MAGA And Fox Aiming To End Democracy If They Lose In November

MAGA And Fox Aiming To End Democracy If They Lose In November
FBI Arrests Three Active Duty Marines On Capitol Riot Charges
MAGA rioters at U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021

With the presidential election less than half a year away, evidence is everywhere that the right is planning to end the American experiment in representative government if it fails to legitimately return Donald Trump to the White House.

It was clear just a few months after Trump’s seditious plot to subvert the 2020 presidential election concluded with a violent mob of his supporters storming the U.S. Capitol that the right-wing propaganda apparatus was laying the groundwork to try again in 2024. Fox News and the rest of the MAGA media, which spent the weeks after the 2020 election fabricating and amplifying a host of election fraud lies and conspiracy theories to undermine the results, had begun working to institutionalize Trump’s lie that the 2020 election had been stolen from him and to construct an alternative path to the presidency in which compliant party officials would secure a Republican victory by any means necessary.

Fox had become a loaded gun aimed at American democracy. Three years later, the bullet is in the chamber.

The disinformation ecosystem which revolves around Fox is telegraphing a plan to reject the results of the 2024 election if Trump loses. The former president’s propagandists will once again use baseless allegations of widespread fraud as a pretext to seek to overturn the vote — and GOP leaders are publicly signaling their willingness to comply.

Ultimately, this preordained coup scheme may not matter. As in 2020, Joe Biden might win by too large a margin in too many states for the plot to succeed. Or, as in 2016, Trump might win outright.

But in the event that Biden triumphs in a close election, the MAGA faithful have developed and road-tested a plan to steal it.

Fox stars aided Trump’s 2020 subversion plot. They were lying. And they’ll do it again.

It is sometimes unclear whether Fox’s falsehoods are deliberate lies. But filings in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit, which the network settled in April 2023 for $787.5 million, demonstrate beyond dispute that Fox’s coverage of the 2020 election results was rooted in malicious fabrication.

Fox’s top executives and biggest stars knew for a fact that Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, even as the network’s coverage sought to undermine the legitimacy of the vote. The network, filings show, was intentionally peddling conspiracy theories in support of Trump’s stolen-election deception in order to compete with its far-right rivals.

These lies mattered. Communications revealed by the suit show that top Fox executives were aware the network was “uniquely positioned to state the message that the election was not stolen” but did not out of fears of losing viewers. They further show that when then-Fox Corp. Chair Rupert Murdoch asked his employees for evidence Fox had “fed the story that the election was stolen and that January 6 [was] an important chance to have the results overturned,” he received a list of 50 examples in response.

But the only lesson Fox’s executives apparently learned from fueling an attempted coup is that they need better lawyering to keep their damning internal emails and text messages off the front pages and avoid paying a record settlement.

Fox retained and even promoted some of its most unhinged election deniers, while punishing or even firing employees who fought the false narratives. In the years that followed, the network restocked its prime-time lineup with Trump loyalists who parrot whatever the former president says, put Trump allies and even a family member on the payroll, and replaced “news side” veterans with GOP operatives.

It’s no wonder that former employees keep loudly warning that Fox is a dangerous cesspool that produces Trumpian propaganda. The cogs who remain on the job, meanwhile, know without a doubt that they are part of a machine that manufactures lies. The pressure the network faces to hold on to its audience — including by promoting voter fraud conspiracy theories and other right-wing extremism — is stronger than ever. And so if Trump demands that Fox’s propagandists again focus on building him a pretext to overturn an election, they will do it.

The emerging right-wing scheme to overturn the 2024 election

Trumpists in the media and elsewhere have spent the years since Trump’s defeat laying the groundwork to rerun his subversion plot, systematically removing the guardrails that helped stymie the scheme in 2020, and helping him back to the Republican nomination. The result is a turnkey operation prepared to generate false election fraud claims and convert them into a rationale for Republican political leaders to reverse the results of the election and reinstall Trump in the White House.

