On this week’s episode of The Brief, we explore why Republicans continue to rally around voter suppression laws and coddle the rabidly pro-Trump among them and try to jump-start new battles in the supposed culture war. Joining hosts Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld, this episode featured guest Eric Boehlert, founder and editor of Press Run and former senior writer at Media Matters for America. Boehlert, an expert on political press and media coverage, shared his thoughts on the shifting role of the media in the post-Trump era.
After spending the last few years alternately ignoring and defending Trump’s latest outrageous tweets, Republicans seem to be having a bit of trouble course-correcting. Now, as they attempt to steer the conversation back toward policy, they are hardly able to rally their base around core ideological principles that just 10 years ago would have united the party—such as addressing the budget deficit and investing in infrastructure. Eleveld described this steady stream of misinformation as a “junk food” diet that the GOP is now unable to wean their base off of.
Eleveld cited Georgia as an example, noting the internal strife the state’s GOP is currently facing:
The best state to exemplify [this divide in the GOP] is Georgia … Trump himself still has a huge axe to grind with Brian Kemp. What is interesting is the level of animosity here. This isn’t normal intraparty wrangling over the direction of the party—it feels much more existential. It’s Brian Kemp going to the state convention and getting booed and heckled by people there … they hate Democrats, but they almost hate the other part of their party just as much—depending on which side they’re on. And I just don’t know how there’s any way that can’t be a recipe for depressing some of their own voters when they get to the general election next year.
Markos agreed, adding, “And [Kemp is] as right-wing as they get!”
“Elections are always about the future, not the past,” Eleveld said, explaining that Republicans want to talk about anything but Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Despite this, the increasingly disgruntled pro-Trump Republicans among the GOP rank and file are ready to force the conversation, making strategic planning even more difficult for the party.
Continuing to cling to an election loser like Trump is not a winning strategy, Moulitsas and Eleveld noted, and doing so will likely have negative consequences and stymie Republicans’ attempts to retake the U.S. House and Senate.
Boehlert joined Moulitsas and Eleveld halfway through the show to offer his analysis of the political media landscape as we move toward the 2022 and 2024 elections, highlighting how reporters and the media have changed their approach as a result of Trump. Before Trump left office, he did unspeakable amounts of damage to democracy—but he also showed Republicans how far they can push the boundaries of what is possible and permissible in the name of retaining their power in Congress. As Boehlert explained:
The Republican Party looked at what Trump tried to do [in contesting the election results] … and said … ‘Oh, this was not an aberration. What we’re going to do is make sure we have a backstop for 2022 and 2024. When we lose, we’re not going to lose all those lawsuits. When we lose, we’re going to have allies at capitols all around the country who will throw out millions of votes.’ So the Republican Party didn’t look at that, horrified … [instead they] said, ‘Let’s make sure we can do that next time. Let’s make sure we have our cronies in place next time.’
What’s more, Boehlert worries, the press seems to have taken a more meek approach as their safety and ability to do their jobs are increasingly encroached upon. While reporters suffered increasing verbal assaults and threats from Trump over the past few years, he notes, their resolve to push back waned as many weighed the risks to their personal safety against angering the former president.
Boehlert pushed back against this idea that “if Trump is going to go to war with the press, the press is going to go to war with Trump,” noting that these attacks began a long time ago—before Trump—and have sadly been successful in silencing or reducing media coverage:
We’ve had five decades of Republican attacks on the so-called ‘liberal media,’ starting with Spiro Agnew and Pat Buchanan … [it showed that] bullying works. That was the sad lesson that we all learned in terms of the press in the Trump years … We had attacks on newsrooms, there was a gun attack in Maryland that was clearly Trump-related. But, unfortunately, instead of standing up … unfortunately, it led to more timidity—a fear of, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be in a Trump tweet.’
While they increased attacks on the media, Republicans also became more reliant on right-wing media like Fox News. After decades of using these media outlets to help them fearmonger and spread misinformation, the chickens are coming home to roost for Republicans who are now struggling to wrangle their base in time for the next election cycle. Boehlert specifically named the difficulty the GOP is having pivoting from this kind of misinformation back to substantive policy discussions:
In a weird way, Fox and OANN and NewsMax has become the entire game … Trump lost by 8 million votes … I think that was an indication that you can’t run a national campaign on firing up your base. For 20 years, the GOP used Fox News in a very specific way. But now, like I said, it’s basically become the whole game. We’ll find out in 2022 and 2024 if they can still be a national party and win elections just focusing on that 35% and really giving up any semblance of a policy discussion on issues that affect swing voters anymore.
In closing, Boehlert offered some words of advice to media to not repeat the cycle of “doom” coverage, assuming that Democrats are going to lose. Especially with Trump being “the chaos agent that nobody wants,” as Moulitsas said, it remains to be seen how GOP politics will be accepted in 2022 and beyond.
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