Right-wing media increasingly resemble Pravda, the Soviet state newspaper that propagandized on behalf of the regime for decades no matter how much oppression and destruction the Kremlin inflicted on people across the globe. Donald Trump, anyone can see, is a malignant force and a threat to democracy in the United States, but his media stooges at Fox News and other outlets continue to present him as a Grand Colossus of History, a great man worth following. The thing is, they are not leading their viewers into delusion, they are following market demands. Trumpism is a cult.
Remember the primary? In 2015, Fox News was actually against Donald Trump. Host Megan Kelly tried to eviscerate him at the first Republican debate. When he responded in kind and was rewarded with soaring poll numbers, Fox defenestrated Kelly and switched to pro-Trump programming, a business strategy with which they have now stuck for six years. Trump was the first mover in this relationship; he created a market for propaganda.
But if Trump set the initial terms of the relationship, right-wing media both shaped his political strategy and infected his own mind. In the primary and afterward, conservative media gave Trump constant attention, boosting his already-superior name recognition and giving maximum exposure to his brand of white-nationalist politics. Republican voters did–and still do–love it. The constant publicity he received from Fox News was indispensable in establishing his bond with the right-wing base. At the same time, it fed his predilection for conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship. These, in turn, became crucial parts of his politics.
Right-wing media ensured that no amount of incompetence or malevolence could break Trump’s bond with his followers. If they consumed more honest media, they might have changed their minds at the sight of families being separated at the border or, God save us, Trump-loving insurrectionists mounting a terrorist attack on the Capitol. But Trump had the advantage of a media ecosystem that purveyed regime-friendly lies, insulating Trump’s strongest supporters from contrary information. They could believe that Obama started the family-separation policy (he did not) or that the insurrection was a false flag operation perpetrated by antifa (a lunatic claim).
The tone of the right-wing media both reflected and amplified Trump’s omnipresent anger. Holed up in the White House residence with TVs on every wall, Trump absorbed hysteria from his favorite Fox hosts. He then transferred this rage to his base, and so on in a feedback loop of outrage that swept not only the 35% of the country that worships the former president but in fact all of American society. Demagogues thrive on hysteria. Right-wing media both stoked it and bounced it back off of the former president and his twitter feed.
Nowhere were these cycles of outrage more significant than in Trump’s third-favorite pastime (after TV binges and languid golf outings), the famous MAGA rallies. Fox News carried countless numbers of them live. They conveyed the intensity of Trump’s core support and, once again, magnified the chaos of politics in the Trump era. With right-wing cable networks carrying his rallies live, Trump was able to use them as a tool to stay competitive even in a race he would eventually lose. He likely carried North Carolina because of the mask-free rallies he held in the state.
So, the relationship between Donald Trump and his media retinue is more complex than the story of straight-propaganda that is often portrayed. It didn’t trust create him; he set the stage for, and made more profitable, their strategy of Orwellian derp. They made him more conspiratorial, and he made sure that his followers heard the conspiracy theories. This was truly a marriage made in Hell.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.