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The MAGA Movement Is Splintering Between Those Preparing For A Future Without Trump And Those Refusing To Imagine One

Donald Trump lost. So what's next for the conservative media that's devotedly followed him? A bitter divide.

Posted on November 7, 2020, at 2:41 p.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty

Four years ago, Steve Bannon watched Donald Trump declare victory in the small hours of election night in 2016, a victory for which Bannon assigned himself much of the credit and which he thought would make him historically powerful.

“I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” Bannon notoriously told the journalist Michael Wolff in an interview after Trump’s win.

Cromwell, Henry VIII’s adviser who played a key role in the English state in the 1500s, eventually fell out of favor with the king and was beheaded, the 16th-century version of Bannon’s banishment from the White House and Trump’s good graces in the summer of 2017. Four years later, as Trump loses the presidency while clinging desperately to false claims of a “stolen” election, it is Bannon who wants to do the beheading. “Second term kicks off with firing Wray, firing Fauci,” Bannon said on his livestream web show Thursday of the current FBI director and top infectious diseases official. “I'd actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England. I'd put the heads on pikes, right. I'd put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats.” Bannon’s cohost mused about how “traitors” used to be “hung,” and Bannon remarked, “That's how you won the revolution. No one wants to talk about it. The revolution wasn't some sort of garden party, right? It was a civil war.” (Twitter swiftly imposed a permanent ban on Bannon’s show’s account, and YouTube removed the video.)

Bannon’s call for the execution of federal officials deemed insufficiently supportive of Trump was certainly an escalation for him — though not much of one, coming the day after he urged the attorney general to send federal agents to arrest Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. But he’s far from alone among certain segments of the MAGA hardcore who have been crossing new rhetorical lines in their desperation to keep Trump in office.

An important divide has arrived on the right in the immediate aftermath of the election over how far to go in following Donald Trump, and how far people are willing to go to destroy others who don’t follow along. At the heart of the divide is a gap between those triangulating for a future without Trump and those who are refusing to imagine one.

Those that were important before Trump — like Fox News and certain elected Republicans — have walked a fine line, softly entertaining Trump’s wild lies about rigging while focusing more on the need for further “transparency” or “proof” and making loaded remarks about the elections processes in Democratic cities like Philadelphia.

Those that owe their influence to Trump — the network of far-right Internet personalities, websites, and independent TV channels that gained popularity by riding his coattails, or figures who remodeled themselves in Trump’s image — have hewed to or exceeded Trump’s claims.

As the days dragged on and it became increasingly clear that Trump’s path had closed, influential figures such as the members of the Fox News primetime lineup began to shift their emphasis, testing out attacks on the incoming Biden administration and offering glowing praise of Trump’s tenure in office. Trump’s attempt to contest the results continued, but true hope that it would be successful had waned on all but the fringe.

Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

Steve Bannon exits the Manhattan Federal Court on August 20 in New York City.

The MAGA diehards’ efforts to throw out the election will be futile. But their influence on the Trump-supporting base is important, and affects both the future of the conservative media and the way the Republican Party will handle Trump’s most adoring fans going forward. Trump’s supporters have spent the last four years being told that the president is the victim of a huge conspiracy to undermine him, and many will never believe that this election was legitimate — a fact that hasn’t been lost on Republicans deciding how to react to this crisis. The closest parallel could be to the Tea Party a decade ago, a movement fueled by hard-right conservative media that demanded ideological purity from establishment Republicans and threatened their seats in Congress.

The fragmentation of conservative media has empowered the loudest voices calling to “stop the steal” and weakened any possibility that reality will intrude on those who are consuming their news through the hodgepodge of fringe sources popular on the Trump right these days.

On the final weekend of the campaign, I asked voters at Trump rallies where they got their news. Some did mention Fox News, but I was surprised that nearly everyone I talked to emphasized other sources just as much or more. The Parrishes, a retired couple who went to Trump’s rally in Hickory, North Carolina, told me they didn’t like Fox News apart from Tucker Carlson, finding the hosts too “egotistical and arrogant,” said Mary Ellen Parrish, and that “there’s a lot of deception,” her husband Chuck said. The couple mostly get their information online: Mary Ellen from Twitter and Chuck from YouTube, where he has discovered the "flat Earth" conspiracy theory, to which he ascribes.

