WASHINGTON – Of the 2016 election’s lightning storm of shocks, few will have more lasting political consequence than the discrediting of the main media organs of movement conservatism.
Fox News – the fair and balanced alternative to the liberal media, the voice of traditional values, the never-ceasing hum in the background of American conservatism – has been revealed as the personal fiefdom of a Donald Trump shill and as an institution apparently operating (according to one lawsuit) “like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.” While Fox News is not going away, it will need to be re-launched and rebranded as the network of Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly (both fine journalists), rather than of angry white television personalities who employ perpetual outrage as a business model.
Speaking of which, a similar unveiling has occurred with the right’s defining radio personality, Rush Limbaugh. It is difficult to overestimate Limbaugh’s influence on two generations of intensely loyal listeners. Steve Forbes has called him “part of the trinity that made modern conservatism,” in the company of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley.
In this campaign cycle, Limbaugh fully embraced right wing populism, including defending Trump’s hard line on immigration and mass deportation – a position Limbaugh once described as “standing up for the American way of life.” During the recent six-day period in which Trump moderated his immigration stand and essentially embraced Jeb Bush’s views, Limbaugh fielded a call from “Steve in Los Angeles,” who was angry at Trump for adopting a position he had savaged other Republicans for holding. “This is going to enrage you,” Limbaugh replied. “I can choose a path here to try to mollify you. I never took him seriously on this.”
It is an admission of astounding cynicism. Trump began his campaign by stereotyping Mexicans as rapists and proposing the forced expulsion of 11 million people – an extreme, inhumane, politically self-destructive policy that Limbaugh urged his listeners to support as a matter of principle. But Limbaugh, it turns out, was in on the joke. He knew it was part of a show, much like his own, in which incitement builds an audience.
Limbaugh is particularly influential but hardly unique. Over the last few decades, conservatives have developed an infrastructure of media institutions that – with notable and principled exceptions – constitutes an ideological bubble. One may listen to Limbaugh at lunch, watch Sean Hannity in the evening and get Twitter alerts from the Drudge Report and Breitbart News all through the day. But these are not just sources of information; they are businesses, particularly sensitive to the views of their audience. And what gets rewarded with listeners, viewers and clicks? Outrage at the perceived aggressions of liberalism. Anger at the compromises of the Republican “establishment.” And the defense of American identity against illegal immigrants and Muslims.
These positions can (and should) be debated on their own merits. But this much is undeniable: The market imperatives of conservative media institutions have nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with the health of conservatism, the success of the Republican Party, the election of a Republican president or solving serious national problems through principled compromise. To the contrary, conservative media outlets are incentivized to promote anger and discord, and to beat the hell out of mainstream Republicans. Some resist this incentive structure; most do not.
In this election, we have seen something remarkable. A candidate who reflects the views and values of conservative media was able – with a plurality and a fractured field – to seize the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. But the political universe of conservative talk radio does not constitute anything close to a majority of voters in the general election. In fact, this cartoon version of conservatism tends to alienate key groups of voters, including minorities, Republican women and the college educated.
Much (not all, but much) of the new conservative establishment feeds outrage as its source of revenue and relevance. It is a model that has been good for Rush and Fox, but bad for the GOP. Republicans are now caught in a complicated electoral dynamic. What their base, incited by conservative media, is demanding, the country is rejecting. A choice and a conflict are becoming unavoidable. Trump’s angry nativism – newly restated in Arizona with a few twists – is a talk radio shtick, correctly viewed by most of the electorate as impractical and cruel. It is less a proposal than an offensive, unhealthy form of ideological entertainment. And this show needs to close.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.