The rot runs deep in the right-wing media. Just look at what happened over the last week.
On Wednesday, Sinclair Broadcast Group released a segment featuring coronavirus conspiracy theorist Judy Mikovits, who alleged that top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci had “manufactured” the virus. The pro-Trump cable news network OAN aired a segment Thursday defending as “widely accepted” and “the new mainstream” the QAnon movement, whose adherents claim President Donald Trump is fighting a cabal of Satan-worshiping politicians and celebrities who control the world and run a child sex trafficking ring.
Friday saw Fox News hosts Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld name Mike Cernovich -- a far-right troll who has trumpeted the “Pizzagate” theory that Democratic pedophiles were trafficking and sexually abusing children in a Washington, D.C., pizzeria -- as their favorite follow on Twitter. On Saturday night, Watters used his Fox show to hype the “great stuff” that the QAnon movement has purportedly uncovered “when it comes to the deep state.”
And on Monday, Breitbart published a video featuring a fringe pediatrician’s claim that “you don't need masks” to fight the spread of the coronavirus because the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine is “a cure,” and the numerous studies showing the drug is ineffective are ”fake science" sponsored by "fake pharma companies.” The video went hyperviral and was repeatedly shared by the president on Twitter before being removed by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
This string of twisted programming is the result of a conspiracy theory spiral. For decades, right-wing media have fed their audience’s insatiable desire for stories depicting Democrats as almost comically depraved and evil. Each fever-swamp fantasy fueled the next, creating both more demand and more right-wing personalities willing to fulfill it -- first in print, then talk radio, then Fox, then the conservative blogosphere, and most recently fake news sites, message boards, and social media. The result is an increasingly paranoid and unhinged American right -- headed by Trump, himself a prominent conspiracy theorist who built his political relevance around the birther myth.
If conservatives wanted to hear that President Bill Clinton was a murderer who left a trail of bodies across Arkansas and Washington, D.C., or that President Barack Obama was a secret Muslim with a fake birth certificate who wanted to create a “civilian army” like the Nazi brownshirts, or that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have had a Democratic staffer assassinated, or that Obama corruptly directed the FBI to take down Trump’s campaign, there were always outlets willing to tell those stories and more that were willing to at least hint they might be true.
Stories like these don’t just generate revenue for the outlets that push them, provide surges of fear or moral superiority for the people who consume them, and help get Republican voters to the polls. They rend the social fabric and do great harm to those who become caught in their wake, as Seth Rich’s family members or former FBI lawyer Lisa Page could tell you.
But even by those standards, the conspiracy theories that Fox, OAN, Sinclair, and Breitbart promoted over the last week have particularly disturbing real-world consequences. The FBI has declared QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, and its believers have allegedly been inspired to commit acts of terrorism, murder, kidnapping, and arson. Mikovits’ widely distributed claims in the discredited video Plandemic that a coronavirus vaccine could “kill millions” and that wearing masks “activates your own virus” threaten public health, as do the claims made in the Breitbart video. By championing these theories and their proponents, media outlets aren’t simply feeding their audiences comfort food about the evils of their political enemies -- they put their viewers in real danger.
Indeed, Mikovits and QAnon are both so toxic outside of the right-wing media bubble that once the Sinclair and Fox hosts were caught promoting them, it sparked enough of a public outcry that they were forced to make unconvincing efforts to distance themselves. (OAN, whose White House correspondent has also made pro-QAnon comments, doesn’t appear to have commented on their report.)
But don’t expect to see a full-throated rejection of QAnon from Fox any time soon -- the cult has thoroughly infested the same pro-Trump base that makes up the network’s devoted viewership.
Signs of its ascendence are everywhere on Fox, from one network host reading a tweet from a major QAnon account on-air, to a second interviewing a New York City police union official who had a QAnon-branded mug in the background, to a third interviewing a Trump supporter wearing a QAnon T-shirt for a fluff segment about how he had painted his lawn to resemble a Trump sign. Likewise, after Fox hired the actor Isaiah Washington to host a streaming cooking show, a cursory review revealed his social media accounts are riddled with Q content.
Unlike Watters’ comments, these cases don’t show Fox trying to promote QAnon, any more than Trump amplifying QAnon accounts on Twitter nearly 200 times shows a dedicated effort to do so. Both Fox and Trump are trying to highlight Trump supporters, and as time passes and the QAnon movement strengthens, the most devoted Trump supporters more frequently are the ones who think that he’s waging war on Democratic child sex-traffickers.
The growth of QAnon will only become more fraught for Fox and the Republican Party in the years to come. Dozens of the conspiracy theory’s supporters are now GOP congressional candidates, raising the prospect that the next time Congress convenes, it will have a QAnon caucus. With the Republican Party appearing sanguine about this development, and publicly refusing to reject those candidates, it seems implausible that Fox will put up any real resistance to the movement in the future.
While Mikovits’ emergence is more recent, her views may take a similar path into the heart of the GOP. During a hearing earlier this month, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) questioned whether Mikovits should give testimony to Congress to provide a less “gung-ho” perspective on potential coronavirus vaccines, as Popular Information’s Judd Legum reported.
The future of the Republican Party belongs to the conspiracy theorists. And the right-wing media helped make that happen.