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How Fox News' Alternate Reality Could Propel Trump To Victory
I watched 90 minutes of Fox primetime after the Trump indictments were announced. Here's what I saw.
On August 1, the Justice Department indicted former President Donald Trump on felony charges for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He remains the overwhelming favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 despite facing criminal investigations into his efforts to cling to power after the 2020 election, the potential mishandling of classified documents, and alleged misaccounting of hush-money payments made to a porn actor before the 2016 election. He is also competitive in the general election: a poll conducted in July by the New York Times and Siena College found him tied with President Joe Biden, with both polling at 43 percent. Despite attempting to block the peaceful transfer of power and threatening American democracy, it is conceivable that Trump could be president again in less than two years.
One reason for his resiliency in the Republican Party, and corresponding strength in the general election, may come from how these indictments are depicted on Fox News, which often shows Trump as a victim of a Biden attempt to prosecute a political rival. According to the Times/Siena poll, the network is the most common news source among GOP primary voters. In reality, Biden has avoided commenting on the indictments and the Justice Department is investigating Biden's own handling of classified documents and the financial dealings of his son, Hunter.
The survey showed a split in opinions between those who rely on Fox as their main source of media and those who read mainstream sources. (Greg Sargent of the Washington Post first wrote about the divide.) 91 percent of Fox viewers do not believe that Trump committed serious federal crimes. Among those who rely on mainstream news, 52 percent thought he had not committed serious federal crimes, whereas 38 percent think he did. 83 percent of Fox viewers think that Trump was "just exercising his right to contest the election" in 2020, whereas 12 percent think he threatened American democracy. Among mainstream viewers, the split was 58 percent to 37 percent. 85 percent of Fox viewers say Republicans must "stand behind" Trump as he faces multiple investigations, whereas just nine percent disagree. Among those who rely on mainstream sources, the figures were 49 percent and 46 percent.
Wanting to see why Fox viewers had such different responses, I watched 90 minutes of the channel's primetime programming the evening after Trump's latest indictment was announced. Three things stood out to me:
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The news appears designed to confuse, dismay, and anger. At 8 p.m., host Jesse Watters opened with a 12-minute monologue about the charges. His points were confusing to follow; he spoke quickly through many references and accusations. After an interview with a visibly angry Eric Trump, the commercials came on at 8:17: one of many advertisements from MyPillow CEO and 2020 election denier and financier Mike Lindell. (The Fox programming was so exhausting that a pillow would have felt nice.) While the purpose of news is ostensibly to explain current affairs so citizens can make informed decisions about politics, Watters did the opposite: he made politics so confusing and exhausting that a viewer might desire an authoritarian figure like Trump who could cut through the noise.
The defense of Trump was whataboutism. Watters and the next host, Sean Hannity, did not discuss the actual content of the charges. At no point did I learn about Trump and his co-conspirators' attempts to send a slate of alternate electors from swing states to defy the will of the voters. Instead, it was a feast of whataboutism: the rhetorical tactic of responding to an accusation with a corresponding charge. The attempt of this whataboutism is to show that the Trump charges are not crimes because everybody does it. Both hosts showed clips of Democratic politicians like Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton saying or agreeing with statements that Trump was an illegitimate president because Russia intervened on his behalf in 2016. But these statements are not the same as Trump's efforts in 2020; neither of these figures or anyone in the Obama administration tried to concoct an elaborate plan to disregard the election results and hold onto power in 2016. Many of the corresponding accusations concerned Biden's son Hunter and his business dealings in Ukraine and China. While Hunter Biden's work for foreign clients when his father was vice president was unseemly; there is no evidence that Joe Biden benefited financially from his son's work or intervened on his behalf.
Impeachment for Biden appears likely. Whataboutism is also a political strategy: impeaching Biden is necessary for Republicans to have a corresponding allegation against Trump's political rival. Watters said impeaching Biden would be "counterprogramming" and noted that "you have to put something against the Trump trials this spring." A potential Biden impeachment over Hunter Biden's Ukraine dealings would also seem to justify the conduct which led to Trump's first impeachment: Trump pushed the country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to launch spurious investigations about Hunter Biden in exchange for vital military aid. While it remains unclear whether House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has the votes to launch a Biden impeachment inquiry with a slim five-seat majority, in recent days he has spoken more forcefully about doing so.
Like 2016 and 2020, the 2024 election is likely to be decided by just tens of thousands of voters in a few states. Although the number of GOP primary voters who watch Fox is not close to a majority of Americans, it is very possible that these voters could make a difference in the swing states of the Electoral College. According to the Times/Siena poll, 96 percent of Republican primary voters who get their news from Fox said they were "almost certain" or "very likely" to vote. In the entirely possible event that Trump wins another term in 2024, he may have Fox to thank for mobilizing his supporters towards another minority victory.
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