Politics

How Far Will Conservative Media Go to Help Trump on Election Night?

Radio personality Rush Limbaugh acknowledges the joint session of Congress during the State of the Union in 2020.
Rush Limbaugh receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Feb. 4, 2020. Leah Millis/Getty Images

This week on The Gist we have been examining the question of what happens if election night turns into election fortnight. But a big part of that is who will be trying to get you to disbelieve in the results of the election. To give you a guide as a viewer and a listener to what might happen, I spoke to Brian Rosenwald, author of Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States. A portion of that interview is transcribed below, edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Mike Pesca: So we’ve heard about the idea of the red mirage and the red mirage is a kind of a maybe, depending on how you look at it, scary or fanciful way of talking about the results on election night. Does this all fall apart if even the result on the election night doesn’t show Republicans in a lead, in fairly big lead at that?

Brian Rosenwald: Yes. I think that if it’s a big Joe Biden win, this all falls apart, I also think it falls apart if Biden is winning Texas or Florida at the end of election night. To me, those are the two key States. Trump may still try because God knows he’s not deterred by reason or logic, but it’ll just mostly be him rage tweeting into the abyss, as opposed to there being a real concerted effort to say, “Well, there’s something bad going on here.”

What if Trump makes the claims he makes and his people repeat those claims? And maybe friendly media also gives them voice? But what if the state officials in the states we’re talking about don’t play along? Can that be a bulwark?

Well, I think it is. I mean, we saw this in 2018. Arizona is one of those states that’s mostly mail-in ballots and has been for a while. On election night in 2018, Martha McSally, who was the Republican candidate for Senate, and she’s now an appointed senator on the ballot again, but she was ahead on election night and then she slowly started losing ground as they start counting. In Maricopa County is Phoenix and it’s a massive county, and as they started counting mail ballots there, she started seeing her lead get cut and cut and cut.

It led to the Democrat winning, and you had all these voices on the right screaming about something bad happening and “they’re stealing it.” The Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was saying, “No, no, this is what we do. There’s nothing wrong with this. This is totally legitimate.” And I think if it’s Republican elected officials, they could kind of pop the bubble on this and calm things down. There’s no guarantee that they’ll do that but for some of them, especially if it looks like Trump is going to lose big, then you start thinking about your own reputation, your own future, and it may not make sense to hitch yourself to a conspiracy theory.

So I watched some Fox and listen to some talk radio. They are doing to some degree an expansion of the president’s talking points, “Oh, you can’t trust mail-in ballots.” But do you get the sense that when push comes to shove and democracy might come to armed insurrection, they might pull back? I don’t know if all of them will, I don’t expect Mark Levin to, but you know, maybe Glenn Beck will.

Well, I think that I would differentiate between talk radio and Fox. I think that Fox’s executives, at least, have broader business to worry about, and at least have to try to pretend that they’ve got a news network. So I think Fox might be a little bit different than say OANN (One America News Network) or Newsmax the other conservative cable networks.

But they don’t have—I know that social media can amplify those voices—but they don’t have the reach of Fox.

No.

But then again, Rush Limbaugh has for his show, more listeners than Fox has on average hour or viewers.

That’s absolutely right. And Rush Limbaugh is the big wild card here. He’s never been adverse to a good conspiracy theory. He often will pass it along very slyly. He’ll say, “I’ve read this in this site,” or “Someone sent me this.” It’s never, “I’m telling you, this is a fact.” Because then when the media gets all upset, he has some degree of plausible deniability to say, “I never said that.” But he certainly said to a caller a few weeks ago, who was talking about needing some sort of Plan B, he was like, “No, there is no Plan B. We’re not going to lose. Don’t talk like that. I don’t want to hear that.”

So he’s sort of all-in on Trump, and you have to worry about people like Rush and [Sean] Hannity. But again, these guys are not idiots. If Biden is over 55 percent of the popular vote, if this is a blowout, it becomes hard for even Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity to do this and they’re probably not going to waste their credibility on that kind of scenario. But if it’s really close in a lot of places, yeah, they’re going to report every single newspaper instance of something [fraud-related] that when you actually dig into it and unravel it, really wasn’t anything.

I sense that there are some forces, people who work in politics, or sites like the Gateway Pundit, or probably something like OANN, that don’t care. I wonder about certain aspects of talk radio. And then there are other right-wing talk radio hosts who maybe are more showman than “let’s wave the bloody shirt.” What do you think?

I think you’re 100 percent right in drawing these distinctions. You’ve got a crazy far right. You know, white supremacy groups and other such things who are trying to stoke civil war, they’re trying to stoke insurrection. These are the people who are absolutely insane, they’re racist. They are dangerous. We really ought to just classify them as terrorists. And you’ve got conspiracy theory people within the media, like Alex Jones for example, who are often their own sphere, where he’s looking to sell survival, the Alex Jones Survival Kit for $79.99 or something.

Yeah. Three payments of $79.99.

Where it’s all kind of a grift to some extent, where they’re trying to make money. And then you’ve got the more mainstream conservative media. The stuff that goes back to Rush Limbaugh. These are folks who they’re Republicans, they’re conservative, but they’re showmen. Their No. 1 goal is to get people to tune in so that they can charge in Rush’s words, “Confiscatory advertising rates.” So they like doubt and chaos because if you don’t trust the mainstream media and you have doubt and chaos, you’ve got to tune in every day. There’s a limit to how far they’ll go because if you’re a company you don’t want to advertise on someone who seems insane, because then you get a boycott against your company.

So it’s worth remembering that these guys are, at the end of the day, running a business and they’re going to do whatever they think is good for business. If that means at some point cutting Donald Trump off, yeah then they might do that. If that means sowing doubt and chaos, because it’s going to mean boffo ratings for two months, they might do that. But they also realize the best era for Rush Limbaugh was the Clinton presidency so they understand that having a foil in the White House is often a good thing.

So, I wouldn’t group conservative media altogether on this, especially over the last 10 years. It’s fragmented more and more and there is pressure on even the most mainstream guys to go further and further to the right and sound nuttier and nuttier because they don’t want to get outflanked. I think John Boehner was the one who said in an interview after he retired as speaker, he said, “You know, I used to talk to Rush all the time and Hannity, I used to play golf with them. I had good relationships and then this Levin guy comes along and now they’ve gone nuts.”

But there are some voices, like for example, Ben Shapiro, who’s maybe the biggest young voice in conservative media, who I think that if it’s clear or reasonably clear that Trump has lost, is not going to sow doubt. He’s going to say, “Look, folks, I told you that the problem here was Donald Trump. The problem’s not our message. Problem’s not the coalition. It was just him. We just need a new messenger. Let it go. We’ll get somebody better.”

Stay tuned for Thursday’s episode of The Gist’s special series “Calling It,” featuring an interview with Dan Rather on what we’ve learned since 2000.

Listen to this full episode below. To get The Gist every weekday, including this election series, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcastsJoin Slate Plus and enjoy ad-free episodes of the show.