Starting around the fall of 2015, the center-right media began going through a re-branding of sorts—slowly shifting from an ideologically conservative point of view to what is now referred to as Trumpism. The move was quite confusing, at first, to a lot of true-blue righties—the type of folks who believed in principled tenets of small government, personal responsibility, and individual freedom. They watched and listened in bewilderment as some of the high-profile commentators, who they had long shared a conservative kinship with, were now singing the praises of presidential candidate Donald Trump.
It didn’t make sense. Trump, after all, was a man whose government-heavy positions and anti-war rhetoric (reminiscent of Code Pink’s) would have earned him the moniker of “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) had he been any other member of the party.
But Trump wasn’t just another politician. He wasn’t just another presidential candidate. He was a proven ratings juggernaut whose celebrity persona and provocative antics drew huge public interest. It didn’t take long for members of the conservative media to figure out that when they gave Trump heavy (and positive) coverage, they were rewarded with a sharp rise in their numbers (which had previously been dwindling). Some of these people were even good friends with Trump, which made for cozy on-air exchanges and a willingness to please.
Before long, conservative principles and intellectual consistency mattered a whole lot less than the Trump Train.
Not all media-conservatives participated in what was effectively an endorsement of Mr. Trump in the Republican primary. There were some vocal hold-outs in the print media, talk radio, and Fox News. Inner-party debates often mirrored substance-abuse interventions, with overnight converts to the Trump-collective breathlessly defending behavior and ideas that they had long rejected, while ignoring the perplexed glares of their colleagues.
However, as the months went by and it became clearer that Trump’s momentum could very well win him the Republican nomination, media Trumpism spread like wildfire. More and more conservatives fell in line, adopted new political and rhetorical stances (including Trump’s signature slogans), and even went as far as to ostracize and publicly mock their peers who didn’t follow suit.
National Review’s Jonah Goldberg likened the transformation to the classic film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
“If you’ve seen any of the umpteen versions, you know the pattern. Someone you know or love goes to sleep one night and appears the next day to be the exact same person you always knew,” Goldberg wrote. “Except they’re different, somehow. They talk funny. They don’t care about the same things they used to.”
And sure enough, what became of the conservative media looked a lot like the final scene of that great movie. Principled conservatives like Goldberg are now seen by much of the Right as outliers—bitter Trump obstructionists, as so branded by the tribalistic Trump faithful.
Fox News, once a potpourri of center-right thought and perspectives, has largely turned into a hyper-partisan pro-Trump outlet, at least in its commentary; the hard-news reporting, which you’ll find on shows like Special Report and Fox News Sunday, is still very good. The minority of brave commentators who have kept their integrity often appear on-air as if their souls have left their bodies, trying hard not to laugh or roll their eyes when colleagues aggressively toss out red meat to the new Republican base.
Perhaps the best illustration of this inner-party shift can be found on The Five, one of the network’s nightly panel-discussion shows. Taking its format inspiration from The View (but in ideological-reverse), the center-table used to be filled with four right-leaning personalities and one liberal. Now, the seats are typically occupied by one or two reasoned conservatives (Greg Gutfeld and/or Dana Perino), one liberal (Juan Williams, Bob Beckel or Geraldo Rivera), and two or three Trump enthusiasts (Eric Bolling, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and occasionally Jesse Watters). Ironically, the cast is pretty much the same as it’s been since the show’s inception in 2011. Only the characters have changed, per the body-snatchers invasion.
What’s remarkable is that the Trump contingent, on some nights, is even more sycophantic than the circus you’ll find on a typical episode of Hannity, and that’s really saying something. The Five has become the place to go for wildly creative Trumpsplaining that’s guaranteed to drop your jaw.
Take last week for example.
On Monday, one of the big national news stories was the highly controversial remark President Trump made about Vladimir Putin in his Super Bowl interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. Trump equated Putin’s habit of murdering journalists to actions the United States has carried out in its foreign policy.
Commenting on the topic, Trump devotee Jesse Watters offered his take. “I think he [Trump] was just trying to deflect, and do some misdirection, because Bill [O’Reilly] was pretty strong with him. And it wasn’t a political answer. It was the answer of a businessman.”
A business answer, eh? Who knew that likening American leaders to a cold-blooded killer of journalists is just standard business-world lingo, tossed around corporate conference tables by CEOs all the time?
Watters continued, “and the only thing I can think of, he’s trying to say is like: I’m going to keep the relationship with Russia clean at the jump because we need them for leverage over the Iranians, we want to double-team China with the Russians. We want…working with the pipelines and help with that, we need help with ISIS.”
Only, Trump didn’t say that…or anything close to that. And if our president truly meant something other than what he said (which his loyalists are often insisting), why did he express the exact same sentiment to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough in late 2015?
“But, again, he [Putin] kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” Scarborough pressed Trump in that highly publicized exchange.
“Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” Trump replied.
As many will recall, Trump also accused former President George W. Bush of “lying” about WMDs to take us to war in Iraq, and of knowing about 9/11 ahead of time and allowing it to happen. If one has convinced them self of such things, it’s easy to see how they can view someone like Putin as being no less moral than U.S. leadership.
But reflexive Trump apologists like Watters have trained themselves to gloss over and ignore such egregious remarks and beliefs. And in doing so, they have reduced themselves to writers of fan-fiction…and not every fan is good at writing fiction.
