The Five’s ‘Mitt Derangement Syndrome’

A wise man once said, “Friends don’t let friends watch Fox News’s The Five when Dana Perino is on vacation.”

Well, I’m not sure how wise that man actually is. He’s a guy I follow on Twitter, and he at least seems to have a good head on his shoulders. The two of us commiserate from time to time over the current state of the conservative media.

The joke (though it’s not really a joke) is that Perino, who’s been co-hosting The Five since its debut in 2011, is the only levelheaded voice that remains on the nightly panel. And when she’s not there to balance out the commentary with some reason and a healthy dose of intellectual consistency, her heavily partisan colleagues (with the exception of whoever happens to be sitting in the liberal seat that night) tend to use the opportunity to engage in a no-holds-barred competing display of slobbering Trump sycophantism that would make even Sean Hannity blush.

That was certainly the case last Wednesday, when morbid curiosity led me to tune into a Perino-less episode just to see how four fifths of the panel would spin Trump’s extraordinary public statements from earlier that day, in which the president ripped General Mattis’s performance as Defense Secretary, and offered a bizarre defense of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Twitter hot-takes from Trump’s cabinet meeting were pretty amusing:

Unsurprisingly, the show’s producers chose to lead the show with a different story: Mitt Romney’s Washington Post op-ed from New Years Day, where Romney (in addition to laying out his plans as a freshman U.S. Senator) criticized President Trump’s lack of character.

The Five knows its audience, and political feuds with Trump are always a much hotter topic with that crowd than the president’s typically hard to follow (and even harder to defend) foreign policy ramblings. And as is usually the case in regard to those who publicly criticize Trump, Romney was portrayed as the villain. But not just any villain, mind you… A super-villain.

The fervor that accompanied the segment was really something to behold. Someone tuning in late might have mistakenly believed, based on the hosts’ reactions, that Romney hadn’t criticized an elected leader, but rather penned a piece endorsing child abuse.

Still, there was indeed some value to Wednesday’s A-block, and it came in the form of a visual outline describing the symptoms of a partisan disorder suffered by many on the political right. It’s been around for about three years now, and it will assuredly worsen in the coming months. It’s called Mitt Derangement Syndrome.

Totally original name, right? Don’t judge me too harshly.

Anyway, one of the key symptoms of MDS is Media Bargaining, in which sufferers contend that when Mitt Romney criticizes Donald Trump (which he has done on a handful of occasions now), he’s not doing so because he sincerely believes what he’s saying, but because he wants to seek acceptance or approval from the Mainstream Media.

“It’s tempting for Mitt. It feels good to get hugs from the media…” explained The Five’s Greg Gutfeld. Illustrating an amazing ability to read Romney’s deepest inner thoughts, he addressed the senator directly: “…this attention is just strange new respect that’s gone by tomorrow. The media may pretend to like you because you hate Trump, but they’re just using you.”

Gutfeld added, “So Mitt, that warm glow you feel from the left isn’t true love. It’s a bug zapper. They’ll pull you in as long as you dis Trump, but only until it’s time for them to fry your ass.”

“Burn!” some teenager from a decade ago might have said.

Now, there’s no doubt that the liberal media loves it when top-tier Republican leaders are criticized by other Republicans. This has been true for a very long time, and it goes without saying that the “new respect” liberal journalists claim to have for such folks is almost always disingenuous and short-lived.

What’s amusing is the notion that Romney (who took more abuse from the liberal media during his 2012 presidential run than Gutfeld will in his lifetime) doesn’t already know this. Anyone who’s been the victim of as many unfair political attacks as Mitt Romney obviously understands how media bias operates. And if he were truly interested in feeling a “warm glow” from those who previously portrayed him as evil, he would adjust his political positions to accommodate their liberal beliefs.

But Romney hasn’t done that. In his op-ed, he expressed the non-partisan importance of character in American leadership, as well as support for conservative policies that the liberal media fervently opposes.

What’s interesting is that Gutfeld himself was actually a frequent Trump critic up until election night of 2016, when it was clear that the Republican party and Fox News programming was committed to a new direction. Were his criticisms back then done to seek favor with the liberal media? I sure didn’t think so at the time, but by his current logic, they were.

