How and Why the Conservative Media Sold Its Soul To Facilitate Trump’s Nomination
[Note – this post was originally published on March 15, 2016]
I have written many times on this outlet about the dangers of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Last year, I predicted how the conservative media was going to allow him to at least negatively alter the process, if not win the GOP nomination. Now that he has effectively clinched that nomination (or at least created a situation where it would require an unprecedented act to stop him), someone needs to explain, from a media perspective, how and why this happened. Since no other conservative has both the guts and the knowledge to do so, I guess that person will be me.
To fully understand how and why the “conservative” (I use that term loosely) media willingly enabled this hostile takeover of the Republican Party, you primarily need to comprehend what a fraud the entire industry is. In short, the vast majority of “conservative” media is simply just a business cynically disguised as a cause.
The reason this is the case is actually quite simple. Because the vast majority of “newsish” media outlets are overtly liberal, the business model and employment opportunities (or lack thereof) on the right are vastly different from the rest of the media.
Liberals have an abundance of chances to opine on network television, major newspapers and books from mainstream publishers, usually without any serious worries about having to sell products or get ratings. Meanwhile, radio talk show hosts and Fox News anchors are forced to fight for every possible ratings point (usually against people allegedly on the same “team”) and often sell their souls to maintain their ability to sell soap. Conservative websites, with the exception of the Drudge Report, are in a constant battle to stay afloat, often with badly broken business models.
This dynamic set up a perfect storm of circumstances for “Trumpsanity” to overtake the process and ultimately produce a result about as unjust and destructive as the OJ Simpson verdict. There is even evidence that Trump understood this reality and designed his campaign’s launch during the slowest news period to take advantage of it.
The next thing you need to appreciate is how the “conservative” media operates. While the dynamic has shifted somewhat recently, Matt Drudge is effectively the “assignment editor” for much of talk radio, most right-leaning websites, and a significant portion of Fox News Channel. If a story is linked on the Drudge Report, it may not get reported everywhere in the “conservative” media, but it will at least get strongly considered. If Drudge wants a certain narrative to gain traction in conservative circles, he has more power to make that happen than anyone else.
Drudge leads a “cabal” of “conservative” media types with whom he is friendly, or at least has had a long alliance. Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Sean Hannity are in this club, while Sarah Palin is sometimes an honorary member. The late Andrew Breitbart, with whom I was once close, was for many years his right-hand man, and the website which (unfortunately) still bears his name bows to Drudge more than any other.
Even more importantly, because of the enormous traffic and attention that a well-placed Drudge link can bring, when it becomes clear what narrative Matt is favoring, a literal “market” is created for stories which fit that storyline so that they might be linked on the Drudge Report. For instance, it is my strong belief that, if Drudge had not gotten on the Trump bandwagon, Breitbart.com would never have so overtly done so, because they wouldn’t have had the same financial/traffic incentives.
In a sense, the Drudge Report acts both as a waterfall creating a “trickle down” effect within the right-leaning (and sometimes mainstream media) as well as a gravitational force drawing stories to its preferred narrative.
This effect was plainly seen when the GOP campaign took its first and perhaps most important dramatic turn. Before Trump announced (and no one really thought that he would ever do so) his candidacy, it was very obvious that Drudge favored the initial Republican frontrunner Scott Walker. Much like what happened in 2012 when Drudge proactively helped Mitt Romney’s campaign navigate some choppy waters in the primaries, it appeared at first that the Walker campaign had a significant and possibly decisive ally.
However, the moment Trump got in the race and made it clear he was going to run a campaign like no other, Drudge instantly tossed Walker aside for his new crush. Walker was suddenly left in the horrible position of having created a campaign structure based on the premise that he was the frontrunner, only to have the rug pulled out from under him. With the dynamics of the race fundamentally and catastrophically altered, Walker, devoid of the sex/ratings appeal of Trump, was quickly forced to quit the campaign and the Republicans’ best chance to beat Hillary (at least on paper) was lost.
It is my view that it was in this period when the “conservative” media had their most influence on Trump eventually getting the nomination. Trump’s campaign was like a rocket ship where the most perilous moments are during liftoff. If the conservative base had not accepted him a serious or credible candidate, then he would have quickly crashed and burned because, without traction, the media oxygen which would fuel his flight would have immediately evaporated.
It should be noted that Trump had carefully cultivated this perception of conservative credibility well before his official campaign launch. He “bribed” CPAC with $100,000 in checks to have him speak there on a couple of occasions, which helped him get Mitt Romney to take him seriously enough to naively accept his 2012 endorsement at a public event.
All of this made it much easier for “conservative” media icons like Limbaugh, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and even Levin to “play with fire” during the dull summer months of 2015 and seriously entertain the concept of a Trump candidacy. It can not be overstated that, given Trump’s very liberal history and lack of credentials, just how impossible this would have been for them to have even considered this reaction to his candidacy if Trump did not bring them celebrity/ratings during a down period.
My guess (hope?) is that none of them every really thought that the initial “Trumpsanity” was much more than a summer fling and that Trump would implode on his own, relieving them of any guilt/responsibility for having created chaos in the Republican primary. However, as the fire they created began to spread and gain strength, it became impossible for anyone to control, even if they wanted to.
