At every step of the way, right-wing media provided the pretext for Trump’s attempted coup
Trump lawyer John Eastman’s seditious internal memo has now been unearthed — but the coup had already been plotted in public, via right-wing media outlets
The Atlantic staff writer Adam Serwer has a must-read new piece, “Trump’s Plans for a Coup Are Now Public,” really examining the scope of former President Donald Trump’s multiple attempts to overthrow the results of the 2020 election.
Putting these pieces together becomes especially important in light of the newly revealed memo by Trump attorney John Eastman, who proposed that Vice President Mike Pence should have unilaterally refused to count Joe Biden’s Electoral College votes — or even have just declared Trump the winner — at the joint session of Congress on January 6. (Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets have given precious little coverage to the memo and the danger it illustrated to America’s constitutional system.)
What makes Trump’s coup attempt all the more egregious is that it was not conducted in secret. This was all done in the open at the time — with right-wing media serving as the platform to hash out these ideas and spread propaganda to subvert the election result. Then, after repeatedly pushing lies about the election, they employed the circular logic that the attempts to overturn the result were justified because Republican voters “feel like it was rigged.”
Without that right-wing information bubble, Trump’s coup could never have even been attempted. And the bad actors and right-wing propagandists who pushed lies to overturn the 2020 election are still out there, preparing for next time. With that content, let’s examine each of Serwer’s five listed points, and show the role that right-wing media played.
“1. Trump tried to pressure secretaries of state to not certify.”
The Trump campaign waged a propaganda campaign against election officials in the swing states, trying to pressure them into not certifying Biden’s electoral victories. And right-wing media was there to help.
One of the major focus points of this strategy was the swing state of Georgia. On November 17, Fox News prime-time host Sean Hannity attacked the governor and secretary of state: “Now, what does the state's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, the state's Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, what are they doing to rectify the inequity during the hand recount? The answer, sadly, absolutely nothing. Brian Kemp, cowering in fear.”
Newt Gingrich also told Hannity’s radio listeners to go to the governor’s mansion in his old home state of Georgia, to object to certifying the election results: “I didn’t work my entire lifetime to create a Republican Party whose senior leadership would not have the courage to stand up and fight for what’s right in America.”
Then in early January, a recording was made public of Trump’s phone call with Raffensperger, in which the lame-duck president threatened the Georgia secretary of state with criminal prosecution if he did not find enough votes to flip the state.
Newsmax political analyst Mark Halperin, meanwhile, said the real danger had come from the phone call being recorded: “I’m all for transparency — I’m all for transparency, I’m all for journalism, but I’ll just say this is going to give some people real pause about who they talk to on the phone. Because, again, if people start taping government officials talking to each other, it’s going to really inhibit conversation.”
“2. Trump tried to pressure state legislatures to overturn the results.”
Even before the election was actually held, The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman reported in September 2020 that the Trump campaign was pursuing an obscure method to overturn the voters via Republican-controlled state legislatures:
According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority. With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly. The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act before the safe-harbor deadline expires.
In the days following the election, this strategy was brought into the open. Fox host Mark Levin tweeted that Republican state legislatures had “the final say over the choosing of electors” rather than any board of elections, telling them to “get ready to do your constitutional duty.” On the Sunday after the election, Fox News contributor Ken Starr sketched out the scenario with Levin: “If the legislature of a state, let's just say Pennsylvania, believes that the election cannot be trusted, it can step in and determine how the electors are chosen from the commonwealth.”
On November 30, Fox & Friends co-host Will Cain declared: “There may not be enough evidence for a court system, but there should be enough evidence for state legislators to change their electors.” By the time Cain said this, courts were already making it clear that they were not willing to throw out millions of votes.
Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield also gave a friendly interview in late November with a Pennsylvania state senator leading the effort to throw out the state’s popular vote and substitute pro-Trump electors.
“3. Trump tried to get the courts to overturn the results.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did an entire right-wing media tour in December, promoting his lawsuit — endorsed by Trump as well as other Republican state attorneys general across the country — which asked the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the election results in four other states that Biden won. Legal experts variously called the suit “frivolous,” “anti-American,” and “procedurally defective.” But a right-wing media star was born.
