The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The right-wing media is helping Trump destroy democracy. A new poll shows how.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Julio Cortez/AP)

When future historians seek to explain the United States’ perilous slide toward authoritarianism in the 21st century, they will grapple with the role played in all these events by Fox News and the right-wing media. Simply put, those actors are helping Donald Trump and his movement threaten democracy, in a way that will likely continue getting worse.

A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute demonstrates in a fresh way just how responsible those bad-faith media actors are for what we’re seeing right now. And this raises anew the question of how much damage they will do over the long haul.

The poll’s big finding is that people who rely heavily on Fox News and other right-wing media are overwhelmingly more likely to believe the election was stolen from Trump — and are overwhelmingly less likely to blame Trump for the insurrection — than those who do not.

In one sense, that’s a no-brainer. But taken together, those views add up to something truly toxic: The “belief” that the election was stolen, and the simultaneous refusal to assign accountability for an effort to violently overthrow our constitutional order, suggest right-wing propaganda may be softening the ground for a more concerted abandonment of democracy going forward.

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The PRRI poll finds that 69 percent of Americans do not believe the election was stolen, while only 29 percent do believe this. That latter number largely reflects Republicans, among whom 71 percent believe it. Only very small minorities of independents and Democrats do.

The poll also finds that 56 percent of Americans say Trump does bear much of the blame for the Jan. 6 violence, that 59 percent say this about white supremacist groups, and that 41 percent say this about GOP leaders.

If anything, those numbers are too low. Trump did incite the violence, far-right groups did organize the “Stop the Steal” rally around lurid lies about the stolen election destroying American freedom, and GOP elites did extensively humor or even validate those lies.

Regardless, the poll also broke down these numbers through the prism of which media sources people trust, including Fox News and far-right sources such as One America News and conventional broadcast networks such as ABC, CBS and NBC.

At my request, PRRI cut the data and provided me with these findings:

  • Among Americans who most trust Fox News or those far-right news sources, a stunning 76 percent believe the election was stolen. By contrast, of those who most trust those other sources, only 21 percent believe this.
  • Among Americans who most trust Fox News or those far-right news sources, only 12 percent say Trump gets a lot of blame for the Jan. 6 riot. And 64 percent blame liberal or left-wing activists, such as antifa.

It’s likely there’s a good deal of overlap between those two groups, says Natalie Jackson, the director of research at PRRI.

“Those beliefs go hand in hand, where you believe the election was stolen, and you also believe the leftists are the ones responsible for what happened,” Jackson told me. She added that “the data’s pretty clear” that Fox and right-wing media “are very responsible for this type of thinking.”

“Even if you look at Republicans who trust different news sources — not Fox or right-wing news — they hold very different views,” Jackson said.

It’s important to stress that both these narratives — the stolen-election lie, and the effort to absolve Trump of blame for Jan. 6 — are mainstays of right-wing media propaganda. As Matt Gertz demonstrates, these sources relentlessly sowed doubts about the election in the run-up to Jan. 6, and then even after, continued pushing the idea that legitimate questions about it lingered.

In short, right-wing media widely sowed the lies that inspired the effort to violently overthrow U.S. democracy. They then retroactively papered over what had happened, by suggesting in numerous ways that there might have been some legitimacy undergirding that effort’s goals.

Since then, right-wing personalities and media outlets have gone to great lengths to rewrite that whole history, downgrading Trump’s role and instead falsely blaming antifa for the violence. And in many other cases they have alternatively blamed the left or rewrote the story to erase the truly insurrectionist goal of the rioters.

To be fair, it’s hard to know how many people rely on Fox and right-wing media. But as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein notes, when GOP elites spread this sort of destructive nonsense — and they take their cues from such sources — it means more and more voters will likely believe it.

It’s also true that many Republicans — and even sometimes Trump himself — are careful to stress that the rioters should be held accountable for the violence and for whatever laws they broke.

But at the same time, they are advancing a broader set of subterranean deceptions. Taken together, they posit that in some fundamental sense, Trump and his movement continue to be victimized by any efforts at accountability for Jan. 6, and that the underlying cause driving those events, if not the violence itself, was righteous and just.

As long as this set of grievances continues to metastasize, it’s hard to be sanguine about the future consequences for U.S. democracy. But we should be clear on which bad actors are to blame for it.