Months after Donald Trump cemented his frontrunner status, the American media and the Republican Party are now approaching a state of panic. Press and pundits have scrambled to explain how Trump—despite his blatant lies, casual race-baiting, religious bigotry and shameless xenophobia—has in the face of their predictions of his certain doom nevertheless tightened his grip on the 2016 GOP race for the White House. Meanwhile, GOP leaders fearful of an Election Day disaster with Trump at the top of their ticket are mobilizing the resources and an arsenal of talking points to prevent that from happening.
To which one can only reply: A plague on both your houses. The hate machine that Donald Trump embodies isn’t an aberration, but the natural culmination of the intertwined, downward spirals of the conservative movement and its U.S. media enablers. After all, the GOP long ago entered an era of “post-fact” politics in which morality tales and stories of good and evil replaced facts and science as the basis for winning elections and setting public policy. And as it turns out, the Republicans’ largely successful descent into degeneracy was only made possible by the concurrent decline of American journalism. Having abandoned the search for objective truth as its mission, most of the U.S. media are now solely in the entertainment business. In this new environment, all issues are framed as having two—and only two—sides, with the loudest voice in the “debate” being declared the winner.
To be sure, there are rival theories to the “politics-as-entertainment” explanation for the rise and durability Donald Trump.
Writing in the Washington Post, Phillip Bump offered what might be called the Costanza Defense of Trump: it’s not a lie if he believes it. Bump’s colleague Amber Phillips shared four theories of her own for “why Donald Trump’s many falsehoods aren’t hurting him.” People either aren’t paying attention or want to believe Trump because they don’t trust the government and/or the media. Others, she suggests, are in on the joke, in which the truth of the Donald’s statements have little to with how they as voters feel about him. Running against the GOP establishment only deepens their ardor for Trump because, these furious voters amazingly believe, the leadership hasn’t been tough or obstructionist enough with President Obama. And the white, middle-aged, often less educated voters at the heart of Trump’s support are furious, Josh Marshall warns, because they have literally been getting killed in the modern, globalized U.S. economy.
Regardless, worried conservatives predictably declare, Donald Trump’s ascent to the top of the GOP field is all Barack Obama’s fault. This week, Ben Domenech of the Federalist declared as much, claiming “Barack Obama's political legacy is the rise of Donald Trump.” That same day, his colleague Paul David Miller (“How the Left Created Donald Trump”) literally blamed liberals for the xenophobia and nativism of Trump’s supporters:
Voters like Donald Trump not so much because they hate Mexicans and Muslims, but because they hate progressive bigotry.
Now, there are many problems with these explanations. For brevity’s sake, let’s just focus on two. For starters, when it comes to positions like his mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and his disgusting ban on Muslims coming to America, the numbers show Trump is merely reflecting the views of his backers. (In fact, similar views are shared by most of The Donald’s Republican rivals.) Even more important, Donald Trump represents nothing new.
That seething Republican blend of rage and myth-making began long before Barack Obama took the oath of office. I’m not talking about Father Coughlin, the John Birch Society, or even Richard Nixon’s cultivation of the “Silent Majority” Donald Trump is currently trying to resurrect. (Just before his assassination in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy lamented that “Richard Nixon represents the dark side of the American spirit.” RFK never met The Donald.) All you have to do is go back to the 2008 campaign.
Even before the first vote was cast that November, today's Tea Party types were calling Sen. Obama a socialist Muslim and demanding his birth certificate at McCain-Palin rallies across America. Just take a look back at Alexandra Pelosi's documentary of the 2008 campaign, Right America: Feeling Wronged. Clips from Right America look no different from the "McCain-Palin Mob" or "Tea Baggers 2009." As one McCain supporter put it before the November 2008 election:
"We all hate the same things."
For more proof, look no further than the Washington Post's October 9, 2008 article, "Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally:"
There were shouts of "Nobama" and "Socialist" at the mention of the Democratic presidential nominee. There were boos, middle fingers turned up and thumbs turned down as a media caravan moved through the crowd Thursday for a midday town hall gathering featuring John McCain and Sarah Palin.
As CNN reported in another October 2008 article titled, "Rage Rising on the McCain Campaign Trail," one nascent Tea Partier announced at a town hall:
"I'm mad. I'm really mad. It's not the economy. It's the socialist taking over our country."
And when that supposed socialist was sworn in as President Barack Hussein Obama in January 2009, that right-wing rage was repackaged as the Tea Party. And in a sign of media failures to come, virtually everything that manufactured movement claimed to believe was simply untrue.
