Since well before Donald Trump's election, Fox News has served as one of his movement's most powerful and effective propaganda outlets. In numerous ways both large and small, Fox News has mainstreamed fascist and authoritarian talking points, circulated Trump's thousands of lies and massaged, minimized or falsified the events of Jan. 6 and the ongoing coup against American democracy.
On a near-daily basis, Tucker Carlson and other Fox News hosts amplify white supremacist lies about the "Great Replacement" — even if they don't use that precise term — claiming that white people are the victims of a genocidal plot to "replace" them with nonwhites. New public opinion research shows that this type of white supremacist stochastic terrorism has been internalized by tens of millions of white Americans — specifically white Republican and Trump voters — to such an extreme that many of them are willing to condone or participate in acts of political violence in to overthrow Joe Biden's presidency and American democracy.
More than 700,000 people have died in the United States from the coronavirus pandemic -- and this is a low estimate. More than a million Americans are expected to die before the virus is brought fully under control.
Public health experts have documented the direct role that Fox News and other right-wing media have played in encouraging their audience to not be vaccinated against the coronavirus. This is part of a much larger pattern of behavior, in which Fox News has consistently fueled and amplified coronavirus denialism. In total, Fox "News" has been a public health threat, and bears both direct and indirect responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Because Fox News has such pernicious influence control over its public that it has caused discord, chaos and other forms of dysfunction — almost certainly including interpersonal violence — within families, among friends and across entire communities. When and if American democracy finally succumbs to authoritarianism, its obituary should include Fox News for helping to kill it.
For almost a decade, Jen Senko has been documenting the personal impact of Fox News on the American people. In her 2015 documentary "The Brainwashing of My Dad," she showed in painstaking detail, how Fox News and the right-wing propaganda machine transformed her father into an angry, paranoid, bigoted, political extremist. Her father is only one of the millions of Americans who have fallen under the spell of Fox News and the right-wing hate machine — and by doing so became the base of support for Republican fascist movement.
In her new book, also called "The Brainwashing of My Dad," Senko continues to explore the damaging influence of Fox News and the larger right-wing echo chamber in America's worsening democracy crisis.
In this conversation, Senko details how Fox News functions like a type of cult that uses anger and fear to seduce and control its audience. She also explains how right-wing media creates an alternate universe that offers meaning, community and friendship for the confused, alienated and lonely people — predominantly older white men — who are its primary audience. Senko shares more personal anecdotes about how Fox News and its allied media have destroyed loving relationships,. She also warns that Fox News is priming its audience for political violence to support Donald Trump and the Republican-fascist ongoing coup attempt.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
With your documentary, you tried to warn the American people that Fox News and the right-wing media are an extreme danger to the country. But here we are several years later, with America's democracy crisis continuing to escalate as the right has increasingly embraced fascism. How do you feel watching this disaster?
Right now, I'm very, very frustrated. When I made the documentary, I was naïve. I thought to myself, "I'm going to save the world. I'm going to save America." It was cathartic for me to make "The Brainwashing of My Dad."
Now the American people are like the frog in the boiling water. It was lukewarm at first, nice and comfy, and they were all just splashing around a little bit. Then the water gets hotter, and they don't notice. By the time they notice, it's too late and they're boiling.
Given all that has happened and is happening with Trump and the Republicans, my feelings are now panic and despair. I always still have a seed of hope. There are many more people now who did get the message that I was trying to explain about Fox News and where the country was headed. I also have hope because it seems that more Americans are organized to resist.
What do people outside Trump World and the MAGAverse — or who are just generally in denial about the existential threat the country is facing — not understand about what's happening?
Too many people still do not seem to get that what the Republicans and Trump are doing to undermine democracy was long in the planning. It is all like an octopus and it has many tentacles. The head of the octopus is the media.
As fast as perhaps the FBI can catch those who are working to betray the country and commit treason, Fox News is everywhere. There truly is a vast right-wing conspiracy, as Hillary Clinton described it back in the 1990s. This is true whether you like it or not.
Basically, a bunch of oligarchs, evangelicals, racists, mega-corporations and right-wing libertarians got together and planned how they could get rid of government and any policies that serve the public good. What they want is no public schools, no libraries, no post office, no Social Security, no public health option. These right-wing forces want privatization across the board so that they can make as much money as they want, unrestrained, and won't have to pay taxes. Then these same forces got control of the media, and could inject their message right into the public's collective mind.
This right-wing movement also did other things too, such as running for school boards and in other local elections. They used gerrymandering and created a panic about nonexistent voter fraud. But it is the right-wing media that drives the campaign. What shocks me the most is that most Americans still do not understand the big picture.
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In your documentary, you showed in painful detail how Fox News and the right-wing machine literally changed your father's personality into a person you no longer recognized. Other Americans have experienced this — perhaps millions of them. What is your dad an example of? How do we understand what Fox News and the right-wing echo chamber did to him as representative of a much larger phenomenon?
My father was seduced by the anger and the excitement. People know that something's wrong, that the system is rigged somehow, but they don't give much thought to how. My father was also retiring from his job, and he found the right-wing media. This gave him something to occupy his mind and thoughts.
