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Conservative media is setting the stage for delegitimizing a Biden victory

A “coup” against Trump. Postal workers stealing the election. Welcome to 2020 according to right-wing media.

A still from Tucker Carlson’s Fox interview with former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie, with the chryon “Beattie: those who specialize in regime change overseas are the same people trying to oust Trump.” Fox News/Tucker Carlson
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Wednesday night, Fox’s Tucker Carlson aired an interview with Darren Beattie — a disgraced former Trump administration speechwriter who was fired for associating with alt-right racists. In the interview, Beattie accuses Democrats of using a CIA playbook to launch a “coup” against the elected government.

“It’s a regime change model favored by many in our national security apparatus, particularly against Eastern European countries, to overthrow target regimes they don’t like,” Beattie said, describing this as an “operation” designed by “literally the same people ... who have a long history of using these tactics against foreign regimes they don’t like.”

That same night, Glenn Beck released a 50-minute special on YouTube and his news website, the Blaze, titled “How America Ends.” In one of his classic chalkboard presentations, Beck outlined what he sees as a plan to overthrow Trump that grew from the experience of Eastern European revolutions in the mid-2000s (so-called “color revolutions”). This scheme supposedly involves Democrats, Hollywood, a group of economists called modern monetary theorists, unions, and “the Marxist deep state.” If it succeeds, Beck warns, it will begin a new “civil war.”

Carlson and Beck are hardly alone in the conservative press. Many prominent voices and outlets on the right are all but openly claiming that a Trump defeat would be fraudulent — and that Democrats are doing their best to steal the election.

The Federalist ran an article titled “The Left Is Setting the Stage for a Coup if Trump Wins,” accusing Democrats of plotting “not exactly an 1860-style secession, state-by-state, but something more immediately disruptive.” Breitbart, echoing a Trump tweet, declared that “the November 3 election results might never be accurate.” Fox Business host Lou Dobbs warned that mail-in ballots mean that our election is under the “complete control of the postal union workers who support left-wing radical Dem candidates.”

The message of all this is obvious: Joe Biden cannot win the presidential election, and if he does, then it will be tantamount to a coup, a fraudulent result powered by fake mail-in ballots and a regime change operation. The right-wing media is hammering home Trump’s claim that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

The pervasiveness of this kind of rhetoric poses its own threat to the legitimacy of our elections. Conservative media can convince Republican voters that the election has been stolen, and even push Republican elites — including the Fox-addict-in-chief — toward more aggressive responses to a Biden victory.

And that is very, very dangerous for our democracy.

Why the conservative media attacks on the elections matter

In 2018, political scientist Matt Grossmann published a paper summarizing the current state of research on American media’s role in politics. He documents a massive gap in the way Democrats and Republicans see the mainstream media: Democrats trust what they read and watch from places like the New York Times and CNN, and Republicans don’t. This is a long-term trend, but one that has gotten especially pronounced during the Trump presidency.

“Democratic trust in media is now higher than it has been in over 20 years, while the reverse is true for Republicans,” he writes.

Somewhat more surprisingly, he notes that some studies have found that exposing people to opposing views doesn’t actually make them more open-minded about politics: One paper suggests it actually causes them to double down on their beliefs. Highly engaged voters generally consume political media not to challenge or intellectually enrich themselves, but to find out what “their side” is supposed to believe and then adjust their beliefs accordingly.

“Because partisans engage in motivated reasoning, they do not necessarily need to hear a one-sided argument from their leaders, or avoid encountering the arguments of the other party’s leaders,” Grossmann writes. “Watching CNN, MSNBC or Fox News can help partisans of either persuasion adjust their views to match their party’s leaders.”

This is why it’s so scary that conservative media is parroting and even exaggerating Trump’s rhetoric about a rigged election. These outlets help define what it means to be a conservative; Fox viewers watch shows like Carlson’s and Dobbs’s to learn the latest dogma. If these outlets are validating Trump’s nonsense about stolen and rigged elections, then their viewers are more likely to accept it — and no amount of pushback from either mainstream media or Democrats will be able to change that.

Glenn Beck with one of his trademark conspiracy chalkboards, listing all the people plotting against Trump. Glenn Beck/The Blaze via YouTube

The Trump-Fox feedback loop makes this problem even worse. This president is uniquely dependent on cable news in general, and Fox News in particular, for information and ideas. If Tucker Carlson’s show, one of his favorites, keeps warning about a “coup” against the president, he’s liable to pick up on it and broadcast it. And once Trump says it, other Republican leaders and media outlets will need to defend and amplify it — further cementing the idea’s status as truth in the eye of Fox viewers.

This is not a hypothetical concern. In a recent column, Media Matters’ Matt Gertz documented how this exact process led to Trump repeatedly questioning the validity of the 2018 midterm elections in the days following the vote:

Election officials continued to count ballots in Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and other states for days after the 2018 midterm elections. As those ballots helped Democratic candidates gain ground, Fox’s commentators responded with false conspiracy theories and fearmongering about purported Democratic election fraud. And over a period of a few hours on November 9, 2018, Trump watched the network’s coverage and sent a series of hyperaggressive tweets. He accused his political opponents of election theft, suggested that ballots favoring Democrats were fake, and even questioned whether a new election might be necessary, all in response to Fox programming.

But that year, Trump wasn’t on the ballot. When his own election is at stake, it’s hard not to imagine him fighting a lot harder against the results. And Republicans will have been primed by both the president and allied media, for months, to believe even the wildest claims of election fraud — meaning they’d likely line up by the millions to support his efforts to stay in office even if he’s defeated.

To say this is a recipe for disaster is to understate things. The leadership at Fox and these other outlets are playing with fire — and we Americans are the most likely to get burned.