The Tea Party, after all, took its name after the rantings of CNBC regular Rick Santelli. In what he later called “the best five minutes of my life,” Santelli on February 8, 2009 “decried government bailouts, called struggling homeowners ‘losers’ and speculated aloud that a new Tea Party might be needed.” But there was no “cram-down” for the banks and no mortgage bailout for homeowners.
But there were also no “death panels.” Barack Obama wasn’t born in Kenya and he isn’t a Muslim. You can’t demand to “keep government out of Medicare” because it is a government program. Republicans holding “Taxed Enough Already” signs were doubly deluded. By 2010, federal tax revenue as a percentage of the U.S. economy dropped to its lowest level since 1950. And with his 2009 stimulus program, President Obama didn’t just deliver tax relief to 95 percent of working households: His was the largest two-year tax cut in American history. As a CBS poll found in February 2010:
Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.
(That wasn’t the only epic math failure for the Tea Party. After the “9/12” rally in Washington drew an estimated 70,000 people to Washington, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe comically inflated the crowd size to 2 million. As statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver concluded, “Kibbe wasn't ‘in error’, as [Michelle] Malkin gently puts it. He lied. He did the equivalent of telling people that his penis is 53 inches long.”)
The story of the 2010 midterms that swept away the Democratic House majority was the triumph of delusion. It wasn’t simply, as the New York Times asked in advance of the vote, “What if a president cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?” Indeed, what if the House GOP budget plan used the same $760 billion in Medicare savings from Obamacare to give tax breaks to the rich and the Republicans then campaigned by saying Democrats would kill the Medicare program the GOP itself intended to privatize? What if everything Republican voters said they knew about the Affordable Care Act was wrong? As NBC reported in August 2009:
In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.
The answer to all of those “what if” scenarios was the biggest midterm rout since Republicans whited out LBJ’s Great Society majority in 1966. And after seizing the House majority in 2012, the GOP wanted the Senate and the White House, too.
The new GOP plan of conquest was much like the old one. Once again, the Republicans would combine far-right fury with another wave of tried and untrue talking points. No matter that Obamacare reduces the national debt and was not a “government takeover of health care.” So what if decades of data showed that higher taxes on “job creators” do not hurt the economy and that the estate tax has little impact on small businesses and family farms. Big deal if the nonpartisan CBO and the overwhelming consensus of economists concluded the stimulus resulted in millions of additional jobs and a significant boost to American GDP? For that matter, who gives a hoot if the record shows that the U.S. economy almost always does better when a Democrat is in the White House? And who cares if Mitt Romney’s shameless lie that Obama “made the economy worse” was thoroughly debunked throughout the campaign?
For Republicans, this platform of deceit was a feature, not a bug. The GOP claims were not actually true, as Stephen Colbert once summed it up, but felt like they should be true. And for Jon Kyl, then the second-ranking Senate Republican revealed in 2011, that was all that mattered. After the Arizona Senator was off by a factor of 30 when he declared on the Senate floor that abortion is “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does,” Kyl’s office released a statement explaining:
“His remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, a[n] organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions.” [Emphasis mine.]
Mercifully, the pathologically dishonest Mitt Romney did not capture the White House. By Election Day 2012, his gymnastic flip-flops, chronic lying, and conveniently selective amnesia were summed up by terms like the “post-truth campaign” and the “Romney Uncertainty Principle.” Steven Benen’s series “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” reached volume 41 by the time voters went to the ballot box. And in a hint of things to come, Romney had not only accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement in 2012, but mimicked his tactics by referring to President Obama as “extraordinarily foreign” and telling voters, “No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
But in 2014, Democrats weren’t so lucky. Despite the improving economy and the success of Obamacare in controlling health care costs and reducing the rolls of the uninsured, the GOP won big again. Democrats were wiped out in the states while Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell replaced Harry Reid as the new Senate Majority Leader.
But it wasn’t just dismal midterm turnout and the GOP’s voter intensity advantage that won the day. Truth had lost.
In September 2013, NBC Meet the Press host Chuck Todd inadvertently helped explain why. Correcting the GOP’s Obamacare falsehoods, Todd lectured former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, was not the media’s job:
"But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it. They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."
