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The Media Con Job

When conservatives get confessional

A curious outbreak of truth-telling seems to be seizing our right-wing media. In this most deranging campaign season of our postmodern political lives, the specter of Donald Trump—billionaire tribune of the forgotten white working class—has sent some of our most notable right-spinning pundits directly into confessional mode. Primetime Fox News host Sean Hannity confessed earlier this week to Jim Rutenberg at the New York Times that he’s been offering advice to the Trump campaign, adding for good measure that he “never claimed to be a journalist.” In Hannity’s expansive interpretation of his job as a Trump ambassador without portfolio, he’s gone so far, CNN reports, as to pay to fly Newt Gingrich on a private plane for a meeting with the giant orange bigot who has claimed the 2016 GOP nomination. Meanwhile, redoubtable reactionary performance artist Ann Coulter took to CNBC’s “Squawk Box” just before Trump’s desperate attempt at “softening” his hardline stance on immigration (she was insisting that’s the one issue he would not “pivot” on) to bewail the fate of the GOP in a Hillary-led republic.

“If Hillary wins . . . she has said, Tim Kaine has said, amnesty for all illegal immigrants,” Coulter announced, summoning (as usual) an ostensible liberal policy out of thin air. “We know that’s 30, 40 million. She’s going to throw open the southern border. She’s going to more than quadruple the number of Muslim refugees we bring in.”

But here’s the truly breathtaking admission from the American right’s high priestess of bile. In this bleak amnesty-brokered future, Coulter continued, “there will be no hope for any Republican ever winning another election. There’s no point to what I do, what talk radio hosts do, what Fox News does. Nobody goes to the game when you can’t win.” (The best immediate illustration of this prophecy is the likely fate of Coulter’s latest book, In Trump We Trust, a full-throated celebration of Trump’s bigoted campaign outbursts in all their nativist glory. In the wake of Trump’s “softening” strategy on immigration, it would appear to be making a beeline for the remainder table.)

Of course, it speaks volumes about the conservative image of the “real America” that Coulter and her fellow Trumpians take it as a given that no immigrant in this borderless future reverie would ever vote Republican. But Coulter’s outburst is notable for, among other things, the way it inverts the structural terms of the right-wing theology of liberal bias. In that bit of ur-demonology, you’ll recall, the sensibilities of normal, hardworking Americans are routinely disparaged by effete coastal elites, hell-bent on molding the cultural institutions of the republic in their preening yet totalitarian image.

The point of Coulter’s confession was that the old theology of media bias will not withstand a major realignment of our national voting demographics. Leave aside for just a moment the outrageously racist character of Coulter’s assessment of said demographic shifts; what’s important here is that she, like Hannity, has openly avowed a commitment to media work as agitprop by other means. Even in the darkest imaginings of Agnew, Reed Irvine, Bernie Goldberg, and other leaders of the rightwing media samizdat movement, Dan Rather or Phil Donahue wouldn’t announce that they were urging strategy briefs of McGovern or Mondale—or flying in Tip O’Neill to boost Mike Dukakis’s morale. Nor would any of the persecution-mad theorists of media bias in the Reagan age imagine that their Moriarties in the network liberal camp would step forward to manage an entire presidential campaign, as Breitbart impresario Stephen Bannon has in Trump’s case. Deride the agenda-driven myopia of the liberal pundit class all you want (and believe me, I have), but it’s simply not the case that they see their professional role as a transactional waystation in the struggle for ideological control of American power—a game to “win,” in Coulter’s admirably blunt formulation.

The rightwing pundit class is on the verge of losing its long-term hold on the actual conduct of politics on the ground.

Of course, what Coulter, Hannity et al. don’t let on is that what they call “the game” is really a scam. As the esteemed Rick Perlstein has noted in these pages, the lurch of the American right into Tea Party-branded paranoia (and now, the hair-trigger Spenglerist worldview of Trumpism) is no abrupt novelty. Rather, it flows directly from the hard right’s decades-long romance with get-rich-schemes, gold buggery, and shakedown rackets of all description. And as for winning, the chief problem with this particular scam is that the politics of media grievance is at bottom, an anti-politics. It is almost exclusively devoted to self-dramatizing displays of sanctimonious victimhood, in the vein of Fox’s ritual scare campaigns about “the war on Christmas” and Black Panthers on the loose, both of which claim precisely zero empirical foundation in our body politic. Even the most successful brand of this mediagenic victim-mongering—e.g., Rick Santelli’s Tea-Party-launching jeremiad from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade—only brought about, in the larger scheme of things, the colossal political failure that even Ann Coulter is now able to descry slouching toward Jerusalem at the dawning of the Trump age. Put another way: once the citizens of Limbaugh-land, Scarborough Country, and Hannity-nation are put in the path of the actual exercise of power, they can only recur to the undeviating script of their sacred, perpetual victimhood. That is the bait-and-switch maneuver at the heart of media-driven movement conservatism; it is also, in all likelihood, the epitaph for the 2016 Trump insurgency.

There’s a glaring irony here, one that any patient student of the press-themed culture wars will instantly savor. Back in my more earnest tour of duty in the seminar-room politics of left media activism, I remember turning to a friend at some democratic media congress or another and saying, “Do you ever stop to think what would happen if all these professional lambasters of corporate media conspiracies were given unfettered access to the airwaves themselves? Wouldn’t they just look into the network cameras and say, ‘You know the people who used to run all this? Well, they were real assholes, man!’”

That was cynical and unkind, I freely grant. But my point here is that the glum prognosis I offered for the prospect of true ideologically minded media control has actually come to pass—only on the right. Conservatives now find themselves cast as influential, and indeed, vanguard media innovators, especially in the enormously successful industries of talk radio and cable commentary. And no ideological news source in the left-wing digital sphere represents a serious rival, in terms of audience reach, to the likes of the Drudge Report and Breitbart. But as Coulter let slip, the rightwing pundit class is on the verge of losing its long-term hold on the actual conduct of politics on the ground. In other words, the conservative media elite is in precisely the same structural position that the nascent forces of the new right sketched out for the great liberal media conspiracy circa 1972: assiduously manufacturing consent to an audience that was rapidly moving on to other grand political narratives. That, comrades Hannity and Coulter, is what we cranky leftwing culture critics call the cunning of history. It may well be that in the years ahead, you’ll both have plenty of time to read up on it.