I used to be one of those conservatives who brushed aside complaints about Fox News. Sure, Glenn Beck had his excesses and Sean Hannity sounded like a Speak-and-Spell, but they weren’t responsible for crashing the economy or wrecking the Middle East. Rather than commit fratricide over disagreements of style, the right should focus on the Obama administration and overhauling the failed GOP.
The rise of Donald Trump has made that position untenable. Trump—who polls now suggest will lose a third consecutive presidential election for the Republican Party—might be a former Democrat, but his securing of the GOP nomination was a Made in Conservatism phenomenon. We conservatives were so occupied sniping from the windows that we never looked back and noticed the flames engulfing our own house.
That’s a mistake we can no longer make. Following this election, the first order of business must be to fumigate our own mess. And that means shining a halogen light on Trump’s biggest right-wing enablers: the Fox News channel.
When Fox News was launched in 1996, it filled a void that at the time seemed cosmic. Before Internet blogs and Twitter flattened the media, a genuine oligarchy of the press existed that mostly tilted to the left. Fox’s motto was “fair and balanced,” a cheeky wink at conservatives—at last their gripes about liberal bias had been answered, even if it meant leaning right to make up the difference.
It wasn’t its innate right-wing populism that crippled Fox, nor was it the endless hyperventilating attacks from left-wing bloggers during the Bush administration. It was something baked deeper into the programming. Fox CEO Roger Ailes had been a media guru on several Republican presidential campaigns, and just as his goal then was to court voters, his objective with Fox was to court viewers, as many as possible, using any means necessary.
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That meant screaming sting music and vivid graphics. It also meant occasionally subverting the conservative to the televisual in favor of ratings. Fox became notorious for running B-roll of sexy women during its cultural segments, a habit that radio host Laura Ingraham criticized to Bill O’Reilly’s face several years ago. “I don’t know if there’s a rampant mid-life crisis going on at this network among the male anchors,” she scoffed. Turns out it was the CEO who was riddled with sexual psychoses, not the anchors. Ailes is currently facing accusations that he attempted to use the female contributors pool as his own personal harem.
But sex wasn’t Fox’s biggest problem. Far more corrosive was its never-ending quest to reinforce the prejudices of its viewers. On Fox, complex issues were distilled down into rudimentary dichotomies—real Americans vs. secular progressives being O’Reilly’s favorite—and zany controversies were forever drummed up. It was Fox where the stupid “war on Christmas” got its start and Fox that gave charlatan Sarah Palin an extended lease on public life.
The effect was to debauch conservatism—a cautious and broadly defined political persuasion—into an exercise of emotional expurgation. Edmund Burke gave way to Thrasymachus; ideas gave way to sophistry. Radio shows, websites, and Twitter accounts grew up around the Fox model, offering the same drumbeat against the same gallery of enemies, meant more as catharsis than information. The guests didn’t even need to be conservative; a Clintonian crony and Democrat who mouthed the right lines would do.
Which brings us to Donald Trump, frequent Fox guest. He isn’t a philosophical or even temperamental phenomenon; he’s a rhetorical one. He doesn’t represent a faction of the right; he’s a grab bag of its loosely defined biases and prejudices, a walking headline from the new conservative media: This unpredictable billionaire HATES the left—you won’t BELIEVE what he says next!! With that same media having conditioned conservatives to confuse politics with group therapy, Trump seems like the ideal presidential candidate.
But now Thrasymachus is blushing. Trump is getting walloped by the most cacophonously out-of-tune Democratic android since Michael Dukakis. The solution here isn’t to abandon Fox and retreat to the faculty lounge. Conservatism must remain a relevant popular force in our politics, but in order to be that it will need to change. We must become more inquisitive, more willing to challenge assumptions, and—occasionally—more willing to contradict even ourselves. We must put on hold what we’re against and rediscover what we’re for. We need a reformation.
Meanwhile, Trump, in an eleventh-hour attempt to jazz his campaign, has hired Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and—who else?—Roger Ailes. Rejecting him will mean rejecting them, too.