Now, suddenly, there's all this excitement in his life. There is some right-wing media person telling him that the government is in his personal business too much. There are very persuasive big personalities pushing my father's buttons and those of the audience in general. And you know what? That feels good. There is an addictive quality to anger like that. It was exciting for my father. It also provided him a group to belong to.
I believe that a lot of white men feel like, "Well, what am I supposed to do? And who am I?" They needed help in figuring themselves out, and the right-wing media and that world provided it. Too many such men developed a victim mentality, telling themselves, "I'm a victim, I'm mad, I've always wanted to fight back."
How was Fox News and the right-wing media machine able to take people such as your father and get them to a point where they would support a coup or political terrorism or conspiracy theories like QAnon? Were they always prone to such behavior or did Fox News and the right-wing machine make them that way?
On Twitter, a lot people will say to me, usually Democrats or liberals, "Oh, these people, they were always like that. They're just finding a port to park their boat in now." I do not believe that is necessarily true.
My dad hadn't been racist. He hadn't been anti-"illegal immigrant." After listening to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, he got brainwashed. When I made the documentary, I did not know if I believed in brainwashing. Now I know that brainwashing does exist, it is real.
There's the brainwashing that happens through force, what we were all familiar with from movies. But what Fox News and the larger right-wing are doing is brainwashing by stealth. I believe this to be more insidious. There's only one type of information going into the brain. There's isolation. There is repetition. That is how they brainwash their public.
I feel like there has been a massive brainwashing campaign, something unlike anything we've ever seen before in this country. That's what's happened in America through Fox News and the right-wing media and movement.
Through your website and other outreach, many people have contacted you about how Fox News and the right-wing media machine have impacted their relationships. What are some of the common themes you are seeing?
One of them is anger. The relative, the loved one, the friend, whoever it may be, suddenly is angry more and more, it's their predominant mood. These people also become very argumentative. Many of these people who are watching Fox and are part of the right-wing echo chamber are incapable of having conversations that somehow do not turn to politics. They become obsessed with this new right-wing way of thinking. It becomes the person's mission. It is all of who they are.
What are some personal stories that jump out at you?
A woman recently shared with me how her husband was a good, sweet guy and a really quiet person. Right before Trump ran for office and became president, he started watching Fox News and his personality completely changed. He would yell at her and their child more. He would criticize her, his wife, because she was a Democrat, yell at her, yell at her kid, start criticizing her. The husband was becoming emotionally abusive.
The woman who reached out to me was afraid that it was going to traumatize her child and that she might have to leave her husband. She was really sad about it because she had once been very much in love with him.
Another person who contacted me lost several members of her family to COVID. Her father still wouldn't get the vaccine. He got COVID, and still wouldn't get the vaccine — or said he wouldn't — and he died because Tucker Carlson and other people on Fox News were telling people like him not to get vaccinated.
What is going on, emotionally and cognitively, where someone would listen to a person on TV who is telling them to do things that will cause them personal harm, that will hurt their family members, friends and other people they care about?
They're not thinking rationally. The part of their brain called the amygdala has been hijacked. That is the fight-or-flight part of the brain. When it is activated, the cerebral cortex is not functioning 100 percent. These people are responding from panic. In that moment, they go to the source that they have learned to trust. That source, in this case Fox News, is telling them, "You can only trust us." That source is angry all the time. It tells its public that the government has screwed them over and the politicians that have screwed them over. The response to Fox News and the right-wing machine actually becomes something physiological.
How does Fox News make friends with its viewers? Because what Fox News and other right-wing propaganda outlets are doing on a fundamental level is establishing an intimate relationship with their public.
There is a feeling that there is an in-group and an out-group. Fox and other parts of the right-wing media make their audience feel special, like they are in on something special. It is a very seductive feeling. Being part of a tribe makes people feel safer. That dynamic is also an example of groupthink.
Many Fox viewers and people who consume that right-wing media just want to belong to the group, to think the same way as everyone else in the group. You trust your people. You don't want to doubt them. They are your friends.
Are the people who watch Fox News awake, or are they asleep?
I think they're in a trance. They are definitely not awake. They're almost on autopilot. They are going to accept anything they are told by Fox.
Why would anyone listen to Fox News, or the right-wing echo chamber more generally, telling them to hurt people, to engage in violence? Why would a formerly reasonable person listen to these commands? What has gone wrong with them?
Because they are in such a rage. They are primed to take that next step. They're in such a rage because they believe, in their heart of hearts, that the 2020 election was stolen away from Trump. They really believe that their country is being taken over illegitimately.
Mix that in with the rage that they already have, where for example they truly believe, "Democrats are horrible, they're the devil's spawn. Anything that's wrong in my life is because of them. Now they're stealing the election, they stole my guy who speaks to me, who's like me." They're just ready to fight.
More Salon coverage of the crisis of democracy — and the right-wing propaganda machine:
- Fascism or freedom? America is stuck in an ugly and dangerous in-between
- Timothy Snyder warned us fascism was coming — now he says we can survive it
- Conservatives freak out after Biden says Facebook is "killing people" with misinformation
- "Tucker Carlson effect": Swalwell shares death threat from Fox News viewer
- Trump's new social media platform could face legal issues after allegedly ripping off code