President Donald Trump’s media criticism is usually binary — there are “good stories,” favorable to him, and then the other category.
Most news coverage on Monday fell into that other category. One by one, presidential electors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia formally recognized Joe Biden as the president-elect, the latest and most significant rejection so far of Trump’s desperate attempts to undo the will of the voters.
But inside the sprawling and self-reinforcing network of websites, podcasts and video news that has fed some of the most reckless and unrealistic claims about the election, the myth of Trump’s political survival endures.
The lead story on the Gateway Pundit, which researchers have identified as one of the major sources pro-Trump misinformation online, floated the idea of a “BOMBSHELL” ruling in a case on Monday that the site teased as a possible game-changer: “Will a Small County in Northern Michigan Be the Key to Overturning the Nation’s Election Results?”
On a podcast hosted by Trump’s former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a conservative activist vowed to file a new lawsuit seeking to reverse the electors’ vote — adding to the dozens of suits so far, nearly all of which have been dismissed. “Intimidation and fear is not something that works in a democracy,” said Phill Kline, the director of the conservative Amistad Project, vowing to continue the fight.
The podcast was one of at least six on the list of Apple’s 100 most popular podcasts that are hosted by someone who has been vocally supportive of Trump’s attack on the nation’s electoral system.
The world seems to have recognized what the Electoral College affirmed on Monday: Trump will be leaving office whether he wants to accept his fate or not. The Supreme Court refused to second-guess this reality on Friday when it rejected a legally dubious, last-minute maneuver by the state of Texas. Numerous world leaders have accepted it by congratulating Biden. Even Trump’s own administration eventually bowed and agreed to formally begin the transition process.
Yet six weeks after his defeat, the aggressive campaign by Trump and his media boosters to insist with each new setback that the election is far from settled isn’t letting up.
Inside this bubble, the president’s allies present virtually impossible outcomes as completely plausible. They raise expectations of victory in unwinnable lawsuits and battles over electors that state legislators are unwilling to have. They bolster the credibility of questionable witnesses and advocates whose most important qualification is an unequivocal conviction that Trump won in November, despite all available evidence.
And then when they don’t meet the bar they set, they move it.
This is what the president’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, demonstrated on Monday when he insisted in an interview on “Fox & Friends” that the Electoral College vote was largely irrelevant because all that truly mattered was Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
“So we have more than enough time to right the wrong of this fraudulent election result and certify Donald Trump as the winner,” Miller said, resetting the calendar to another scheme to invalidate the votes of millions of Americans, because the previous one had flopped.
Some allies of Trump had hoped the Electoral College vote would end with a different outcome: that Republican legislators in six battleground states would name slates of electors favorable to Trump. Late last week, a coalition of leaders affiliated with the Tea Party, conservative political organizations and social conservative groups wrote an open letter urging activists to “begin mobilizing immediately to contact their state legislators, as well as their representatives in the House and Senate, to demand that clean slates of electors be appointed.”
The upheaval failed to materialize and the electors cast their votes on Monday without incident. The few instances of resistance by Republicans were muted and entirely symbolic.
All along, Trump-friendly media personalities like Mark Levin, who hosts one of the most popular talk radio shows in the country, have led their audiences to believe that it was possible to pressure state lawmakers to reject Biden’s victory. They have often based their confidence on the wild accusations of people with political motives and diminished credibility.
Levin, along with Rush Limbaugh and Bannon, was one of the first to give a national platform to the conspiracy theories of the lawyers Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, whose various claims of fraud involve a multinational network of saboteurs and domestic enemies of the president both dead (Hugo Chávez of Venezuela) and alive (“Never Trump” Republican officials).
In an interview with Levin on Nov. 10, for instance, Wood called for the Biden electors to be replaced in a special session of Georgia’s legislature “so they can elect the electors to vote for Donald Trump.” He then falsely claimed that Trump not only won the state by “a landslide” but also won the national popular vote with 70% support.
