Fox News Is Gaslighting Their Viewers Into Authoritarianism

In a crisis, rules are allowed to be broken and norms suspended. And it’s Fox’s job to manufacture those crises for the GOP.
Sean Hannity of Fox News (AP)

Sean Hannity of Fox News (AP)

Update March 7, 2019: On Monday morning, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker published a report outlining in the most detail we’ve seen thus far, how deeply connected Fox News and President Trump are. From the reported suppressions of the story of Trump’s Stormy Daniels hush money payment before the election to Trump’s constant coordination with Sean Hannity and Rupert Murdoch, Fox News is essentially state-run TV. Mayer also touches on the fact Fox News is unabashedly promoting Trump’s brand of authoritarianism. In light of this news, below is our February 2018 article detailing how Fox News uses fear to gaslight their viewers into support of authoritarianism.

When Fox News just started as a channel, it wasn’t too different from the kind of programming you’d see on any other cable news network. Yes, it definitely had a conservative lean, but it hardly existed in its bizarro parallel universe. Today, it’s become conspiracy peddling GOP agitprop whose primetime stars are beloved by outspoken neo-Nazis and Klansmen, exchange secret scoops with a Russian disinformation asset, and performed Nazi salutes at the Republican National Convention while anointing The Donald as their official candidate of choice. It’s InfoWars with higher production values and fewer plugs for supplements, mercifully relegated to proper commercial breaks.

We’ve all heard or have our own stories of middle-aged or older relatives who were enthralled by the channel’s siren call and became paranoid and far more aggressive. Its programming is by far the overwhelming choice for a nostalgic generation playing directly to their rose-colored version of the past and using that as a springboard to bombard them with outrage and fear fodder. From a scientific standpoint, conservatives tend to have an enlarged and more active amygdala, a part of the brain’s limbic system responsible for fear and anger, as well as creating memories of emotional events. This means they respond more readily to angst and rage and see novelty with suspicion.


Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that every conservative mind is dominated by dreaming about the good old days and cowering in fear of young people, or that we can look at an MRI to predict one’s opinions about the tax code or the ins and outs of industry regulations. Your amygdala is involved in basic, gut-level responses, not in detailed thinking about policies and worldview. But it does mean that those who identify as conservative and have this trait are far more easily hooked on stories about supposed existential threats to their life and freedom, which is Fox’s bread and butter, as well as conspiratorial ideas often born from feelings of anger and helplessness.

In a way, it’s not that surprising that regularly watching Fox News makes you more paranoid and in combination with other right-wing media, can trigger extreme and profound changes in one’s psyche. It’s perfectly calibrated to do exactly that, to pit you, the viewer, against the formless, shapeless evil mass that is The Left, out to destroy literally everything you love just because they are all hateful, soulless monsters, and everything they do is a small part of a grand conspiracy to ruin America. They are the proverbial man shouting fire in a crowded theater and when he’s asked by those around him where that fire is, whispering “Everywhere. It’s a setup, and I’m going to show you the truth they don’t want you to know.”

And this is its real sin against the American body politic. All the damage done by their naked partisanship, furious, prolonged, and constant assault on its loyal viewers’ minds, outright lies, and constant conspiracy peddling are just a few components of its menacing, overarching narrative: That we all live in desperate times where the nation is crumbling under the assault of its many enemies, most of them, their fellow American citizens, and in these desperate times, desperate measures are necessary. Norms need to be stripped away or forgotten, rules broken, and careening from crisis to crisis isn’t just how the Evil Kentucky Turtle seized Congress by the throat, it’s only the reflection of how deep that grand anti-American conspiracy goes.

Just consider months of relentless attacks on the FBI and the DOJ emanating from talking heads who spent hours every night trying to convince viewers that the nation’s top law enforcement agencies are filled with traitors who started secret societies to rig elections and engineer a coup against a sitting president. As a result, feelings among Americans regarding the FBI remained mixed but plunged among Republicans. They are investigating the leader for potential wrongdoing and are therefore traitors to the Crown… err… I mean their nation and must be punished for their transgressions with firings, jail time, and their agencies must be “cleansed” to quote Paul Ryan.

This is very much how authoritarians of all stripes gain power, by pretending that their nation is under siege and they are the only ones capable of doing the tough, dirty, ugly, but necessary work to save it from itself and its many enemies, many of whom are domestic subversives. Only here, there’s a twist because Fox isn’t following lock-step with Trump & Co. in their coverage, but are giving that generic authoritarian carte blanche to any Republican, which led to Trump being anointed The Second Coming of St. Reagan. Any other Republican would’ve also received the same level of spin and catering from a news network that was willing to defend pedophilia to maintain a GOP seat in the Senate and gives neo-Nazi fantasists a platform in primetime.

This is why it was fine to first ignore the rules and refuse to let a president the network didn’t consider legitimate nominate a Supreme Court justice, then only after a Republican was elected, change the rules to allow a simple, party-line majority to vote for one. This is why it was okay to pass the tax bill quite literally in the middle of the night, parts of it scrawled in the margins on very obvious and blatant lies, and deliberate miscalculations. This is why it’s not a big deal to threaten nuclear war on Twitter and mull attacking North Korea despite the devastating consequences to us and our allies. This is why it’s all right to constantly and viciously lie about immigrants to America despite the facts showing you’re lying are readily available.

In an existential crisis, nothing is out of bounds, and no action is too extreme to save the country. And that’s exactly what Fox creates for the GOP, a never-ending supply of crises to white, middle aged men and senior citizens who’ll rush to the polls to vote Republican out of fear that if they don’t, they’re going to be enslaved by vicious MS-13 gangbangers while Sharia Law replaces the Constitution, homosexual orgies will become mandatory on every college campus, and Planned Parenthood clinics will be transformed into shopping mall-sized abortionplexes as the FBI rigs elections to let foreign anti-American usurpers win every time with illegal immigrants that they’ll bus to the wrong states because why even bother making sense anymore.

Simply put, they’re the reason Russia’s active measures worked so well, even the Russians were surprised. And as long as they continue to drag us into the realm where the news is sung by the Tinfoil Choir, and America’s enemies are the viewers’ own neighbors, co-workers, children, and grandchildren, we’re not going to have sane governance. While it’s important to look at where we go next as a country in terms of past vs. future instead of the typical and tired conservative vs. liberal, thanks to Fox, we now have to look at our next steps as the sane vs. the rabidly paranoid and reckless. And when we’re looking at a ruling party that can’t be trusted with making sober, rational decisions, on the lookout for yet another evil plot against them when there’s never been one, that’s when we need to get really worried.

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Politech // Journalism / Media / Politics