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In semester at SUNY New Paltz, journalist Barton Gellman will keep a close eye on challenges to American democracy

Barton Gellman
Barton Gellman

“Trump’s next coup has already begun.” That’s the headline of a Decembercover storyin The Atlantic magazine written by journalist Barton Gellman. Gellman is spending this semester as the James Ottaway Visiting Professor of Journalism at SUNY New Paltz. A staff writer at The Atlantic, Gellman covers national security and democracy. He previously spent two decades at The Washington Post, and has written books on Edward Snowden and Dick Cheney.

As part of his time at New Paltz, Gellman will be teaching and delivering public talks, including one Monday night.

You've been looking closely at the efforts former President Trump and many of his loyalists in the GOP are making to change our election infrastructure. And now that we're into this midterm cycle, what are you watching for specifically that that worries you about the next presidential race?

Well, what I'm watching is a couple of things. One throughline is the development of a mass political movement that fundamentally distrusts the institutions of democracy, that does not believe we have a constitutional structure that fairly reflects the outcome of the voting. And that's a devastating thing to happen in a democracy. It's something like 30% of all Americans believe that the election was actually stolen last time. And they believe that falsely because we had a presidential candidate in Trump, who relentlessly pushed the fiction that there had been voter fraud and there was not, certainly not on any scale that could possibly affect the outcome. That same group of tens of millions of people who distrust elections are increasingly tolerant of the idea and practice of political violence.

We saw it erupt on January 6th. But as troubling, I think is the fact that there are tens of millions of Americans who say that violence is justified to return Trump to power. That also is something we haven't seen since before the era of modern polling, it's probably been 100 years, since the 1920s, since we've had a mass violent political movement. And finally reflective of all that, we have a set of Republican operatives working on Trump's behalf and on behalf of the party, who are not only trying to pass laws, and passing laws, that attempt to reduce the Democratic vote. But they're attempting to take over the institutions of vote counting and vote certification. And so you have dozens of candidates around the country who are running for offices like secretary of state or county election supervisor, who are running explicitly on the platform that their jurisdiction should not have certified Biden's victory last time, notwithstanding the actual vote of the voters, but that it should handed the election to Trump. And these are the people who want to be in charge of counting votes and certifying votes. And that is something we haven't seen before, either, and it's very dangerous.

The other day, former President Trump floated the idea of pardoning the January 6 rioters. What do you think he's signaling there?

He’s signaling that violence on his behalf is righteous violence. He is saying that these were great patriots who rose up and rioted on January 6, who broke down the doors and windows of the Capitol, who sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives, who injured 115 police officers and who led directly and indirectly to the deaths of five people. These are people who he is valorizing as heroes. And he combined that the same the same day or within the same two days with a call that if he is indicted, by any of the prosecutors who are investigating him now in Washington and New York and in Atlanta, then he hopes there will be the biggest, strongest demonstrations ever in the history of our country to protest — knowing what his call for mass protests have done before. And pairing that with oppression pardon people who grew violent at those protests. So he's making his message pretty clear.

You have faulted President Biden for what you see as a lax approach to countering these anti-democratic efforts by the GOP. He did make one sort of strong speech against it, which people had been waiting for many months. What do you think he could be doing instead right now?

It's a hard problem. I don't deny that. I think that if a president makes up his mind, as he said he did in July, that this is the greatest challenge to democracy since the Civil War…I mean, those are extraordinary words. Then you would expect that president to marshal all of his powers, both direct and persuasive and indirect, to combat that threat and Biden clearly has made other priorities more important than defending democracy. I think there is beginning to be a stronger stance of his Democratic Party that this is a real threat that needs to be addressed. But I believe that small d democrats have been inhibited by disbelief that we really could lose our democracy in this country. But if they don't act, and if the circumstances are, or right or wrong, I suppose you'd say, there is a chance that the winner of the next presidential election, in terms of votes and electoral votes, will not be the one sworn in.

The other day, President Trump released a statement saying that Mike Pence had the power to unilaterally overturn the result of the last election. Those are his words. And that set off kind of a round of jokes among Democrats who said, Well, if that's the case, then Kamala Harris can do the same thing in 2024. But I bring that up to ask a serious question, which is, do you think that this big lie has set off an arms race where no future loser will accept having lost?

I don't know about no future loser. But it has been a regular tactic of candidates from the Republican Party. I'm just calling it as it is. Democrats very, very seldom challenge the outcome of elections, usually when they're extremely close, down to a dozen votes or something like that. But for example, in California, when they tried to recall the governor, the Republican candidate started spreading the word in public in advance of the vote, that if he didn't win, it would be only because the vote was fake, and because of cheating. And so you are seeing you are seeing that happening in more Republican races. But I wouldn't say any candidate will do that. And I wouldn't say it's an arms race, because there's not being practiced by both parties.

What would you say to the argument that President Trump tried to stay in office after losing and it didn't work. You know, there were some safeguards in place and his legal team failed in virtually every challenge that it raised over the election. In 2024, he won't have the power of the office on his side.

That's true, he won't. And he did try extensively to use the power of his office to stay in office, even though he lost the vote. And we're learning more and more about that as time goes on, including recent disclosures about proposals that he took seriously to have either the Justice Department or the military or the Department of Homeland Security seize all the voting machines in six contested states. That is to say six states that Biden won, but Trump refused to concede and rerun the elections there, which would be an extraordinary act of illegality and extraordinary threat to democracy.

