The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The enduring power of the big lie about the 2020 election has been one of the most troubling indicators about the state of American democracy for several years now. However, it is not altogether surprising. The evidence supporting the claim that Joe Biden and the Democrats
somehow stole the election has always been prima facie nonsensical. The messengers from Rudy Giuliani to Sidney Powell have been an odd synergy of clownish and dangerous. The Constitutional pyrotechnics in which supporters of the big lie have engaged cannot be taken seriously and yet, to paraphrase Mitch McConnell, the big lie persists.
To understand why the big lie remains so potent, it is helpful to link it to the big grift. The big grift runs from Donald Trump himself and the people around him to morally repugnant Trump hangers-on like Sebastian Gorka peddling pain medication, to right-wing conspiracist Alex Jones hawking dietary supplements to various corners of the Q MAGA world. Trump, for his part, used the presidency to enrich his daughter and son-in-law, force the RNC to spend hundreds of
thousands of dollars to buy copies of his son’s book, and encourage anybody who wanted anything from the administration to patronize his hotels. More recently we have learned that Fox News, the leading propaganda outlet for the far right, knowingly lied to their viewers and propagated the big lie.
This too is part of the gift. As part of the lawsuit Dominion Voting Systems is bringing against Fox News, a number of texts Fox News personalities sent to each other during the hours after the polls closed on Election Day 2020 reveal that Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson knew that Trump had lost
the election. In one text exchange between Carlson and his producer Alex Pfeiffer, Pfeiffer texted “It’s a hard needle to thread, but I really think many on ‘our side’ are being reckless demagogues right now.” Carlson responded “of course they are. We’re not going to follow them.” Laura Ingraham texted “Sidney (Powell) is a complete nut.” “Ditto Rudy (Giuliani)” in an exchange with Tucker Carlson. There are many more of these types of texts.
These extremely influential Fox News personalities knew that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and that his legal arguments and defenses were a joke-a joke that threatened not just American democracy, but the stability of the American state, but after a few hours of venting,
they dutifully began to accept and spread the big lie.
The reason for this pivot was clear. If Fox continued to tell the simple and obvious truth about the 2020 election-that Joe Biden had won-they would have lost viewers as supporters of Donald Trump who believed the big lie would have turned to even further right media outlets like Newsmax or One America Network (OAN). Lower ratings would have meant less ad revenue and ultimately less money for Fox’s biggest name contributors. That financial incentive left Fox
with, in their minds, no alternative but to start repeating a dangerous lie.
The reasoning behind this decision is questionable. It is possible that if Fox News had not given air to the big lie, while otherwise sticking to their far-right MAGA perspective, they would not have lost many viewers. In that scenario, the big lie might have gotten less traction among the larger Republican electorate. However, Fox News calculated that the way to protect their market share was to toss reality to the wind and spread the big lie.
One reason this is a gift is that Fox News is not a news agency. It is the propaganda arm of the GOP. This was particularly true during the Trump administration. Trump frequently called into Fox News shows even before he was president, giving him access to a huge audience and friendly, even sycophantic, hosts. Sean Hannity became essentially an advisor to Donald Trump while he was in the White House. Fox is not making decisions based on what is the long-term interest of a news agency, but on what is best for the GOP and how they can keep separating older conservative Americans from their money, and based on those criteria the decision to embrace the big lie was easy. After all, lying to a segment of the American people so that they will continue to do things like buying useless health supplements and Trump trading cards, continue to watch Fox News, or ultimately violently storm the Capitol, is a major raison d’etre for the entire MAGA movement.
The MAGA movement is a profound threat to American democracy, but the movement gains a lot of strength from enablers who see it as an opportunity to enrich themselves and who understand that Trump’s supporters, particularly the most extreme, are easy marks. If somebody can be persuaded to follow Donald Trump, then they can be sold pretty much anything.