Over the past year, attitudes towards Donald Trump among liberals and leftists have taken strikingly divergent forms. Among traditional liberals, a full-fledged hysteria has prevailed, fed by Trump’s outrageous statements on Twitter, and mingling panic and outrage in equal measure. There are warnings of “tyranny” and “fascism,” calls to “resistance,” even half-serious predictions of the end of the world.
On the other hand, many leftists take a different, more sober, and also more cynical view. To them, Trump is a farce and a buffoon, given to outrageous antics. But he is doing very little different from what his rivals for the Republican nomination would have done—and, especially in foreign policy, not behaving very differently from what Barack Obama did and Hillary Clinton would have done. And it follows that an obsession with Trump’s supposed authoritarianism only distracts attention from the larger political project of fighting neoliberalism and inequality. Not surprisingly, when the conservative commentator Ross Douthat published a column on the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, calling his first year more farce than tragedy, the prominent left intellectuals Corey Robin and Samuel Moyn were quick to express their agreement on social media.
It is hard not to feel a certain degree of sympathy for this latter position. As Douthat points out, most of Trump’s government appointments could have been made by any of his more conservative rivals. The Republican tax bill, while heinous, owed much more to Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and wealthy Republican donors than to any incipient Trumpian tyranny. Despite Trump’s frightening and idiotic remarks on North Korea, and his moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, there is more continuity between his foreign policy and Barack Obama’s than pretty much anyone in the American political mainstream would care to admit. The nightmare scenario laid out by the popular historian Timothy Snyder in his quickly produced book On Tyranny (originally a series of Facebook posts) has not yet materialized.
Yet at the same time, this cynical view rests on a cynical view of the American political process as a whole, which blinds its adherents to crucial changes that have taken place over the past generation—changes that have taken a new turn with Trump and that do, in fact, represent a real danger. The differences between Democrats and Republicans are not only consequential but far more consequential than they were in the Reagan era.
The principal authors of this difference are not Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, but Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. Limbaugh began his national radio show in 1988, and Ailes’s Fox News debuted eight years later. By the time of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998, a conservative media machine had grown up that had a vast daily audience that got its news almost entirely from its radio and cable television outlets.
The most popular hosts—like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity—are geniuses of a sort. They know how to mix outrage, scorn, bullying and humor in a manner that is wildly entertaining and keeps the audience tuning in. They flatter their listeners, telling them they are smarter, more clear-headed, more commonsensical and patriotic than the idiotic liberals. They are not really ideologues, because they spend little time discussing ideas they believe in. Most of their commentary is savagely negative. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have taken up more of their airtime than any supposed conservative—even Donald Trump. Tellingly, last year Limbaugh changed the name of his “Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies” to the “Institute for Advanced Anti-Leftist Studies,” effectively admitting that he cared less about any particular conservative political program than about destroying “the left.”
Over the past year, far too much commentary has focused on Donald Trump himself, and far too little on his partnership with this conservative media machine. Liberal journalists have churned out a series of much-parodied stories that profile ordinary Trump supporters. They try to relate the political stances of these supporters to economic distress, the opioid crisis, and the nation’s changing racial demographics. And, perhaps not wanting to sound condescending, they tend not to mention that what the supporters say often repeats, verbatim, talking points hammered home day after day by Limbaugh, Fox News, and company. The basic message is simple. Leftists are stupid, clueless, untrustworthy, out-of-touch, atheistic, and unpatriotic. They care more about transgender bathrooms than about defending their country against its enemies. They care more about illegal aliens than hardworking Americans.
Many Trump supporters do indeed suffer from economic distress, dislocation, addiction, and cultural alienation. But as histories of political extremism have shown again and again, social causes do not by themselves push people towards a particular political stance. In the 1930s, many former Socialists and Communists turned fascist. In France, more recently, the National Front has received a large portion of its support from former Communists. In 2016, Bernie Sanders appealed to many of the people who ended up voting for Trump. Populist anger can be channeled in many different directions. In the United States, over the past generation, that direction has been influenced more by the conservative media machine than by any other factor.
Well before Donald Trump came on the scene, the conservative media was changing American political dynamics in destructive ways. In the early 1990s, it helped to defeat Bill Clinton’s abortive health-care reform, encouraging Republican politicians to obstruct rather than work with the president on what was already a major American social crisis. In 1994 it helped elect a Newt Gingrich–led Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and four years later it drove the first impeachment of a president since the 1860s. In the early 2000s, it helped turn justifiable anger about 9/11 into a fervor for war on Iraq, a country that had had nothing to do with the attack. When Barack Obama became president, the conservative media machine went into unceasing outrage overdrive, claiming on a daily basis that this Kenyan-born Muslim communist atheist was on the point of destroying the United States.