Luckily for Watters, Kimberly Guilfoyle had his back. “I think he [Trump] is saying: We have gone to war. We have defended our country. This is not a country that has always lived in peace. Right? I mean, we have to do what we need to do to defend ourselves and our national security.”
It was like listening to Bruce Willis embellish baby-speak in a Look Who’s Talking movie. Cute, amusing, but obviously not an accurate portrayal of sentiment. When co-hosts Juan Williams and Dana Perino reiterated the point about Putin murdering journalists, Guilfoyle quipped, “I think he meant to say what I said.”
Last Tuesday’s episode provided viewers with a similar spectacle when the show’s Trump-people were tasked with explaining what our president really meant when he claimed at the White House that “the country’s murder rate is highest it’s been in 45-47 years.” The statement wasn’t even close to being true, of course. The murder rate has actually dropped significantly over that time. Still, Eric Bolling was up for the task.
“It is ticking up in certain cities, and it’s also the highest it’s been in 20 years, in many cities,” said Bolling.
When his co-hosts pointed out that Trump had said something very different, and one of them chided Bolling for making excuses, Bolling protested.
“I’m simply saying that…look, so he [Trump] throws a lot of stuff out there all the time, and the media picks up on an error he makes in a number…” After some cross-talk, Bolling added, “To nitpick the fact that he said 47 years, or whatever, five decades, instead of 20 years, in certain cities…Look, it’s nitpicking.”
But it wasn’t nitpicking, as Williams pointed out. It was a fear-mongering, fabricated statistic. Williams mocked Bolling’s inventive strategy of cobbling together bits and pieces of separate stats to try and substantiate a categorically false statement. Bolling responded by quickly changing the topic to Climate Change.
Thursday’s episode was particularly eventful. That morning, President Trump disparaged Senator John McCain (again) on Twitter, essentially calling the former POW a loser over his public comments on the U.S. led raid in Yemen.
Instead of addressing the planned topic of discussion, Bolling took the unusual route of avoiding it entirely, and instead complaining about how the mainstream media gave more attention to remarks Senator Richard Blumenthal made about Judge Neil Gorsuch than they did Trump’s announced tax reform initiative.
The show’s producers quickly flipped marquees at the bottom of the screen, the stunt having derailed the opening segment.
“I’m completely confused on what this segment is about now,” Greg Gutfeld joked, calling for a start-over of the show.
Once things got back on track, Bolling finally weighed back in to say that it was McCain who had “lobbied the first shot.” He then criticized the senator for being wrong on public policy for the last 15 years.
“Is he not conservative enough for you?” Gutfeld asked, opening a can of worms.
You see, prior to the announcement of Trump’s candidacy in 2015, Bolling had presented himself, for years, as a hardline conservative purist. He had routinely trashed Republicans who he deemed to be insufficiently conservative, calling them “RINOs” or “squishy conservatives.” That all changed when Donald Trump (a personal friend of his) entered the race. Bolling dropped the purity brand, and went all-in with Trump, aggressively promoting policy positions and rhetoric he had previously condemned. He’s taken a lot of heat over the past two years for the role-reversal, but he has soldiered on nonetheless.
“He isn’t consistent, Greg,” Bolling answered, drawing laughs of irony from the table.
“Unlike Trump?” Gutfeld pressed. “He’s always been a Democrat, and now a Republican.”
A flustered Bolling spat out policy areas of disagreement with McCain, but soon admitted that his biggest problem with the senator was that he has been pushing back against President Trump’s agenda.
“So you don’t like him because he disagrees with Trump?” Gutfeld asked. “Everyone must agree with Trump?”
Bolling went back to policy, saying that the state of Arizona deserved a “real” conservative instead of McCain.
“How is Trump more conservative than McCain?” Gutfeld asked.
When Bolling came up with immigration and border security, Dana Perino brought up a report from that day describing how Trump was now open to the Gang of Eight immigration legislation, of which McCain had helped author (and Trump had trashed throughout the campaign). Bolling was left aghast, unsure of how to respond.
It was one of those classic Michael Scott moments from The Office, which could have only been enhanced by Bolling calling for a play-script line from someone else at the table, like in that memorable court deposition scene.
“John McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts!” he eventually blurted out, before receding back into retro key-phrases like “squishy Republicans” and “RINOs” until it was someone else’s turn to speak.
Oh, and on Friday, Bolling teased an upcoming segment by saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a “strong case” for President Trump’s travel ban with his recent comments that Syrian refugees were aligned with terrorism. Assad, of course, is a terrorist, and his country’s refugees are trying to flee the violence there. In fairness, Bolling was reading from a teleprompter, and may have been set up for failure by the show’s producers. Whatever the explanation, Sean Hannity took the same position a few hours later on his show.
Nothing is off limits when it comes to bolstering a Trump argument, it seems.
No one ever said that sycophantism is pretty, but being that The Five’s (and most of Fox News’s prime-time lineup’s) ratings are at an all-time high, there’s definitely a market for it. A lot of people just really want to see glowing coverage of Trump. They want to watch him unconditionally and passionately defended, and they don’t care how silly it makes the people look, who sign on to do that job.
In that sense, the viewing audience is getting what it wants, which is a good thing for business (and fans of dark comedy), but not so much for character traits like honesty and intellectual integrity. In this game, the indefensible must not only be defended, but also rationalized and normalized…at all costs. Hats off to those who still refuse to participate in it, including the conservative outliers on The Five.