Albion M. Butters | albion.butters [a] utu.fi | Editor | PhD | The John Morton Center for North American Studies | University of Turku
Oscar Winberg | owinberg [a] abo.fi | Editor | PhD, post-doctoral researcher | History Department | Åbo Akademi University
Pekka M. Kolehmainen | pmkole [a] utu.fi | Editor | PhD, post-doctoral researcher | The John Morton Center for North American Studies | University of Turku
This special issue of WiderScreen explores the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election through the lens of media. The effort has been coordinated at the John Morton Center for North American Studies (JMC) at the University of Turku, with a group of researchers who followed the long presidential campaign since before the first candidates announced their run. Many of the contributors writing for this issue previously worked with the JMC on a special journal issue on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election for the European Journal of American Studies (see Heiskanen and Butters 2017). This current issue can be seen as a continuation of that work: to explore the U.S. Presidential Election as comprised of events that encompass a wide strata of signification, involving cultural and social influences as much as political ones.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 marked all political campaigns, movements, and institutions in the four years that followed (Masket 2020; Lozada 2020; Zelizer 2022; Sides et al. 2022). It loomed over the presidential challenge to come, which then proved to be an exceptional year in its own right. If the election of 2016 was widely understood as “unbelievable” (Tur 2017), that was arguably even more the case for what happened in 2020. Even today, many Republicans continue to deny the validity of the election, while the insurrection at the Capitol in its aftermath continues to shock.
The 2020 election year was extraordinarily rocky from the outset. It began with the impeachment of the President of the United States, when the House of Representatives found that Trump had abused the power of the presidency and obstructed Congress in attempts to solicit foreign interference in the upcoming election. When the Republicans in the Senate voted to acquit, the President celebrated on social media with a video depicting his victory not only in 2020 but also 2024 and beyond, with the message “TRUMP 4EVA” (Morgan et al 2020).
Soon thereafter, however, the COVID-19 pandemic would transform political life—and, indeed, everyday life. Political campaigning moved from the streets, town halls, and stadiums to screens. Health officials became familiar faces, while checking infection rates and death counts became a part of many voters’ daily routines, and government briefings became must-watch TV. The efforts to combat the pandemic turned into an expression of political identity through media debates over everything from mask-wearing to enforced lockdowns. Before long, the virus and the government’s handling of the outbreak became a defining issue of the election.
Politics returned to the streets in late May following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, when Black Lives Matter demonstrations spread across the nation. Continuing for months, these grew into one of the largest protest movements in the history of the United States (Buchanan et al 2020). In response to the civil unrest, the President called up the National Guard, demanded a strong response by law enforcement, and even made an infamous media appearance in Lafayette Square outside the White House, flanked by the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a move of defiance intended to project strength.
Democracy itself came under assault in the election campaign. With the pandemic still raging in the fall of 2020, states around the country expanded or restricted access to polling places. Voting by mail, early voting, and ballot drop boxes provided some voters the opportunity to participate in the democratic process without risking their health; in other cases, the election process was marred by closed voting locations and inordinately long lines. The President charged fraud, reflecting a larger campaign to sow distrust toward the election and thereby contest any defeat. This effort culminated, of course, in the events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. And the long election year ended as it began, with Donald Trump facing impeachment in Congress.
For this special issue on the election, the media is broadly understood as encompassing the traditional realms of print, radio, and television as well as new platforms such as social media, message boards, and podcasts. Each contributor approaches a particular event, topic, or theme within the broader context of the interplay between media and the election. The goal is to study the political dynamics formed and informed by the media, and throughout the issue, media has accordingly been approached as a site where politics happens—where meaning is created and contested around political phenomena by different groups of users. Each article contains its own articulation of how politics, media, and user agencies coexist and become mutually entangled.
What defines many of the contributions here is their focus on outliers, sides, and peripheries. The story of the 2020 election told in this issue is one of struggle and conflict, often being waged in marginal spaces by various ideological actors operating on the fringes of political culture. This signals one of the clearest functions that new types of media environments have for contemporary politics, namely, providing avenues of communication and fostering community for groups that in the past would have been too disparate to organize in a meaningful way. The aim is not to give a comprehensive view of the election but instead to provide insight into the developments on the fringes often left out of political overviews. Donald Trump looms larger over the special issue than Joe Biden, as he does in most accounts of the election and did in the minds of the voters.
In his well-known work of intellectual history, Daniel T. Rodgers (2011) dubbed the last quarter of the twentieth century in the United States an “age of fracture”—a time when the U.S. began to lose its sense that there could be a governing consensus of ideas that enjoyed mutual acceptance across the ideological spectrum. Both political and cultural fractures widened over the decades since, driving animosity and resentment. Of course, the history of the United States is a history of division and fractures. The idea of a collective national identity was never a lived reality. Yet, an amplified sense of “us versus them” is driving contemporary political and cultural life (Mason 2018). Media, including the ascendance of social media, has been a particularly important vehicle for this development. What the United States experienced in 2020—and what the country continues to face today—is akin to a breaking point. Within a year, the nation witnessed two impeachment trials of the President, the largest mass demonstration in history, and a violent insurrection against democracy.
The divide is the starting point for the special issue, as Niko Heikkilä examines the use of history in protest and political narratives during the long presidential election. Focusing specifically on the Black Lives Matter protests and the insurrection at the Capitol, he outlines how these were framed by the news media and various commentators as “historic.” In addition, he notes, the discourse came with inherent moral, ideological, and political functions of history. He identifies how the protests themselves represented a story of the times, a moment of contested visions for the U.S., in which identity politics and culture war politics were marshalled to both build communities and divide them. As Heikkilä argues, the debate over history not only concerned historical facts but represented how historical narratives can have very different claims and functions in relation to contemporary struggles.
