For more than a week, a plain-spoken former federal prosecutor named Sidney Powell made the rounds on right-wing talk radio and cable news, facing little pushback as she laid out a conspiracy theory that Venezuela, Cuba and other “communist” interests had used a secret algorithm to hack into voting machines and steal millions of votes from President Donald Trump.
She spoke mostly uninterrupted for nearly 20 minutes Monday on the “Rush Limbaugh Show,” the No. 1 program on talk radio. Hosts like Mark Levin, who has the fourth-largest talk radio audience, and Lou Dobbs of Fox Business praised her patriotism and courage.
So it came as most unwelcome news to the president’s defenders when Tucker Carlson, host of an 8 p.m. Fox News show and a confidant of Trump, dissected Powell’s claims as unreliable and unproven.
“What Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history,” Carlson said Thursday night, his voice ringing with incredulity in a 10-minute monologue at the top of his show. “Millions of votes stolen in a day. Democracy destroyed. The end of our centuries-old system of government.” But, he said, when he invited Powell on his show to share her evidence, she became “angry and told us to stop contacting her.”
The response was immediate, and hostile. The president’s allies in conservative media and their legions of devoted Trump fans quickly closed ranks behind Powell and her case on behalf of the president, accusing the Fox host of betrayal.
“How quickly we turn on our own,” said Bo Snerdley, Limbaugh’s producer, in a Twitter post that was indicative of the backlash against Carlson. “Where is the ‘evidence’ the election was fair?”
The backlash against Carlson and Fox for daring to exert even a moment of independence underscores how little willingness exists among Republicans to challenge the president and his false narrative about the election he insists was stolen. Among conservative media voices and outlets, there’s generally not just a lack of willingness — they have proved this month to be Trump’s most reflexive defenders.
For months before the election, as Trump spread disinformation about the reliability of mail-in ballots, Republicans largely avoided contradicting him and insisted that his concerns about fraud were not entirely unreasonable. And in the weeks since election night, when Trump falsely declared himself the winner and then refused to accept President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, the acknowledgments that the race is settled have come mostly from former officials like President George W. Bush or from a few current officeholders, like Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who have not been afraid to air their differences with Trump.
The same fear that grips elected Republicans — getting on the wrong side of voters who adore Trump but have little affection for the Republican Party — has kept conservative media largely in line. And that has created a right-wing media bubble that has grown increasingly disconnected from the most basic facts about U.S. government in recent weeks, including who will be inaugurated as president Jan. 20.
In the hours after Carlson’s monologue, word of which spread quickly across social media, Trump’s supporters went after not only Carlson but also Fox News. The network has become a source of particular frustration with many on the right after taking a more skeptical view of Trump’s claims about voter fraud and refusing to reconsider its call on election night that Biden would win Arizona.
That decision, which proved correct, deeply angered the president and led him to start promoting some of Fox’s smaller competitors on cable like Newsmax and One America News Network as more suitable alternatives for his large and loyal following.
Roosh Valizadeh, a writer and podcast host who supports the president, summed up the anger aimed at Fox by many on the right, saying, “As long as Tucker Carlson works for Fox News, he can’t be fully trusted.”
All week on networks like Newsmax and OANN and talk radio programs, the president’s supporters have been given a steady diet of interviews with Trump allies, campaign officials and news stories that promote allegations of fraud with little or no context.
One lawyer who is assisting the Trump campaign in its efforts, Lin Wood, went unquestioned this week on Levin’s show when he made the fantastical claim that Trump had won the election with 70% of the vote. A story that OANN broadcast Friday afternoon falsely declared, “The state of Michigan is back in play,” giving credence to Trump’s extraordinary but almost certainly unsuccessful efforts to delay certification of the vote in Detroit.
Republican officials have remained mostly measured and muted in their response, even after the conspiratorial and unsubstantiated claims floated by Powell, Rudy Giuliani and other members of Trump’s legal team at a news conference Thursday. Republicans like Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who said that Powell’s accusations were “absolutely outrageous,” were the exception.
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review and sometimes critic of the president who called his refusal to concede “absurd and sophomoric,” said that whether it was a Republican politician or a talk-show host, breaking the will that many Trump supporters have to believe he is the rightful winner was extremely difficult.
“They want it to be true,” Lowry said. “On top of that, there’s an enormous credibility gap and radical distrust of other sources of information. And that’s compounded by the fact that the president has no standards and is surrounded by these clownish people who will say anything. It’s a toxic stew.”
Lowry added that he thought Carlson’s words were “admirable” and had told the Fox host so himself. “It’s one thing for people who’ve been opposed to Trump all along, or mixed, to say something like that,” Lowry said. “It’s another thing for a leader of the populist wing of the conservative movement to call it out.”
A question for conservative media outlets that are more independent of Trump is how much of the market the unabashedly pro-Trump media dominates in the future. Some scholars said they expected that audience to be substantial.
“Drudge and Fox can try to pull back from the abyss,” said Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School who studies conservative media. “But the audience is going to get what it wants and reward those who give it to them.”
Carlson is no ordinary Trump critic. He has been one of the president’s most aggressive defenders in prime time, especially when it comes to standing up for Trump as he attacks African American politicians, athletes and the racial justice activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. He has also generally bought into the disproved notion that voter fraud is a widespread problem — a popular position with Trump and on Carlson’s network.
He has not been shy in criticizing aspects of the president’s policies he disagrees with, whether the bombing raid in Iraq that killed Iran's top general, Qasem Soleimani, or Trump’s failure to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously when it started spreading last winter. But he has never gone out on a limb like this, with the president and his followers so besieged.
Carlson, no doubt aware that many in his audience, including possibly the president himself, would not like what they were hearing, walked a fine line Thursday night. He insisted that he and his producers “took Sidney Powell seriously.” He said that he had invited her on the show to present her evidence but that she became “angry and told us to stop contacting her.”
He also tried to reassure members of his audience that he was on their side after all, explaining how he always kept an open mind about alleged cover-ups like the one Powell has promoted. “We don’t dismiss anything,” he said. “We literally do UFO segments.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.