Nevertheless, Trump didn't manage to use those powers. Where he came closest to overthrowing the election was in trying to persuade state legislatures to withdraw certification of their state electors, and to substitute Trump electors for the Biden electors who reflected the will of the people. He said that the state legislatures who do have ultimate authority over how electors are chosen should simply fire the voters and appoint Trump the winner. And he made some progress on that and he's made more progress on that concept since the 2020 election. It was so outrageous and unprecedented that he ran into both disbelief and resistance when he tried it in 2020. And there's more and more talk about legitimating the idea that state legislators in Republican controlled states can throw away the victory of Democrats in their state elections. So his position of influence over the election, because of all of the Republicans who are trying to take control of the counting machinery, because he has convinced tens of millions of people that the election was stolen from him, because of his unquestioned control of the Republican Party, in which almost no elected official is willing to challenge by the myth of a stolen election, Trump is in a better position in 2024 to steal a close election that he was in 2020.

And are you convinced he will run?

I’m convinced he’ll run. I don't have any better crystal ball than anyone else. I don't believe he can tolerate being out of the limelight. I don't believe he's willing cede the position of a party leader to anyone else. I think he's demonstrating that just about every day, I think that he has strong motivations for revenge, to protect himself from legal troubles, and many others to run. I will be very surprised if he doesn't.

Part of your recent reporting concerns just how entrenched the Trump version of reality has become with his supporters. As you alluded to earlier in the interview, many millions of them are willing to believe just patently false things about how America works and what Trump says and does. Do you feel that your reporting can break through that dynamic as it exists?

I fear that it can't. And I don't know what to do with that fear. Because my faith is a journalist my whole career has been that if you dig out the facts and show your evidence that there are going to be people of good faith who are prepared to be persuaded. I mean, there's always going to be people on one side or another who are locked into their views. But I always assumed that almost like political independents, you had people who simply didn't know the answer and were curious to find out. And were prepared to distinguish good journalism from propaganda. And were prepared to be persuaded if you showed them your work. And that is not the information ecosystem we're living in right now. And I don't know what to about it.

In your latest story, in the December story we've been talking about, it's very devastating to read. You know, there's no other word for it, just how gullible some people have become.

Yeah, I spent a lot of time talking to one retired firefighter from the Bronx in New York who believes that the election had been stolen from Trump. And I decided to try something that I've never tried before, which is to say, stay with me, let's talk. And we talked over and over again for many hours over a period of weeks. And I said, tell me why you believe that. And let me examine the reasons and tell you what I find. And then let's see what you think. And he gave me one reason that came from sort of a right wing propaganda site that simply garbled the numbers. I showed him the original source, the numbers were mixed up here, and what you think are 14 million missing votes that must have been stolen by Trump, there aren't missing votes, they're all accounted for. And he just moved on to another reason. And this kept on happening, where nothing I did would budge his fundamental face that Trump must have won.

Let me ask a related follow up question. And this is something that we struggle with here at the radio station. What do you do about the fact that any story that includes unflattering facts about Trump and the GOP, no matter how accurate, can be dismissed as fake and feed into that oppositional ecosystem. And what I have in mind as I ask this question specifically is that when Northern New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who became the number three House Republican by ousting Liz Cheney, and did challenge the 2020 election results, she specifically made a battle with the media and fighting reporters a plank of her platform to rise in House leadership. And do you worry that tough but accurate reporting plays into that wing of the Republican Party's hands in some way?

I observe that there is that phenomenon, and it is problematic, and Trump is not the first person to declare that unflattering news is fake, but he used tactics quite systematically that we haven't seen before in this country, or certainly haven't seen in a very long time, in which he deliberately undercut the authority of any independent source of information: inspectors general, judges, prosecutors, journalists, academics, he specifically turned his followers away from those people and told them these are not people you trust. They're untrustworthy. Simply by saying it over and over again. You can only believe me and anyone who says anything unflattering is fake news. And any Republican who says anything unflattering is a RINO and so on. Meaning Republican in name only. And it's been fairly effective. But the fundamental obligation of journalism is to tell the truth as best you can, ask tough questions, show the answers, show your work. And we can't refrain from doing that because someone like Stefanik is going to try to pull this sort of judo move and say they're against me, therefore I must be good.

You're teaching students at New Paltz this semester about what you do — narrative and longform nonfiction journalism. Do you find there's an audience for continuing that type of work among young people today?

Oh, there is. I certainly see it in my students who are deeply interested in it, learning how to do deep reporting, learning how to construct a narrative with literary qualities to it that's based upon fact and empirical observations. And there's still commitment to the ideals of journalism among young people.

Are you optimistic about the future of the practice?

Well, it's under considerable threat in its traditional economic models, as everyone knows by now, the internet demolished the traditional ad sales of mainstream media and we're all adjusting to that. The Atlantic, I'm happy to say, has moved to a subscription model in which we get more of our money from subscribers than we do from advertisers who are trying to buy subscribers. And subscription growth has been encouraging. So we're heading toward a million and that seems like a nice round number to me.

You've written extensively on American national security. I'm wondering what your assessment is of the situation with Russia and Ukraine right now and America's approach to it?

Well, there's, in effect, a kind of game of chicken going on here that any child could follow. I mean, Putin has lined up a huge invasion force on Ukraine's borders, and threatened, by its mere presence, to invade, and he has asked for political concessions from NATO and from the United States, in order not to invade. The United States has said, we're willing to give you reasonable reassurances about things we're prepared to say. But we are not going to bow to your political demands. And we are going to impose crippling economic sanctions on you if you invade. We're also going to give indirect military assistance to Ukraine in resisting in your invasion, although there will not be American troops. And so right now, we're waiting to find out who blinks. I think Putin thought he could split NATO, that the alliance which has to operate by consensus of all the member countries would split apart on questions like sanctions, and on questions like concessions, and NATO has actually held together remarkably well. So, in fact, Putin's threat has brought NATO closer together, which is the opposite of what he intended. So, if I were a betting man, I'd say that Putin may actually back down but it's too close to call right now.

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A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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