As a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday in an attempt to overturn the country’s democratic elections, Fox News and other right-wing media condemned the riot as a disgrace. Fox News host Laura Ingraham told audiences it was “unacceptable” and “needs to be cleared,” while right-wing pundits were aghast at how such chaos could happen.
But the right-wing news ecosystem ― from the mainstream Fox News to far-right conspiracy networks such as Newsmax and One America News Network ― has spent months priming audiences to believe in delusions that the election had been rigged and corrupted by nefarious Democrats. At times, it has even suggested radical solutions.
The biggest stars at Fox News and other outlets have repeatedly promoted the lie that Trump was the rightful winner and that the election was being stolen from him. There has been a relentless message that the United States faces a crisis of democracy and that Trump is the only thing standing between the country and left-wing anarchy.
Fox News’ top-rated host, Tucker Carlson, declared in November that the “election was not fair, no honest person would say it was fair.” This week, Carlson hosted Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who told the audience that “if we have a Democratically controlled Senate, we are now basically at full-scale hot conflict in this country, whereas right now we’re at a cold Civil War.”
Not only did Carlson not challenge Roy’s incendiary claim, but Fox News clipped the segment and ran an online story highlighting it.
The narrative that the election is being stolen and something must be done isn’t the sole creation of right-wing media. It has been Trump’s message since even before Election Day, repeated on Wednesday as he instructed his supporters to march toward the Capitol building before the riots, and it has festered among conspiracy theorists on social media platforms and far-right groups for months.
But right-wing media has amplified and legitimized these baseless conspiracies, sharing fringe theories and debunked claims with millions of viewers each night.
The biggest stars at Fox News and other outlets have repeatedly promoted the lie that Trump was the rightful winner and that the election was being stolen from him.
Late Wednesday on the Senate floor, after the violence subsided, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) blasted “a demagogic president, the people who enable him, the captive media that parrots his lies, and the people who follow him as he attempts to push America to the brink of ruin.”
Carlson’s fellow Fox News host and informal Trump adviser Sean Hannity called for a “do-over” of the Pennsylvania elections in November, and on his radio show later claimed there was “no doubt” the election was stolen. “Fox & Friends” hosts have demanded investigations into vote counts, and on Wednesday morning, gave Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) airtime to vow he would reject the election results. One America News host Christina Bobb told viewers after the election not to “cave to accepting a version of reality you know isn’t right,” while Newsmax gave airtime to numerous guests vowing to fight for Trump and baselessly claiming the Constitution was being violated. Again and again, Fox News and far-right outlets maintained a dangerous fantasy that the election wasn’t over and that Trump would be president.
Even when the falsehoods spouted on Newsmax and from prime-time hosts such as Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs were egregious enough that they prompted threats of legal action and resulted in public retractions, new conspiracies and pro-Trump narratives quickly took their place. The continual message has been that Trump supporters and Republican officials should undermine democracy in an attempt to ensure election victory, with Fox News host Mark Levin calling on legislatures to overturn the vote in favor of Trump.
“Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are being destroyed by the Democratic Party and the media,” Levin told audiences on Sunday night.
These repeated falsehoods and attempts to appeal to right-wing grievances help to reinforce Republicans’ widespread rejection of the 2020 presidential election and delegitimize the democratic process. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey last month showed less than one-quarter of Republicans accepted the presidential election result. A YouGov poll last month showed almost three-quarters of Trump voters believed that he should not concede the election.
Trump’s loss has also led to a schism among right-wing media in which far-right outlets are attempting to fully align themselves with the president and abandon factual reporting altogether. When Fox News has attempted to reaffirm the reality that President-elect Joe Biden won the election and will become president this month, many Trump supporters have reacted with rage at the network and shifted to such far-right outlets as Newsmax and OAN, which are entirely sycophantic to the president. In the days before Wednesday’s violence, such outlets openly promoted Trump’s anti-democratic rally despite the presence of numerous extremist groups.
Even on Fox News, the news side is at times at odds with the network’s incendiary prime-time hosts. On Fox News Wednesday night, Carlson gave a bizarre monologue narrating the death of a woman who was shot during the riot inside the Capitol. She said it was imperative to know how the country got to this point, saying, “if people begin to believe their democracy is fraudulent … then God knows what could happen.”
Carlson then hosted a guest, right-wing YouTuber Drew Hernandez, who floated the groundless suggestion that “antifa” could have infiltrated the protests.