Interrupting Tucker (and Ben and Rush . . . )
By Doron Taussig and Anthony Nadler
If Joe Biden’s November 7 victory speech call to, “let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end,” felt starry-eyed at the time, it seems downright ridiculous now -- and not just because Americans have since seen Viking-clad rioters in the halls of Congress and gallows across the street from the Capitol. Even after Trump’s efforts to reverse election results went nowhere, a majority of Republicans still don’t believe that he lost. It’s probably safe to assume that a significant proportion think, as Newsmax wrote recently, “The Democrats are using the outrageous and unsupportable Capital riot the same way that the Reichstag Fire of 1933 was used — as a pretext for an authoritarian crackdown.” If you believe such assertions, no conciliatory invitation to unify will prevent you from reaching the conclusion that your political opponents are, well, demonic.
As America tries to find its footing in the aftermath of a destabilizing presidency, many journalists are conceptualizing their role as defenders of the country’s democracy and stewards of our collective information environment. In order to establish democratic discourse with a modicum of trust, journalists must speak to groups who presently believe nonsense and find ways to establish a set of basic shared facts. In short, they have to find a way to reach those drawn to a right-wing media sphere alienated from mainstream journalism.
This does not mean appeasing right-wing radicals, violent extremists or white supremacists. It doesn’t mean ignoring Donald Trump’s criminal behavior or running quotes from the leader of the Proud Boys as if he were the head of some respectable organization. Nor does it mean speaking of “the time to heal America” in warm, Biden-esque tones. What it means is finding a way to deliver better information to at least some of the people who tune into right-wing outlets and believe that they are looked upon dismissively by most major news organizations.
The work of right-wing agitators is to make sure this doesn’t happen. Contemporary political energies thrive on a sense of loathing and of being loathed--negative partisanship. On the right, this manifests in the idea that conservatism is a social identity facing a hostile threat, with “the media” serving as one of the chief bogeymen.
For journalists who wish to push back on this polarizing force, a good place to start is looking closely at the right’s reaction to Biden’s calls for unity. Biden’s appeal was actually a major story in conservative media in that it was roundly rejected. In popular columns and primetime monologues, we can find the rationales offered and the stories told to encourage the very distrust that makes belief in massive conspiracies and evil cabals possible. It’s an explicit articulation of the philosophy journalists need to confront, and thus an opportunity to identify their weak points and think about ways to contest them.
Where was Trump’s unity?
One common refrain in conservative pundits’ responses to Biden was the observation that their counterparts did not value unity after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. “Trump’s opponents — the media, Democrats, never-Trump Republicans — have never given him a moment’s rest, never a benefit of the doubt, never an atom of cooperation or bipartisanship,” wrote David Limbaugh in a column for CNS News. “From the time he stepped on the political stage, they’ve harassed, investigated, bullied, impeached, and censored him.”
This complaint strikes a chord on the right because it rests on a foundation several years in the making. All the talk about not “normalizing” Trump, “resisting” his authoritarian impulses, and holding him accountable for abuses of power have registered in the conservative worldview as denial of Trump’s legitimacy. In a column for Fox News, former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz argued that Democrats in 2016 worked to prevent the “peaceful transition of power” they now allege is so important in 2020 and into 2021. In rejecting Biden’s call for unity, conservatives are also rejecting the widely accepted liberal premise that Trump presented a threat to democracy, decency or anything but liberals’ cultural and political power.
Journalists play a particularly important role as characters in this narrative. Throughout Trump’s presidency, members of the mainstream media have fretted about how to cover an administration that lies brazenly and breaks democratic norms. They wondered if networks should broadcast press conferences in which officials spread disinformation and if major papers should use careful, diplomatic language (“Trump claimed without evidence …”) or just call the president a liar. Should a journalist dispassionately report “both sides” of a dispute when she ascertains that one side is bigoted? In the conservative telling of the past four years, these dilemmas were just excuses for biased reporting by liberal journalists.
74 million “fuckers”
One remark made by Biden’s campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley-Dillon, became a sort of parable for understanding Biden’s call for unity in conservative media. In an interview with Glamour magazine, O’Malley-Dillon said, “In the primary, people would mock [Biden], like, ‘You think you can work with Republicans?’ I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of fuckers. Mitch McConnell is terrible.” The right pounced. “Wishing for unity is fine,” wrote Aaron Kliegman on Gingrich360.com, “but in reality, Republicans are horrible, despicable creatures.”
President Trump has enjoyed the political fruit of being the symbol of perceived malfeasance. But he is just that: a symbol. In the rejections of Biden’s call for unity, we also see that conservative resentments go well beyond the treatment of Trump, and into larger developments in American culture and society.