During an appearance on Hannity, the host declared, “Every decent Republican attorney general with a brain needs to get busy working on their amicus briefs to support this Texas suit.” (YouTube host Steven Crowder was a bit less technical, telling his viewers to “petition your A.G.s — tell them to grow a pair.”) Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield also told Paxton: “You’re really the last hope for all of us that have seen this election as a fraud.”
At the same time as Paxton was promoting his suit on conservative outlets, other Republican state attorneys general refused to speak with CNN about the case, demonstrating that this track of the coup attempt was cultivated in the echo chamber of right-wing media rather than trying to defend it before any mainstream outlets.
The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Paxton’s demands. Right-wing media personalities were not happy, issuing various calls for secession and civil war.
“4. Trump tried to pressure Mike Pence to overturn the results.”
Serwer bluntly put it: “It is hard to pick the most ridiculous means of executing a coup, but insisting that the vice president has the power to unilaterally decide who won an election is up there.” And yet that’s what it came to, with Eastman’s memo presenting a plan for Pence to refuse to count Electoral College votes for Biden.
Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon heavily promoted this strategy, with a January 2 appearance by Eastman arguing that the 2020 election had been “illegally conducted” and for the vice president to “at least agree that because those ongoing contests have not been resolved, we can't count those electors.” (Another one of Bannon’s guests claimed on January 5 that this was Pence’s “divinely appointed moment” to change the election result.)
On January 4, Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk also declared: “All Pence has to do is reject electors from states that are compromised. Some people say that's not constitutional. Then try it. Make them sue and get the Supreme Court into action.“
On a side note, Fox News did not particularly go in for the so-called “Pence card,” but the network did heavily promote another parallel track of Republican members of Congress who sought to reject the electoral votes in the joint session. Purported “straight news” anchor Harris Faulkner told a Republican senator on January 5 that “what you're doing benefits everybody” by supposedly restoring confidence in elections. Levin also proclaimed that the two chambers of Congress would “determine which electors to count and which ones matter” — and the Fox host declared that those members who refused would be “shredding the Constitution.”
“5. When all else failed, Trump tried to get a mob to overturn the results.”
Far-right media voices actively fomented the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6. And once the violence began, Fox News minimized the significance of what was going on.
Kirk’s Turning Point USA funded bus travel for Trump’s rally that day — and at least one person who traveled to Washington on those buses was later arrested for allegedly throwing a fire extinguisher at police officers.
Infowars’ Alex Jones also funded and helped plan the January 6 march. Speaking to a crowd the night before, Jones referenced a speech by Winston Churchill during World War II “where he said all I can promise you is blood, and pain, and war, and suffering. But the alternative is even worse: total slavery.”
The morning of January 6, hours before the violence began, Bannon asked his audience: “What's going to happen today is going to happen. The question you have to ask yourself, have you pushed yourself as far as you possibly have pushed?”
When the mob stormed the Capitol, a number of far-right commentators openly cheered on the attempted coup. These included former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, who declared that “patriots have taken over Capitol Hill. … God willing it will continue to be peaceful, but a message has been sent.”
Meanwhile, Fox’s “straight news” coverage seriously downplayed the violence. Even after Trump supporters had fought their way past barricades to then climb the walls of the Capitol, anchor Bret Baier claimed, “It's not like it's a siege. ... It seems like they are protesting.” Fellow anchor Martha MacCallum also characterized the rioters as “protesters” and said the event was a “huge victory” for them. Fox News correspondent Mike Tobin also parroted the rioters’ paradoxical claims: “Aside from the things that were broken getting into the Capitol in terms of doors, they say there is no vandalism taking place.”
As Serwer also pointed out, the mob that stormed the Capitol, and who chanted, “Hang Mike Pence,” could have instead served as reinforcements in the event that Trump’s coup had actually come to fruition.
“Imagine if Pence had gone along with Eastman’s absurd plan,” Serwer writes, “and a mob had been present at the Capitol to help enforce the decision and menace lawmakers who tried to oppose it — then what?”