“The media is the establishment!” Donald Trump proclaimed at a rally last week. It was a rather off-the-cuff remark meant to lambast the mainstream, “liberal” media’s cozy relationship with Hillary Clinton; but, as is sometimes the case with off-the-cuff remarks, Trump stumbled into a profound truth. For the media has always implicitly been the establishment—only for his party, a party built through the post-Goldwater rise of conservative media, and whose de-facto leaders have always encompassed the loudest, most prominent right-wing media voices.
If Donald Trump’s team of advisers—led by campaign CEO Steve Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart News, and Roger Ailes, former chairman and CEO of Fox News—looks like the board for a right-wing cable news show, it is, rather surprisingly, just a part of a greater Republican tradition. Back in the Reagan years, William F. Buckley’s contemporaries at the magazine National Review populated political office, espousing their intellectual, fiscal brand of conservatism, and Reagan’s speeches were written largely by writers for the Wall Street Journal.
So what is monumental about 2016 is not the presence of media advising the Republican presidential candidate—it’s the fact that a drastically new media has taken hold of the party.
The modern Republican Party has always been home to some “strange bedfellows,” as famous cognitive scientist Steven Pinker once said: economic libertarians, Christian evangelicals, and others—“united by a common enemy,” but never exactly equals within the party. Ever since intellectual conservative media outlets like National Review warded off the John Birch Society from mainstream party politics in the Sixties, the Republican Party has pointedly branded itself towards some bedfellows and only winked at others.
But the tide is changing, and it is long overdue. Amidst the often convoluted, insulated nature of politics, the media has always offered the simplest, most unconscious form of democracy: just choose your favorite station, column, or online forum to tune into.
Just look at who actually holds the party’s attention today—more Republicans get their news from “Drudge Report” and “Breitbart News” than Wall Street Journal, according to the Pew Research Center—and you can see why a drastic revolution in presidential politics, a Trump figure, was inevitable.
By tracing the history of the New Right as a history of conservative media, we can how see the powerful New Right coalition was constructed, and why today Trump is happening—the “strange bedfellows” upending the mattress altogether.
“We who voted for [Goldwater] in 1964 believe he won, it just took 16 years to count the votes.” — Washington Post columnist George Will, 1998.
Will’s point is apt: Reagan won in a landslide in 1980 on nearly an identical platform to Goldwater’s in 1964, a historic loser. But while the policy stayed the same, it would be difficult to find two more different campaigns—or candidates, for that matter: Goldwater is remembered for his hard, combative edge; his nuclear aggression; and his famous line “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Reagan, on the other hand, was the “Great Communicator,” a sunny conservative who made small government sound compassionate.
But consider the important fact that they were pandering to two completely different bases, two different iterations of an evolving Republican Party.
Back in 1962, before the New Right coalition, concern about the growing power and influence of the Soviet Union, coupled with increased racial tensions, had many on the Right quietly considering the unorthodox possibility of Barry Goldwater, a staunch anti-establishment, anti-communist Senator from Arizona, for president. But the only political organization at the time that dared suggest publicly his nomination was the John Birch Society.
To understand the John Birch Society, a remarkably well organized group of around 100,000 members at the time, is to understand the extreme headache they caused for Buckley and the other “respectable” conservatives trying to rebrand American conservatism to the mainstream. The John Birch Society, like the Tea Party today, had its roots in a mistrust of large government; but they gained national notoriety, much like altright of today, largely as a conspiracy theory group, peddling theories such as their founder, Robert Welch’s claim that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist spy. Some of their teachings, though, such as the idea that sexual education in schools was in fact teaching promiscuity, struck a chord with some Americans, especially those nostalgic for the buttonedup fifties.
“By 1961,” Buckley’s biographer John B. Judis wrote, “Buckley was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn rather than leading toward the kind of conservatism National Review had promoted.”
So when Goldwater met with Buckley in 1962 to talk about the possibility of his 1964 campaign, the big question was what to do about the Birchers. “ Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society…. I’m not talking about Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks, I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs,” Buckley remembered Goldwater telling him in a Commentary magazine piece.
It was decided Buckley would take the fight to them, exposing Welch to “scorn and derision” in National Review. But the task for Goldwater was tougher.
The Birchers’ votes were important, but so was the perception of the rest of the country. In a rather disconcerting move—one quite resembling Trump’s perfunctory renunciation of white supremacist David Duke—Goldwater in a 1962 letter in the National Review called for Robert Welch to resign, but couched it in the end with: “ Mr. Welch is only one man, and I do not believe his views…represent the feelings of most members of the John Birch Society.”
By the summer of 1964, Goldwater had locked up the Republican nomination, but his image continued to dog him against the incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson aired his famous “Daisy” commercial, where a ticking atomic bomb behind a little girl clearly alluded to the danger of Goldwater holding the nuclear codes. (It seems to be the obvious inspiration for Hillary Clinton’s recent “In Times of Crisis” commercial about Donald Trump.) And the gap between Goldwater’s fervent supporters and the rest of the country, many of whom thought he was a volatile extremist, grew wider.
In order to have any resemblance of a chance in the general election, Goldwater had to pivot. In August of 1964—funnily enough, the same month that 52 years later Donald Trump would awkwardly apologize for causing “personal pain” to anyone, and dance around his hardline on immigration—he appeared a much different character (“Goldwater II,” coined by Richard Hofstadter) at the Hershey Hotel, promising to execute the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he had voted against; to “reject extremists’ aid”; and to consult with Eisenhower before making any moves in foreign policy.
