The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Debunking The ‘Rigged Election’ Horror Story

Donald Trump’s “rigged election” shtick is the product of years of conservative fear mongering about voter fraud and election stealing, and it poses a unique challenge to journalists who want to ensure voter confidence in the election process.

Faced with dismal polling numbers in the final weeks of his presidential campaign, Trump has resorted to telling his supporters that the election will be “rigged” — stolen from him because of widespread voter fraud. He’s repeated that warning frequently on the campaign trail, and nearly half of his supporters now believe him.

The voter fraud talking point – the idea that Democrats will use voters who lie about their identities, dead voters, or undocumented immigrants to cast fraudulent ballots — has been debunked ad nauseum in research, court decisions, and expert testimony. Politifact rated Trump’s “rigged election” claim a “pants on fire” lie, stating there’s simply no evidence that widespread voter fraud is a real problem, especially in presidential elections.

But even before Trump’s campaign, a growing number of primarily Republican voters began to believe that voter fraud is a widespread problem.

That’s thanks in part to conservative media’s near-constant, baseless fear mongering about voter fraud over the past few election cycles. Right-wing outlets, and especially Fox News, have bombarded audiences with exaggerated or misleading claims of voter fraud to create the impression that Democratic victories at the ballot box are largely the result of illegal election rigging. Stories about dead or non-eligible or non-existent voters appearing on voter rolls are regularly touted as proof of nefarious activity, even though those voter registrations never actually translate into votes.

The most memorable example of this kind of fear mongering came during the 2008 controversy surrounding the non-profit group ACORN. A number of ACORN voter registration employees had been discovered submitting false or duplicate voter registration forms (the laws in many states require third parties who register voters to submit all forms they receive). Fox News devoted countless segments to the story in order to hype hysteria about widespread voter fraud, despite the fact that those forms never produced an actual fraudulent vote. ACORN was eventually cleared of charges of orchestrating voter fraud, but half of all Republican voters still believed ACORN helped steal the election for President Obama in 2012 — two years after ACORN had closed down.

Misinformation about voter fraud isn’t only the fault of conservative media. As GOP statehouses across the country have pushed for restrictive voter ID laws — laws aimed at disenfranchising typically Democratic voters — local news outlets have repeated Republican talking points about the threat of voter fraud without fact-checking them.

That kind of round-the-clock saturation helps explain why so many voters have started to doubt the integrity of elections without evidence that it is a problem. And that doubt poses a real threat to a democracy, which relies on voters trusting and accepting the outcomes of elections.

Trump’s “rigged election” shtick is just one element of a broader problem with media coverage of voter fraud. Regardless of who wins in November, journalists are going to have to be a lot more aggressive about fact-checking right-wing horror stories if they want to restore voter confidence in the election process.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

Photo: A sample ballot is seen in a photo illustration, as early voting for the 2016 general elections began in North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S. October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Chris Wallace And The Banality Of Conservative Dishonesty

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace has received widespread praise for his performance as moderator of the final presidential debate, despite repeatedly injecting right-wing framing and misinformation into his questions. The celebration of Wallace’s performance highlights the extent to which conservative spin has become normalized in national politics.

Following the October 19 debate, commentators across the political spectrum praised Wallace for his performance as moderator. Wallace was lauded for his “blunt questions,” “evenhanded approach,” and “sterling performance,” and he was even described as the “one clearcut winner” of the debate.

Some of this praise is legitimate — Wallace repeatedly grilled Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on questions of policy and at times forced him to stay on topic in his answers. And the most newsworthy moment of the debate — Trump’s refusal to say whether he’d accept the results of the elections — came in response to Wallace’s pointed, repeated questioning near the end of the event.

But Wallace also exposed his audience to a large dose of right-wing misinformation:

  • His question about the economy began with the false premise that President Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan damaged the economy.
  • His question about immigration took Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2013 comments about “open borders” grossly out of context.
  • His question about abortion access invoked the right-wing myth of “partial-birth” abortion, a non-medical term invented by anti-abortion groups.
  • His question about the national debt falsely alleged that programs like Social Security and Medicare are going to run out of money and add to the debt absent short-term cuts, echoing Republican talking points about entitlements.

Wallace also failed to fact-check Trump’s frequent falsehoods — following through on his promise not to be a “truth squad” during the debate.

Wallace’s rave reviews from Republicans and Democrats alike highlight the extent to which right-wing dishonesty — made ubiquitous by Fox News and conservative media — has become normal in national politics. Wallace’s network has spent years repeating and mainstreaming these types of lies — the stimulus failed, Democrats want open borders, et cetera. Viewers have heard them so often that it can feel passé to go through the motions of debunking them over and over. Journalists become so numb to the talking points that they can hear them being repeated by a debate moderator during a presidential debate without batting an eye.

That’s how political propaganda works — not by outright convincing people, but by treating a lie as so routine and unremarkable that people slowly stop being suspicious of it.