As numerous conservative commentators asked, if liberals want unity, perhaps they should stop calling conservatives “fuckers,” fascists and Nazis?
“Who wouldn’t like a country in which we could enjoy cultural events together without being lectured about the alleged evils of the country, in which we could attend family events without being castigated as bigots, in which we could disagree and still enjoy one another?” wrote Ben Shapiro in a column. The Federalist, similarly, wrote that, “Democrats and media elites ... have capitalized on insulting and treating Republicans and Trump supporters beneath contempt.”
It’s also hard to overstate the centrality of race and identity in this narrative. While the explicit issue is not the success, prominence or presence of non-white people in American culture, the disdain for “identity politics” continues to fuel accusations of bias. In this telling, America is being torn asunder by frequent discussions of identity, gender, and especially race. From their vantage point, the scourge of people being called racists, and the frequent description of the country as systematically racist, is part of a larger, intentional attack on patriotism. “Democrats have spent years attempting to tear away … commonalities in favor of coalitional interest-group politics,” wrote Shapiro. “They’ve declared American culture bigotry embodied. Now they want unity.” In this way, the hypocrisy seems obvious.
Indeed, Shapiro’s framing of this as a dynamic that surfaces at “family events” is crucial, because in conservative media, “cancel culture” is about more than boycotts of stand-up comedians. It’s about family and community harmony and ostracization for what are believed to be mundane conservative beliefs. The media is seen as an elitist megaphone spreading un-American values to the rank-and-file liberals in conservatives’ lives. The conservative equivalent of the Trump-supporting uncle of liberal lore, who must be confronted at Thanksgiving, is the right-leaning parent alienated from her brainwashed kids because she dares to be God-fearing and patriotic. Liberals and the media stand accused not just of tearing apart the country, but ripping away the conservative audience’s own children.
What jumps out about right-wing reactions to Biden’s appeals is how aggressively their leaders moved to frame the story through the left’s insincerity and contemptuousness. Trumpism and right-wing populism aren’t simply a reflection of followers’ deeply entrenched racial resentments, status anxieties or anti-egalitarian ideologies. The demagogic side of this movement is constantly cajoling its adherents through emotionally powerful stories of persecution and villainy.
We have heard these stories in ongoing interviews with conservatives as part of a research project for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, as well. Many view politics as a battle against liberal forces bent on discrediting, shaming, punishing and otherwise excising conservatives from democratic life.
This dynamic makes many journalists uneasy. It’s frightening to be cast as a villain by a movement that has shown a willingness to deploy violence. It’s also enraging to be lied about, and annoying to have one’s attention pointed to right-wingers’ grievances when the policies and practices of their leaders have wrought so much destruction.
But there is an opportunity here as well. If the right-wing media’s cajoling can be interrupted, and the emotional thrall of their “deep story” challenged, their adherents’ loyalties may prove more fragile than they appear.
To that end, journalists should take note that much of the right-wing media’s narrative relies on journalists being ignorant of the premises that conservatives have come to accept as true. How could the media treat Biden’s call for unity credulously after the obviously unfair treatment of Trump? After the flagrant attempts to alienate conservatives from their children? Because these premises have long been accepted, the only coherent answers are that journalists are acting with insincerity or contempt. In short, right-wing media exploit journalists’ unfamiliarity with the rejection of right-wing narratives to portray them as a disconnected, foreign entity who doesn’t respect or value conservatives enough to tell them the truth.
There are good reasons that many journalists want to avoid amplifying and reinforcing right-wing media’s frames. Yet, there’s also a need to contest these deep stories directly. Journalists who want to take this path will need to engage with the right-wing spin on political events by acknowledging the underlying assumptions such spin builds upon, and then accurately characterizing them as the interpretation of right-wing elites. In turn, those interpretations should be subject to scrutiny.
Signaling awareness of the narrative scaffolding upon which conservative arguments rest should help to counteract the portrayal of journalists as ignorant outsiders. Identifying its source might help to put some distance between conservative audiences and the pundits who seek to mobilize them. Further, as Whitney Phillips observes, there’s little chance of challenging misinformation fervently embraced by a social group unless one digs through underlying layers of stories that make such misinformation seem plausible in the first place.
Diminishing the lure of the right wing media bubble will take time. Few of the Fox News faithful today will trust NPR tomorrow. But to defend democracy, journalists will need to connect more people with trustworthy reporting, and to do that, they will need to do more than check facts and identify lies. They need to contend with the deep stories upon which right-wing zeal and myths are built.