Why is there such demand for election denialism? Why are TV shows that claim President Trump is the rightful winner of the election garnering millions of viewers?
Maybe the answer involves your middle finger.
When I read pro-Trump websites and watch shows that parrot Trump's "we won" lies, I'm reminded of an essay by Rich Lowry, the conservative editor of National Review and a frequent guest on cable news. Last month Lowry called 2020 the "middle finger election."
"If Trump manages to pull off an upset in 2020," he wrote, "it will be as a gigantic rude gesture directed at the commanding heights of American culture."
"To put it in blunt terms," he explained, Trump is "the only middle finger available" for many people. It's a gesture "to brandish against the people who've assumed they have the whip hand in American culture."
Well, if that's what a vote for Trump was, it didn't quite work. Biden has prevailed in both the Electoral College and the popular vote. So now, embracing election denialism is the new middle finger gesture.
But even just pretending to think the vote was rigged is effective. Even just indulging the idea that it was stolen from Trump is the new way to stick it to the institutions that draw so much ire from Trump fans.
The Monmouth University Polling Institute asked Americans, "Do you believe Joe Biden won this election fair and square, or do you believe that he only won it due to voter fraud?" Fully 77% of respondents who said they voted for Trump blamed voter fraud.
Overall, only 32% of Americans cited voter fraud, while 60% said Biden won fair and square. But another 6% said they did not know, and 2% volunteered a belief that Biden will not be declared the winner.
This is a widespread emotion among Republicans, driven partly by repetitive TV segments and stories about fraud allegations all across right-wing media.
On Newsmax, the cable channel that has emerged as a challenger to Fox News at certain times of day, the channel's highest-rated host, Greg Kelly, said Thursday that "this is just the beginning" for Trump. He reiterated, "I do think he's going to prevail." Kelly averaged 1.1 million viewers Thursday, a new high for his show.
Where there's demand for this fantastical programming, there will always be a supply from outlets like Newsmax. They tap into a deep distrust, especially on the right, of anything and everything institutional. And Fox News, despite its constant anti-media commentary, looks like an institution to some people right now.
Trump's conspiracy theories
Trump is encouraging the distrust by tweeting conspiracy theories and promoting channels like Newsmax. It fits with the pattern of his presidency. Trump had trouble articulating a second term agenda -- but at his rallies he hit on all the grievances that animate conservatives. In essence he pledged to keep "owning the libs," to use the catchphrase popularized by conservative activists on social media.
Purporting to believe in a vast election-rigging conspiracy is a new path to "owning the libs." Election denialism is a middle finger -- to democracy.
And it leaves me wondering: What are you supposed to meet a middle finger with? A fist bump? An outstretched hand, ready for a handshake, ready to forgive and forget? I've been in enough New York City traffic jams to know that one rude gesture is usually matched by another, and another, and some curses, too.
The more I watch and read this fictional universe of information, the more I see that the Trump-era war on truth will be raging long after Biden is president.