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The GOP’s Alternate Reality Industry

Plus, Eric Swalwell’s restroom run-in with Ted Cruz.
June 17, 2021
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What a study in contrasts: The leader of the Democratic party has spent this week representing the United States on the world stage, while the leader of the Republican party and his allies have spent the week representing a false, twisted alternate reality.

President Joe Biden traveled to Europe to meet with our G7 and NATO allies. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and his minions have been imagining a return to the White House in August.

Biden met with Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, updating the “special relationship” for the post-COVID world. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson used his Fox show to claim that the January 6 insurrection was an inside job staged by the FBI, even while Trump’s new spokeswoman referred to it as a “peaceful protest.” Or wait, was it a hoax? Or an Antifa operation?

Biden negotiated with the leaders of European countries and tried to convince our allies we’ve regained our sanity and reliability. Meanwhile, Trump announced he’d go down to our Southern border and then show up in Ohio and Florida for rallies, while continuing to push the discredited, disingenuous, and disgusting lie that last year’s election was stolen from him.

Biden on Wednesday met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, discussing cybersecurity, arms control, and other major issues for some four hours. Meanwhile, Trump on Wednesday night called his bestie Sean Hannity on Fox to blame everyone else for the ills of the world and to run through his “Best Of” list of things he almost accomplished, or didn’t accomplish but claimed he did.

It can be hard to tell how many of these conspiracy theories churned out by the GOP and its media allies—about the election; about Trump’s impending return to office; about the attack of January 6; about COVID and Dr. Anthony Fauci—are really embraced by either the politicians or the base. How much of this stuff do Republicans actually believe, and how much is an act?

Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, told me of a chilling revelation he had when he once happened across Ted Cruz in the Senate men’s room during Trump’s second impeachment trial. Swalwell calls his epiphany “my pro-wrestling theory.”

According to Swalwell, many of the members of the GOP look at themselves as something like pro-wrestling performers. They know it’s fake—kayfabe, as it’s called in wrestling—and so do the voters. “For most of these guys, they don’t look at their constituents as the people they represent,” Swalwell told me in an interview for my “Just Ask the Question” podcast. “They look at them as their fans.”

Which brings us to that restroom run-in during the impeachment trial. Swalwell, recall, was one of the House managers making the case for holding Trump to account for the events of January 6. When Swalwell ran into Cruz, the Texas senator told him, “Hey I just want you to know you’re doing a great job out there.”

Swalwell was taken aback. Cruz had scorched him on Twitter and on Fox News within 24 hours of running into him in the restroom—yet according to Swalwell, the senator acted like “we’re two pro wrestlers. We’re bros.”

Swalwell gives Marjorie Taylor Greene a backhanded compliment though: “She believes in her crazy. When she sees me, she thinks we’re mortal enemies. She wants to kill me, but she’s honest about it.”


Kayfabe fantasies though they may be, the GOP’s conspiracy theories and the Fox News falsehoods can contribute to an overall dangerous climate for the country. Even if a large portion of the MAGA base looks at these agitations as mere entertainment, for many people they are deadly serious.

Biden, while overseas, announced a national strategy for countering domestic terrorism. “Domestic terrorism—driven by hate, bigotry, and other forms of extremism—is a stain on the soul of America,” he said. “It goes against everything our country strives for and it poses a direct challenge to our national security, democracy, and unity.”

The strategy has four pillars: sharing domestic terrorism-related information with multiple law enforcement jurisdictions; preventing domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization; disrupting and deterring domestic terrorism activity; and confronting long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.

Law enforcement implementing this anti-domestic-terrorism strategy will have to take care not to trample on civil liberties—although since our government recently admitted that it has gathered the emails and phone records of reporters and the personal information of congressmen, perhaps some new, more serious form of oversight is called for.

Biden closed his statement about domestic terrorism saying, “This is a project that should unite all Americans. Together we must affirm that domestic terrorism has no place in our society. We must work to root out the hatreds that can too often drive violence.”

But the issue isn’t just rooting out hatreds. It’s rooting out the elected officials who consider their constituents “fans” and then play to them as if they’re WWE wrestlers engaged in a political smackdown.

Telling the people what they want to hear isn’t good leadership. It isn’t leadership at all. It’s pandering—and yet millions of Americans love it even though it harms them in the end.

It would be much easier to believe Biden when he proclaims that America is back if there were any effort to hold accountable the people responsible for the lies that led to January 6 and the lies and distortions that continue to hold tens of millions of Americans in thrall.

The ultimate test of the Biden administration isn’t whether he can convince our allies or even our adversaries that we are back. It is whether he can convince the American people to cast their lot with reality.

That’s a tall order.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.