On their own, comments as outlandish as these might not rise to become as widely accepted as they are now among Trump’s base. But the hosts validated them beyond just giving them a platform. They vouched for the professional credibility of the lawyers.
Speaking to his audience the next day, Limbaugh cited Wood’s remarks and said, “I’m telling you that if you listen to Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, they continue to make it sound like it’s a slam dunk.” Limbaugh offered his assurances that the lawyers would not put their careers on the line if they weren’t serious.
“They’ve Paul Bunyan-ized them,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, a left-leaning group. “And now they’re invested in maintaining this story.”
Though Powell’s list of conspirators and crimes committed against the president grew too bizarre even for the Trump campaign — it disavowed her in a statement on Nov. 22 — the pro-Trump media continued to give her a friendly platform.
On Monday, with Biden’s victory about to be ratified by the electors, the Gateway Pundit posted an item about an interview she had done with The Epoch Times, another major purveyor of pro-Trump misinformation. Powell claimed in passing that “one of our experts” discovered how Dominion voting machines had manufactured tallies that led to “5% higher votes for Biden across the board, everywhere.”
Powell has also appeared recently on other more mainstream pro-Trump new outlets like Fox Business, where Lou Dobbs interviewed her last week.
Far-fetched tales of vast, subversive networks of infiltrators have a long history in the Republican Party. Powell’s claims that Cuba, Venezuela and China are behind a plot to install rigged voting machines in the United States have echoes of the anti-communist paranoia that was promoted in the 1960s by the John Birch Society and Phyllis Schlafly, considered by many to be the matriarch of the conservative movement.
Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School who helped write “Network Propaganda,” a study on the right-wing media’s influence on politics, said the difference between the days of the John Birch Society and today was a matter of scale. “What you didn’t get then was the same market exposure,” he said. “You didn’t have tens of millions of voters exposed.”
And the fringe never, of course, enjoyed the support of the sitting president.
Now, there is little incentive for right-wing media to provide anything other than validation of Trump’s most outrageous claims. And those who try to correct the record are punished, as Tucker Carlson of Fox News learned when he questioned Powell’s credibility and faced a backlash.
“We’re in this feedback loop where the media give the audience weapons and tools with which to deny reality,” Benkler said. “And the audience disciplines the media by threatening to go somewhere even wackier if they don’t toe the line.”
When Trump’s allies filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court last week that legal experts said had a scant chance of success, there was little mention of its flaws in the media most loyal to him. Most talk instead focused on the president’s framing of the lawsuit as “the big one.” Limbaugh noted there was support for the case among 18 Republican attorneys general and others in the House of Representatives. Then he asked about those still sitting on the sidelines.
“Where are the other Republicans?” he asked. “Don’t they realize, if the Democrats are allowed to get away with stealing the White House, they’re never going to stop stealing elections?”
Dozens more House Republicans would eventually get behind the case. Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said Trump had a singular hold on his party unlike that of any other modern president. “Seventy-four million votes, 126 House Republicans — the constituency for this is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Rosenthal said.
When the Supreme Court rejected the case, Trump’s supporters didn’t deny that the defeat stung, but they insisted that the setback was only temporary.
The news appeared to unsettle one host on Newsmax TV, an alternative to Fox News that has increased its ratings lately as the president has publicly attacked Fox News for declaring Biden as the president-elect, as well as other acts of perceived disloyalty.
“It’s not over, it’s not over,” said the host, Greg Kelly, pointing to lawsuits that were still pending in a handful of states. “It’s not over by any stretch.”
That sounded a lot like Trump on Monday as he tried to deflect attention from the Electoral College vote and shift it to the case in Michigan that the Gateway Pundit had earlier called a bombshell. “WOW. This report shows massive fraud. Election changing result,” the president wrote on Twitter, ensuring that the fight would continue, at least as far as he and his supporters were concerned.
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