Even though the 2020 Presidential Election was called on November 14th, escaping election news seems impossible. The last week has seen Trump’s legal team file a plethora of lawsuits over supposed voter fraud and their subsequent failures. So far, at least 18 lawsuits have been filed, with each one hitting a brick wall. While this failure was predicted, its magnitude is still remarkable. Trump and his allies talk a big game on social media, yet their arguments fall apart the moment they go through the gauntlet of the US court system. What’s with the disparity? Why do Trump and the Republicans cry wolf on social media and then roll over the moment they’re questioned in court?
You can’t exactly lie in court like you can on social media (see: perjury). They can spout lies on social media, as is their constitutional right, but that won’t fly in a courtroom. If they seemingly know their accusations are false, as evidenced by their reluctance to introduce them into a sphere where lies have consequences, why spout so much misinformation? In this blog, I will argue there is a right-wing media machine that feeds on high emotions and informational isolation. The effectiveness of this machine has led the Republican Party to disregard truth in favor of falsehoods that satisfy their shrinking electoral base and bring electoral success in the short term, but require damaging radicalization in the long run.
Our story starts on social media. Platforms like Twitter give the electorate unprecedented access to their representatives. Needless to say, the Trump presidency has been centered around his Twitter account. There have long been claims that social media platforms unfairly suppress conservative voices in favor of liberal views. However, as pointed out by the BBC, “on any given day the top 10 most popular political posts are dominated by right-leaning commentators like Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro, along with posts by Fox News and President Trump.”
Furthermore, according to Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia, the social media bias isn’t left or right, but instead toward content that generates strong emotions. Given the conservative focus on criminal immigrants invading the country or Black Lives Matter protesters “burning” cities down, right-wing posts arguably generate a greater emotional response than the comparatively bland liberal focus on affordable health care or climate reform. Although right-wing posts aren’t entirely factual, they elicit emotions and engagement that lead algorithms to spread the posts to more and more people, thus rewarding outlandish posts with more clicks and likes.
Furthermore, according to the Economist, conservatives are more easily fooled by “fake news” thanks to their distrust of traditional information sources. The article explains, “People on the right believe in [conspiracy theories] more often, and entertain a broader range of theories, particularly those that accuse the other ‘side’ of plotting, whether that be left-wingers, foreigners or other groups.” By entertaining such theories, mainstream channels, particularly Fox News, have drawn larger audiences, likely in the same manner that emotionally engaging social media posts get more clicks. So, we have media rewarding polarized content, as it evokes more engagement. We also have conservatives that are more likely to believe misinformation that arises from this popular, polarized content. What do we make of this?
These two threads combine to create a right-wing media machine that keeps the Republican electoral base constantly fed on increasingly radicalized content. The Columbia Journalism Review found that conservatives pay more attention to extremist outlets floating “fake news” than liberals do. Again, this “fake news” isn’t entirely false, but is instead “the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading.” The analysis concluded that over the course of the 2016 election, this right-wing media machine developed an “internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.” Put simply, it creates a bubble that consumers don’t leave. We all have that uncle that refuses to watch anything but Fox News, right?
With the machine isolating them from outside information, consumers only ingest misinformation that they’re already susceptible to. With a lack of any differing opinions or evidence, radicalization comes easily. See the increasingly outlandish conservative theories over the previous election cycles for evidence. It moved from Birtherism in 2008 to claiming Hilary Clinton used foreign spies to dig up dirt on Trump in 2016 to the rise of QAnon and massive voter fraud trying to blatantly steal the election in 2020. Each cycle got broader and more accusatory, making consumers increasingly scared and resentful of the world around them, with no chance for outside information to set them straight.
Why don’t Republicans call out blatantly false information touted by their president and pushed by their sympathetic media sources? Politics. Perhaps some do believe it, but to me, there are two more compelling reasons. One, misinformation keeps the constituency firmly in their corner, with the focus on life or death instead of policies. The Republican base is shrinking, but as long as the machine chugs along, making emotional content and isolating them from other news, they’ll turn out each election and re-elect those Republicans with no little attention paid to policies. Two, the passion with which Trump supporters hold their idol is well known, and it scares Republicans. If they counter him or his misinformation, they’ll get sucker-punched. Just look at Thom Tillis or Chris Coons. Thus, Republicans sit back and reap the rewards of misinformation: voter turnout and unwavering support for the Republican party, seemingly unbothered that conspiracists “declare Democrats to be part of a ‘deep state’ cabal of satanic, child-molesting cannibals and call for the president to imprison and execute them.”
The core Republican electorate is addicted to misinformation and populist rhetoric. In the paper “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism,” the authors define populism as anti-elitist and Manichean, the latter being further defined as using harsh language against opponents and casting all struggles as moral battles between good and evil. The article concludes that Trump is a populist, providing plenty of examples of his anti-elitist tendencies and, more importantly, his Manichean worldview in which Democrats and minorities are evils that he will counter as a moral savior.
With half of America cast as evil and seeking to destroy the country, there’s no going back for Republican leaders. What are they going to do? Backpedal? To where? If just a couple years ago Democrats were cannibalistic pedophiles looking to install a caliphate in America, the Trump base will not buy an attempted Republican turnaround. They have accepted the inherent evil of Democrats. Once you link partisanship and morality, it’s hard to stop the polarizing slide. With each election cycle, the conspiracy theories and misinformation get increasingly radical and infect more voters.
With the sanctity of the electoral process trampled, the legitimacy of the Democratic Party undermined, and American citizens labeled as evil and morally bankrupt, I’m not quite sure where the party can go from here that doesn’t put the nail in the coffin of our democracy. As Joe Biden’s legal counsel Bob Bauer put it, Trump and the Republican establishment are simply putting on “theatrics” for their voters. The Trump legal machine knows they’re not winning anything. But to keep the rabid base happy, they need to put up the front of a fight. The evil Democrats are stealing the election, and they must pretend they’re doing everything to counter it. Perhaps that will work for now. But come the next election cycle, what is going to satisfy them? Republican politicians have taken it this far; how much are they willing to put up with to stay in power? Çinar, Ipek, Susan Stokes, and Andres Uribe. “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 50, no. 2 (2020): 240–63. https://doi.org/10.1111/psq.12656.