In the grand scheme of checks and balances on authoritarian tendencies, the media ideally plays an impartial role as a guardrail against democratic backsliding. 2016 posed a unique challenge to this system in the U.S. Then Republican-nominee Donald Trump’s claims and public attacks on verified media outlets challenged the ability of the Fourth Estate to be an effective watchdog over government accountability and undermined traditional systems of truthful reporting. Since then, President Trump’s strained relationship with the media has had interesting implications for his claims to political legitimacy and has shown an alternative to outright authoritarian acquisition of the news media.
In contrast to the way that other stealth authoritarians acquire media empires or silence their opposition, the first thing that stands out about Trump’s approach to controlling the sources of information is his shift to social media as an official governmental communication platform.  Trump circumvents the checks on executive accountability posed by the traditional news media by turning to Twitter instead. Whereas before government Twitter accounts were run primarily to reiterate announcements already disseminated by official sources, Trump’s transformation of Twitter into a primary source of information on the actions of the executive branch allowed him to be the press to the punch. Trump doesn’t need to consolidate the media behind him like Putin did because he has carved out a platform for himself on the Internet.  Though it certainly helps to have something more mainstream, like Fox News, on his side, the blue checks and the official Twitter handle, like it or not, lend credibility to the words produced by the President.
The misinformation disseminated by Donald Trump on Twitter contributes to polarization within the U.S. because it finds purchase within those more likely to agree with his viewpoints and believe them.  Moreover, fact checkers and banners alerting viewers that they are interacting with contested election claims or false information are not effective in changing the minds of those who already agree with and support Donald Trump. 
Up until this point Trump’s criticisms of the media targeted verified news outlets for being biased towards the political left. The moniker of “Lamestream Media” stuck out among his usual stream of epithets and polarized the Fourth Estate itself. Objectivity in news reportage could no longer be assumed and Donald Trump’s continual barrage against CNN and favoritism of Fox News only exacerbated the politicized division of news outlets.
Over the course of the 2020 election Fox and CNN continued to present two alternative versions of America. When on November 7th CNN and other major news outlets called the election in Biden’s favor, Fox News not only held off on confirming the outcome, but also criticised the other news outlets for making the call too soon. Barely fifteen minutes later, they made the same call themselves. Simultaneously, Donald Trump’s responses claiming his victory in the election on Twitter were flagged by the platform.
Similarly, earlier that week major news platforms cut away from Donald Trump’s speech alleging voter fraud and CNN and Fox News followed up the broadcast from the White House with a statement about the lack of evidence to the claims. Even as Fox News continued to cover court challenges in Pennsylvania, the network made an effort to express concern at the rhetoric employed by Donald Trump. This later prompted the President to retweet a series of Tweets about the legitimacy of Fox News, causing #foxnewsisdead to becoming a trending hashtag on Twitter.
Throughout the past week, the war waged by the President on the media has been a testament to the fact that stealth authoritarians have other avenues of undermining the media as a democratic guardrail other than the traditional methods of buying out news sources and silencing opposition. Donald Trump’s four years in office have shown that it is possible to sidestep key components that contribute to the robustness of democracies, such as the press, in order to install one’s own hegemony. His meteoric rise, partially attributed to his weaponization of misinformation in the digital age, is a warning sign for many elections to come. The lesson in this is that it forces us to change our perception of authoritarian figures as individual phenomena that are products of polarized societies. Instead, we should recognize that they exist not only purely in the political sphere, but also leverage non-traditional methods to gain power. Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100 (n.d.): 1673–1742  Scott Gehlbach (2010) Reflections on Putin and the Media, Post-Soviet Affairs, 26:1, 77-87, DOI: 10.2747/1060-586X.26.1.77 Maja Adena, Ruben Enikolopov, Maria Petrova, Veronica Santarosa, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Radio and the Rise of The Nazis in Prewar Germany , The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 130, Issue 4, November 2015, Pages 1885–1939, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjv030  Barrera Rodriguez, Oscar and Guriev, Sergei and Henry, Emeric and Zhuravskaya, Ekaterina, Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics (July 1, 2019).