised and ideological asymmetry is the problem here as well.

  3. @Scott F.:

    Asymmetric disarmament isn’t the solution, sadly.

    That’s not what I am asking for.

    I am asking for sensitivity on a specific topic. If Reps can effectively spin that Dems are election-deniers, too, it severely limits a general ability to address the issue.

  4. CSK says:

    Fox made a big mistake in calling Jeffries an election denier, since as far as I know, an election denier is someone who believes Trump won the 2020 election.

  5. charon says:

    10 PM Eastern, 8 PM MST, this Sunday, MSNBC doing a documentary called “Split Screen” on the alternate reality promulgated by Fox News Channel etc.

  6. charon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Just another case of Republicans taking words like CRT or “Fake News” that originally meant something and redefining them for Republican purposes to mean something entirely different.

  7. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I take your point, and I agree that the Democrats should leave the election denialism rhetoric completely to the Republicans.

    I just bristle at the “careful not to provide ammunition” angle when it comes to political messaging. The right wing has shown no hesitancy to make s**t up, no matter what the Democrats may say or not say. And Republicans never seem to pay for being careless with their incendiary rhetoric. Being rational and realistic is not doing the left any favors with US voters.

  8. @Scott F.:

    And Republicans never seem to pay for being careless with their incendiary rhetoric.

    I dunno–it seemed to matter in several key elections this very cycle.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Acknowledging that I am, truly, a making-perfect-the-enemy-of-good type guy, I have to say that I am more concerned about the politician who dissembles about what he can (or more importantly intends) to do than the guy who lies about blow and hookers. But that’s just who I’ve been since I started voting all those years ago. Lines on the mirror, having your fifth martini of the day (a snark about Boehner earlier this week IIRC)? Potayto, potahto.

    Having to choose between the two? I’d probably prefer neither but will choose the one who’ll attend to the agenda I prefer. But even so, it probably doesn’t matter given that we’re not, as a nation, going to stop passing the cost of our programs and wars on to future generations or refrain from using war as diplomacy by other means or stop planting democracy [tm] in the third world or address climate change, homelessness, wage inequality ([CRT TRIGGER WARNING] rid our nation of the tendency to deliberately keep some societal segments poor), immigration…

    I’ll stop now. All y’all either get or don’t want to.

  10. Mimai says:

    illegitimate, fraud, collusion, conspiracy, fascism, genocide, CRT, cancelled, yada yada yada

    Not sure “sloppy” is the term I would use to describe such rhetoric. Seems more strategic to me.

  11. Michael Cain says:

    Of course, Fox would have completely ignored this except for what’s in your first sentence: Jeffries is rumored to be the heir apparent, anointed by Pelosi, to be minority leader come January. There will be other accusations unless someone else becomes the frontrunner while Fox tests which ones stir the base up the most.

    The rumored lineup for the top three positions are Jeffries, Katherine Clark, and Pete Aguilar. If that’s the trio the current leadership wants to push, I think there are interesting problems even on the Democratic side. (a) They skip an entire generation of House Democrats who have been waiting their turn to run things. (b) Representing Brooklyn/Queens, Boston suburbs, and Greater LA may be a tough sell to the Democrats from other parts of the country, especially where those members overlap with (a).

  12. gVOR08 says:

    For the record I’ve always regarded Trump’s presidency as illegitimate simply because he was so manifestly unqualified.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Of course, Fox would have completely ignored this except for what’s in your first sentence

    Indeed. I’ve argued that it’s silly to blame “progressives” for D problems. If no one had ever used the word “defund” FOX/GOP would have found, or invented, something else. On that theme Scott Lemieux at LGM is happy to report that our crime wave is over. Somehow since the election violent crime stories on FOX are way down. I guess crime has miraculously gone the way of so many deadly migrant caravans.

    In perhaps related news I’ve seen conservative comments lately that “woke” seems to be over. It’s so marked that Volokhs last two cancel culture stories had nothing to do with woke.