Journalists’ willingness to accept and overlook Wallace’s bullshit is even greater when it’s being compared to the absurdity of Donald Trump. When Trump is on stage claiming his opponent should be disqualified from running for office or suggesting he might not accept the results of the election, it feels nitpicky to worry about the misleading nature of many of Wallace’s questions. Trump’s unhinged, out-of-control campaign style makes everything around him seem normal and tame by comparison. We’re willing to forgive Wallace’s occasional dishonesty because we’re so grateful that he pointed out Trump is literally threatening a core democratic principle.

But becoming numb to Wallace’s casual, subtle dishonesty is incredibly dangerous. Fox News’ modus operandi is making right-wing misinformation so pervasive and constant that it becomes unnoticeable — it becomes part of the noise we just take for granted in American politics. What makes Wallace such an effective purveyor of dishonesty is that he’s good at playing the part of the reasonable, “even-handed” journalist, even when what he’s saying is wrong.

It’s easy to challenge bullshit when it’s being delivered wildly by Trump on a debate stage. It’s much harder to challenge it when it’s being subtly baked into questions from a moderator whose employer has spent years trying to blur the lines between serious journalism and right-wing fantasy.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

White Nationalists See Trump As A Chance To Break Into The Media Mainstream

Published with permission from Media Matters for America.

Prominent white nationalists touted their growing media influence in the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to the Republican presidential nomination on a wave of bigoted rhetoric at a September 9 press conference titled “What Is The Alt-Right?

The press conference, organized by white nationalist “think tank” the National Policy Institute (NPI), aimed to explain how the “alt-right” — a movement of fringe modern white supremacists — had “become a force in American politics in such a short period of time.” The racist movement has garnered renewed interest from media outlets in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s August 25 speech decrying the Trump campaign’s cozy relationship with the movement, including the hiring of Breitbart News executive chairman and alt-right leader Stephen Bannon as campaign CEO.

The press conference featured three prominent white nationalist speakers: NPI president Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right;” Jared Taylor, who publishes the white nationalist online magazine American Renaissance; and Peter Brimelow, who founded the white nationalist anti-immigration site VDare.com.

The press conference came just hours before Clinton told supporters at a fundraiser that half of Trump’s supporters belonged to a “basket of deplorables” — people who harbor “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” animus who have been “lifted … up” by the Republican nominee. Indeed, the white nationalist movement has provided Trump with some of his most fervent supporters and praised him for helping to grow their ranks.

Spencer began the press conference by noting the “alt-right’s” unprecedented media moment. The movement, which has for years been relegated to the extreme racist fringes of the internet, has broken into the American public’s consciousness, thanks in large part to the “alt-right’s” vocal support of Trump’s anti-immigration platform. “We’re not just some marginal movement that you could dismiss,” Spencer told the room of supporters and journalists. “The fact is our ideas are so powerful that despite the fact that we’re doing all this on a shoe-string, we’re getting at people. We’re affecting them. They know we’re right.”

Indeed, the Trump campaign has helped bring the racist “alt-right” movement into the mainstream — rubbing elbows with white nationalists, echoing many of their common themes, and demonizing Muslims and immigrants.

That willingness to flirt with the racist fringe is what has captured the imagination of people like Spencer, who see in Trump a “leader” who is willing to shirk norms when talking about race and identity. “He seems to be willing to go there, he seems to be willing to confront people.  And that is very different from the cuckold.”

Spencer described Trump’s campaign as a kind of jumping-off point for the “alt-right” — an opportunity to introduce their pro-white agenda to a broad national audience. “Certainly we have been, you could say, riding his coattails, there’s been more interest in us because we’re generally pro-Trump, because we’re inspired by him and things like that.”

The press conference also featured a significant amount of the explicitly racist rhetoric that one would expect from white nationalists — Taylor argued that blacks and Latinos are genetically predisposed to have lower IQs and behave less ethically than whites, Spencer waxed poetic about the importance of protecting a white cultural identity in America, and all three speakers expressed concern about the influence of Jewish people in American politics.

But beyond that, the press conference pointed to the speakers’ emerging awareness of the need to transform the “alt-right” from a disorganized and anonymous movement of internet trolls and meme-creators into a serious, professional political movement.

“I think the big challenge for the alt-right is a professionalization,” Spencer told his audience. “We’ve got to have professional organizations, professional people doing it… We want to increase our exposure, increase our influence.”

For the “alt-right” speakers in the room, being Trump supporters, while important, was secondary to their primary goal of advancing their pro-white agenda. Spencer acknowledged that Trump could not fairly be described as “alt-right,” instead describing Trump’s campaign as an opportunity to influence a major political party’s candidate to advance a pro-white agenda.

“We have not been made by Trump but we want to make Trump,” Spencer declared, “and we want to imagine him in our image.”