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The Shocking Death and Grotesque Rebirth of Conservative Media

In 2018, the right-wing media landscape is more robust and more competitive than ever before. But there are casualties.

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Bill Kristol launched The Weekly Standard in September 1995, backed by the magazine’s debut publisher, News Corp. The month marks the first and last time Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing mass media stronghold would kick-start any punditry resembling intellectualism. (News Corp sold The Weekly Standard to Clarity Media Group in 2009.)

For a quarter century, The Weekly Standard advanced neoconservatism — a right-wing style now out of fashion, shunted in favor of the nationalist movement known as Trumpism. In its heyday, The Weekly Standard chronicled the dawn of a dominant conservatism in a new century. In George W. Bush’s final year as president, The New York Times hired Kristol as a full-time columnist to represent and explain the neocon moment. But Bush’s presidency ended somewhat roughly, and so, too, did the moment. The New York Times terminated Kristol’s column less than a week after Barack Obama’s inauguration. The Weekly Standard survived Obama’s two presidential terms only to falter, ironically, against Donald Trump. Last week, The Daily Caller reported the magazine’s imminent demise. “The Weekly Standard is not expected to survive going into 2019 and is preparing to shut down permanently,” according to The Daily Caller’s scoop.

The Weekly Standard had warned conservatives away from the flashy presidential contender. From birtherism onward, The Weekly Standard anticipated Trump’s presidential campaign with trepidation. “For months now,” opinion editor Matthew Continetti wrote in July 2011, “real estate mogul and television personality Donald Trump has terrified the country by threatening to run for president.” Continetti regards Trump’s birtherism campaign against Obama as a dangerous seduction from an outsider. “He’s cobbled together a platform: trade war with China and​ — ​this is not a joke​ —​ pillaging the countries America invades,” Continetti notes about Trump’s early stump speeches. “He made a surprise appearance at February’s Conservative Political Action Conference. A couple of weeks ago he tried to sweet-talk Charles Krauthammer (no luck).” Five years before Trump won the Republican nomination for president, Continetti anticipated his own camp’s terminal alienation: The late Krauthammer, himself a former Weekly Standard editor, would join Kristol in opposing Trump’s domination of Republican politics. No luck.

In summer 2015, The Weekly Standard and the National Review mounted a resistance to Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. Primarily, they disputed Trump’s conservative bona fides, but they also chided his wild, vulgar temperament. Kristol balked once Trump mocked John McCain for falling into captivity for more than five years during the Vietnam War. Ultimately, the Republican base sided with Trump against the magazines. Trump won the presidency. The magazines lost face, and more importantly, they lost subscribers. A month after Trump’s election, Kristol stepped down as the magazine’s editor in chief and has since rebranded himself, rather lucratively, as a Never Trump Republican in exile. The Weekly Standard has also sustained its Never Trump posture, though obviously to far less profitable effect. Now there are younger, modern alternatives, like The Daily Wire, represented in most news cycles by yet another Never Trump conservative, Ben Shapiro — an overgrown college Republican who hails from the conventional, middlebrow tradition of spewing Latin terms for rhetorical infractions. Just like the old days.

They’re all competing with Breitbart — the right-wing, web-bred alternative to the stodgy magazine culture that The Weekly Standard represented. Breitbart suffers no ambivalence about Trump. The website has drafted the core priorities and talking points for Trump’s political career and even staffed the senior leadership of his presidential administration. Kristol and Krauthammer declined to humor Trump, and so Trump turned to Breitbart’s chairman, Steve Bannon, for alternative validation. Bannon won the conservative imagination only to lose Trump’s favor, and then lose his White House job, returning to Breitbart in a defensive, wounded state. Rebekah Mercer withdrew her family’s support for Bannon gone rogue, and so the disgruntled strategist left Breitbart for the political wilderness. In the following months, Breitbart softened. The website would continue to aggregate newswire stories about assorted political developments, but the writers would add little, if any, of the right-wing commentary for which the brand and its eponymous founder were known. It’s hard to imagine Breitbart going legit, exactly, but the website lost ground to other pro-Trump web concerns, including The Drudge Report and The Daily Caller. In 2018, the right-wing media landscape is more robust and more competitive than ever before.

