Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.
The day after Mitt Romney suffered a lopsided defeat to President Obama in 2012, right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham announced that the Republican Party’s problem wasn’t that the hard-edged message of the GOP was out of step with American voters. The problem was that Romney was too “moderate,” and that if Republicans would nominate a candidate who reflected AM talk radio’s view of America, the party could once again flourish.
“The fact is talk radio continues to thrive while moderate Republicans like John McCain and to some extent Mitt Romney continue to lose presidential elections,” Ingraham declared.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Republican voters took Ingraham’s advice. The result? Trump’s in line to suffer a bigger loss than Romney’s, according to current polling estimates.
More and more Republicans and conservatives concede that the GOP is facing an urgent crisis as the party teeters on a full-fledged crackup. Finding it increasingly difficult to field competitive presidential candidates, the GOP, after having handed over its identity to right-wing media voices for years, now struggles with how to move forward, and with how to repair the likely damage the Trump campaign will do to the party.
In other words, the party’s trying to figure out what to do when its public face resembles a rodeo clown like Sean Hannity, and when so many Republican voters live inside the right-wing, fact-free, Rush Limbaugh bubble that Trump so firmly embraced.
“Rush, [Bill] O’Reilly and Breitbart” have paved “the way for the ruination of the Republican Party,” lamented conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Brooks’ conservative ally, Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post, agreed: “Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric is an extension of the crackpot right-wing media, his appearance paved by years of conspiracy theories, dog-whistles, paranoia and, yes, appeals to racism and ridicule of women.”
Obama himself recently diagnosed the Republican predicament: “Trump didn’t come out of nowhere now. For years, Republican politicians and far-right media outlets had just been pumping out all kinds of toxic, crazy stuff.”
This problem isn’t new. Conservative commentators were so detached from reality in 2012 that one week before Election Day, they were sure Obama would lose his re-election bid in a “landslide” defeat.
He did not.
Following that stinging loss, Republican strategist Mike Murphy urged Republicans to embrace a view of America that wasn’t lifted from “Rush Limbaugh’s dream journal.”
They have not.
And now the 2016 mess looms larger than the 2012 defeat. “There is no autopsy this year that does not include dealing with the right-wing media,” Charlie Sykes, an influential conservative radio host in Wisconsin who came out against Trump, recently told Business Insider.
He’s exactly right. I also think it’s now nearly impossible for the GOP to rid itself of the cancer that’s metastasized around the party and inside the conservative movement. Together, the Republican Party and the conservative media have gleefully built a base that’s allergic to facts and common sense. They’re both to blame.
But here’s what is unique about the GOP’s current crisis: Electorally, the party’s in desperate need of an overhaul. Parties on downswings have pulled off those kinds of rebranding efforts in the past. But the GOP has to try to remake itself while large and influential portions of the conservative media, including the conspiratorial “alt-right” media, fight the party at every step.
Fixing political parties is hard, arduous work that takes years of cooperative labor to pull off. Fixing political parties that are weighed down by an egomaniac-driven, multi-million dollar media industry that’s committed to spouting paranoid gobbledygook? That’s virtually impossible.
And that’s the bind the GOP now finds itself in. Even if it wanted to, the party simply cannot extricate itself from this poisonous parasite that has attached itself to the GOP’s vital organs.
When Democrats lost badly in the 1970’s and 1980’s to Richard Nixon and to Ronald Reagan, for instance, they immediately set out to fix the party’s message in order to appeal to a wide audience of voters and to recruit more appealing candidates. And it worked. (See Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.)
That’s the daunting task the GOP faces. But it has to not only rebuild its party but battle an unrepentant conservative media machine, portions of which remain professionally unhinged. That in turn makes it virtually impossible for Republicans to improve their image. (If that’s the goal.) So they’re facing a two-front battle.
A party that wants to win White House campaigns, and a media movement that thinks votes are being stolen by “crooked” Democrats, simply are not compatible. At this point, it might be easier for the GOP to file for divorce than it would be to fashion reconciliation.
Here’s the central problem: Once you devalue facts and worship the currency of misinformation, there’s no going back. It’s nearly impossible to re-establish a factual base. Why would conservative news consumers want to be bothered with details and specifics and intellectual conflict when they can be fed a fantasy where their side is always winning and if they’re not, the whole thing’s rigged? If that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with today’s “alt-right” tinged message of bigotry and mistrust, there’s simply a problem with ballot box enforcement.
Here’s another key reason why change is nearly impossible, at least in the short term: Fact-free, paranoid content generates piles of revenue.
Somewhat overshadowed by the chatter of a possible TrumpTV launch (an additional media megaphone that would make any GOP rebranding more difficult), came the right-wing media announcement last week about the birth of Conservative Review TV. Anchored by Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin and “Top Five jazz recording artist” Mark Steyn, the new media platform pretty much promises to make the GOP’s bubble problem even worse. (All three hosts traffic in lies, bigotry, and phony outrage for a living.)
“We know people have rejected liberal media bias and there is an enormous demand for straight, bold, conservative talk and they will get it here from a wide variety of talent,” Levin announced. “Viewers will have the freedom to consume straightforward, candid, unfiltered, commercial-free, content whenever and wherever they want.”
Viewers will also have the freedom of paying $99 for an annual subscription to watch CRTV.
For now, there’s no easy escape for the GOP or for conservatives who see the far-right media machine ruining the party. Conservative radio host John Ziegler has been sounding the alarm for years and only sees the movement sinking into a fact-free morass. “It’s almost like it’s a disease, and it’s taken over people. I don’t remember this being the case four years ago. But something has happened. Something snapped,” he told Business Insider, “I think that people are very lost, and they don’t know what to do at this point.”
The same goes for the GOP.