Even more pathetic is that fact Chuck Todd himself knew better. As he wrote just two months earlier when the Ted Cruz-led campaign to defund the Affordable Care Act was heating up:
Here's a thought exercise on this summer morning: Imagine that after the controversial Medicare prescription-drug legislation was passed into law in 2003, Democrats did everything they could to thwart one of George W. Bush's top domestic achievements. They launched Senate filibusters to block essential HHS appointees from administering the law; they warned the sports and entertainment industries from participating in any public service announcements to help seniors understand how the law works; and, after taking control of the House of Representatives in 2007, they used the power of the purse to prohibit any more federal funds from being used to implement the law. As it turns out, none of that happened.
That’s exactly right. It didn’t happen and it couldn’t happen for the very simple reason that both sides don’t do it. Republican obstructionism of President Obama has been unprecedented. The GOP blocked judicial nominees at record rates, shattered the previous mark for filibusters, shut down the government and repeatedly threatened the good faith and credit of the United States by defaulting on the national debt. No party had ever had both the votes and the intent to block a debt ceiling increase. Yet Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans were prepared to do just that despite Boehner’s own warning that failure to boost Uncle Sam’s borrowing authority “would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy.” That’s right. Even after future Speaker Paul Ryan declared that “you can’t not raise the debt ceiling,” Republicans convinced majorities of Americans that we need not—and should not—raise the debt ceiling.
This dynamic—not just blocking the routine functioning of government but engaging in political tactics previously unthinkable—is at the heart of the “asymmetric polarization” that Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein articulated in their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. “When you look at the data, including voting records,” Ornstein explained, “the Democrats have moved left, to probably their own 25-yard line. President Obama's probably around the 40. The Republicans have moved behind their own goal post.” As the two authors summed it up in the Washington Post in 2012:
Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.
Republicans in Congress are indeed the problem for the simple reason that most of them will pay no price on Election Day for their dangerous extremism and kamikaze conservatism. After all, years of gerrymandering congressional districts have produced House seats almost immune to Democratic challengers. In the wake of the Citizens United ruling, GOP candidates have access to virtually unlimited campaign cash. And thanks to a decade of vote suppression efforts including barriers to registration, draconian voter identification laws, and the gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Republicans have successfully disenfranchised millions of minority and lower income voters whose ballots would doubtless be cast for Democrats.
But while necessary, those are not sufficient conditions for the apoplectic, post-truth politics which has culminated in the rise of Donald Trump. Tax plans that produce $12 trillion in red ink, slanders about Mexican rapists and drug traffickers, thousands of invented Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11, and plans to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and ban Muslims from even traveling to the United States require something more. That something is a complicit media whose deterioration from journalism into infotainment is almost complete. After years of festering and decay, we’re almost there.
For much of the decade, Jonathan Chait, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Ed Gore, and others have discussed the importance of the “Hack Gap.” As Drum explained it after the first Romney-Obama debate in 2012:
Put simply, we liberals don't have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.
This past September, Brad Delong offered this elegant summary of relative liberal virtue and conservative vice. The Hack Gap, he wrote, is:
[T]he willingness of conservative intellectuals to sacrifice their credibility by making transparently-false arguments to advance the interests of their political masters, and the lack of willingness of liberal intellectuals to do the same.
But the pivotal role of the hack gap is magnified if information consumers can self-select their media sources. The entire eco-system of conservative foundations, think tanks, academics, universities (think Regent or Liberty), columnists, pundits, activist groups, and right-wing radio is exponentially more powerful if presented to the true believers through the lenses of their choice.
As the Pew Research Center has thoroughly documented, a transformation of news consumption from three national broadcast networks and a set of major daily newspapers into partisan web sites, Facebook, Twitter and other mobile social media has occurred in just the past two decades. In January 2008, Pew surveys showed a dramatic shift in how and where Americans got their presidential campaign news. Big newspapers, ABC, NBC, and CBS had lost significant ground to the Internet and social media, especially among younger voters:
In its April 2015 update on the state of the media Pew found that evening broadcast news had stopped its audience hemorrhaging even as cable news declined and newspapers continued to lose share. But among the biggest digital news sites, mobile devices had surpassed desktop computers:
But in October 2014, Pew released a year-long study, titled “Political Polarization & Media Habits.” The results were stark, if perhaps unsurprising.
When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust. And whether discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely than others to interact with like-minded individuals.
Among the survey’s key findings:
Consistent conservatives cluster around a single news source: 47% cite Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics, with no other source even close. Consistent liberals list a wider range of news outlets as main sources — no outlet is named by more than 15%. Among the top sources for consistent liberals: CNN (named by 15%), NPR (13%), MSNBC (12%) and The New York Times (10%).
