As President-elect Donald J. Trump might say, something’s going on in the media-political complex, and we’ve got to figure out what the hell it is.
Trump’s shocking ascendancy as the 45th president of the United States has reduced conventional wisdom and time-honored political norms to smoking rubble, but it is also likely to threaten, if not topple, the previously unchallenged primacy of the mainstream media.
Trump, of course, spent much of his campaign inveighing against the “crooked,” “dishonest,” “disgusting” media “scum”; vowed to make trouble for media companies, block Time Warner’s plans to merge with AT&T, and “open up our libel laws, so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money”; and, according The Washington Post, he refuses to commit to traveling with a protective press pool, as presidents have done for decades.
It looks like our next president isn’t bluffing: Thursday morning, he broke with longstanding custom by ditching his transition press pool for his historic trip from Trump Tower to the White House to meet with President Obama.
In the most visible sign of the New World Order, the Trump-loving Breitbart News Network—which operated as a propaganda conduit and outrage engine for the reality show billionaire’s angry-populist juggernaut—announced that it was planning to expand its business internationally into Germany and France, where Breitbart’s resentful sensibility is apt to receive a warm welcome from white nationalists indignant at the presence of Muslims in their midst and panicked by an influx of Syrian refugees.
Less obvious beneficiaries of the upended dominance of corporate media—which regularly exposed Trump’s glaring flaws as a candidate but also chased ratings and oxygenated his campaign with thousands of hours of free airtime—include: stokers of sinister conspiracy theories like Texas-based radio demagogue Alex Jones and British-born Trumpkin Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars; cultish Irish-Canadian podcaster Stefan Molyneux; alt-right rabble rouser Milo Yiannopoulos (nominally the tech editor of Breitbart, but better known for his personal brand of minority-hating, white-nationalist outrage); rightwing rumor-monger Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit; hoaxer videographer James O’Keefe of Veritas; internet troll Charles C. (“Chuck”) Johnson of Gotnews.com, and self-styled male empowerment guru and alt-right operative Mike Cernovich, who is frequently described as a rape apologist.
Once a rogues’ gallery of marginal players in the media sphere, they and other denizens of the menacingly zany fringe will have an opportunity to capitalize on their Trump-supporting prescience and some of them will have—as they never did before—a direct line to the White House.
“A lot of my friends are going to be in the White House, so it’s very exciting, to put it mildly,” said Chuck Johnson, who confides that he spent much of election night in the Trump victory party’s VIP room at the New York Hilton, mingling with billionaires, and boasts access to members of the president-elect’s family.
“We were always connected to the Trump people at the very highest levels…It’s pretty crazy that Celebrity Apprentice is the preparation for having the nuke codes, but I’ll take it.”
At the same victory party, Breitbart’s Washington political editor, Matthew Boyle, “stood confidently by one of the cash bars wearing a red Make America Great Again hat and holding court with several young women,” Politico reported.
There is, needless to say, a possibly dark, dangerous and even anti-democratic consequence to the rise of what Johnson calls “The Counter-Media.”
Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, who was a leading voice of Never-Trumpism in his home state of Wisconsin (whose 10 electoral votes the Republican nominee ended up winning), warns that the media complexion in the United States may begin to take on the coloration of the media in authoritarian regimes like Vladmir Putin’s Russia.
“I'd hoped that there would be a reckoning for the Alternative Reality Media after this election, but they have clearly now been empowered by Trump's victory,” Sykes emailed. “And they will undoubtedly be used to enforce allegiance and stifle dissent. I think one of the under-told stories of this campaign has been the role that these outlets have played in threatening, and intimidating some potential critics into silence.”
Sykes continued: “Trump has made it clear that he countenances, even celebrates, the smearing of his opponents and critics—including members of their families. There is no reason to think that now that he sits in the Oval Office that will change. I fully expect they will be mobilizing their troll legions against [House Speaker] Paul Ryan [a Trump skeptic for much of the campaign] or any other congressional leader who bucks the Maximum Leader.”
