“All right senator, I have no idea why a Fox News conspiracy, propaganda stuff is popping up here,” lamented Meet The Press host Chuck Todd on Sunday morning, trying to get a straight answer out of Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson regarding Donald Trump’s widening Ukraine collusion scandal. “I have no idea why we’re going there.” Todd has hardly been alone in recent days as journalists gamely try to make sense of the increasingly nonsensical Republican defense of the besieged president.
Unlike other hallmark political scandals, where presidents caught in the crossfire do their best to spin the facts to their advantage and hope to win over voters with a coherent messaging war, Republicans are opting for a different route for Trump’s unfolding crisis. Taking their cues from Fox News, the entire Trump defense is now based on wholesale lies and rattled conspiracy theories. That poses a key question: How can America have a national debate about impeachment if one side has been willingly brainwashed by Fox News? And that includes Trump himself.
Note that last week a Monmouth University poll revealed that six in 10 self-identified Republicans don’t believe that Trump mentioned Joe Biden during Trump’s infamous call with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky when Trump demanded the foreign power dig up dirt on a political foe. Think about it: More than half of Republicans think Trump never mentioned Biden, even though Trump has publicly acknowledged mentioning Biden on the phone, and actually bragged about it.
“This seems to be another example of partisan tribalism at work in public opinion,” Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, told USA Today. Instead of tribalism though, I’d call it Fox News brainwashing.
That’s not a term usually used when discussing mainstream American politics. But as the conservative movement becomes increasingly radicalized, using the media to brainwash its followers has become a key part of the calculation, and the political implications are enormous. We’re seeing that now with Trump’s impeachment scandal.
This is what happens when Fox News and the entire right-wing media echo chamber shift into disinformation and damage-control mode and just lie relentlessly about the Ukraine scandal: They lie about stuff that even Trump has admitted to doing. It’s just one part of the corrosive Fox News effect that’s coming into view during the impeachment scandal. Objective truth has been replaced with pure fantasy, and facts have become worthless.
The never-ending question about conservatives and Republicans in the age of Trump is: Do they actually believe all these lies, or are they simply okay with them in order to advance their political agenda? My hunch is that most (but not all) Republican members of Congress understand that the so-called Deep State is not a real thing and has not tried to undo Trump’s presidency. Yet Republicans remain quiet because they know those types of lies might help the movement politically. (Or, they’re simply too afraid to publicly fact-check Trump.)
As for everyday Fox News viewers, there’s no question most of them believe the torrent of untruths that they’re fed all day. They believe that recently released text messages from U.S. diplomats discussing the planned quid pro quo for Ukraine in exchange for Biden dirt wasn’t really a quid pro quo. They believe it’s fine for the (Republican) president of the United States to ask foreign governments to interfere in American elections. They believe the Ukraine whistleblower is a “traitor.” And they believe Democrats are trying to pull off a “coup.”
And yes, this is new—and it’s dangerous. Consider the last time this country dealt with impeachment. In 1998, Fox News had just been born when Bill Clinton faced the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And while the Republican leadership and the conservative media were often wildly disingenuous about Clinton’s actions, neither was peddling nonsensical conspiracy theories 21 years ago. There were no claims that U.S. intelligence agents, for instance, were secretly working with foreign governments in order to protect the Democratic president. There was an obsessive hatred of Clinton, but Fox usually tried to disguise their partisan pursuit in legal and fact-based terms. That’s all now out the window.
In the 21 years since Clinton’s impeachment, Fox News has transformed itself into a dangerous threat to democracy in the way it willingly—almost gleefully—lies and undermines our key institutions.
And let’s be clear: What’s happening in this country is brainwashing on a very large scale. I understand some folks, particularly in the D.C. press, still roll their eyes at that phrase in connection to Fox News, and they dismiss it as hyperbole. But it’s the truth, and countless families across the country have suffered through the pain of losing a loved one to Fox News brainwashing. It’s not even in question at this point.
“It’s truly become a war against civility that has poisoned families and divided our country in a way that it has not been divided since the Civil War, and it’s because of the concerted effort by right-wing media over the last 30 years to mislead and divide people,” wrote Jen Senko, who lost her once-thoughtful father to Fox News and made the 2015 documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad. “I hate what that channel and conservative talk radio did to my funny, compassionate dad,” one family member recently lamented. “He spent the last years of his life increasingly angry, bigoted, and paranoid.”
That’s the backdrop for the unfolding impeachment crisis. Except it’s not just everyday aunts, uncles, and grandparents suffering from the Fox News effect: It’s the entire Republican Party.