Newspapers weren’t fooled. New York Times called it “clearly directed at reassuring Northern liberals and not Southerners,” and the Harvard Crimson called it “Hershey with Nuts.”
But Goldwater’s awkward pivoting, which Trump harks back to today, pointed at a larger issue: the Republican base wasn’t unified. The Bircher right was the most well-organized faction of the party, one large and rabid enough to squeak a heated party nomination; but they were too off-putting in thegeneral election. Exciting one constituency came at the expense of others, and there was no smooth message to mollify them all.
For Trump, this reality, this recrudescence of jockeying Republican bases, is now reflected in his very campaign team: campaign chief and veteran Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway calls for Trump to moderate his positions; CEO Steve Bannon, of the altright, calls for a sharper nativism and the same harsh tone. Flipping between the two is inherently clumsy, like we saw with Goldwater in 1964—Buckley in one ear, and the Birchers in the other.
By 1980, however, something had changed: Republicans became united behind the new brand of fiscal conservatism. It seemed Buckley had won; and the revolution was l ed by the remarkable growth of new conservative infrastructure—magazines, TV, direct mail—that had grown to 47% of market circulation in 1973, compared with 35% in 1964. These magazines helped create the new economic brand: 50% of the articles published by these magazines from 1973 to 2004 used primarily economic arguments to the demonstrate flaws of government intervention, a sharp increase from the 29% prior to 1973.
The new dominant conservative media took a seat at the table. Writers from National Review and The Wall Street Journal—such as Peggy Noonan, Anthony Dolan, and Aram Bakshian Jr.— crafted Ronald Reagan’s 1980s speeches. Compare their rhetoric with Goldwater’s speeches in 1964, written by Karl Hess—a libertarian ideologue who was once fired from a newspaper for refusing to write an obituary for the “social fascist” Franklin D. Roosevelt—and you can see the sharp change in the Republican brand, the pointed reframing of the same policies.
Just look at their convention speeches: Goldwater began with “ Now, my fellow Americans, the tide has been running against freedom” and ended with his famous wink at the Birchers: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” He was an ideologue through and through, and didn’t even mention the economy until the middle. Reagan, in sharp contrast, began with the threat of a “disintegrating economy,” and finished quoting FDR: “For three long years I have been going up and down this country preaching that government—federal, state, and local—costs too much.” And thirteen of his fifteen advertisements dealt exclusively with the economy.
Where were the Birchers in 1980? They were still part of the rebranded conservatism, the more palatable, fiscally responsible one; but by then they were kept far from the mainstream center of power. As Anthony Ashbolt wrote, “a large part of the Right’s success story post Goldwater involves a distancing from supposed extremist elements.” And the most significant transpiring in the New Right was, as Sean Wilentz wrote in The New Yorker, “winning extremists’ allegiance while…pursuing realistic strategies.”
Today, Donald Trump and the newest right-wing media have wildly upset this careful brand and balance of power. Remember that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump began his candidacy with his “Birther” conspiracy—the idea that Barack Obama was in fact born in Kenya—and you hear echoes of the Birchers.
Swept under the party banner, shunted from the mainstream by the party elites, the ghosts of the John Birch Society have risen to mainstream party prominence and dismantled the power structure of the Republican Party that Buckley, Reagan and the rest of the New Right worked so hard to build.
The newest medialed revolution is complete. Fox News is the #1 cable show in the country, and its grip on Republican viewership is powerful: according to the Pew Research Center, Republicans are almost 70% more likely to get their news from a Fox News show—like Sean Hannity—than from the Wall Street Journal, which polled evenly with the supposed fringe “Breitbart News” and far below “Rush Limbaugh” and “the Drudge Report.” Couple that with the fact that the majority of Americans get most of their news from social media, and you can see how the ring-wing media bubble has furnished Trump’s rise.
There is no question who the most influential Republicans today are, and it’s not the “intellectuals,” or even the politicians. Like 1980, it’s the media—only now it’s completely new entertainers who grip the actual Republican audience. It’s the Hannitys of the world, the Limbaughs, the Ingraham’s. If you haven’t heard of them, you’re with the most Americans: just 45% of Americans have even heard of Rush Limbaugh. 45% percent of all “consistent conservatives,” in contrast, watched his show this week.
Increasingly, Republicans seem out of touch with both the indecisive “politician-speak” of their establishment party leaders and overly-technical fiscal conservatives talking about markets and trade that don’t seem to apply to them. Hence the new right-wing media, the powerful new media establishment; for anyone would rather listen to people who talk like they do, and put their issues in clear-cut terms they understand.
Trump’s greatest strength and historical novelty is that he embodies all of these qualities of a right-wing news host while also somehow running for president. When Trump speaks it is far more reminiscent of Sean Hannity than Mitt Romney; he’s transcended the media intermediary. And for the past year, Trump has been the nation’s biggest reality TV star, the central character of the 2016 political drama, driving TV ratings through the roof with his rallies or by calling into news stations. In the same way Reagan, a former actor and the “Great Communicator,” was revolutionary through his radio addresses, Trump, perhaps the “Great Entertainer,” leverages his celebrity and reality-TV persona into an experience identical to his fans’ favorite nightly show.
So perhaps the greatest change of 2016 is not after all the new dominant right-wing media or what they mean for the shifting power structure of the Republican Party—it’s that for the first time the media may have bypassed the politicians altogether and catapulted one of their own into the office of the presidency.