Albion M. Butters continues the discussion of the dramatic polarization in the 2020 election by investigating the phenomenon of QAnon through the lens of religion, for example, comparing the posts of the mysterious Q to a canon and their amplification—through various media—to evangelism. This approach reveals entanglements between politics and religion: on one hand, QAnon enacted a clear agenda to reelect the President; on the other, while leveraging the Christian worldview of many of its followers, it positioned Trump as a savior figure who promised to bring about “The Great Awakening.” On both of these levels, QAnon can be seen as exploiting the attention given by mainstream media and using alternative media platforms in an epistemological battle over what was real, paralleling the President’s own use of Twitter to drive a rhetoric of fake news. Butters concludes that belief in QAnon defied political or journalistic debate through its oppositional interpretative frame, employing a hermeneutics of faith to contest the conventional hermeneutics of suspicion, which ultimately led the movement’s followers and critics to talk past each other.
Oscar Winberg deepens the analysis on fake news by studying how President Trump turned on Fox News after the election results came in. Drawing on Twitter as his primary source material, Winberg compares and contrasts the assault on Fox News with other examples of media criticism employed by Trump in previous years. Analyzing the President’s criticism of right-wing media and comparing it to assaults on the mainstream media, Winberg demonstrates that the President’s attacks did not represent a divide within the right-wing coalition but was part of a long project by the right to delegitimize the media. Demanding loyalty, not fairness or balance, Trump understood the audience of right-wing media better than many at Fox News. With insults, intimidation, and accusations, Trump made his lies about the election a key part of the identity of right-wing media.
In her essay, Henna-Riikka Pennanen further explores the role of Fox News in not only promoting but forming the policy and politics of the Trump administration. With a focus on the politicization of COVID-19 as a part of conservative attacks on China, Pennanen highlights the exchanges between the Trump administration and Fox News in forming a narrative around the term “China virus.” She traces the term as a meme, with contested meanings and politics, which cycled through both traditional media and online spaces, and shows how a slur can consist of sub-narratives that connect right-wing media, Internet culture, administration policies, and campaign rhetoric on China as a threat.
Pekka M. Kolehmainen also addresses the significance of COVID-19 in the election, but within the domestic context. Specifically, he examines Donald Trump’s own coronavirus infection—looking at the six-day time period from the President’s infection to his return to the White House and its aftermath—as a media performance. The performance played out on right-wing media and online, giving the President the opportunity to negotiate multiple meanings of the illness and ultimately appearing to his audience as a hero who had sacrificed his health for the nation. Tracing the politics of strength, health, and success in relation to the campaign but also wider ideological trajectories in U.S. intellectual history, Kolehmainen argues that Trump was able to simultaneously frame himself as a victim and a victor.
Turning to young voters, Mila Seppälä studies TikTok as a platform for fresh expressions of civic engagement, compared to more traditional ways of electoral mobilization and participation. Analyzing creative political participation on TikTok, Seppälä argues that trolling as protest, performing political identity, and sharing and deliberating on civic information are all forms of actualizing citizenship engagement. A particularly novel aspect of this article is Seppälä’s approach to the data: going beyond mere hashtags, she utilizes TikTok’s sound search function to identify four audio tracks and trace their memetic power. By revealing new facets of collective expression and debate on this emerging popular online platform, Seppälä thus opens a window onto the different political participation styles adopted by Generation Z in the 2020 election.
The election highlighted both the fracturing of the media and the way campaigns and movements could make a difference on the fringes of political media culture. Studying the collaboration between the Biden campaign and musicians, Outi Hakola finds the campaign promoted Biden’s message of unity and rejection of national division under the hashtag #TeamJoeSings on YouTube. Social media could also be used to promote political awareness and mobilization, as Reetta Humalajoki illustrates in her reflection on the political role of Native American activists in the election. Beyond the frame of ”red states” and ”blue states,” Rani-Henrik Andersson illustrates the regional and even local diversity critical to understanding election results. Finally, both Benita Heiskanen and Kimmo Ahonen reconsider the relationship between political campaigns, candidates, and the political media in the age of Donald Trump.
The editors would like to acknowledge the kind support of the JMC and thank its network of scholars who made this special issue possible. In particular, thanks go to all the contributors and the reviewers for their work. The editors also want to thank the team at WiderScreen for this opportunity. It is our hope that this special issue will show the benefit of studying United States political campaigns and institutions from a transdisciplinary perspective (combining history, political science, American studies, religious studies, and media studies) and acknowledge the multiple implications of elections as media events.
All links verified November 20, 2022.
Buchanan, Larry, Quoctrung Bui, and Jugal K. Patel. 2020. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.” New York Times, July 3, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html.
Heiskanen, Benita, and Albion M. Butters. 2017. “Popularizing Electoral Politics: Change in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Race.” European Journal of American Studies 12(2). https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.12111.
Lozada, Carlos. 2020. What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Masket, Seth. 2020. Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Morgan, David, Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, and Patricia Zengerle. 2020. “Senate Acquits Trump in Historic Vote as Re-Election Campaign Looms.” Reuters, February 5, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-impeachment-idUSKBN1ZZ19C.
Rodgers, Daniel T. 2011. Age of Fracture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sides, John, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck. 2022. The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Tur, Katy. 2017. Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History. New York: Dey Street Books.
Zelizer, Julian E., ed. 2022. The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Front page image: Wikimedia Commons (2020).