Fox News and Succession: could the show’s election coup plotline become reality?


Show inspired by the Murdoch media empire veers from history but elements mirror past political turmoil





The episode is called “America Decides”. But fans of HBO’s widely watched satire Succession will not have been shocked to see scions of the eminently dislikable Roy dynasty showing little respect for who Americans elect as president when it collides with the family’s financial and political interests.

It’s also no secret that Succession’s story of a domineering father and the cutthroat rivalries of his offspring draws heavily on Rupert Murdoch’s family, his media empire, and its ugliest creation, Fox News.

In Succession, the Fox News stand-in, ATN, declares the probable loser – the Republican neo-fascist Jeryd Mencken – as the winner of a presidential election in an attempt to overturn the vote. Parts of the storyline mirror the turmoil of several American elections, from what many regards as George W Bush’s daylight robbery of the Florida vote in 2000 to Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat two decades later. But Succession veers from history at a crucial juncture.

Clearly, the series writers drew inspiration from Fox News’s nightly ventures into what an ATN executive calls its “unique perspective” on the news, not least the recently departed Tucker Carlson’s campaign to paint the 2020 election as rigged against Trump.

But what if Fox News starts taking inspiration from Succession? Could the news channel that cared so little for the truth it was forced to pay $787.5m over false accusations of rigged voting machines go all the way and declare Trump the winner of next year’s election – even if he loses – just to keep its viewers happy? And, if it did, what would be the consequences?

Succession has yet to reveal whether ATN and Mencken pull off their coup. But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is skeptical that reality would prove so straightforward.

“I can believe that Fox would cheat. I can believe that Fox would try to miscall an election or insist that these four, five, or six states are just too close to call, and that means the election is up in the air when others are saying it’s over. I can see all kinds of things like that. I just don’t think it would produce a crisis as serious as [Succession] is trying to suggest, because we’re on to Fox. We know what they’re up to,” he said.

“And while there’s a tiny chance that some weird scenario could develop because we’ve had weird scenarios develop before, it’s difficult to create a crisis of legitimacy unless there are several other factors besides Fox.”

In Succession, we see Mencken facing, but not accepting defeat.

“If I lose, I want it correctly characterized as a huge victory,” he tells Roman Roy, the ruthless, snarky chief executive of ATN’s parent company. “I want to be the president.”

The tone of ATN’s coverage is already set. In an echo of revelations about Fox News, the character overseeing election night on ATN, Tom Wambsgans, is worried about losing viewers to other rightwing broadcasters. He pushes to report anything that will call into question the legitimacy of votes for Mencken’s Democratic opponent, Daniel Jimenez.

“Did you see the viral thing about the woman who voted, like, 40 times for Jimenez under her dead mom’s name?” Wambsgans asks the station’s news manager.

The manager says the woman making the claim is “not a well person”.

Still of Fox News from election night in 2020
Fox News infuriated Trump by going out on a limb and calling Arizona for Joe Biden on election night in 2020 before other news organizations. Photograph: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 3+/Alamy

“You’re not a doctor,” Wambsgans responds. “Until you qualify, why don’t you get her on the air?”

Shortly afterward, a report comes in of a fire at a vote-counting center in a heavily Democratic part of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The 100,000 destroyed ballots look almost certain to decide the election.

Roman Roy characterizes the blaze as an “Antifa firebombing”, even though it advantages Mencken. On air, ATN’s version of Tucker Carlson pushes that line.

“Maybe some of the crazies heard they were underperforming, and decided to stop the counting and destroy the evidence,” he says.

Roman Roy seizes the chance to declare Wisconsin for Mencken in a move that swings the entire election in his favor.

“We’re not waiting for burned votes, so call it,” Roy demands of ATN’s editors.

Mencken gives a victory speech in which he declares his win has been called “by an authority of known integrity” and that, in effect, there is no need to wait for the official results.

There are reasons to doubt that such a move would be successful in reality. As cumbersome and compromised as the US’s electoral machinery may be at times, it can also prove resilient.

Trump’s repeated efforts to pressure Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, governor, and other officials to “find” the extra votes to overturn Biden’s victory in 2020 met with a wall of refusal, despite Fox News’s backing. The courts wouldn’t play ball, either. The system held, and the former president may well be on his way to prison for his efforts, along with some of his cronies.

In fact, some key events in 2020 played out in a mirror image of the Succession scenario in which ATN calls Wisconsin for Mencken.

