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Opinion Biden can’t end GOP denialism, but Fox News might

People walk past ads for Fox News at the News Corp. building in New York City in June 2018. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

When I see polling that 80 percent or more of Republicans do not believe that President-elect Joe Biden won the election (although Gallup found 32 percent of Republican college graduates say Biden won while only 15 percent of non-college graduates did), I assume some Republicans just enjoy tormenting pollsters, whom they associate with liberal elites (“Own the libs — tell ‘em President Trump won!”). But even if many are just putting on a show, it’s clear millions are utterly impervious to evidence and willing to believe anything their cult leader says.

To solve this, many pundits across the ideological spectrum have suggested that Biden supporters try to reach out to their deluded neighbors. Make friends with people who do not think like you do! Ask Biden not to raise “cultural” issues (usually issues of race) so as not to alienate the reality deniers even further. Push social media companies to take down (not just label) falsehoods. Such behavior might be socially desirable, but it is unlikely to lead to an epistemological breakthrough for MAGA-hat wearers.

We might try to contain or minimize polarization (e.g., push policy decisions down to less polarized government at the state and local levels, adopt mechanisms such as ranked-choice voting), but that will not, I strongly suspect, compel Trump followers that he lost fair and square. Their certitude is not the result of logic or reason; cultists will simply deny contrary facts or incorporate them into their conspiracies. (Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, is in on it, too!)

Some have proposed that a Republican truth-teller is needed to disabuse the party of its nihilism and self-delusion. But we have already seen how effective that would be: Former Republican senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, as well as current Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, have become pariahs for doing just that. Trump and his Pravda-like media enablers demonize them.

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Others have argued that if we alleviate economic stress, these voters’ alienation will abate and they will be more amenable to reason. However, as we saw in the 2016 results, economic anxiety is not the primary motivator for MAGA voters; it is race.

Hence, cynical politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) continue to defy reality and attack democracy:

Rebukes from a conservative Supreme Court, such as by shooting down insane efforts to overturn the election, might have some utility. And some conservative pundits (e.g., the Wall Street Journal editorial page) could give up the Trump-induced delusions and thereby convince a segment of the base. But unless right-wing media decides to stop lying to and scaring their audiences, Trump or similar charlatans will continue to sell their conspiracies to a willing base eager to explain away reality.

We should not underestimate Fox News’s responsibility for our current dilemma. (Disclaimer: I am an MSNBC contributor.) The annual values survey from the Public Religion Research Institute highlights the network’s importance and the malignancy:

No other platform has served to support the president as strongly as Fox News. For decades, the network has played a prominent role in structuring American conservatism and Republican partisan politics. Over the last four years, President Trump in particular has used it as his personal platform, appearing on air dozens of times during his presidency. And Fox News is poised to be the cultural force that preserves and transmits the worldview of Trumpism into America’s future.
Among television news sources, Fox News holds outsize influence, particularly among Republicans. Currently, 15% of Americans cite Fox News as the television news source they trust the most to provide accurate information about politics and current events, which is roughly equal to the combined influence of broadcast networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS (16%), and larger than that of local television news (12%) and CNN (11%). … The dominance of Fox News among Republicans is also unique: there is no equivalent dominant news source among Democrats or independents.

Fox News helped forge an insulated, radicalized movement of about 40 percent of Republicans that is immune to facts. This constituency almost unanimously approves of Trump (97 percent) and disapproves of President Barack Obama (94 percent). Their views on race are quite different than most Americans:

Nine in ten Fox News Republicans (90%) say that the recent killings of Black Americans by police are isolated incidents, while nine percent say they are part of a broader problem. … More than nine in ten Fox News Republicans (91%) are opposed to the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, including three in four who are strongly opposed (74%). … Fox News Republicans are more likely to say that Christians and white people, rather than racial and ethnic minorities, face a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today. More than seven in ten Fox News Republicans (73%) say that there is a lot of discrimination against Christians, and 58% say the same about white people.

Fox Republicans are more upset with the changing demographics of America (hence “Make America Great Again”) than other Republicans or certainly the public at large. They are “much more likely than non–Fox News Republicans and Americans overall to hold negative views of immigrants,” the PRRI survey says. (Fox News highlighted the “caravans” in 2018 and dishes out a constant stream of immigrants-as-criminals stories.) And they are far more likely to dismiss the threat of covid-19, to buy into covid-19 conspiracies and to reject mask-wearing.

Some in the network have tiptoed toward reality, such as by calling the election for Biden. As a result, some of its audience have decamped to more radical outlets. But the greater threat to truth-telling comes from its nighttime lineup that regularly undercuts its daytime shows’ tolerance of reality.

There is a good argument to be made that Fox News (and its junior partners in right-wing talk radio) made Trump, not the other way around. They have sustained his support, promulgated his propaganda and, most importantly, insulated their audiences from reality. They provide an open forum for Trump and his toadies to propound their falsehoods without fear of contradiction.

If you really want to make progress in breaking down the GOP cult of denial, the place to start is Fox News. Unfortunately, for now, its business model depends on keeping its fervent audience angry and misinformed.

Watch Opinions videos:

The MAGA march on D.C. showed Trump supporters are not a monolith, but their dedication to the president is singular. (Video: The Washington Post)

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