MAGA propagandists are priming their audiences to disbelieve the election results and take action in response. They keep viewers in a state of terror with incendiary warnings that Biden is a jack-booted dictator who is deliberately trying to endanger their families, ensuring that some fraction would seek his removal by any means necessary. They valorize the January 6 insurrectionists as honorable patriots who did what they thought was right and were smeared by the media and punished by “deep state” malefactors. They flood the right-wing information ecosystem with lies and conspiracy theories about Democrats tainting past election results.

And they have already begun warning that the 2024 election will be rife with election fraud — and that only such cheating could explain a Trump defeat.

STEVE BANNON (HOST): There are no “issues" with the 2020 election — they stole it. Let me repeat that. They stole it. And they hate when we say this. They stole it. And they're on notice. They're not going to be able to steal it again. People are doing a ton of work on this, and that's still not enough, but it's going to get better. The hairy eyeball is going to be on them.

The only way they defeat Trump is to steal it. The only way they defeat Trump is they steal it. The only way they defeat Trump is they steal it. He is unstoppable.

We saw how this played out in 2020: Trump’s coup plan relied on blanketing right-wing media with stolen-election lies in order to provide cover for GOP partisans to reverse the outcome in states Biden won. Under pressure from the Fox-addled rank and file, Republican election officials would refuse to certify results in key areas, GOP state legislators would overturn the results, and GOP members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence would hand Trump the election.

This scheme failed in part because too many Republican officials were unwilling to aid the effort. But since then, Trumpist propagandists like WarRoom host Steve Bannon and Fox’s lineup of right-wing stars have helped make election denial a core GOP value, and now, the guardrails are collapsing:

  • Republicans purged their ranks of the sorts of GOP officials who resisted Trump’s subversion effort at the local, state, and federal level.
  • Election lies seem to have become a benefit in GOP primaries and effectively a job requirement at the Republican National Committee, one enforced by the MAGA chorus.
  • Prominent election deniers are recruiting their followers to take positions within the election infrastructure.
  • In the House, Rep. Mike Johnson’s (R-LA) zealous efforts to overturn the election helped garner him the speakership, while in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is on his way out of the leadership after voting to certify the electoral votes and criticizing Trump’s role in the insurrection.
  • Pence is effectively a party outcast after rejecting Trump’s entreaties to overturn the 2020 election results, and the politicians seeking to replace him on the GOP ticket are pushing voter fraud lies and refusing to say they will accept the results of the 2024 election.

Donald Trump will once again stand as the Republican presidential nominee this fall, less than four years after he attempted a coup to remain in office. He still maintains, unbowed by time, notoriety, or criminal charges, that the 2020 election was stolen. At the same time, he has embraced the January 6 offenders, regularly describing them as “hostages,” promising to consider blanket pardons for their actions, and treating their attack on the Capitol as “not a moment of national shame but of celebration,” as NPR described it.

None of this seemed to give right-wing propagandists much pause as Trump romped to the nomination. The Murdochs may have begun the primary season with other plans, but Fox had spent years crafting a political environment in which any criticism of Trump was inherently illegitimate, and its stars ultimately rallied to his side. As Trump’s victory became inevitable, his vanquished rivals were reduced to complaining — accurately — that Fox and its ilk had taken Trump’s side, while the few right-wing commentators who had criticized Trump and endorsed his primary opponents bent the knee.

If he loses in 2024, Trump will reject the results and seek to overturn them, as he has throughout his political career. Indeed, he began laying the groundwork for such a strategy during the GOP primaries, warning that only Democratic “cheating” could explain such an outcome. And he has no apparent qualms over whether his deliberate radicalization of his supporters leads to right-wing political violence. Indeed, he is signaling that is exactly what he wants.

No one can say they didn’t know what was coming

Here’s part of an interview with Trump that Time magazine published on April 30, six months before Election Day:

Mr. President, in our last conversation you said you weren't worried about political violence in connection with the November election. You said, “I think we're going to win and there won't be violence.” What if you don't win, sir?

Trump: Well, I do think we're gonna win. We're way ahead. I don't think they'll be able to do the things that they did the last time, which were horrible. Absolutely horrible. So many, so many different things they did, which were in total violation of what was supposed to be happening. And you know that and everybody knows that. We can recite them, go down a list that would be an arm’s long. But I don't think we're going to have that. I think we're going to win. And if we don't win, you know, it depends. It always depends on the fairness of an election. I don't believe they'll be able to do the things that they did the last time. I don't think they'll be able to get away with it. And if that's the case, we're gonna win in record-setting fashion.