Fox News’s data team actually played it straight in 2020 and infuriated Trump by going out on a limb and calling Arizona for Joe Biden on election night before other news organizations. It turned out to be the right call, even if it was based on unreliable exit polls, and the outcome proved to be a lot closer than they suggested.

But Succession did capture one consequence of the Fox News call.

Once Fox gave Arizona to Biden, the numbers meant the network could not call another state for him without also declaring that he had therefore won the presidency and, more importantly to Fox News viewers, that Trump had lost. When Fox News’s Washington team was ready to call Nevada for Biden, it was blocked by some presenters, and the network held off on a result until every other network had declared more than 14 hours later.

In Succession, Roman Roy understands that with Wisconsin as a win for Mencken, he can use the result from one of the two remaining states in play to declare total victory for the Republicans even if the votes aren’t really there.

That scenario requires that the election come down to a single state, a rare occurrence. Even if Fox News had called Arizona for Trump in 2020, he would still have had to take two or three of the other closely run states to win the electoral college.

Still from Fox News in 2000 saying Bush wins presidency
Craig Harrington says Fox News was instrumental in determining the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Photograph: Fox News

But Craig Harrington, research director at Media Matters for America, which tracks misinformation in the conservative media, said the election did come down to a single state two decades ago in Florida and Fox News was instrumental in determining the outcome.

“Succession was uncomfortable to watch because we have already lived an entire lifetime in a world where Fox News’s decision to pre-emptively call an election on behalf of their political ally arguably changed the course of history. So “Could this happen again?” is the question rather than “Could this happen at all?” he said.

Harrington sees the fictional burning of the ballots in Wisconsin as modeled on the wiping out of thousands of votes in Florida in 2000 which delivered the state and the presidency to George W Bush.

On the night, the TV networks, including Fox, initially called Florida for Al Gore. But then Bush’s team began calling. As it happened, the head of Fox News election night decision desk was George W Bush’s cousin, John Ellis.

Before long, George W and his brother, Jeb, who was Florida’s governor, were on the phone to Ellis telling him that the election was much tighter than the polls said and urging him to rescind the declaration for Gore. Ellis obliged. Then Fox News called the state for Bush. The other networks rapidly followed. Gore called Bush to concede.

Fox News had got it wrong. The vote was still too close to call and the networks reversed themselves a couple of hours later. Gore withdrew his concession. But by then a large number of Americans thought Bush had won the presidency, and it had consequences.

Hundreds of Republican party staffers and lawyers led what became known as the Brooks Brothers riot, named after shop selling suits, that shut down a recount of votes and froze Bush’s claim to victory in place until the US supreme court handed him the keys to the White House.

“Because of Fox News’s decision to make the call when they did not have the data to back it up, the whole nation was informed that George W Bush had won the presidency,” said Harrington. “He started to become the president in waiting. The government began to transition. It set a tone in public that changed the course of history.”

Sabato regards 2000 as a “terrible breakdown in the system” but thinks a repeat remains unlikely.

Harrington agrees and said that without other factors at play, Fox News could only get so far in trying to push any particular candidate into the White House.

“In order to actually rig an outcome, you have to have processes in place or individuals in place to interdict operations and to slow things down intentionally,” he said.

In the Succession story, Harrington said it is likely ATN’s guns would have been spiked in real life by Milwaukee election officials finding a way to fix the issue of the burned ballots. But he added that might be different if the Trump camp had succeeded in its attempt to place supporters in strategic roles.

“We saw this effort in 2022 to get election deniers elected to key roles in local government, state government, and county governments all around the country during the midterm elections. We saw election deniers run and overwhelmingly they lost. And so we kind of dodged this attempt to infiltrate the election system,” said Harrington.

Still, as Fox News attempts to paint the 2020 election as stolen from Trump showed, its ability to stir up trouble should not be underestimated. The network’s persistent pushing of vote fraud claims played an important part in rallying support for Trump after the election, and in fuelling the myths and anger that drove the 6 January 2021 storming of the Capitol.

Sabato said that Fox News may not decide the winner but it can still stir up “small numbers who can cause great tumult in free societies”.

“Fox could easily be the match that started a prairie fire, at least in deeply red states or in places where white nationalists or supremacists are prominent,” he said.

“I do believe that the democratic process would win out but there are other points in American history where it’s gotten very messy. That’s what I’m worried about.”


Betsy Reed

Editor, Guardian US

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