That has been the case for years, beginning with his embrace of false claims about the birthplace of then-President Barack Obama. Perhaps Trump recognized that the universe of misinformation swirling around American politics created a large, untapped pool of support; perhaps he was simply a devout consumer of it. Either way, he emerged in June 2015 willing to disparage immigrants and attack Democrats in terms unusual for a Republican candidate. Within a month — after being nationally lambasted for his assertions — he led in the polls.
For more than four years, Trump continued on the same path. Whatever prompted the most fervent response from his base is what he touted, with right-wing figures on social media and Fox News hosts applauding each time. No group was consistently more loyal to Trump than Republicans who were fervent Fox News viewers.
Sure, the buck never stopped with Trump, but there was never any political cost paid for blaming everyone else. Until Nov. 3, of course, when Trump’s ongoing failure to expand his base of support over the course of his presidency led to Joe Biden’s election as the country’s 46th president.
During the run-up to the election, I asked the campaigns of both Trump and Biden how they would bridge the deep divide between the two sides in American politics. Both campaigns gave vague responses, perhaps predictably, centered on how their candidate would simply win over the opposition through his exceptional governance. The Biden campaign’s response, for example, was that he would “work to unite and heal our political and cultural wounds, reform and restore faith in our democracy, and work across party lines to build consensus for all” — noble aspirations that, even if successful, depend on accurate representations of Biden’s efforts in right-wing media. Which will almost certainly not happen.
In an interview with the Atlantic, Biden’s former boss was more realistic about how right-wing media shapes the political moment.
Obama pointed to the energy surrounding Sarah Palin’s addition to the Republican ticket in 2008 as “hint[ing] at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction” on the right. He lamented how the consolidation of news at the national level aided the power of those appeals.
“Even as late as 2008, typically when I went into a small town, there’s a small-town newspaper, and the owner or editor is a conservative guy with a crew cut, maybe, and a bow tie, and he’s been a Republican for years,” Obama said. “He doesn’t have a lot of patience for tax-and-spend liberals, but he’ll take a meeting with me, and he’ll write an editorial that says, ‘He’s a liberal Chicago lawyer, but he seems like a decent enough guy, had some good ideas’; and the local TV station will cover me straight.”
“But you go into those communities today and the newspapers are gone,” he continued. “If Fox News isn’t on every television in every barbershop and VFW hall, then it might be a Sinclair-owned station, and the presuppositions that exist there, about who I am and what I believe, are so fundamentally different, have changed so much, that it’s difficult to break through.”
Sinclair Broadcasting has emerged as a significant factor in conservative media over the past several years. It owns a number of local news stations and often ham-handedly mandates that certain segments or snippets of rhetoric be aired. The explosion of far-right theories and arguments on social media and websites such as Breitbart has created some space for challengers to Fox News’s right on television and cable news. The emergence of Newsmax and One America News — both hyped by Trump — has helped amplify more voices from the fringe and to pressure Fox News as insufficiently right-leaning.
Even before this diversification, if you will, it was difficult for Republican legislators to work with Democratic leaders in good faith.
“The issue was not a lack of schmoozing,” Obama said, dismissing the idea that simply building relationships with his opponents would have broken logjams. “The issue was that they found it politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic Party. This was amplified by media outlets like Fox News. Their voters believed this, and over time Republicans became so successful in their demonization that it became very difficult for them to compromise, or even be seen being friendly.”
He used former House speaker John A. Boehner as an example: “He and I had a perfectly good relationship, but he had to act a certain way for his caucus.”
“The problem facing the Republican Party, the conservative movement, whatever you want to call it, goes back to the attitudes of the base — attitudes that have been shaped by right-wing media,” Obama said at another point. “And so essentially what Republican elected officials have done is to say to themselves that in order to survive, we have to go along with conspiracy theorizing, false assertion, fantasies that Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh and others in that echo chamber have concocted, because people believe them.”
The more momentum this approach enjoys, the further it travels, with “large swaths of the country genuinely believ[ing] that the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring,” as Obama put it — a reference to the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory.
For four years, Trump’s opponents hoped that some voice would speak up to reveal the president as a hopeless charlatan, removing the scales from the eyes of his followers. Perhaps it would be former Arizona senator John McCain, speaking out against Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Or perhaps special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, revealing deep-rooted malfeasance in Trump’s 2016 campaign. Perhaps it would come after Trump’s impeachment demonstrated how he had tried to leverage his position for his political benefit. But no such reckoning ever came, either because the evidence was lacking or because Fox News insisted that it was.
It’s hard to see what might alter the existing dynamic. There is a political benefit for Republicans to coddle misinformation and those who perpetrate it. Social media companies are only hesitantly interested in combating the problem and, at times, have enabled it. There are strong financial motivations for Fox News to continue its current prime-time programming. While its hosts have faced advertiser boycotts for their content, the programs continue to generate large audiences for whatever pro-Trump rhetoric Sean Hannity et al. have on any given day. The emergence of still-tepid competition from the right won’t persuade the network to alter its trajectory. And even if it did, there would still be that morass of misinformation on social media and right-leaning websites.
We should note, by the way, that it’s clear that many denizens of the right-wing media universe believe the false claims being peddled. Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo, once generally considered a talented financial reporter, has become enmeshed in right-wing conspiracies and claims. Further from the center of the Republican establishment, popular figures run even more carelessly into the wilds. It’s not simply that some of these voices would need to decide to give up the lucrative embrace of nonsense. It’s that some would need to be brought back to reality.
How can Biden combat that? What can he say or do to aid that process? Obama noted that some of the reaction to his own presidency derived from his being a Black man who had risen to the most powerful position in the country. Biden might conceivably reduce the opposition from the far right that’s predicated on racial insecurity — except that Biden has already been effectively painted by right-wing voices as a tool of far-left socialists, the identified avatars of which tend to be women of color.
“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work,” Obama warned. “We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”
This isn’t untrue. What goes unasked is how this can be overcome. It’s perhaps the most important question in politics at the moment — and it’s one that defies a clear answer.