The 2020 election has brought to light the vast extent of misinformation, doubt of the validity of electoral outcomes, and divisions on even the role of facts within the United States media coverage of the political system. This, of course, was far from surprising considering the track record of Donald Trump throughout his term, but recently, we’ve seen constant media coverage, either casting Donald Trump as the end of American democracy or as the savior of it, surrounding the election. What we’ve seen so far has been a deeply divided American press on the topic, and this does not bode well for our democracy.
Throughout his term, Donald Trump demonstrated on numerous occasions a willingness to curtail many of our fundamental democratic values. Key characteristics we’ve seen have been the open contestation of the legitimacy of democratic contest and the very value of facts in political discourse. Nonetheless, despite these very alarming qualities, some major news outlets in the United States have demonstrated a strict adherence to the support of this candidate. We see this today with media outlets like Fox News and Alex Jones’ Infowars consistently refusing to deviate from favorable coverage of the former president.
This striking non-independence in the media today poses a significant threat to democracy, and it has laid the groundwork for a would-be autocrat to take advantage of this constant favorable media coverage among his or her base to expand executive power.
Media in Democratic Erosion
The media, in modern democracies, plays a key role in the prevention of democratic erosion. The importance of news outlets is clear from the emphasis placed by would-be autocrats on the curtailment on the independence of media.
Whether it be Putin or Fujimori, or Erdogan, leaders with autocratic tendencies consistently make use of the media in order to both coerce favorable coverage and prevent political opponents from receiving the same. Incumbents, in this way, seek to hamper media access to opponents, a practice which Borneo considers to be a variety Democratic Backsliding.  Although providing value in an intuitive way to a would-be autocrat, this practice can be simply boiled down as “shrinking the public sphere”, by which process an executive can exert some level of control over the voices aired or material covered in the media, giving the antidemocratic leader lower barriers to the consolidation of authority. 
The independence of the media plays a notable role in the defense of democratic values. Especially bearing in mind the electorate’s willingness to support antidemocratic candidates,  the media is central in the prevention of democratic erosion via the accurate and unbiased reporting of relevant facts.
How an Autocrat Abuses the Press
Gehlbach, in Reflections on Putin and the Media, explores the interaction between the autocrat Vladimir Putin and the press.  This case seems most applicable to the United States because of key decisions made by Putin in order to maintain the guise of media independence under his autocratic system. Oftentimes we see autocrats fully incorporating media outlets into the state apparatus, but in Russia, Putin makes use of two means of control in the relatively open media: surrogates and economic pressure.
The former dynamic relates the informal interaction between the Kremlin and major media outlets. Gehlbach relates that top officials from national networks and key government officials have weekly meetings to address the previous and next weeks’ reporting. This coordination between media and government allows for continued favorable coverage of the autocrat, while allowing lower level journalists to have relative freedom in publication. Surrogates, in short, are media outlets which present favorable coverage of the autocrat, even at times when doing so would be inaccurate.
The economic pressure, however, imposed on media outlets by Vladimir Putin relates the state encouragement of “Kremlin-friendly businessmen to invest in the media”. In this case, we see the autocrat essentially controlling capital markets for media outlets, with the state exclusively offering economic relief and growth inroads for media networks. Putin’s approach to media control, as related by Gehlbach, amounts to the use of surrogates, outlets which provide favorable coverage of the autocrat, and economic pressure, state-sponsored economic stimulus. As opposed to the approach of an autocrat like Fujimori, Putin strives to maintain the perception of an independent media, while, in reality, exercising a significant degree of control.
Trump and the Media
Although the United States is far from a Russian autocracy, we can see how alarmingly similarly the media interacts with the executive. Putin’s use of surrogates and economic pressure can be seen today in America, although certainly less deliberately than in Russia.
Merceica, in Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication, puts forth the extent to which the media, in our modern age, has been used by demagogues to curtail negative coverage.  In this paper, the author makes a distinction between Dangerous and Heroic Demagogues, with the former making use of weaponized communications and not allowing him or herself to be held accountable for words or actions. Modern examples explored include Alex Jones, Andrew Anglin, and Donald Trump.
In Mercieca’s analysis of Donald Trump and Andrew Anglin, the author treats both Andrew Anglin and Donald Trump as individual, dangerous demagogues. The example provided relates a story written by GQ revealing Melania Trump’s secret half-brother and legal issues, following the publication of which Donald Trump publicly attacked the story as “dishonest”. Following this response, the Neo-Nazi Andrew Algin mobilized his “Stormer Troll Army” to barrage the author with violent tweets. When confronted with inciting violence, Trump denied knowledge of the event, denied association, questioned whether the author deserved the attack, and accused his opposition of using similar tactics. Andrew Algin went on to term Trump “Glorious Leader” in response.
However, Mercieca, in this paper, seems to be incorrectly analyzing this relationship between Trump and Algin. It seems as though Algin, like any other media outlet, is doing a sort of pseudo-reporting of the events that unfolded regarding GQ. In this sequence of events, Trump initially lambasted the reporting by GQ for its falsehood, and Andrew Algin conveyed that dissatisfaction and belief to his followers. Just as we might expect the Wall Street Journal to convey the most recent news to readers, Algin took the attack on the media of Donald Trump and relayed that to his readers. However, it is important to note that Algin did so in a way that was grossly biased, just as the “surrogates” of Putin do in Russia. In this way, it seems as though the contemporary media does contain surrogates of the kind that Putin uses, and Algin has demonstrated himself to be a surrogate of Trump.
In this same vein, as Andrew Algin’s granting of Trump the title of “Glorious Leader” was seemingly well received, it seems likely that the followers of Algin are essentially the driving force behind his success as a Trump surrogate. This is to say that, although Algin may one day choose to denounce the former president, it may very well be the case that doing so would distance himself from his base, threatening his economic position in the media market. In this way, it seems as though surrogates are incentivized to remain surrogates through economic pressure.
Although I am not making the case here that Donald Trump has attempted to impose himself and his views on the media establishment, it is certainly the case that the modern media today has positioned itself in a way to allow an executive to expand executive power without distancing his or her base. In aligning themselves with specific candidates, parties, and positions, the United States media is paving the way for a would-be autocrat to both enter into power and greatly expand executive power.
 Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5–19
 Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Z. Huq. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020.
 Graham, Matthew, and Milan Svolik. “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States.” American Political Science Review 114, no. 2 (2020): 392–409
 Scott Gehlbach, Reflections on Putin and the Media, Post-Soviet Affairs, 26:1, 77-87, 2010, DOI: 10.2747/1060-586X.26.1.77
 Jennifer R. Mercieca (2019) Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49:3, 264-279, DOI: 10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640