Authors: Stuart Stevens;
Republicans are allowing Trump to equate conservatism with conspiracy, and the long-term success is predicated on stupidity becoming an airborne viral plague that will sweep the country like the walking dead. That seems like a bad bet for a political party, but one on which the truth-shredding, anti-fact Republicans are betting the future of a sane, respected center-right political party in America. Trump has staged a national Scopes Trial and placed himself in the William Jennings Bryan role. The question for the Republican Party is whether it is content to let the Democratic Party play Clarence Darrow. All indications are overwhelmingly yes.
He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see.
Years ago, my firm was working on a supreme court race in Alabama for a client running against Roy Moore in the Republican primary. At the time we used a female actress for voice-over work on a lot of commercials. When she read the script we had written for our client, she balked at recording it because of its conservative message. “Jennifer,” my partner explained, “what you have to understand is that we’re working for the liberal in the race.” (Her name wasn’t Jennifer, but she later became a Tony Award–winning star, and I wouldn’t want to embarrass her about past day job work.) She laughed, but it was true. Our guy was a real Alabama conservative, but he did have respect for the rule of law, and he would never have been removed from office, as was Moore. Actually, Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court, in 2003 and 2017. The first removal came after he constructed a giant memorial to the Ten Commandments inside the Alabama Supreme Court building and refused to remove it under court order. Earlier, as a circuit judge, Moore had hung a plaque with the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, and his fight to keep the Ten Commandments displayed had helped boost him to chief justice of the state supreme court. Figuring it was good for his box office, Moore doubled down once he was chief justice and replaced the plaque with a full-on, mausoleum-worthy hunk of granite.
The fight over the Ten Commandments monument got Moore national news, and he became something of a cult figure for many in Alabama. But what few knew was that a video of the monument was made and sold by a company that helped Moore pay for his legal expenses over the fight that led to his removal from the supreme court.
That little detail perfectly encapsulates the monetization of phony morality that is so common with the professional Christian conservatives. Six days after being removed from office for the second time, Moore announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for senator in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Donald Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Despite multiple allegations of molesting an underage girl, sexual harassment of barely legal teenage girls, and being such a general creep that he was allegedly banned from his local mall in Gadsden, Alabama, Moore defeated the appointed incumbent Luther Strange and became the Republican nominee.
When Moore won the nomination, Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee endorsed him. Trump supported Moore’s denials, and on Election Day Moore won 67 percent of white voters.
Only black voters, particularly black women who turned out at record levels, saved the state of Alabama from being represented by an accused child molester who said that he first noticed his wife when he saw her in a high school dance performance. Moore was thirty at the time.
What sort of man goes to high school dance performances to check out the girls? The Roy Moore race was a perfect test to see if there really was any decency left in the national Republican Party, and the answer came back clearly: not very much. The Alabama Senate race was somewhere between a bad bar joke and a perfect political science experiment: “What would it take to get white Republicans in Alabama to support a Democrat? What if the Republican was a child molester?” By Election Day, nine women had come forward with allegations against Moore. No credible defense was offered by Moore or his supporters other than a blanket denial. As Donald Trump said, “He denies it.”
Just as Trump himself had denied sexual harassment accusations of the many women who came forward during his campaign. Does this mean Alabama is pro–child molesting of underage girls? Does Trump’s winning mean that America is pro–sexual harassment? There’s certainly an element of lack of concern about women and the sense that women are fair game for men, even fifteen-year-old girls. But mostly it shows an ability of many conservative voters to live in a self-reinforcing bubble that has little to do with objective truth. From denials of child molesting and sexual harassment to the overwhelming science of global warming, an element of American conservatism has grown over decades in an environment distinct from the rest of the country (and reality), nurtured by an ever-growing ecosphere of alternative truth.
The dystopian Shangri-La that so many on the right inhabit was years in the making. If it often seems that the Republican Party is living in a world disconnected from reality, that’s because it is. Large elements of the Republican Party have made a collective decision that there is no objective truth.
Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,
published in 2018, is the most extensive comparison of the Democratic and Republican Parties’ relationship to the media and a concept of verifiable truth. Its analysis highlighted the differences between the two parties:
We did not come to this work looking for a partisan-skewed explanation. As we began to analyze the millions of online stories, tweets, and Facebook sharing data points, the pattern that emerged was clear. Our own earlier work, which analyzed specific campaigns around intellectual property law and found that right and left online media collaborated, made us skeptical of our initial observations, but these proved highly resilient to a wide range of specifications and robustness checks. Something very different was happening in right-wing media than in centrist, center-left, and left-wing media. We will make the argument throughout this book that the behavior of the right-wing media ecosystem represents a radicalization of roughly a third of the American media system. We use the term “radicalization” advisedly in two senses. First, to speak of “polarization” is to assume symmetry. No fact emerges more clearly from our analysis of how four million political stories were linked, tweeted, and shared over a three-year period than that there is no symmetry in the architecture and dynamics of communications within the right-wing media ecosystem and outside of it.
In this restrained and scholarly presentation is a screaming headline that, yes, Republicans have gone crazy and here’s proof. The authors—Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts—remind readers of the critical role played by modern institutions that serve as gatekeepers for an accepted truth. Since the end of World War II, this trend toward institutionalized professions for truth seeking has accelerated. Government statistics agencies, scientific and academic investigations, law and the legal profession, and journalism developed increasingly rationalized and formalized solutions to the problem of how societies made up of diverse populations with diverse and conflicting political views can nonetheless form a shared sense of what is going on in the world. As the quip usually attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Politics was always centrally about identity and belonging and meaning, but in the decades following World War II, democracy operated within constraints with regard to a shared set of institutional statements about reality.
It’s instructive that the writers use “reality” as a synonym for the “truth” because at its heart that’s really what is at stake: Does a society live in a shared reality? In a civil society like the United States, that shared reality, that truth, is the core energy that drives the functioning of society. Without agreement that red lights tell motorists to stop, there is no traffic control. (Try driving in Brazil or the Central African Republic to test that theory.) It doesn’t work if some drivers think red means you must stop, some think it means you can stop, and others think it means to speed up. The same applies to countless threads that weave together to create a coherent society. I’ve spent much of the last thirty years—far too much, in retrospect—arguing with the press about various lies, half-truths, and deceptions foisted upon the voting public by Democratic candidates and their party operatives. More than most, I can bear testimony to the regular use of deceit to push Democratic campaigns. The fact-checking website PolitiFact gave President Obama its 2013 “Lie of the Year” award for his repeated assurance that under Obamacare “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”
A couple of years earlier, it gave the Democratic Party the same award for the coordinated Democratic message that Republicans were plotting to “end Medicare.”
But if I’m going to be honest about honesty, I have to admit that I saw in practice—okay, I participated in—the process the authors of
found through their research. Republicans have built a political ecosphere that thrives on deceit and lies. It is an industrialized sort of deceit that is unique to the Republican Party. Over the last decades, Republicans have been conducting an experiment to determine how many control rods of truth could be taken out of a civil society’s core reactor of truth without creating a meltdown. It didn’t start with Trump, but Trump may prove to be the meltdown.
