[This article was initially published by our partner EYES ON EUROPE]
The USA’s democracy on the brink of collapsing – this was the dire picture experts across both sides of the Atlantic drew in the weeks around the 2020 presidential election. Fear was mounting when Donald Trump categorically refused to concede to his rival Joe Biden, even when the latter pulled ahead of him in several “battleground” states. Who would have ever thought this, but Trump’s favorite TV channel Fox News might be one of the key reasons why it is “game over” for him.
When CNN and other news networks finally projected Biden as the winner in Pennsylvania and therefore in the presidential race on November 7, the Trump campaign immediately delegitimized them as “Biden’s allies”. A too familiar pattern as four years ago, they labeled CNN the “Clinton News Network”. The dangerous division of the country into a liberal and a conservative camp, mirrored by media networks like Fox News on the right and CNN and MSNBC on the left, appeared to be at its height in the aftermath of election day. Several networks interrupted Trump’s inflammatory speeches to correct his false statements on the state of the election. What Trump supporters might have perceived as a sort of censorship was seen by his critics as a watershed moment of critical journalism.
But the more decisive question was: What would Fox News do as Biden is taking the lead during the counting process and Trump’s paths to victory narrowing? For those not familiar with the American media landscape, Fox News is a far-right TV channel founded by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, which has consistently supported Trump since his first campaign in 2016. No matter how outrageous his lies and conspiracy narratives, influential pundits like Tucker Carlson seemed to be more interested in forging a powerful alliance with the Trump administration, rather than doing serious journalism as the “Fourth Estate”. The coverage did not damage Fox’s viewership: it has remained the most watched news channel in the US. Together with more extreme right-wing players such as Breitbart News and radio host Rush Limbaugh, Fox is certainly one of the main reasons why Trump managed to get elected and almost re-elected. Fox’s influence is huge, in a way that no equivalent media in Europe could dream of.
Liberal democracies cannot simply rely on constitutions and legal texts, their principles must be upheld by people adhering to unwritten norms and values.
What would have happened if Fox News had decided not to follow the other media networks’ projections, refusing to acknowledge Biden as new president-elect? What if Fox continued to rally behind Trump, by principle backing his unfounded allegations of Democrats “stealing the election” through wide-spread voter fraud? The worst-case scenario could (have) become real: The concession of the losing candidate and consequently the peaceful transition of power, the cornerstone of American democracy for centuries, would be seriously in peril. This would be exactly the nightmare that the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn of in their famous book “How Democracies Die.” Liberal democracies cannot simply rely on constitutions and legal texts, their principles must be upheld by people adhering to unwritten norms and values. Otherwise, the most stable democracies will be undermined from within.
Against this backdrop, it cannot be underestimated how significant it is that at least some influential voices within Fox News put the survival of America’s democracy before partisanship and profits. For example conservative moderator Chris Wallace, whom some Europeans might know from the first presidential debate and his relatively critical approach to the sitting president. Wallace repeatedly emphasized during the “election week” that there is no evidence for voter fraud, encouraging Americans to trust in the political institutions and processes. “Count all votes” has also been the slogan of some Trump supporters protesting in front of voting centers in Arizona, a state where they hoped their candidate could catch up with Biden. What an irony, given that Trump had previously pledged to stop counting in the states where he had been leading during election night. Yet this shows that the democratic tradition of conducting free elections is extremely ingrained in the American culture, even among many Trump supporters. Despite all the signs of an eroding consensus on the most fundamental norms of democracy, civil rights and decency, this remains an asset that other countries governed by authoritarian populists lack.
… the democratic tradition of conducting free elections is extremely ingrained in the American culture, even among many Trump supporters.
Through its decision to go forward with the official “projection” of Biden’s win on November 7, CNN created a great momentum. Not only did it push Fox News to follow its lead, undermining the narrative of a liberal conspiracy against Republicans. Biden supporters all over the country flocked to the streets and created powerful images. And most importantly, politicians not only from the US but from all over the world were now pressured into congratulating Biden and thereby cementing his victory. When UK Prime Minister and European Trump ally Boris Johnson came forward as one of the first world leaders to recognize Biden as the 46th US president, this was another decisive moment. The fact that governments of multiple party affiliations around the world immediately took a stance, ignoring Trump’s announcement to contest the election, probably blocked his last path to four more years in the white house and helped the US preserve the integrity of its democracy.
What does this mean for Europe? Trump had several political friends on the old continent, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. The Slovenian government prematurely congratulated him on election night. The majority of European leaders, however, will be relieved when the peaceful transition of power (hopefully) takes place on January 20, 2021. Because when the very foundations of democracy are threatened in America, they are also threatened in Europe. And in the past 75 years, it probably has never come closer to that nightmare than this year. So, let us thank Chris Wallace and Fox News. And of course, thank you, Boris Johnson.
Frederic Göldner is an alumnus of the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin and the ULB in Brussels.