We are now just 20 days away from what may turn out to be the most watched political event in history: the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
In one corner stands Clinton, surrounded by the type of advisers who have prepared candidates of both parties for decades: debate coaches, policy wonks, pollsters, researchers, wordsmiths, and all the rest (she’s also reportedly getting help from Art of the Deal ghostwriter Tony Schwartz and a few psychologists playing the role of Clarice Starling to Hillary’s Jack Crawford).
In the other corner is Trump, flanked by the de facto leaders of today’s Republican Party, a cult of media personalities whose power and influence over the GOP base is unmatched by any conservative politician or intellectual: former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes (net worth: $75 million; audience: no. 1 cable network in America), Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon ($41 million; 31 million unique monthly visitors), Fox News/talk radio host Sean Hannity ($35 million; 2-plus million viewers, 12.5 million listeners), and talk radio host/author Laura Ingraham ($45 million; 6 million listeners). Others advise and actively support the nominee’s candidacy through their media platforms, from Rush Limbaugh ($350 million; 13-plus million listeners) to Ann Coulter ($8.5 million; 3-plus million books sold) to Alex Jones ($8 million; 7 million unique monthly visitors).
It’s fitting that Trump (net worth: ???; audience: O.J.-in-the-Bronco-level) would prepare for the reality television episode of his life with the vast array of right-wing conspiracy theorists who first inspired his campaign. Remember, when the Celebrity Apprentice host was preparing to run in 2014, he didn’t pursue extensive consultations with party leaders, policy experts, political strategists, or even pollsters. He instead received memos from longtime advisers Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, and Sam Nunberg that analyzed thousands of hours of … talk radio. Trump would also call Ailes, who is now running debate prep despite numerous, well-documented allegations of serial sexual harassment, for advice. And he learns about the latest internet conspiracies from his pal Jones, who believes that 9/11 was an inside job, that the government faked the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, and that Michelle Obama is really a man who had Joan Rivers killed. Jones, who Trump said has an “amazing” reputation, now says he’s advising the campaign.
And what did Trump learn from the popular discussions on Fox, Drudge, Breitbart, Infowars, and talk radio? These outlets have long been labeled the “conservative media,” but they don’t spend much time discussing tax cuts, free trade, entitlement reform, or school choice. They’re not weighing market-based solutions to urban poverty or debating the future of neoconservative foreign policy. These outlets are a far cry from The Weekly Standard, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, or even some conservative Fox reporters like Megyn Kelly. They have a lot more in common with the National Enquirer than they do with the National Review.
For every story that’s critical of an Obama policy or decision, these media outlets run 10 more suggesting he’s a Kenyan Muslim with terrorist sympathies. They don’t criticize Hillary Clinton as someone with questionable judgment who’s made some bad decisions; they tell you she’s a criminal who left Americans to die in Benghazi, and probably killed a few others along the way. Immigration isn’t a debate about border security or legal status, it’s an excuse to talk about the dark hordes of criminals and rapists pouring into our country. Inner-city violence is reduced to stories about black kids in hoodies who hate cops, hate white people, and light cities on fire. Terrorism is an imaginary tale about Muslims dancing on rooftops after 9/11, or the lie that the Muslim neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters saw bombs next door and chose to say nothing.
These right-wing media stars don’t sell their audiences conservatism, nationalism, populism, or any “-isms” at all. They are entertainers. They sell conspiracy and innuendo. They sell outrage and grievance. “The ideal CNN story is a baby down a well,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, “while the ideal Fox story is probably a baby thrown down a well by a Muslim terrorist or an ACORN activist.” If you have a problem in your life — if you’re scared or anxious or feel that you’ve been treated unfairly — people like Hannity and Drudge and outlets like Breitbart tell you where to direct your blame. They tell you who deserves your suspicion. And it’s always people who are different than you — either they’re richer, more powerful, and therefore corrupt, or they don’t look like you, pray like you, speak like you, or come from where you do.
It works. An NBC poll in August found that 72 percent of registered Republican voters still doubt whether President Obama was born in the United States. Seventy-two percent. The survey also tested the theory that perhaps this view is a result of simply not paying attention to the news, so they asked the respondents three factual questions about politics, and split the sample into “high political knowledge Republicans” and “low political knowledge Republicans. When it came to beliefs about Obama’s citizenship, there was essentially no difference between the two groups.
Now, maybe some of this is just knee-jerk, partisan dislike of Obama. But 72 percent? Where do people get this information? There are only a handful of birthers in Congress. The past two Republican presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, publicly rejected birtherism. It’s not most Republican politicians or strategists or intellectuals who keep this garbage alive with 72 percent of their voters. Frankly, they don’t have that much reach or influence. But the right-wing media does.
In 2014, a Brookings/Public Religion Research Institute survey focused on immigration reform included questions about where people got their news. The sample was then divided between “Fox News Republicans” and “Non-Fox News Republicans” — i.e., Republicans who get their news from sources that aren’t just Fox. The results were telling: 60 percent of Fox News Republicans said immigrants are a burden, while only 38 percent of Non-Fox News Republicans believed that. Fox News Republicans were more likely to believe that immigrants threaten American customs and values, and 64 percent of them wrongly believed that illegal immigration had increased over the past few years, compared to 46 percent of Non-Fox watchers.
