A little over a year apart, two remarkably similar antidemocratic incidents took place.
The first you’ll be familiar with. After an election that saw late-counted mail-in ballots from disproportionately liberal voters vaporize Donald Trump’s early lead and put his more liberal rival, Joe Biden, on top, Trump did exactly what many had predicted: he refused to concede the election, alleged fraud and other shenanigans, and spent the next weeks riling up his supporters. This culminated in, at his and allies’ urging, a crowd of hundreds of them — some of them law enforcement and military — storming the US Capitol, ostensibly hoping to stop the official certification of the result and keep Trump in power. In the process, they damaged the hallowed building, gave lawmakers a fright, and possibly killed one person, a police officer (the other four who died were members of the riot). But with even the participants themselves seemingly unsure of what they were actually trying to do, the action failed, and Biden became president.
Rewind fourteen months to events in Bolivia. After an election that saw late-counted ballots from more rural and highland areas extend left-wing president Evo Morales’s early lead past the threshold for a runoff, his right-wing opposition refused to concede the election, alleged fraud and other shenanigans, and spent weeks riling up their supporters. This culminated in crowds around the country, with the support of police, attacking politicians from Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, setting ballot boxes alight outside vote-counting locations, and even breaking into Morales’s house, ransacking and burning down buildings and leaving at least a dozen dead. With political instability ramping up, the Bolivian military pressured Morales to step down, while hard-right Christian fundamentalist Jeanine Áñez declared herself interim president illegally, in a Senate chamber without the constitutionally required quorum.
Despite their similarities, and despite the substantially worse outcome in Bolivia, the two events were covered very differently in US media. While the Bolivian far right’s successful overturning of an election and overthrow of democracy was greeted with everything ranging from celebration to cautious optimism — and even, chillingly, cast as a victory for democracy — Trump and the GOP’s failed aping of almost this exact same playbook inspired weeks of horror, panic, and the fiercest of denunciations from these same quarters.
The disparity continues today, after mass protest forced Áñez’s coup government — which had quickly violently cracked down on anti-coup protesters and gone after political opponents and dissidents — to hold the elections it had repeatedly delayed, leading to MAS’s return to power and now her arrest for her role in the coup. Just as the press gave a thumbs-up to the crushing of democracy in Bolivia before fanning itself for weeks when the Right tried to do the same in the US Capitol, the response to Áñez’s arrest has revealed what can only be described as either a stunning lack of self-awareness in the press or brazen hypocrisy.
Take the Washington Post. “The Bolivian government is on a lawless course. Its democracy must be preserved,” ran the headline of a recent editorial accusing newly elected president Luis Arce of a “one-sided and vengeful leadership style.” Putting the word coup in skeptic’s quotes, it acknowledged the “sometimes deadly violence” she had encouraged against MAS supporters once president, but concluded Bolivia was now on a “lawless course” with her arrest that “threatens further chaos, if not civil war and outright dictatorship.”
But when it was Trump in question, the Post appeared to advocate this very kind of lawless course. A selection of Washington Post headlines in the wake of the riot include: “Trump can and must be prosecuted”; “Prosecuting Trump for the Capitol riot will be difficult — but not impossible”; and “Prosecuting Trump is more essential than ever.”
“If the Senate will not ban him from holding office, a criminal conviction — should Trump be found guilty — would almost certainly do the trick,” went that last one.
One piece by Lincoln Project cofounder George Conway acknowledged a fear of starting a cycle of political retribution but concluded that “conferring on ex-presidents blanket immunity from prosecution would also undermine the rule of law.” And while the editorial board itself wouldn’t go that far, only a day after the incident it called for using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office immediately, declaring him no longer fit after inciting “an assault on the US Capitol by a violent mob.”
It’s hard to understand why the riot incited by Trump should inspire more revulsion than the far more violent and destructive one led by the Bolivian right, but this was a common thread in the Post’s coverage.
While its editorial board parroted Bolivian right-wing talking points, insisting on the evidence of fraud and characterizing the overturning of the election as “the Bolivian people’s massive rejection of it in the streets,” the paper had no shortage of harsh, colorful language for the right-wing protesters who tried to overturn an election in their own country: a “seditious posse,” a “deadly mob attack,” a “failed putsch,” a “siege,” a “strike against democracy worldwide,” and, of course, an “insurrection.” Just because they acted under the “misguided belief” that the “peaceful transfer of power” was under threat “does not excuse storming the symbol of our democracy, the wanton destruction of public and private property, and the utter disregard they showed for the law and for law enforcement,” went one op-ed.
Nor was it afraid to use the c-word, despite the fact that, unlike in Bolivia, the military wasn’t involved. “We just saw an attempted coup d’état,” said one op-ed. In general, however, the paper settled on the formulation of the incident as a “self-coup” or quoted Trump’s critics to make the claim.
It was similar over at the New York Times, which framed its report on Áñez’s arrest around her claim of “political persecution.” Calling Morales a “divisive” leader (a label that could apply equally to any US president, given the country’s political polarization), the Times stressed that unnamed individuals had “accused his government of trying to rig the vote,” and suggested that Arce was using the judiciary against his opponents.
