Conservative Culture and the Rise of Donald Trump

By the 21st century, the boundary between conservative media and Republican politics had visibly blurred. At least seven former talk radio hosts have served in Congress (including Vice President Mike Pence) and 10 members became hosts after leaving Congress. Talk radio and television personalities played important roles in the Tea Party movement (including headlining protests), insurgent congressional primary challenges, and Republican fundraising. They help defeat legislation, influence the outcomes of party leadership elections, and vet presidential nominees.

Yet even at the height of the Tea Party’s influence, few observers expected the next Republican president to himself be a creature of the conservative media with no previous experience in elective politics. Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican Party—over the tacit or active opposition of many veteran officeholders, interest group leaders, and fundraisers—demonstrates the extent to which power within the GOP has shifted away from conventional party officials and toward media figures. But his success also reveals the ways in which contemporary conservatism in the mass public, as shaped and promoted by popular media outlets on the right, differs from the intellectual strain of the movement that has traditionally claimed sole authority over the definition and enforcement of conservative doctrine.

From the perspective of conservative elites in Washington, Trump was a deeply imperfect conservative—if he could be called a conservative at all. Trump had previously been a registered Democrat and had contributed to the campaign funds of Democratic politicians, including his eventual opponent Hillary Clinton. He had previously voiced support for legalized abortion and had criticized the Iraq War. And while most other Republicans dodged Democratic attacks on their economic positions by sounding the general rhetorical themes of limited government and free enterprise. Trump simply adopted—albeit in vague terms—the language of operational liberalism, promising to protect middle-class entitlements and enact a “beautiful” health-care plan that would “cover everybody.”

Trump was able to shrug otf attacks on his ideological credentials in the Republican primaries because of his years of positive coverage on Fox News and other leading conservative outlets. He had skillfully established himself as one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of Barack Obama just as Obama had become the primary nemesis of conservative activists. Most famously, Trump became the chief proponent of the “birther” conspiracy theory, arguing that Obama might not have born in the United States and was therefore ineligible for the presidency. In early 2011, he orchestrated a sustained media campaign to challenge Obama to release his long-form birth certificate (which Obama did in April of that year). Even after the release, Trump continued to maintain that the certificate might be fake, that Obama was suspiciously foreign, and that he might have been born in Kenya. Although debunked repeatedly by mainstream journalists, the story gained substantial adherents in the conservative media; even Republicans who did not agree with the birther theory associated Trump with strong criticism of Obama and his administration.

The reaction of Republican politicians to Trump’s emergence as a prominent conservative voice foreshadowed their later confused responses to his presidential candidacy. Many tried to distance themselves from his specific accusations but feared angering the Republican base. Trump’s brief flirtation with a presidential run in 2012 garnered enormous media coverage and instant poll results (likely because he had gained considerable attention over the birther issue), forcing other candidates to respond on his terms. Eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney heartily accepted Trump’s endorsement, even after otherwise trying to project a public image of maturity and sobriety. By the time Trump entered the presidential race in 2015 with a candidacy focused primarily on the issue of immigration, he was already associated with racial conservatism and anti-Obama stridency— allowing him to stand out in a large field of Republican candidates.

On the stump and the debate stage, Trump demonstrated a familiarity with the style and tropes of contemporary popular conservatism. He sounded less like a scripted political candidate than a free-associative talk show host, adopting a discursive rhetorical style replete with extemporaneous asides, signature catch- phrases (“build the wall” and “drain the swamp”), and derogatory nicknames for his opponents (“Little Marco” and “Crooked Hillary”). He ignored the details of policy, projecting the persona of a man who had achieved exceptional success in the business world, who had no connection with the recent failures and defeats of the Republican Party, and who—above all—was just as angry as his audience about what the liberals were doing to his beloved country.

Trump himself seems to recognize the critical role of the conservative media in his own political ascendance. In the White House, he remains a voracious media consumer—especially of television—and is demonstrably influenced by the day-to-day programming of Fox News. He judges success based on how his administration is covered in the media, especially by conservative commentators. Despite persistent anticipation among the pundit class of an inevitable strategic shift to the ideological center or toward a less combative political style, a Trump “pivot” has never materialized (in the primaries, in the general election, or during his tenure as president). Instead, Trump has maintained a focus on maintaining enthusiastic support among the Republican base, in part by going out of his way to insult or aggravate liberal critics and the mainstream media. Sean Hannity, the top-rated prime-time host on Fox, regularly confers personally with Trump, according to White House aides, and was even publicly named in April 2018 as a fellow client of Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen.

Under Trump, other conservative media personalities have also increasingly made the jump to top positions in the federal government. National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow and National Security Advisor John Bolton are both former cable news mainstays whom Trump appointed to office after being impressed by their television performances. Steve Bannon, the president’s former campaign and political strategist, amassed influence as the chairman of the conservative website Breitbart News and then briefly returned to it after being fired from the White House. Bill Shine, who had previously served as the co-president of Fox News Channel before leaving Fox in the wake of multiple sexual harassment allegations that occurred under his watch, became White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications in July 2018 and immediately began coordinating White House messaging with conservative media.

Trump’s rhetorical departure from orthodox conservative doctrine on a few economic issues such as entitlements and trade during the 2016 campaign, when combined with his own previous support for Democratic candidates, prompted much of the mainstream media—as well as his critics within the Republican Party—to challenge his credentials as a conservative in good standing and even to portray him as a “populist” whose politics transcended the traditional ideological spectrum entirely. But Trump’s actual governing record is thus far equally or more faithful to conservative doctrine as any modern president. What explains this discrepancy?

Trump grasped one of the central insights of popular conservative media in the 21st century: mass support for the Republican Party is based more on broad appeals to conservative symbols, and pugnacious antipathy toward liberals and liberalism, than it is on devotion to a laundry list of specific conservative domestic policies. The policy-making apparatus of the Trump administration has largely pursued a traditionally conservative issue agenda on taxes, healthcare, and other major domains, while its public communications have emphasized cultural appeals typical of conservative media content—from criticizing the civil rights protests of professional football players to accusing the mainstream press (“fake news”) of ideological bias and factual inaccuracy. Trump has amassed a decidedly mixed record of political success so far, but one major achievement of his presidency has been a consolidation of power within the Republican Party that would have been impossible without the support of the popular conservative media universe. In the face of such support, most anti-Trump Republicans have either muted their opposition or announced their departure from office.

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