This isn’t a strictly partisan phenomenon. The survey also compared “Fox News Independents” with “Non-Fox News Independents,” and the gaps remained. Other studies have found that Fox viewers are also far more likely to disagree with the fact that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” and to believe two of the most thoroughly debunked lies about the Affordable Care Act: that it offers coverage to undocumented immigrants, and that it sets up “death panels” for senior citizens.
You can certainly argue that even Fox’s highest-rated show, with a little more than 3 million viewers, reaches a small and shrinking fraction of the overall electorate. But if you add in the internet and talk radio audiences — who are listening to hosts peddle the exact same conspiracies and misinformation — you begin to understand how it is that Donald Trump received 13 million votes in the primaries.
The reason Trump succeeded isn’t that complicated after all. He didn’t win the nomination by tapping into some nascent political movement. He won by doing a fairly good impression of a right-wing media celebrity. Every issue, every conspiracy, every applause line has been ripped from their websites, radio shows, and television programs. It’s why he became America’s most prominent birther. It’s why he floated rumors that Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK, and that Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster. It’s why he talks the way he does about Mexicans and Muslims and women and African Americans. It’s why he’s been able to get away with knowing little to nothing about policy or government or world affairs — because Trump, like any good talking head, only speaks in chyrons and clauses and some-people-are-sayings.
Trump’s greatest trick has been to realize that right-wing media stars have a built-in audience that Republican politicians don’t. To that audience, Jeb Bush talks like Washington talks. Ted Cruz talks like conservative ideologues talk. Marco Rubio talks like the last consultant he spoke with talks. But Trump talks like a true talk radio fan — longtime listener, first-time caller. He comes off like the winner of a reality TV show in which one lucky Fox viewer gets picked to run for president of the United States.
You can bet that none of the media personalities running the Trump campaign viewed last week’s immigration speech in Arizona as an opportunity to change or clarify his policy position. People like Ailes and Bannon saw it as an opportunity to put on a show — a terrifying special report about white Americans who’ve been brutally victimized by the criminal aliens who lurk among us, complete with all the gory details, vivid imagery, screaming headlines, and debunked statistics you’d find in the very best Fox News segment.
The real divide within the Republican Party is not based on issues or ideology. It’s not between the right and the far-right, or even the establishment and the outsiders. It’s between the politicians and the entertainers, and ever since John McCain put Sarah Palin in front of the cameras, the contest hasn’t been close. You can fault politicians like McCain for giving the entertainers a platform, appearing on their shows, bowing to their demands, or just cowering in silence. But one silver lining of this dismal campaign has been the number of prominent conservative voices — politicians, strategists, intellectuals, and even a talk radio host — who are fighting to break free of the hateful, dangerous echo chamber the entertainers have created.
I don’t agree with these conservatives on much, but I feel strongly about making common cause with them right now, and it’s not for some Machiavellian political reason. I believe that Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump, and I believe that a majority of Americans will never embrace Trumpism.
But I don’t know for sure. And even if Ailes and Bannon aren’t able to win with an undisciplined sociopath at the top of the ticket, their crew will be back again with other, perhaps smarter, right-wing media stars. They will elect them to Congress. They will run them for president. And they will continue to be the true source of rot in our politics — a hateful bunch of hucksters who get rich by turning people’s fear and anxiety into anger and prejudice.
Which brings me back to the next three debates and 63 days. There will be calls for Hillary to reassure voters that she’s more honest and trustworthy than they’ve been led to believe. And there will be a temptation to go for Trump’s jugular — to expose him as a lying, uninformed fraud; to prove through sound logic, careful reasoning, and the candidate’s own words that he is the most temperamentally unfit person to ever seek an elected office, let alone the most powerful one in the world.
This is all sound advice. But we should also remember that Trump is a media celebrity who’s been coached to tell a certain story about America, and the best way to counter that is with a story of our own. It’s the story that was told at the Democratic convention by Hillary Clinton, who laid out a bold, optimistic vision for a future where we rise together. It’s the story that was told by Barack and Michelle Obama, who spoke of a country that’s hopeful and generous; tolerant and kind — a place where we teach our children to treat one another with common decency and respect. It’s the story told by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, a family of Muslim immigrants who struggled and sacrificed to make a home in America, and raised a courageous son who gave his life for the country he loved. It’s a story that sometimes makes us roll our eyes because we’re hardened and cynical and we let ourselves believe that fear and anger are the only emotions that leaders can use to inspire anymore. But it’s a story that must be told, over and over again.
Elections are a contest between the stories the candidates tell about the country they hope to lead, and that’s especially true at a time when the line between media and politics has almost disappeared. The entertainers who are running Trump’s campaign know their story well. The Democrats and Republicans who want him defeated know they have a better one — we just can’t forget to tell it.