Jerry Senn, 82, at Trump’s rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, mentioned One America News Network and Newsmax as his favorites, though he likes Fox too. He goes online to read Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Prager’s websites. Jennifer Justice, 34, at the same rally, said, “I don't watch mainstream news. I follow a lot of people on YouTube and on alternative media, but I don't watch Fox. I don't watch MSNBC. I don’t watch CNN.” Some of her favorites include Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro, and Candace Owens. Multiple voters mentioned how much news they get from Facebook.

Already, Trump family members and some of the new wave of Trump-like politicians are using Trump’s popularity with the base to threaten any Republican who doesn’t publicly agree with the fraud allegations. “The total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ is pretty amazing. They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead. Don’t worry @realDonaldTrump will fight & they can watch as usual!” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted on Thursday. The implicit threat of Trump’s wrath worked, kind of: Shortly after Trump Jr’s tweet, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton weighed in, tweeting, “All votes that are *legally* cast should be counted. There is NO excuse not to allow poll watchers to observe counting,” and including a link to donate to Trump’s campaign to support its legal challenges in various states.

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, struck a more cautious note on Twitter, emphasizing Republican wins in the House and Senate. “We all owe @realDonaldTrump for his leadership of conservative victories for Senate, House, & state legislatures. He and the American people deserve transparency & fairness as the votes are counted. The law must be followed. We have to keep the faith that the truth will prevail.” This was not enough for Trump purists. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, an archetypal member of the MAGA wave, sniped at Haley, accusing her of “eulogizing” Trump.

Bannon’s maximalist position is shared by other former Trump officials, including those of the “populist intellectual” variety who had been part of the effort to reframe Trumpism as a movement with a clear ideological basis. Former White House speechwriter Darren Beattie — who lost his job after it was revealed that he had spoken at a white nationalist conference — tweeted on Thursday, “Screw Biden... if they take this from Trump it's war on the GOP that has sabotaged Trump from the beginning even as they rode his coat tails and kissed his ass.” While lacking the eloquence that perhaps was exhibited in Beattie’s speechwriting work, the language and the message is the same: This is a war, which must be won at any cost.

Michael Anton, Trump’s former National Security Council spokesperson who had gained notoriety as the author of the incendiary “Flight 93 Election” essay in 2016, wrote for the pro-Trump website American Greatness casting the situation as a “coup.”

Anton appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show on Thursday to discuss the situation. Carlson — like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, the other two hosts who command huge audiences during Fox News’ primetime — has devoted his show to openly sowing doubt in the legitimacy of the election, giving valuable airtime to the misinformation spreading through the right about the validity of the counting process. While none of the three have matched Trump’s “stolen” language, they have heavily implied it.

But something else began happening on Fox News. During the daytime, the news division hasn’t indulged Trump’s election claims as much as might have been expected; another News Corp property, the New York Post, has run articles mocking the Trump family’s reaction to the election.

And in the evenings, the primetime opinion hosts have also provided potential rhetorical pathways for Trump to back off.

On Wednesday night, Ingraham made a point of praising Trump’s accomplishments and casting him as a martyr whose influence would only increase if the Democrats win. “If they manage to succeed, how powerful is Donald Trump in the next two- and four-year period?” she said. “People aren’t going to take it.” Trump and his movement, she said, would be made “much more powerful,” and Democrats were making a “huge mistake.” “He will be bigger,” agreed her guest Newt Gingrich. By Friday, Ingraham was all but admitting that Trump had lost. During an opening monologue that seemed designed to cheer up Trump himself, Ingraham warmly listed his first-term accomplishments and assured viewers that “If there is no path for Donald Trump's second term, it doesn't mean the end of the America First movement."