Speaking of irony, it’s fun to watch Trump supporters point out that the media now likes Romney only because he’s critical of Trump, as they themselves trash Romney… only because he’s critical of Trump. After all, the media-conservatives that have been coming after Romney for his op-ed haven’t been refuting or challenging anything that he actually wrote. They just don’t like the fact that he had the nerve to write it.

The Five’s Jesse Watters covered a second symptom of MDS: Political Projection.

Again, rather than taking issue with Romney’s thoughts on Trump, Watters defended Trump by hurling a list of political criticisms at Romney.

“He just has awkward political instincts, and he does things in self-serving ways,” said Watters. “I think, remember how he changed his position on abortion, the individual mandate, immigration? In the 1980s, he says he wasn’t a Reagan Republican.”

So let me get this straight… Watters, who is one of Fox News’s most shameless and consistent Trump flatterers (the president even tweets quotes from him on occasion), has principled objections to self-serving politicians with awkward instincts, who weren’t lockstep with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and have changed their positions on abortion, universal healthcare, and immigration?

Back in the old days, when breathtaking hypocrisy was readily mocked, Watters would have been laughed out of the studio.

This brings us to Breathless Name-Calling, which Dan Bongino was thankfully on-hand to illustrate. Bongino, who was reportedly banned from at least one other Fox News show for issues related to his temper, is allegedly one of President Trump’s favorite political pundits (which would explain why the network has kept him on other programs).

“I’m pretty pissed about this. What a fraud,” said Bongino. He described Romney’s criticisms (past and present) as being disingenuous, and he described Romney himself with the following names: a big phony fake, a total hoax, the biggest fraud in politics, an idiot, a swamp rodent, a clown, a joke.

You won’t find this level of crack political insight on CNN, folks.

And frankly, you would have had a hard time finding it on Fox News in the pre-Trump era, even in a discussion about President Obama.

How did Bongino qualify his hatred of Romney? Again, it wasn’t related to the content of Romney’s op-ed, but rather Romney being insufficiently appreciative of Trump. You see, Trump endorsed Romney for president in 2012 (which Romney solicited) and for the U.S. Senate last year (which Romney didn’t solicit). Bongino also believes Romney owed Trump his gratitude for considering him for Secretary of State early in his administration.

Conservative commentator Guy Benson, did a good job of laying out the loyalty component of Bongino’s argument in his column the other day:

“Trump loyalists who call Romney an ingrate are mostly missing the point.  It’s true that Romney welcomed the president’s endorsement shortly after announcing his bid to replace Orrin Hatch, and that he entertained the president’s consideration for Secretary of State after the 2016 election.  It’s also true that Romney has sought or accepted Trump’s backing at various moments in his political career, particularly when he perceived Trump’s blessing to be useful to his own interests.  But it would be absurd to suggest that Romney somehow owes his Senate seat to Trump.  He was already going to be the odds-on favorite to win both the primary and general elections in Utah (whose citizens are not exactly Trumpist Republicans) in 2018; indeed, he prevailed by massive margins in both contests, having issued a handful of Trump denunciations along the way.  And the Secretary of State gambit appeared to be Romney exhibiting a willingness to serve the country, despite harboring suspicions that his very public courting may have been an elaborate and vindictive act of retaliatory humiliation.

In short, Trump and Romney owe each other virtually nothing at all at this point.  But both have been chosen by Republican voters, then general election voters, to represent them — so they owe it to those constituents to work together as much as possible to achieve worthwhile ends.”

It should also be noted that President Trump, despite not being in politics all that long, has a significant history of throwing fellow Republicans under the bus, including people like Jeff Sessions who endorsed and supported his presidential campaign and even served in his administration. I’m sure, in the interest of consistency, that Bongino was quite upset with the president on those occasions.

Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

This brings is to our final symptom Mitt Derangement Syndrome: Selective Word Sensitivity.

There’s a popular pro-Trump narrative often repeated on The Five (usually by Greg Gutfeld) that what President Trump says really doesn’t matter. The argument is that people in the media (and beyond) always transfix on Trump’s often outrageous language, when they should instead be paying attention to his deeds. It’s an interesting thesis, but for some baffling reason (as in the case of MDS), those same folks never apply that same standard to individuals who criticize President Trump.

