As the United States is now fully engaged in a second week of post-election controversies, two realities are increasingly clear. First, Donald Trump is growing increasingly unhinged in his quest to retain his grip on power. Second, only conservative media can prevent vast segments of the GOP base from descending further into the miasma of conspiracy theories right along with their president.
Trump’s Twitter feed is full of debunked rumors and false claims, but in the late morning of November 12, he reached a new level of wild speculation. In all caps, he tweeted, “REPORT: DOMINION DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES NATIONWIDE. DATA ANALYSIS FINDS 221,000 PENNSYLVANIA VOTES SWITCHED FROM PRESIDENT TRUMP TO BIDEN. 941,000 TRUMP VOTES DELETED. STATES USING DOMINION VOTING SYSTEMS SWITCHED 435,000 VOTES FROM TRUMP TO BIDEN.”
He cited the Trump-friendly One America News Network as the source for his explosive claim, but it’s pure and utter nonsense. As the Associated Press reported, a clerical error in a small Michigan county “has snowballed into a deluge of false claims that Democrats have deep ties to Dominion Voting Systems, the company that supplies election equipment to Michigan and dozens of other states nationwide.”
Trump’s allegations of tech misconduct are particularly dangerous. Most Americans don’t understand voting software or vote counts, so Trump’s claims are difficult to quickly debunk. They take time to explain, and technical jargon (no matter how accurate) is deeply unpersuasive.
Given the public’s vulnerability to tech-based conspiracies, it’s incumbent upon public officials to be especially careful before making any allegation. But “careful” is never a word that’s applied to Donald Trump. It’s also not a word that applies to vast segments of conservative media, and it’s conservative media celebrities – not GOP politicians – who truly matter in the fight for truth in right-wing America.
By now most politically-aware Americans are accustomed to a particular, dysfunctional pattern. Trump will say or tweet something outrageous, and immediately reporters will start calling GOP House and Senate offices, seeking comment. Most of the time, GOP politicians will duck and cover.
While there is some value in seeking these comments, it’s vital to understand that members of the House and Senate are largely irrelevant to the creation and evolution of right-wing public opinion. Remember, the three previous GOP presidential nominees (including a two-term Republican president) have all expressed varying degrees of distaste for Donald Trump. They’ve had no discernible effect on Republican opinion, except perhaps to harden it against them.
In reality, Republican politicians have little independent political or cultural influence, and their fortunes depend greatly on remaining in the good graces (or at least staying out of the line of fire) of a specific constellation of media celebrities concentrated in Fox prime time, talk radio, and a select group of online outlets like Breitbart or Newsmax. They’re the gatekeepers, and they make or break political careers.
Trump is deeply aware of the importance of maintaining power and influence within conservative media. He’s lashed out at Fox News repeatedly – a transparent effort to both intimidate Fox and to promote those outlets he believes are even more friendly to his presidency and to his claims of vote fraud, particularly the One American News Network.
So powerful is this collective right-wing media ecosystem that virtually every Republican senator and representative knows the true cost and consequences of political courage – defy Trump and Trump’s media, and they not only risk losing their career, they risk being replaced by someone more devoted to Trump and more irresponsible in their public rhetoric.
So, here’s the blunt reality. As Trump leaves the White House and enters private life, the trail back to moral norms, back to integrity, and back to robust and meaningful ideological debate (as opposed to “own the libs” trolling, conspiracy theories, and personal insults) will be extraordinarily difficult. After all, Trump will be gone, but conservative media is still dominated by the same personalities and the same outlets that have helped lead the right astray.
Moreover, because the election was close, the argument for conservative media to reform itself will have to be moral and patriotic rather than self-interested and pragmatic – made to a community that specifically scorns norms and often mocks arguments based on character or integrity. Trump lost, but his constituency remains vast. His personal style remains dominant. Imitating him and defending him will remain the path of least resistance (and good ratings) for the immediately foreseeable future.
But the need for courage remains, even if the marketplace demand is suspect. Conspiracy theories like the Dominion theory Trump tweeted are false. Belief in conspiracies harms this nation. Indeed, we’ve witnessed the high cost of low trust in our nation’s response to the Coronavirus. Anti-masking ideologies, “just the flu” misinformation, and “plandemic” conspiracies have cost lives.
Conservative media was created and thrived in large part because of the realization that mainstream media had glaring blind spots. Fox pledged, for example, to be “fair and balanced.” And while a few publications (like my former colleagues at National Review) have stayed true to their purpose, others mainly feed the right’s outrage and grievance machine.
Trump’s relentless disinformation campaign raises the question – is there a line left that angry right-wing celebrities won’t cross? They can help spare this nation an even deeper level of animosity and mistrust. Or they can double down on division. Their decision is that important. There is no path back to sanity that doesn’t travel at least partway through the very loud voices of the vast right-wing media-entertainment complex.