Consistent liberals trust more news sources than consistent conservatives. Those with across-the-board liberal values have, on average, heard of more sources than those in any other ideological group, and trust about twice as many as they distrust (10.4 vs. 4.8). In contrast, consistent conservatives distrust more sources than they trust (8.8. vs. 5.6).
With 48 percent of respondents saying they use it weekly for political news, Facebook doesn’t just dominate YouTube (14 percent), Twitter (9 percent) and other social media. Facebook also leads the web sites of CNN (44 percent), Fox News (39 percent) and NBC (37 percent). Pew found that 66 percent of consistent conservatives say most of their friends share their views on politics and government, compared to 52 percent of consistent liberals. (By 24 to 16 percent, though, more consistent liberals said they had stopped talking to someone due to political disagreements.) Just as important, in June Pew found a marked generational differences in the use of Facebook. While Millennials use it the most and Baby Boomers the least, the older Boomers are more likely to see political posts that mirror their own views:
The political implications of this changing media landscape are clear. News consumers are no longer dependent on the big three networks; instead they can and do “self-select” their preferred media sources. The days when the likes of Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, or Tom Brokaw were viewed as objective, honest brokers of a shared, national news experience are long gone. The idea of the network news as a public service has been, as Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said of the Geneva Conventions, rendered quaint. Now, the networks must compete for eyeballs against hundreds of cable channels, podcasts, video streaming services, endless web sites, and social media offering not just political news, but entertainment and just about everything else. Today, older, whiter conservatives overwhelmingly choose Fox News and a small constellation of right-wing news sources. They trust little else.
Making matters worse, numerous studies (for example, here, here and here) have shown that people of all political stripes can double-down and reject new information that contradicts their preconceived notions and narratives. That combination of media self-selection and informational self-delusion has proven a powerful and sometimes damaging one for conservatives. As Julian Sanchez explained in 2010:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.
So fragile, in fact, that on Election Day 2012 Mitt Romney somehow did not know or simply refused to believe pollsters and analysts like Nate Silver who predicted he would lose to Barack Obama. As Paul Krugman reflected on Romney’s own epistemic closure:
We now know that Romney’s internal polls were wildly wrong, and that, incredibly, he went into Election Day confident of victory. My immediate question is not so much why those polls were wrong, but rather why the campaign didn’t have severe doubts about what its pollsters were telling them.
All of which brings us back to Donald Trump. Trump’s coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news hasn’t just dwarfed his Republicans rivals—it exceeds all of the Democratic candidates combined. In September, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had dominated his GOP foes on cable news channels CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. CNN, with its frequent interruption of regular programming to cut to live Trump events, was the biggest offender.
Precisely because Donald Trump is, to quote Carly Fiorina, “an entertainer,” he is also what Andrew Tyndall called “by far the most newsworthy storyline of Campaign 2016.” And unlike the measuring sticks for Democratic candidates, that story isn’t about policy or facts, but fears and feelings. Even as the New York Times analyzed “95,000 words, many of them ominous, from Donald Trump’s tongue,” its reporters concluded “at Donald Trump’s rally, some see bias where others seek strength.”
And reality, as Stephen Colbert famously told President Bush to his face in 2006, “has a well-known liberal bias.” That’s why Republicans, as Ron Suskind relayed from Team Bush in 2004, mocked those “in what we call the reality-based community” who focus on “discernible reality” while they are “creating other new realities.” In reality, after all, tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and there is no uncertainty about the causes and dangers of climate change. While the likes of Ruth Marcus and Dan Balz warn that Donald Trump has “crossed an uncrossable line of bigotry” with “rhetoric unparalleled in modern U.S. politics,” he is just the latest Republican looking to sell his own reality.
Ultimately, Republican leaders and media figures taking to their fainting couches have no one to blame but themselves. Catherine Rampell neatly summed up their joint descent into pathology after the October 28 GOP debate:
The Republican presidential candidates are right. The media do suck. But not for the reasons the candidates complained about Wednesday night.
We in the media suck because we have rewarded their rampant dishonesty and buffoonery with nonstop news coverage. Which, of course, has encouraged more dishonesty and buffoonery.
Which sounds just about right. Very little Donald Trump or his Republican rivals say is true. But in an America where Republicans and those who report on them have become partners in dumpster diving, it makes for great theater.