President Trump’s media criticism is usually binary – there are “good stories” that are favorable to him and then the other category.
Most of Monday’s news fell into this other category. In turn, presidential voters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia officially recognized Joseph R. Biden Jr. as elected president. This was the most recent and most significant rejection of Mr. Trump’s desperate attempts to undo the will of the electorate.
But within the sprawling and self-reinforcing network of websites, podcasts, and video news that has spawned some of the most ruthless and unrealistic claims about the election, the myth of Mr. Trump’s political survival persists.
The lead story on Gateway Pundit, which researchers have identified as one of the main sources of pro-Trump misinformation on the Internet, expressed the idea of a “BOMBSHELL” rule in a case on Monday that the website was teased as a possible game changer : “Will a small northern Michigan county be key to reversing the nation’s election results?”
In a podcast hosted by Stephen K. Bannon, former Trump White House chief strategist, a conservative activist vowed to file a new lawsuit to reverse voter polls and was fired. “Intimidation and fear don’t work in a democracy,” said Phill Kline, director of the conservative Amistad project, and vowed to continue the fight.
The podcast was one of at least six on Apple’s top 100 list of popular podcasts hosted by someone who vocalized Mr Trump’s attack on the country’s electoral system.
The world seems to have realized what the electoral college confirmed on Monday: Mr Trump will step down whether he wants to accept his fate or not. The Supreme Court on Friday refused to reconsider that reality when it turned down a legally dubious Texas state maneuver at the last minute. Numerous world leaders have accepted this by congratulating Mr Biden. Even Mr. Trump’s own administration finally bowed and agreed to officially begin the transition process.
But six weeks after his defeat, Trump and his media’s aggressive campaign, which insist on insisting that the elections are far from over, with any new setback, is still on.
Within this bubble, the President’s allies present practically impossible outcomes as entirely plausible. They arouse the expectation of victory in unpredictable legal proceedings and fights for voters that the legislature does not want. They add credibility to questionable witnesses and attorneys whose most important qualification is a clear conviction that Mr Trump won in November despite all the evidence available.
And if they don’t reach the bar they set, they move them.
This was demonstrated by the President’s senior adviser Stephen Miller on Monday when, in an interview with Fox & Friends, he insisted that voting in the electoral college was largely irrelevant, since all that really matters is inauguration day on January 20th.
“So we have more than enough time to correct the injustice of this fraudulent election result and confirm Donald Trump as the winner,” Miller said, putting the calendar back on a different schedule to invalidate the votes of millions of Americans for that previous one was flopped.
Some of Mr. Trump’s allies had hoped that the electoral college vote would end on a different outcome: that Republican lawmakers in six battlefield states would nominate electoral rolls favorable to Mr. Trump. Late last week, a coalition of Tea Party leaders, conservative political organizations and socially conservative groups wrote an open letter urging activists “to mobilize immediately to contact their state lawmakers and their representatives in the House and Senate calling for clean electoral rolls to be appointed. “
The upheaval did not materialize and voters cast their votes on Monday without incident. The few instances of Republican resistance were subdued and entirely symbolic.
Trump-friendly media personalities like Mark Levin, who hosts one of the most popular talk radio shows in the country, have led their audiences to believe that it was possible to pressure state lawmakers to reject Mr Biden’s victory. They have often based their trust on the wild accusations of people with political motives and reduced credibility.
Mr. Levin, along with Rush Limbaugh and Mr. Bannon, was one of the first to offer a national platform to the conspiracy theories of attorneys Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, whose various fraud allegations involve a multinational network of saboteurs and domestic enemies, the President both dead (Hugo Chavez from Venezuela) and alive (Republican officials “Never Trump”).
For example, in an interview with Mr Levin on November 10, Mr Wood called for the Biden voters to be replaced at a special session of the Georgian legislature “so they can vote the voters to vote for Donald Trump”. He then falsely claimed that Mr. Trump not only won the state through a “landslide”, but also won the national referendum with 70 percent support.