The Times presumably would not level the same accusation at its own editorial board. Yet immediately after the riot, it declared that Trump and his supporters had to be “held accountable” via “impeachment proceedings or criminal prosecution” for any violence that took place that day. Another piece, this one not an op-ed, suggested Trump should be charged with a crime but probably wouldn’t be. Elsewhere, the paper ran reported pieces that at least tacitly approved of prosecutors looking to slap Trump with criminal charges for his actions.
While the Times went a little further than the Post — “many called it a coup,” it stated following Áñez’s arrest — its description of the events in Bolivia never had the same moral clarity nor near-apocalyptic treatment when discussing Trump’s similar actions. The paper variously described the riot as “an all-American coup attempt,” an “attack,” “siege,” “rampage,” even “war.”
“They’d all come to coup for America,” wrote one columnist.
In contrast to the he-said-she-said coverage of the bogus fraud allegations in Bolivia’s election, there was no question in the minds of the paper’s editorial board of where the truth lay when it came to the same kinds of paper-thin allegations in the United States. Trump, his allies, and right-wing media had waged a campaign “to overturn the results of a free and fair election,” it wrote, which “involved a barrage of lies about the integrity of the voting process” and incited an “angry crowd,” all of which “amounts to an unprecedented assault on the rule of law” and “a crime so brazen that it demands the highest form of accountability.”
Even the liberal Guardian got in on the act. A piece on Áñez’s arrest, headlined, “Cycle of retribution takes Bolivia’s ex-president from palace to prison cell,” cited two critics of her arrest to label it an “alarming development in an already profoundly divided country.” Though the Guardian, to its credit, freely called the events of November 2019 a “coup,” it oddly equivocated on its consequences, saying only that leftists say the coup forced Morales out, that the MAS government claims the coup brought Áñez to power. Elsewhere, the paper called her arrest part of an “opposition crackdown.”
These were all very dark descriptions of a course the paper itself had been urging for a while in relation to Trump, sometimes long before the events at the Capitol. One late December piece appeared to rubbish the idea of letting a past president off the hook for crimes in the interests of “national healing.” A later piece, by columnist Robert Reich, called for Trump, one of his sons, and Rudy Giuliani to be arrested and prosecuted over the Capitol riot, and several of their allies to be barred from running for office. Nor did the paper accuse Democrats and other Trump antagonists of engaging in “retribution” in its numerous articles covering the prospects of criminal charges for the former president.
One of the Guardian’s sources of criticism of the arrest was Human Rights Watch, which later warned against “revenge justice” in its own separate post. To its credit, the human rights organization had criticized Áñez’s government for various antidemocratic measures too. But in a February 2021 post titled “Impeachment not enough,” it declared that “federal and state authorities have an obligation to conduct thorough and effective criminal investigations” into Trump and others’ efforts to overturn democracy and to “ensure accountability for them.” Why, then, is the Bolivian government not entitled to do the same?
One aspect common to all of these deserves special mention. Whether the Post, the Times, the Guardian, or even Human Rights Watch, all gave credence to the charge that Morales’s vote total had been the result of some type of fraud, usually pointing to right-wing accusations or the Organization of American States (OAS), whose claims of “clear manipulations” were key to delegitimizing Morales’s victory and further riling up his opponents. The fact that the head of the OAS is a conservative ally of the United States whose tenure at the organization has been criticized by other Latin American countries is never mentioned.
Nor are readers ever informed that several different studies, some of them reported on in the pages of these very same newspapers, have now shown that the claim of fraud is bunk. As the authors of a June 2020 study pointed out, not only was the OAS’s claim of a “massive and unexplainable surge” in Morales’s votes simply its own error — because, embarrassingly, it had sorted time stamps for vote counts alphabetically, not chronologically — but the way his vote margin improved was entirely in line with the fact that later-reporting voting booths tended to be from his political strongholds, not unlike what happened in the US election, where late-arriving ballots put Biden over the top after an excruciating few days.
“Researchers understand why late-counted votes disproportionately favor the Democrats in the United States: young and nonwhite voters are more likely to cast mail-in and provisional ballots, which are more likely to be counted after election day,” the authors wrote then. “While politicians and pundits often point to the blue shift as evidence of fraud, scholars find that it is predictable.”
In other words, even after the disgraceful postelection behavior of Trump and the GOP that had horrified them so — that they had all cited as a grave crime that may require criminal prosecution — these papers are nonetheless still using Trump and the GOP’s exact same reasoning to continue pushing baseless charges of fraud in a completely different country. Even more absurdly, they’re doing so while arguing that — in Bolivia but not the United States — prosecuting a hard- right former president who overturned democracy in a coup is itself an alarming threat to democracy. What can one even say to this?
When the Trump era began, there were high hopes that, as the press became more combative, it would be more willing to call a spade a spade and less willing to wallow in faux objectivity just because some sort of corner had been turned in political discourse. Instead, we’re still dealing with a political establishment that spent four years learning that Trump was bad and why — and nothing else.