Sykes added: “The irony here is that Rush Limbaugh has talked for years about the ‘State controlled’ media. We may be about to find out what that really looks like.”
Breitbart News—whose executive chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, took a leave of absence to run the Trump campaign and may yet play a role in the incoming administration—is also beefing up its operations domestically in the aftermath of its wildly successful bet on Trump.
"There’s going to be more hiring that goes on – I’m already picturing more tech reporting, more media reporting," Breitbart’s U.S. editor in chief, Alex Marlow, told Reuters, noting that Yiannopoulos is in negotiations for his own non-Breitbart television show. "We do a ton of politics reporting now so I don’t know that we’ll need to do more but we certainly aren’t planning on scaling back with anything." (Neither Marlow nor Bannon responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment; Alex Jones, Paul Joseph Watson and Stefan Molyneux likewise didn’t respond.)
Johnson, for one, argued that the Trump-backing counter-media—notably practitioners like Hoft and O’Keefe, whose work was repeatedly linked during the campaign by the traffic-driving Drudge Report—have successfully “professionalized” themselves during this election cycle and, benefiting from low overhead and quick reflexes, taken advantage of the financial turmoil troubling the traditional journalism business.
“We’re breaking stories independent of the corporate media altogether. It’s no longer riffing on the media; we’re talking about ways to replace them, now that the structure of media companies is changing through rounds of layoffs and consolidation,” Johnson said. “Now it’s all about creating an alternative media, while in the past it was about bitching about left-wing media bias.”
Johnson added that through crowd-sourcing opposition research on social media and other platforms, he and his fellow Trumpkins were able to unearth damaging stories that made their way onto Drudge and into the Britain-based Daily Mail, whose mighty online operation gets 80 million U.S. readers monthly.
Although perhaps a grain of salt is called for, Johnson claimed credit for discovering and tipping off the Mail to such bombshells as the revelation that disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Hillary Clinton intimate Huma Abedin, was sexting a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina—prompting an FBI investigation and Abedin filing for divorce.
Meanwhile, Cernovich said he ginned up his own anti-Clinton headlines—especially an item from the Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, includling a June 2015 one in which his art-collector brother Tony, a Washington lobbyist, was inviting him to a “spirit cooking” dinner featuring noted performance artist Marina Abramovic.
The resulting story--which was carried on Infowars, the Gateway pundit and even more mainstream outlets like The Washington Times—suggested that Clinton’s campaign chief was deeply weird, if not a Satanist who engages in blood rituals and cannibalism.
“WIKI WICCAN: PODESTA PRACTICES OCCULT MAGIC,” the Drudge Report tweeted to the site’s one million followers. “CLINTON CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN PRACTICES BIZARRE OCCULT RITUAL,” Infowars’ headline screamed.
“It was a big story, driven through social media, and ended up going worldwide,” Cernovich told The Daily Beast. “If you’re from New York, you’re going to call it performance art. If you’re from the Midwest or the South, you’re going to call it cultist or Satanic, or even cannibalistic, ritualistic behavior.”
It was Cernovich who came up with the hashtag #MAGA3X— for “Make America Great Again,” exhorting Trumpkins to share three articles daily, persuade three friends to support Trump and take three Trump voters to the polls. Cernovich, who boasts 136 million impressions on his Twitter feed in October, also engineered “a couple dozen” Trump flash mobs nationwide, he said, using social media to create a sense of real community.
“One man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s groundbreaking expose’ that comes out of left field but is nonetheless true,” Johnson said. “The short version is we were like a troll army that existed for Trump online, on Twitter, on Reddit, organized by people like me and Mike Cernovich.” In the end, “it was sort of like the alternative media—or really the counter-media more than the alternative media—was becoming in some measure more powerful than the traditional media.”
Johnson added: “It’s pretty crazy that we memed a president into existence.”