“Lookit that!” the man at the bar said, thrusting his phone under the nose of his buddy nursing a Coors Light. “Is this a joke?”
I was sitting in my favorite hole-in-the-wall in my hometown and minding my business. The past few days I’d been on the road interviewing people for an article and was already exhausted, but not too exhausted to sit in front of the TV that morning as former FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress that he’d felt like the president had effectively tried to obstruct justice. It was the kind of inside-baseball event that usually only the most ardent C-SPAN viewers would’ve been concerned with, but to my surprise, it was all the people in the bar wanted to talk about.
“He’s a leaker!” the guy said, doing his best Donald Trump impression.
The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. had live-tweeted Comey’s testimony that morning and had latched on to his admission that he’d leaked his notes from a meeting with Trump to his friend, a Columbia professor, who’d then passed them on to the press.
What happened next was even more baffling. The buddy with the Coors Light laughed and then quoted, almost verbatim, another tweet from Junior that’d been sent during the testimony.
“I mean, a guy like Trump tells you to do something,” he said, paraphrasing Junior’s message, “you’re gonna know what he means.”
This interaction, with a handful of others over the course of my trip, only confirmed what I’ve been seeing more of during my reporting. In the past, when interacting with conservatives or overhearing their conversations, I’d always heard Fox News talking points, the same ones that former head Roger Ailes famously used to send out every morning in an effort to determine the country’s narrative. But in the past year something had changed: Conservatives were receiving their cues directly from Trump and his family, or else from alternative media companies like Infowars and Breitbart.
In my forthcoming book about the 2016 presidential election, The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore, I chronicle how Donald Trump effectively replaced Fox News as the center of information for Republicans, starting with his brief but disturbing feud with former Fox News host Megyn Kelly after the first Republican primary debate. This allowed Trump to cast Fox News in the same “crooked media” pool as its competitors, a move that eventually inoculated him from his myriad of scandals as his supporters no longer trusted anyone who reported negative stories about their candidate.
This schism in the body politic of the Republican Party has been apparent since the July 2015 incident in which Trump called into question former standard-bearer John McCain’s heroism and said, of the former Vietnam prisoner of war, “I like people who weren’t captured.” Despite conventional knowledge that said Trump wouldn’t survive the gaffe, his poll numbers soared as traditional pundits and experts scratched their collective heads. What had been seen as a fatal mistake, instead, turned out to be the first blow against mainstream Republican authority.
The phenomenon, which we’re still seeing evolve, was particularly important in the wake of the release of the Access Hollywood tape, which showed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and opened the floodgate for victims to accuse him of past improprieties. Like many, I’d expected the accusations to hamstring Trump’s bid, but found a sobering sight a week later when I reported from a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As I reported then, the campaign, with its tireless critiques of journalists and news outlets, had created a cult-like atmosphere in which the leader, in this case Trump himself, was the sole possessor of truth, a circumstance that simultaneously isolated his followers and deepened their dependency. Not only did the supporters at that rally criticize and slander Trump’s accusers, they again paraphrased Trump’s own denials and questioned, like their candidate, whether the accusers were even attractive enough to warrant his attention.
In the wake of Comey’s testimony, this behavior continued, but what I have noticed is a distinct lessening of Fox News’ influence on the discourse. The people I talk to no longer cite the shows and talking heads that used to define the conversation. It used to be that Bill O’Reilly (who was let go in April after his own sexual improprieties caught up to him) and Sean Hannity would define the arguments of their viewers, but now that social media has usurped television as the most powerful delivery method of news, that influence is waning.
The Era of Trump has not been kind to Fox News as opposition network MSNBC has gained momentum and dedicated viewers. In the past it was that Fox played to the worst instincts of Republicans with a toxic cocktail of xenophobia, misogyny, and racism, but Trump has upped the stakes. For years Fox served up the headlines with an unhealthy dose of race-baiting and paranoia, but there was still a veneer of civility, no matter how thin, the network tried to hide behind. Trump’s operated without any cover and has given his supporters a mainline, thus rendering the network obsolete.
It’s because of this, and their new cultural and religious-like allegiance to Trump, that his supporters show no signs of leaving him. As it is in a cult, the leader defines their reality and any step outside of those parameters is damning to both the worldview and the possessor. So, with every new tweet, Trump and his satellite of characters are giving the devoted direct information and instructions on how to combat the cognitive dissonance of damaging events like Comey’s testimony. Each tweet and each statement, no matter how ludicrous and transparent, only further protects the reality that Trump has built for his supporters, and, as is the case with any cult, the cumulative effect of the continuous buildup of cognitive dissonance is that the spell is that much harder to break.
The question now isn’t whether there’s a line that even Trump’s supporters won’t follow him past, but the growing concern that if Trump’s scandals were to lead to impeachment and removal from office they might view him as a martyr. It’s that type of devotion, surely, that could guarantee Trump’s base might very well pass their blind devoutness onto their children the way religion is handed down as a birthright.
I talked to one such man who’d taken his daughter to a Trump rally in Charleston, West Virginia, as we watched washed-out footage of Comey’s testimony on a weathered big-screen television across the darkened bar. With a disgusted shake of his head, the man muttered, “This is what they do.”
I asked him who “they” were and what it was “they” were doing.
“The globalists,” he said, borrowing a derogatory phrase that’d made its rounds on the Alex Jones radio show and could be used to refer to anyone Trump’s supporters perceived as standing in the way of his agenda, including his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared, whom my stool neighbor had called “Globalist Jared” before denying reports of clandestine meetings with Russia as “phony,” one of the president’s favorite phrases. “They’re trying to take down a great man. That’s what they do. The president said it himself. They’re cowardly.”
He reached into his jeans and produced a smartphone, but before he could put in his security code I knew just what I was about to see.
“Here,” the man said, sliding the phone across the bar and then pointing at the screen the way an evangelical might tap the cover of a Bible while fighting for the soul of a sinner. “Take a look for yourself.”