What few people grasp—because they are outside the system and have normal lives to lead—is just how huge the machinery of deception is that the Republicans have erected and how long it has been in the making. Fox News is unique in American media history as serving more like the in-house propaganda arm of a strong-man dictator than operating by the accepted norms of professional journalism. But Fox News did not spring fancifully into being as the creation of a former political consultant named Roger Ailes with the help of an immigrant who failed to assimilate American values, Rupert Murdoch. For decades a certain percentage of those who called themselves conservatives had been cultivating a country within a country, a sort of virtual secession from the United States of America. Like Donald Trump’s election, Fox News was both an inevitable conclusion and an accelerant. Nicole Hemmer, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, became intrigued by her father’s devotion to conservative talk radio and television and embarked on a study of the history of the conservative media world. The result,
Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,
published in 2016, surprised her:
I uncovered a network of activism far broader and far more influential than I had expected. Beginning in the late 1940s and 1950s, activists working in media emerged as leaders of the conservative movement. Not only did they start an array of media enterprises—publishing houses, radio programs, magazines, book clubs, television shows—they built the movement. They coordinated rallies, founded organizations, ran political campaigns, and mobilized voters. From the archives they emerged as a distinct group that I call “media activists,” men and women (but mostly men) whose primary sites of activism were the media institutions they founded. While they disagreed profoundly on tactics and strategy, they shared a belief that political change stemmed not just from ideas but from the proper expression and diffusion of those ideas through ideological media sources. Unlike fellow conservatives who worked for mainstream periodicals and broadcasters, these media activists believed independence was vital to their work—that they needed to develop their own publishing houses, their own radio programs, their own magazines if they were going to truly change American politics.
These days the branding of Fox News as “Fair and Balanced” often seems primarily to serve the purpose of proving that irony is not dead. But there is a long history within the far right of right-wing media positioning itself as the only true and honest media. To promote a world viewpoint distinct from that shared by the majority, it was critical to assert that everyone else simply didn’t have the correct information on which to base decisions. That is a far easier task than accusing most of the country of being crazy. So in the 1950s, if your neighbor didn’t believe that Communists had infiltrated the local school board, it was just because he or she didn’t know how to spot a Communist. As Hemmer wrote in a piece for
The idea of “fair and balanced” partisan media has its roots in the 1940s and 1950s.
the right-wing newsweekly founded in 1944, was dedicated to publishing the “facts” other outlets overlooked. Yet while touting this fact-based approach, the editors were also dedicated to promoting a distinct point of view. By the early 1960s,
arrived at this formulation of its mission:
“In reporting the news,
is objective; it aims for accurate representation of the facts. But it is not impartial. It looks at events through eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise, and individual freedom.”
In distinguishing between objectivity and impartiality,
’ editors created a space where “bias” was an appropriate journalistic value, one that could work in tandem with objectivity.
The entire ecosphere of right-wing media that exists today can be traced back to the four-page pamphlet that two journalists started in 1944 and called
. Given the current unequivocal embrace within conservative media of all things military and the reliable support for any American military action, it is extraordinary to consider that the two founders were committed pacifists who had belonged to the America First movement prior to World War II and continued to oppose the war even after Pearl Harbor. There was a toxic strain of anti-Semitism in the America First movement quite content to see Hitler deal with Europe’s “Jewish problem.” But the co-founders of
Felix Morley and Frank Hanighen, both came out of Haverford College, the Pennsylvania college founded by Quakers, and viewed with great suspicion what Dwight Eisenhower would later refer to as the “military-industrial complex.” In 1934, Hanighen had co-authored an exposé of the international arms business titled “The Merchants of Death.”
In 1942, Morley had written a piece for
The Saturday Evening Post,
“For What Are We Fighting?” that did the almost unimaginable by challenging the need to fight a war America had entered after Pearl Harbor.
But the criticism they received only further convinced Morley and Hanighen that they saw the world clearly, resisting the siren call of patriotism without thought. They saw themselves as keepers of a true journalistic flame of honesty, opposing the corrupting alliance of government and media that had united to promote a war they thought was immoral. After the first year, Morley wrote, “This little publication represents the protest of two experienced American journalists against the loss of standards in contemporary American writing on current events. These standards have been a wartime casualty.”
In that positioning was the framing of the relationship between their audience and what would later be called the “mainstream media” that continues to this day. Their attitude was clear: we see the world as it really is, uncorrupted by the powerful forces that manipulate the rest of the press and much of the public. As Nicole Hemmer wrote in
Messengers of the Right,