Comments like this alone may not be as widely accepted as they are now in Mr. Trump’s base. But the hosts validated them without even giving them a platform. They vouched for the professional credibility of the lawyers.
The next day, Mr. Limbaugh spoke to his audience about Mr. Wood’s remarks and said, “I tell you, when you hear Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, they keep sounding like it is a slam dunk.” Mr. Limbaugh assured that lawyers wouldn’t risk their careers if they weren’t serious.
“You’ve Bunyan-ized Paul,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, a left-wing group. “And now they are investing in keeping this story going.”
Though Ms. Powell’s list of conspirators and crimes against the president became too bizarre even for the Trump campaign – it was rejected in a Nov. 22 statement – the pro-Trump media continued to give her a friendly platform.
On Monday, when Mr Biden’s victory was about to be confirmed by voters, the Gateway Pundit published an article about an interview it had with The Epoch Times, another major provider of pro-Trump misinformation. Ms. Powell claimed in passing that “one of our experts” figured out how Dominion voting machines produced numbers that resulted in “Biden getting 5 percent higher votes anywhere.”
Ms. Powell has also recently appeared in other mainstream pro-Trump outlets such as Fox Business, where Lou Dobbs interviewed her last week.
Far-fetched stories of vast, subversive networks of infiltrators have a long history in the Republican Party. Ms. Powell’s claims that Cuba, Venezuela, and China are behind a conspiracy to install rigged voting machines in the United States echo the anti-communist paranoia promoted in the 1960s by the John Birch Society and Phyllis Schlafly is the matriarch of the Conservatives Move.
Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law School professor who helped create Network Propaganda, a study of the influence of right-wing media on politics, said the difference between the days of the John Birch Society and today is a question of the scale. “What you didn’t get back then was the same market exposure,” he said. “They didn’t expose tens of millions of voters.”
And, of course, the edge never enjoyed the support of the seated president.
Now there is little incentive for right-wing media to come up with anything other than confirmation of Mr. Trump’s most outrageous claims. And those who try to correct the record will be punished, as Tucker Carlson learned from Fox News when he questioned Ms. Powell’s credibility and faced a backlash.
“We are in this feedback loop where the media is providing the audience with weapons and tools that they can use to deny the reality,” said Benkler. “And the audience disciplines the media by threatening to go to an even crazier place if they don’t stick to the line.”
When Mr Trump’s allies filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court last week that legal experts said had little chance of success, the shortcomings were barely mentioned in the media most loyal to him. Instead, most of the talks focused on the president calling the lawsuit “the big one.” Mr Limbaugh noted that 18 Republican attorneys general and others in the House of Representatives had support for the case. Then he asked about those who were still sitting on the sidelines.
“Where are the other Republicans?” he asked. “Don’t you know, if the Democrats can get away with stealing the White House, will they never stop stealing elections?”
Dozens of other Republicans in the House would eventually get behind the case. Lawrence Rosenthal, chairman of the Center for Legal Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said Mr Trump had a uniquely grip on his party like no other modern president. “Seventy-four million votes, 126 Republicans in the House of Representatives – the constituency for this is unlike anything we’ve seen,” said Rosenthal.
When the Supreme Court dismissed the case, Mr Trump’s supporters did not deny that the defeat had stung, but insisted the setback was temporary.
The news seemed to unsettle a presenter on Newsmax TV, an alternative to Fox News, which has recently been raising its ratings as the president publicly attacked Fox News for declaring Mr Biden president-elect, as well as other acts of the perceived Infidelity.
“It’s not over yet, it’s not over yet,” said host Greg Kelly, pointing to lawsuits that were pending in a handful of states. “It’s far from over.”
That sounded a lot like Mr. Trump on Monday as he tried to divert attention from the electoral college vote and shift it to the Michigan case, which the Gateway Pundit had previously labeled a bombshell. “IMPRESSIVE. This report shows massive fraud. Election change result,” the president wrote on Twitter, making sure that the fight continues, at least as far as he and his supporters are concerned.