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'Stop the Steal' is about Trump. It's also about lots and lots of money

Guests arrive for a rally with former President Donald Trump at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on October 09, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. This is Trump's first rally in Iowa since the 2020 election.  (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Guests arrive for a rally with former President Donald Trump at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on October 09, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. This is Trump's first rally in Iowa since the 2020 election. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Disputed presidential elections are nothing new in America. Both the 1960 and 2000 elections were decided by the slimmest of margins and were hotly disputed in the wake of initial results. But after a period of bitter allegations and litigation, Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960 and Vice President Al Gore in 2000 threw in the towel and acknowledged that their opponent had won the presidency.

The aftermath of the 2020 election was obviously different and not just because Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump. A major reason why a majority of Republicans still believe Trump won the election is that there are a lot of people who are making a lot of money telling them that Trump won the election.

There’s a "Stop the Steal" industry and it’s doing very well.

Trump has raised well north of $200 million since losing the 2020 election, mostly from small contributors. He’s asked for donations to fight what he believes (without evidence) was a stolen election, but beyond paying some legal bills, little of this money has been spent directly on fighting his losses in the states that swung to the Democrats. He’s banked most of the money for 2024 — and what he’s spent so far has gone to advertising and fundraising.

The broader commercialization of "Stop the Steal" begins with cable television and talk radio, old mediums in this high-tech era. Two marginal conservative cable networks, One America News (OAN) and Newsmax, saw an opportunity arising out of Trump’s fury with Fox News over its early call on election night, indicating that Arizona had been won by Joe Biden. They positioned themselves to the right of Fox by offering wild conspiracy theories, including claims that voting machines were programmed to cheat Trump out of votes.

Trump has raised well north of $200 million since losing the 2020 election, mostly from small contributors.

As an industry, cable television has very high barriers to entry and new entrants require substantial capitalization. The economics of cable are built around carriage fees paid to networks by the local vendors, who bring the cable connection to your home. Those vendors -- like Comcast — are not interested in paying for additional news/opinion networks, and post-election efforts by OAN and Newsmax were directed at becoming prominent enough to pressure more distributors to carry them. Fox responded to this competitive threat and became increasingly shrill about alleged election thievery.

Then there’s political talk radio, which is virtually all conservative in ideological orientation. It is an extremely competitive business driven by nationally syndicated programs from corporate media giants. In the wake of Rush Limbaugh’s death, Sean Hannity, with 600 stations carrying his program, has the largest radio audience. Perhaps the hottest voice today, though, is that of Dan Bongino, who Politico describes as the “leader in the far-right media sweepstakes set off by Trump’s refusal to concede the election.” Bongino says it is “utterly absurd” to believe that the election was fair. He has an audience of 8.5 million weekly listeners, in addition to a hugely successful podcast and well-trafficked website. Facebook says Bongino receives more engagement than those of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal combined. And he is but one host among thousands of American talk radio stations repeating the message — all day and night — that the 2020 election was stolen.

Guests shop for merchandise before the start of a rally with former President Donald Trump at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on October 09, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Guests shop for merchandise before the start of a rally with former President Donald Trump at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on October 09, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Beyond cable and talk radio, entrepreneurs jumped in after the election with new websites that promised immediate and enduring advocacy until Trump was restored as president.

Unlike cable television, online enterprises have no real barrier to entry. A minimal web presence that can process online donations is all that is necessary; by and large, these entities are fundraising shells. The most notorious of these entrepreneurs is Sidney Powell, a hitherto obscure lawyer who filed a series of lawsuits in states where Trump said the election was stolen. Powell claimed that she had a video of the head of the voting machine company, Dominion, saying “he can change a million votes, no problem at all.” She had no such video but Powell created Defending the Republic to fight on behalf of Trump and quickly raised $14 million, an impressive sum for someone new to the scene. She hired a staff which quit within weeks, because Powell wouldn’t tell them where the money was. Looking at the websites of these "Stop the Steal" groups, it’s easy to conclude that there is no there, there.

Promoting anger is a more profitable business strategy.

Social media complements these other outlets, with little in the way of restrictions on what users can allege about the election. Facebook and Twitter have been shamed into providing some filtering of posts and Trump, of course, has been forced off of both. But competition among rival platforms like Parler, Gettr, Gab and Telegram do little, if anything, to restrict even the most vile defamations. Why? Because it’s bad for business to tell customers they can’t come back.

Although these businesses are different in many ways, they share a common orientation: they’re all part of the outrage industry, businesses that try to bring their customers to an angry boiling point about the opposition. Provoking viewers, listeners, and readers gets them to come back the next day. This is about money, and it’s a disincentive for these businesses to offer reasonable political discourse. Promoting anger is a more profitable business strategy.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

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Jeffrey M. Berry Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jeffrey M. Berry is the Skuse professor of political science at Tufts University where he teaches courses on national politics, cities and the media.

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