On November 5, Trump invited Sean Hannity on stage to address a crowd in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, at the president’s final campaign rally before the 2018 midterm elections. Trump was in town to support Josh Hawley’s bid against Claire McCaskill, and Hannity was in town to support Trump despite his earlier assurances that he only meant to cover Trump’s rally as a journalist. Trump also invited Rush Limbaugh, who was born and raised in Cape Girardeau. Limbaugh keeps a low profile compared to Hannity, who prominently advises the president on air and in private. For 10 minutes, Limbaugh hyped the crowd before introducing the president, his own showmanship telegraphing Trump’s tacky, gregarious style. Hannity, too, owes a great deal.

In previous cycles, Limbaugh imperiled Republican candidates and the overall GOP brand. Former Republican National Committee chairperson Michael Steele once described Limbaugh as an “entertainer” whose furious talk-radio schtick is fundamentally “ugly.” But then Steele quickly apologized to Limbaugh, apparently fearful of the talk-radio host’s sway among conservative activists and Republican voters. Democratic National Committee chairperson Tim Kaine exploited the spat as evidence of Limbaugh’s undue influence on GOP politics, which Democratic strategists would routinely underscore as a point of humiliation. “Chairman Steele’s reversal this evening and his apology to Limbaugh proves the unfortunate point that Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican Party, its politics, and its obstruction of President Obama’s agenda in Washington,” Kaine said. Three years later, Limbaugh called the abortion-rights activist Sandra Fluke a “slut,” and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney struggled to repudiate Limbaugh. Too many Romney voters loved Rush Limbaugh more than they ever loved Mitt Romney.

Limbaugh is hardly so domineering these days. He looms largest as the prototype for this decade’s more prominent right-wing squawkers — Glenn Beck, the late Andrew Breitbart, Alex Jones, and, supremely, Trump. Limbaugh was the earliest right-wing broadcaster to wage war on “the liberal media.” Well, there’s an expansive right-wing media now, and it’s rendered The Weekly Standard redundant. There’s a dominant cable news network dedicated entirely to the promotion of right-wing perspective. There are YouTube professors and there are Twitter pundits. There’s take-bearing Republicans working at The New York Times. There are neo-Nazi marchers and there are pizza-themed conspiracy theories about pedophilia and the Clintons. On YouTube, there’s a pipeline from benign news clips to right-wing surrealism. On Facebook, there’s a misinformation crisis. There are conservatives, and there are extremists. In 2018, Limbaugh’s successors are winning.

There are plenty of intellectuals eager to defend the right-wing extremists in polite company. The “free speechers,” as they’re popularly known, are a broad coalition, including liberals, centrists, and conservatives. Their own rhetorical mandate — the counter-speech doctrine — paraphrases the late Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis in his famous Whitney v. California concurrence. The solution to hate speech, they insist, is more speech. The counter-speech doctrine is obtuse by design, and the leading free-speechers tend to match a broad, derisive characterization: They’re white men who are too soft and too clueless to associate hate speech and pseudoscience with any substantial danger. They’re suckers against manipulative, illiberal factions such as neo-Nazis. New Yorker editor David Remnick meant to host Bannon as a headline guest, subject to onstage interview, at the magazine’s annual festival in October. Supposedly, Remnick’s interview would amount to a confrontation in which reason would, inevitably, prevail against Bannon’s know-nothing nationalism. “I have every intention of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation,” Remnick told The New York Times. The magazine’s staff revolted; so, too, did readers; so, too, did several celebrity guests who threatened to withdraw from the event. So Remnick withdrew his invitation to Bannon and conceded that there must be “a better way,” in a more appropriate forum, to engage with Bannon’s ideas as well as his influence. In November, The Atlantic editor David Frum — a Weekly Standard alum — defied a similar backlash to join Bannon on stage for a debate at a lecture hall in Toronto. Frum had set out to expose “the new populist politics” as “a scam and a lie,” and, by his own admission, he failed. “I did expose it,” Frum concludes, “but in a way that may have strengthened that foundation rather than attacked it.” For Bannon, the counter-speech doctrine has been an absolute boon.

