In the conservative commentariat and intellectual classes, the deal with the devil that is Trumpism seems increasingly complete. Stalwart conservatives who for years—in some cases decades—defended the principles of limited government, personal liberty, and strict adherence to the Constitution have hiked their skirts and dropped their panties, swooning as Big Donnie Trump talks dirty to the media.
In a depressing twist, many members of my party and ideological persuasion have become advocates for Donald Trump on a scale that ranges from grudging to toadying, for a simple reason that seems to overwhelm all other factors: He attacks the media. Many are willing to forgive almost any sin because of it.
All it took to break the spirit of far too many in the conservative class was for Trump to leaven his deranged, autocratic rantings with “fake news” and “duh librul media” bait to compromise the ideals and credibility of a large swath of the conservative firmament. People who think of themselves as being smarter than the average bag of hammers are missing that they’re the just the latest victims of the Trump Con.
We now routinely see a formulation something like this:, “Well, Trump isn't perfect, but at least he's attacking the media.” It's the haute-bourgeois pleasure of watching someone else to do your dueling.
For decades, the rallying cry on the right was: “If only we could overcome the liberal media monoculture, the truth and strength of our ideas would finally break through. If only we could really be heard on economic matters, on foreign affairs, and on race, the Republican Party and conservatism would finally get a fair hearing in the minds of the American people.” It wouldn’t have to be a zero-sum game of replacing one set of biases with another; the rightness of our ideas would carry the day.
But in a White House press room that includes staff “writers” for Infowars and Breitbart in press conferences, the Trump Administration isn’t looking for up-the-middle coverage; they’re looking for partners in the fake news explosion that helped Trump win the election. Conservative writers and thinkers who look away from the creepy authoritarianism, apocalyptic religious war fantasies, lavish corruption, overt economic statism, and general ineptitude simply because Trump snubs the established press aren’t doing the movement any favors.
Let’s be clear; the mainstream media deserves a kick in the ass so hard they reach orbital velocity for their professional missteps, insularity, ideological blinders, vast self-regard, and occasional outright malice against conservatives. However, as a justification for every one of Trump’s failings, reveling in their misery falls wildly short of the mark. It’s certainly not enough for the movement once graced by the ideas of Burke, Hayek, Kirk, and Buckley to sell so cheaply.
It’s not an argument for mainstream media malpractice, Obama, Clinton, social justice silliness, George Soros, or the Pentaverate to say that imitating the worst behavior of the liberal elements of the national media doesn’t honor the ideals we claim to serve. Instead, it makes a mockery of our ideas if we believe our a Trump-centric media monoculture is a positive outcome.
Yes, in 2008, the media lost their collective minds in a paroxysm of Obama-driven adulation. The superlatives flowed in an ridiculous, flowery stream of praise that bordered at times on the creepy. Yes, “the One” was a media absurdity. I remember emailing a reporter a snarky note after reading one of her pieces, “Are you practicing writing ‘Mrs. Katherine Obama’ in loopy script in your mash book?” (Name changed to protect the embarrassed.)
Obama was referred to in terms so glowing, so fulsome, so toadying that it was easy to pin down the journalist class of 2008 as a group of fangirls squeeing and fainting at his every utterance. That nearly mindless adulation was still a strong element in Obama's coverage until he walked out of the Oval Office. Conservatives rightly mocked it, while recognizing that the normative power of media and pop culture had combined in one fell swoop to overcome Barack Obama’s thin resume, his lack of experience, and questions about his ideological underpinnings.
Now, though, writers who just two years ago would have torn the bark off Barack Obama for picking winners and losers or for advocating some form of pie-in-the-sky “everyone gets covered” single-payer-ish health care plan today direct a large fraction of their ire to media outlets scrambling to find a way to process the election and governance of Trump. Rather than examine his daily assaults on conservative values, common sense, and that little thing we used to value called “the truth” they look politiely away as “conservatives” who have for decades sung the praises of free trade, low tariffs, and multilateral trade agreements now mutely nod at the brute stupidity of Trumpian economic populism... because at least he’s battering CNN, The New York Times, and BuzzFeed, right?
Of course, intellectual conservatism is a fairly small pool in the great scheme of things. What really mattered then and now is that a half-dozen gatekeepers in the conservative movement decided Trump would be lucrative fodder for their audience. They monetized the transition from promoting conservative ideals to selling the umber con man with the same vigor they pitch reverse mortgages, catheters, survival food, and gold.
This constellation of media players could have at any moment pumped the brakes on Trump and Trumpism during the 2016 election, and could do so now. At any moment, Rupert or the sons could have told Roger Ailes, “OK...that's enough.” The as-yet unchronicled conspiracy – and I use that word deliberately – between the c-suite at Fox News, Matt Drudge, Trumpbart, Rush Limbaugh is a story waiting to be told. They and others actively elected to elide Trump's endless catalog of ideological sins, moral shortcomings, mob ties, Russian moneymen, personal weirdnesses, trophy wives, serial bankruptcies, persistent tax shenanigans, low-grade intellect, thinly-veiled racial animus, and conspiracy email-forwarding kooky grandpa affect.
The “populist movement” explanation for 2016 isn't entirely wrong, but it took the full throttle efforts of the high-volume media enablers to promote Trump as the singular remedy for the moral, economic, and political collapse they decried each day for their credulous viewers and listeners to make that “movement” happen. Even after 25 years in this movement, I can't help but feel a sense of wonder at how brazen their marketing and monetization of Trump has been, and at its spectacular cost to conservatism.