If Donald Trump wins the US presidential election on November 3, we already know what the right-wing media will do—remain his cheerleaders, enablers, stenographers, and megaphones.
But if he loses to Joe Biden, a whole world of media outlets will face a tricky pivot to something else. Will they drop their support of Trump as if he were as radioactive as an autographed headshot of Dr. Fauci? For the good of the country, will some conservative publications mute the propaganda-like chatter and dial down the divisive rhetoric? Or should we anticipate a continued barrage of toxic barbs and criticism directed at Biden and his fellow Democrats?
I have been covering the right-wing mediascape since 2017 for a number of media outlets including my daily email, TheRighting. Based on those experiences, and my conversations with several journalists with a firsthand knowledge of conservative media, these are my educated guesses.
The election was rigged/stolen/fixed: This will be irresistible. If Trump pushes the “rigged election” narrative, we can look forward to an epic pity party. His Twitter feed will become bloated with heated rhetoric, and right-wing media will echo every moan, whine, and grievance. Conspiracy theories will abound. Count on Rudy Giuliani to be working overtime. Ratings and traffic will soar, and the cycle will be repeated for months as conservative journalists provide a flood of content for conspiracy-minded news consumers.
Biden is corrupt/incompetent: The New York Post’s October 14 “smoking gun” exclusive alleging Hunter Biden’s introduction of a powerful Ukrainian businessman to the then–vice president represents just a preview of the hit jobs coming at Joe Biden in the first few months of his presidency. He shouldn’t expect anything close to a honeymoon period from the conservative press. Though Hunter’s appeal as a target should fade over time, according to National Review editor Rich Lowry, “assuming he’s not getting enormous contracts thrown at him from shady foreign actors.”
Historic levels of scrutiny for the incoming vice president: Kamala Harris would likely be the most scrutinized incoming vice president in US history. The right-wing media, using Biden’s age to speculate about his mortality, will try to give her an outsize presence in the administration. And it won’t only be her politics. In August, the American Spectator ran an article headlined “Why It Should Matter to Women That Kamala Harris Slept Her Way to the Top.” Can stories get worse than that? We all know the answer.
Over-the-top attention to Biden’s health: It’s safe to say that this would be a significant editorial focus for the conservative commentariat. They will not be kind to any Biden stumble—physical or verbal. Every gesture, nod, tremble, or sniffle will be under a microscope as the right-wing media seeks to paint him as frail or fading.
Strong anti-mask opinion: If Biden assumes the presidency, he’ll have the full weight of the White House to flood the news channels with the latest information and guidance regarding the coronavirus. But based on my reading of conservative media reports on the pandemic (here’s a list that I compiled of the dozens of inaccurate headlines from March), I doubt the coverage on this topic will change. For the most part, conservative media will remain mired in their old anti-mask attitudes thanks to a combination of bad science, macho posturing amplified by Donald Trump, and a pervasive “don’t tread on me” attitude. A push from a Biden administration on mask-wearing could very well be met with the right railing against infringement of personal liberties.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will still have targets on their backs: It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House. “You can take it to the bank that right-wing media will take them to the woodshed at every opportunity,” says Jim Swift, senior editor at The Bulwark.
More investigative reporting from conservative media: Axios has called Joe Biden “the least scrutinized frontrunner,” and I completely agree. Up to now, most of the assaults from the right have been predictable and sophomoric. (If I have to read another article calling him “Grandpa Gropes,” I’m going to tear up my press pass for cpac.) But the tone may become more serious if he wins on November 3. I know of at least one conservative news outlet that is already considering launching an investigative unit to dig into his spending and cabinet picks. “They will try to hold Biden to standards they were unwilling to hold Donald Trump to with the hope that the mere appearance of impropriety or evasion is enough to create a Benghazi-size scandal that they can harp on for weeks,” says Kurt Bardella, former Breitbart spokesperson turned Project Lincoln senior adviser.
They will be seeking a lightning rod “that has the staying power like Obamacare for ten years,” Lowry says.
Our long national nightmare is only beginning: You can also bank on a very different tone from that which the nation experienced after Nixon left office in disgrace, in August 1974. In fact, conservative media may go in the opposite direction and express a “nightmare is just beginning” sentiment. That response would cast a long shadow over the next four years. It would show that, though Trump might be gone, the divisive flames of Trumpism will keep burning, fanned by the right-wing media.