Megyn Kelly provided a disastrous counterexample. In January 2017, NBC hired Kelly away from Fox News to launch Megyn Kelly Today — an hour-long program aired during the network’s four-hour Today Show block. Kelly was a controversial hire. She’d spent 12 years at Fox News hosting furious segments about the indisputable whiteness of Santa Claus, and now here she was making small talk with Jane Fonda. It was a precarious arrangement, and Kelly’s demise seemed inevitable, if also desirable, from her first day on the job. In October — 13 months after her series premiere — Kelly left the network amid backlash to her having spent several minutes on air defending white people wearing blackface, respectfully, on Halloween. Ultimately, Kelly joined Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Chuck Johnson, and several other de-platformed conservatives in the wilderness. The de-platformers humiliated a right-wing dipshit, and the free-speechers once again humiliated themselves.

Facebook and Twitter are drowning in “more speech.” Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey face a conundrum together: They want to manage hospitable platforms where users share and speak freely, but they don’t want to assume responsibility for moderating billions of users in real time. It’s a tough bind. For Facebook, news and politics have converged to form a slow-motion catastrophe — from development of the website’s “trending news” feature four years ago through its exploitation by Russian hackers during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook has become the global capital of fake news, and the company’s leadership has offered little more than platitudes and brief deference to a few U.S. senators as relief. For Twitter, the problem is hate speech, harassment campaigns, and an overwhelming hesitation to moderate even the most extreme cases. In August, Facebook banned Alex Jones. A month later, Twitter banned him, too. It only took a year for activists and journalists to persuade both companies that the man leading harassment campaigns against school-shooting survivors might be violating some user terms of service. Still, there’s Gab, “an ad-free social network dedicated to preserving individual liberty, the freedom of speech, and the free flow of information,” where Jones now broadcasts happily. The website’s righteous libertarian mantra obscures its importance as a haven for the right-wing agitators who do manage to get banned from Twitter. On Gab, Robert Gregory Bowers threatened to slaughter Jews — and today he stands charged with doing so in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The mass media culture which once tormented right-wing activists has, through so many different channels, become Trumpism’s greatest asset; its ecstatic relief. “Screw your optics,” Bowers posted hours before police say he entered the synagogue and killed 11 people. “I’m going in.”

Reportedly, Trump watches too much TV — enough to have known, with absolute clarity and certainty, that the migrant caravan was an ideal cable news phenomenon. There were thousands of marchers, they were brown, they spoke Spanish, they were traveling more than a thousand miles on foot, from Honduras to the Rio Grande Valley, ensuring a stable, if tedious stream of “breaking news” ejaculations in daytime cable news coverage; followed by evening interviews and essay segments about the border, the drugs, the terrorists, the troops, the wall. Breitbart seized the migrant caravan story, too. Suddenly, Breitbart was alive and awash, once again, in urgent commentary about brown people, welfare, and crime.

The Weekly Standard published its own, extensive report about the caravan. It’s a fearful dispatch. “They roam Tijuana to panhandle or steal.” “He says drugs are rampant inside the perimeter.” “We are very much not wanted here,” writes Grant Wishard, a Weekly Standard correspondent who spent a couple months scouting the U.S.-Mexico border for the magazine via bicycle. Still, Wishard’s dispatch from the caravan is a relatively nuanced attempt to reconcile various conservative attitudes — some racialized, some corporatized — about Latin and Mexican immigration to the U.S. “We met good people among the migrants,” Wishard concludes, “people we hope can succeed and who through no fault of their own have attached themselves to a naive and dangerous group.” Inevitably, The Weekly Standard correspondent goes on Fox Business to promote his reporting about the U.S.-Mexico border. Host Charles Payne clearly meant to cite Wishard’s reporting as support for building the wall despite Wishard’s reluctance to endorse Trump’s signature immigration proposal. “Building a 1,900-mile wall is a waste of time and money,” Wishard has written. But there they are, The Weekly Standard and Fox, the naive and the dangerous, in disastrous coordination.