But Trump’s arrival in the presidency has magnified the effects of this shift in a new and threatening way. Trump is in, in part, a product of the conservative media machine. While he spent many years trying to ingratiate himself with wealthy Manhattan liberals, conservative talk-show hosts were busy cultivating a base for him in places like New York’s outer boroughs—the men with heavy New York accents from Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Nassau County who call into radio stations like WABC and WOR New York to express their fervent agreement with Limbaugh and Hannity. Trump shares something of their alienation, anger, and contempt for “leftists” and elites, and he gets almost all his political information from the same sources they do (and this despite his access to the most sophisticated and powerful national intelligence apparatus ever created).
Not surprisingly, the conservative talking heads recognize in him an apostle, and a kindred spirit. Limbaugh may have given occasionally enthusiastic, though more often grudging support to the two George Bushes, but one could tell his heart was never entirely in it. He never fully trusted these patricians, these products of Andover and Yale, these “kinder, gentler,” “compassionate conservatives.”
With Trump, Limbaugh and the others have a president they can applaud to the fullest. And as a result, they defend Trump with unprecedented fervor. Yes, they will criticize him if he goes wrong on one of their central issues, like immigration. But when leftists attack him, they let loose with a savagery and mendacity that dwarfs anything even they have shown before. No matter how clearly true, no matter how meticulously verified a piece of news that shows Trump in a bad light, they will dismiss it as lies, as “fake news” (oh how the mainstream media should regret popularizing the phrase “fake news” in the wake of the 2016 election).
And most of Trump’s supporters follow along. No matter how damning the revelation about Trump, they follow the media machine in either dismissing it as “fake news” or disregarding it entirely. Most such revelations are ipso facto discredited by their source: the “lamestream media,” or what Limbaugh refers to derisively as the “drive-bys.” As for Trump’s atrocious tweets and statements, at worse these supporters consider them a distraction; at best, a way to keep the leftist enemy off balance and to express the contempt that “real Americans” feel for such stupid, whimpering snowflakes.
Since the upset victory by Doug Jones in Alabama, some Democrats have argued that Trump’s hardcore base won’t really matter in the end, because it is a minority on its way to defeat. If Trump’s approval ratings are accurate, then his base represents less than two-fifths of the electorate, factoring in a certain number of Americans who will approve of any president as long as their personal economic conditions are improving. Thus, if this trend continues, Republicans can expect to lose their control of both the presidency and Congress by 2020.
But even if the most loyal Trumpistas only constituted a quarter of the electorate, the statistic would still be terrifying. It means that a quarter of the population places greater value on fealty to their leader and on destroying the leftist enemy than on fealty to democracy and human rights.
Moreover, while the Trumpistas may be a minority, they can still control the Republican party. Given Trump’s obvious appeal in the party, and the strength of the conservative media machine behind him, it is hard to imagine that the party will nominate a moderate presidential candidate at any time in the foreseeable future. And while some Republican moderates will be able to survive primary challenges, it seems likely that their party will continue the turn towards Trumpism that has been taking place for decades now, since before the rise of Trump himself. All of this is occurring while Republicans hold a decided advantage in the electoral college, in the Senate, and in the House of Representatives—because of gerrymandering and the clustering of Democrats in cities.
Imagine what this hard, empowered minority might do in case of a true national emergency. What if President Trump were to announce that Muslim terrorists have acquired a weapon of mass destruction and are attempting to smuggle it into the United States, and he needs to take strong emergency actions to stop them? These might include immediate roundups of thousands of Muslims; curtailing of civil liberties; perhaps the arrest of “sanctuary city” politicians; even the postponement of elections. Would this hard minority turn away from Trump? Or would they follow him down the path to real authoritarianism?
I realize my previous paragraph is edging towards the “full-fledged hysteria” that I criticized at the start of this piece. The difference is that I am trying to set the challenge to American democracy in a much longer time frame than that adopted by doomsayers like Timothy Snyder. I am arguing that the danger did not start with Donald Trump, but was building while he was still a national joke. Nor will the danger of a democracy-threatening crisis end when he leaves office. The 2016 Republican primary campaign clearly demonstrated that the GOP base, informed and egged on by the media machine, has the power to deliver the nomination to whoever can best appeal to its worst instincts. Possible successors like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton have not missed the point and have already begun to recraft themselves in Trump’s image.
Hysteria, focused tightly on the person of Donald Trump himself as a Duce in the making, is uncalled for. But calling Trump a fool and buffoon who rants and tweets to no purpose while allowing a more traditional, venal Republican right to pursue its deplorable but traditional Reaganite program is equally misguided. Trump’s presidency does not mark an entirely new moment in American politics. But it marks an inflection point at which an already-considerable danger has suddenly turned much worse. This change, and this danger, cannot be dismissed as essentially more of the same or as a more naked, open phase of a “neoliberalism” in which Barack Obama was also implicated. Trump by himself is a buffoon. Trump in combination with the conservative media machine, and its ability to manipulate the Republican base, is something very frightening indeed.
David A. Bell teaches European History at Princeton, and is the author, most recently, with Anthony Grafton, of The West: A New History.