I mean, if we’re supposed to judge elected leaders by their policies and not their rhetoric, why do the proponents of this narrative reliably get worked up whenever an elected leader says something negative about Trump? Aren’t we supposed to judge those representatives exclusively by their policies? And if so, what exactly is the policy complaint about Mitt Romney?

It seems that were it not for double standards, some news-commentary shows would have no standards at all.

How Will Fox News Fare in the Post-O’Reilly Era?

bo2With the sudden departure of top draw, Bill O’Reilly, from Fox News, and a restructuring of the channel’s weeknight lineup, it will be interesting to see how the network will fare.

Tucker Carlson, who has proven himself to be a ratings success in multiple time-slots on FNC, will be taking over O’Reilly’s old hour. The Five will move to prime-time, right after Carlson’s show. Eric Bolling will be hosting a new show of his own in The Five’s old spot (presumably a Keith Olbermann-esque countdown program entitled something like “The Ten Things I Love About Trump”). And Martha MacCallum’s temporary show, which follows Special Report, will become permanent.

Ratings-wise, the network will almost certainly take a hit (at least at first). Over his twenty-plus years at Fox, O’Reilly had built a huge, loyal following of viewers. They tuned in every night, eagerly bought his books, and turned out to see him on tour with the likes of Glenn Beck and Dennis Miller.

Sure, the show had lost much of its “No Spin” claim over the past two years. That responsibility was unwittingly abdicated to regular Factor guests like Charles Krauthammer, Brit Hume, and Bernie Goldberg, while O’Reilly himself adopted an unreasonably defensive posture when it came to President Trump (a personal friend of his). But if we learned anything throughout this past election cycle, it’s that a pro-Trump cable-news product isn’t going to lose viewers, and O’Reilly only benefited from his stance in the ratings.

Stephen Battaglio of the L.A. Times wrote in a piece on Wednesday:

It’s no exaggeration to say Fox News Channel’s loss of “The O’Reilly Factor” could be the equivalent of NBC losing its top-rated comedy “Friends” in 2004, which spelled the end of the network’s “Must-See TV” lineup that provided dominant ratings for years on Thursday night.

While that comparison may be a bit overblown, it’s a safe bet that Tucker Carlson (even with a Trump-friendly format) will have trouble maintaining O’Reilly’s level of viewership. O’Reilly had a famously unique style, and appealed to a bit older demographic that might not be as receptive to Carlson. While a younger audience (the coveted 25-54 year-old range) is typically sought after by network executives, the loss of that time-slot’s older viewers (who might just give up on cable-news commentary at the eight o’clock hour) would hurt the overall ratings picture.

This also wouldn’t be ideal news for The Five, as the show could use a strong lead-in (as Carlson had with O’Reilly) while it courts a wider audience than it has had in the afternoon hour. That being said, it’s been a long time since Fox has aired a co-hosted debate program in prime-time (the last being Hannity & Colmes which ended in early 2009). New viewers might just appreciate seeing something different, and with Eric Bolling gone from the panel, the discussions should be more substantive and less sycophantic. Then again, Jesse Watters is taking his place.

As is the case with any rebuilding period, there will likely be some trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t. And though Fox News always seems to land on its feet, and lock in their audience’s interest, I would hope that the network (as it moves forward) would also be mindful of the integrity that it has lost along the way.

Fox has always been in the cross-hairs of the legacy media (aka mainstream media) for presenting a conservative perspective on the news, but there used to be a level of seriousness behind the network’s “fair and balanced” mantra. There used to be a far more disciplined effort put forth to provide keen and trustworthy commentary. Unfortunately, that theme has been greatly diminished over the past two years as the network has become increasingly comfortable with portraying itself as a beacon of pro-Trump advocacy.

Though the channel’s serious journalists (mostly out of the Washington Bureau) have remained fair and true to their profession, the commentary-wing has grown increasingly shameless in its (sometimes admitted) obedience to the leader of the free world. Base-pandering and intellectual dishonesty have been tolerated beyond acceptable levels, and if that’s truly the only way for Fox News to pull the kind of numbers that it wants and expects,  the network has far worse problems on its hands than figuring out how to adjust with the loss of Bill O’Reilly.

Broken Slate