Polls suggest that the 2024 presidential election will be close. But according to Trump, he’s “way ahead” and on track to win “in record-setting fashion.” The only thing that can prevent that outcome, Trump claims, is “the things that they did the last time,” i.e. the Democratic election fraud conspiracy theories he’s been hocking since before the 2020 vote. And if that happens, Trump says, his supporters might respond to such a result with violence.

None of this is even remotely subtle.

In the lead-up to the 2020 election, some political commentators expressed doubts over whether Trump would really respond to defeat by refusing to accept the election results and taking action to try to remain in office.

But that is precisely what Trump did. Now he is saying quite clearly that he will do it again if given the chance. And his propagandists in the right-wing media will have had four years to lay the groundwork to ensure his plot’s success.

Five days after the Time interview dropped, Semafor founder Ben Smith published a Q-and-A with Joe Kahn, the executive editor of The New York Times. The interview began like this:

Ben Smith: Dan Pfeiffer, who used to work for Barack Obama, recently wrote of the Times: “They do not see their job as saving democracy or stopping an authoritarian from taking power.” Why don’t you see your job as: “We’ve got to stop Trump?” What about your job doesn’t let you think that way?

Joe Kahn: Good media is the Fourth Estate, it’s another pillar of democracy. One of the absolute necessities of democracy is having a free and fair and open election where people can compete for votes, and the role of the news media in that environment is not to skew your coverage towards one candidate or the other, but just to provide very good, hard-hitting, well-rounded coverage of both candidates, and informing voters. If you believe in democracy, I don’t see how we get past the essential role of quality media in informing people about their choice in a presidential election.

To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda. It is true that Biden’s agenda is more in sync with traditional establishment parties and candidates. And we’re reporting on that and making it very clear.

It’s also true that Trump could win this election in a popular vote. Given that Trump’s not in office, it will probably be fair. And there’s a very good chance, based on our polling and other independent polling, that he will win that election in a popular vote. So there are people out there in the world who may decide, based on their democratic rights, to elect Donald Trump as president. It is not the job of the news media to prevent that from happening. It’s the job of Biden and the people around Biden to prevent that from happening.

It’s our job to cover the full range of issues that people have. At the moment, democracy is one of them. But it’s not the top one — immigration happens to be the top [of polls], and the economy and inflation is the second. Should we stop covering those things because they’re favorable to Trump and minimize them? I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work in the view of Dan Pfeiffer or the White House. We become an instrument of the Biden campaign? We turn ourselves into Xinhua News Agency or Pravda and put out a stream of stuff that’s very, very favorable to them and only write negative stories about the other side? And that would accomplish — what?

That exchange generated a lot of smart responses. Critics pointed out that Smith’s question mischaracterized Pfeiffer’s critique; that Kahn’s response ignores the actual criticisms mounted by his paper’s critics, including Biden himself; that the Timesbusiness interests lead Kahn to endorse “a kind of performative neutrality in politics coverage”; and that, contra Kahn’s claims, the Times does not generally base its coverage decisions on polling and, if it did, the result should be a greater focus on the impact of Trump’s policy proposals on inflation and immigration than the paper actually provides.

What strikes me most about Kahn’s answer is his apparent lack of urgency. A former president left office after using the lie that the election he lost had been rigged to try to reverse the outcome, culminating in a violent assault by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol. He has all but promised to try again, and after transforming his party into a personality cult which treats the insurrectionists as heroes and his election lie as unvarnished truth, he very well could succeed.

That is the central reality of the 2024 presidential election, one that should be foregrounded to the readers and viewers on news outlets at every opportunity but often fades from the discourse. The former president’s media allies are foreshadowing their eagerness to take every possible opportunity to participate in his scheme. And the leader of the nation’s most powerful mainstream press organ gives no indication that he has considered those implications in any but the shallowest way. We are all in a lot of trouble.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

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