In short, once the average Trump supporter bought into the bogus “conservative” media narrative about him which absolved all his many past sins, he was basically unstoppable. After all, if he really wasn’t one of “us,” or was somehow bad for the “cause,” surely Rush, or Sean, or Bill, or Mark, or Matt would tell them that. Right?!
Once his liftoff was given clearance from conservative heavyweights, the Trump phenomenon went into orbit with his total domination of the news media. Desperately thirsting for the ratings he brought them, the cable news networks (even the liberals at CNN and MSNBC) shattered all semblances of journalistic standards by allowing him to appear for unprecedented amounts of time, usually unfettered. This sucked up all the oxygen from all the other candidates in the far-too-crowded field. It also allowed Trump to laughably claim he was self-funding his campaign when in reality he was hardly needing to spend a dime because of all the free airtime he was given (this is just one of dozens of key lies Trump has told, which the “conservative” media has conveniently ignored).
This created a self-perpetuating symbiotic relationship between his free airtime and his poll numbers. The more potential Trump voters saw him being taken seriously in the media, the more they gained the courage to tell pollsters that they supported him. The more he rose in the polls, the better excuse the networks had for having Trump on. They pretended that it was because he was now the “GOP Frontrunner,” when it was really just because he was much better for their ratings than interviewing any of the serious candidates.
Bizarrely, Trump also benefited from the pure absurdity of his candidacy. Because so few thought GOP voters could be stupid enough to actually nominate him, many of his opposing candidates laid off attacking him. Meanwhile, the news media, thinking the same thing and benefitting greatly from his ratings, had no incentive to properly vet him until it was too late.
Here, “Trumpsanity” of 2016 became remarkably like “Obama Mania” of 2008. Once the momentum is created, and millions of voters, along with so much of the media, are so (some of them literally) invested in a particular outcome, it become a runaway freight train. Even though Trump has never gotten 50% of the vote anywhere, the party is terrified that if the nomination is “stolen” from him that those voters will forever bolt the GOP. Similarly, the conservative media doesn’t want to see their cash cow killed, especially since they have basically already budgeted for the record revenue a Trump vs. Hillary campaign would likely create.
By the time the concept of Trump actually winning the nomination became “real,” it was too late. The only hope was for all of his “conservative” media cheerleaders to suddenly reverse course, against their financial self interest, and do a giant mea culpa. Instead, when former conservative hero Marco Rubio and 2012 conservative media darling Mitt Romney attacked Trump, they suddenly became “traitors” to most of the “conservative” media (traitor meaning acting against THEIR self interest). Even when their attacks provoked Trump to brag about his penis at a debate (which in any other year would have been a campaign-ender), they doubled down in favor of him.
Hannity effectively became an arm of the Trump campaign. Limbaugh continued to defend him. Drudge waged a vicious overt war against Rubio and Ted Cruz and made sure (much like he did with Rev. Wright in his 2008 bid to protect Obama during the primaries) that no negative Trump stories could get any real traction. And Breitbart.com humiliated itself while disgracing the legacy of its founder by siding with Trump over one of its own reporters who had allegedly been assaulted by his campaign manager (which provoked five high-profile resignations from the website, which was, not coincidentally, never reported by Drudge).
It should be noted that the nature of Trump’s fervent fans added even more fuel to why the “conservative” media went into the tank for Trump. They are not only the most passionate, but they are also the least rational. You can not reason with them and they will simply tune you out if they don’t like what you are saying about their hero.
I am quite sure that my anti-Trump stance has stunted the ratings of my nationally syndicated radio show, but weirdly, unlike the guys who are already super-rich, I don’t care very much. Sadly, no one is a position of real power wants to risk losing a quarter, or maybe more, of their audience. The truth and the future of the country just aren’t that important to them (this is why Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze is the exception which proves the rule; because of their unique business model they were free to be anti-Trump).
The most important element where the “conservative” media has dropped the ball in their Trump coverage is allowing him to create the myth that he will be beat Hillary Clinton (easily!). Barring a major catastrophe, there is almost zero chance of that happening. In fact, there is a much stronger likelihood that he gets crushed and costs the GOP the Senate then there is of him winning. There is not one shred of data or logic to suggest otherwise and yet this obvious reality has hardly been discussed at all in the “conservative” media (which, it should be noted, totally botched their predictions for the last election).
Of course, the “conservative” media doesn’t really care if Trump beats Hillary. They “win” either way. They get great ratings through November and “worst case” they end up with Hillary to provide them with easy content for at least the next four years. Pathetically, that’s all they really care about.
With all the talk of dismantling the “evil establishment” in this election cycle, for conservatives to ever win a presidential election again, the REAL “establishment” which needs to be shattered is that of the elite “conservative” media. While the Republican establishment is weak and incompetent, at least most of them are not overtly working for the other side.
John Ziegler is a documentary filmmaker and a nationally-syndicated radio talk show host. You can follow him on Twitter @ZigManFreud.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.