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Fox News host Tucker Carlson

The same night, Carlson also acknowledged that Trump might lose and focused his show on an attack on Biden as a “lackey” of Big Tech and a “hologram” who is merely a cutout for corporate interests. Carlson also previewed the kind of intra-Republican infighting that could be on the agenda, attacking Sen. Lindsey Graham — despite Graham groveling to Trump for years, and pledging to give $500,000 in support of his postelection litigation — for saying he is open to compromising with Democrats on immigration.

These lines signal a path forward for the right, and for Trump supporters, that is absent in the rhetoric of the dead-enders like Bannon. If you insist that Trump has won, period, and will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, period, there’s nowhere to go from there.

But where is there to go for people like Bannon without Trump?

On election night, Bannon’s War Room show hosted a livestream atop a building across from the Capitol.

Four broadcasts were taking place from a large white tent on the rooftop: his show, America’s Voice News, The John Fredericks Show, and GTV, a Chinese-language media company owned by the Chinese dissident billionaire Guo Wengui, for whom Bannon has worked since shortly after leaving the White House. The big, brightly lit tent contained a few rows of tables, technical equipment for the livestreams, catered food and drinks, and couches arranged in front of TVs showing Bannon’s broadcast. Bannon and his cohosts, Jack Maxey and former Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam, sat side by side at a table with the Capitol dome in the back of the shot. GTV was in a separate area, broadcasting in Chinese.

Two years ago, Bannon had hosted a similar event as midterm results came in; that time, his gathering had attracted bigger names in MAGA world and a clutch of reporters. This year, I hardly recognized anyone in the large white tent housing the event; the real VIPs were at the White House’s election night party, and the tier below at least got an invite to a gathering hosted by the campaign at the Trump International Hotel.

That these were not the MAGA A-list didn’t reduce their enthusiasm. With my friend and former colleague who was also there to write about the event, the Atlantic writer McKay Coppins, I spoke with Harlan Hill, a right-wing personality who had carved out a niche for himself as a Bernie Sanders supporter who had switched to Trump. Hill, like nearly all of the guests, wore no mask, and when we introduced ourselves he shook our hands jovially. He was fully confident in Trump’s reelection and eager to discuss it. “Oh, he's gonna win,” Hill declared. “A hundred percent.” He added, “If it goes the other way, I’ll eat my shoe."

Outside the tent, we encountered Kassam on a break from the livestream. Kassam had left Breitbart News in 2018 and had gone on to work for Bannon during Bannon’s failed effort to influence European politics. Upon seeing us, he demanded that Coppins leave, insisting that he wouldn’t be “fair,” without being able to provide a single example of why that would be when pressed. Kassam unleashed a string of insults on the dark rooftop. We were “psychopaths,” he said, who “actually make shit up.” Though his ire was initially directed towards Coppins, he turned on me as soon as I argued with him, demanding that I leave too. I told him I found his behavior “unnerving,” to which he remarked cryptically that there were cameras around — thus, I supposed, no reason to be unnerved. (I still don’t know what he was implying might have happened in the absence of cameras.)

We explained to Kassam that Bannon and his spokesperson Alexandra Preate had both said it was fine for us to come, and he promptly turned heel and fetched Preate, who told us she was sorry but she had no choice but to back his insistence that we leave, since it was “his party.” Before leaving, we reminded the two of them that we’d attended the event in a journalistic capacity and had never agreed to any off-the-record ground rules, which prompted Kassam to turn on his phone’s camera (with flash) and follow us out as we left while filming us and shouting that we were “not there as reporters!”

Kassam’s behavior was more surprising than scary. I’d never seen him blow up like that in person, and, because of my work covering the right, I have known him for several years. It seemed as though a pressure valve had been released by the bitter election and the prospect of Trump’s power slipping away, destroying the normal boundaries between Twitter and real life.

Later this week, both Hill and Kassam were in Philadelphia, agitating against the vote-counting there as Trump’s chances of winning the election grew more and more remote. “I’m going to Philly tomorrow with a team,” Hill tweeted on Thursday. “This is war.”

By Saturday, the war was lost. Along with the other networks, Fox News called the election for Biden. ●

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