The radicalizing power of right-wing media networks

(CNN Business)A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

The best word for what’s happening in America right now is radicalization.

    President Trump and the right-wing media machine are leading far too many viewers and readers to become radicalized. And that’s making it much harder to speak a common language and solve common problems.
    On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” telecast, I ticked through some recent examples of right-wing radicalization.
    The growth of the conspiracy cult known as QAnon was at the top of the list; as USA Today said in October, “QAnon and other dark forces are radicalizing Americans.”

    Other examples include hardcore election denialism, which has been on display at “Stop the Steal” marches and events in recent weeks. Talk of “martial law” and secession is an outgrowth of radicalization.
    None of this is normal. All of it needs to be covered in the context of a radicalized GOP. So here are some recommended reads and further thoughts about this predicament:

    Reading about radicalization

    — “The Republican Party has been radicalized,” Peter Wehner, a veteran of past GOP administrations, wrote in a Sunday article for The Atlantic about Trump’s “descent into madness.” He noted that “the right-wing ecosystem became more and more rabid” in the past four years.
    — Outgoing GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman to The New York Times: “It seems like the constant fight in the Republican Party is trying to stop the lunatics from taking over the asylum.”
    — A few days ago NPR’s Hannah Allam wrote that “veteran security officials and terrorism researchers” are warning that “the widespread embrace of conspiracy and disinformation amounts to a ‘mass radicalization’ of Americans, and increases the risk of right-wing violence.”
    — One of the experts quoted in Allam’s story, Elizabeth Neumann, joined me on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources.” Neumann said she is worried about extremist violence. “A huge portion of the base of the Republican party has now bought into a series of lies that the election was stolen from them, that there is rampant fraud, and, therefore, their voice is no longer heard,” she said.
    — Thomas Edsall’s latest survey of the research landscape: “The rise of ‘political sectarianism’ is putting us all in danger.”
    — We’re beyond “alternative facts,” Kellyanne Conway’s famous phrase from 2017: “Here we are four years later” and “it’s alternative realities,” Hallie Jackson said on “Meet the Press.”
    — Here’s a concrete example: On Thursday Michael Flynn was on Newsmax talking about sending the military into swing states to redo the election. The next day he was in the Oval Office. “This is kind of a vicious cycle,” Rosie Gray said on “Reliable.”
    — Time is a president’s most precious asset, and Trump spent some of it on Sunday calling into Rudy Giuliani’s local radio show in NYC. The extreme rhetoric on 77 WABC Radio served as a reminder that radio talk shows play a powerful role in the radicalization process.
    — So do TV shows. Numerous staffers at Fox News have expressed concerns about the incendiary nature of the network’s highest-rated shows. A CNN Business story recently quoted a longtime on-air staffer at Fox saying, “Our audience has absolutely been radicalized.”
    — Since the election, some Fox fans have turned the channel to insurgent right-wing outlets like Newsmax and One America News, which carry even more conspiratorial content.
    — One of the undercurrents of GOP extremism is the perception of an extinction-level event. On Sinclair’s stations last Friday, Eric Bolling “savaged ‘establishment’ Republicans,” per Mediaite, and said “Donald Trump will be the last Republican president in my lifetime.”
    — What about de-radicalization? EJ Dionne’s latest column is titled “How Biden can make us hate each other a little bit less.”

    The ‘language of radicalization’

    Rep. Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer who has worked as a contractor for the NSA in computer-network operations, recently told CNN that he recognizes in QAnon messaging the distinct “language of radicalization.”

      Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an education and sociology professor at American University, brought this up to CNN’s team as well: “You have 15-year-olds at home feeling like, ‘What do I do? My mom thinks she’s going to go fight child trafficking rings … she’s spending all her time online doing that and has lost touch with reality.’ QAnon believers can get radicalized very quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks.”
      NBC reporter Ben Collins hit on this in a widely-shared piece for NiemanLab about “accidental conspiracists.” What he described was radicalization without using the word. Collins said that “a lot of America slipped into conspiracy thinking during this pandemic, and they got there from yoga Instagrams and NFL forums and private church choir Facebook groups that were systematically invaded by QAnon and anti-vax recruiters.” His message: “We’re going to have to learn to create a vocabulary to talk about how their friends fell down the wrong YouTube hole and came out speaking another language.”
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