By about six months into the Trump presidency, most media-conservatives had figured out how to win back over the freshly remodeled right-wing audience they previously thought they understood.
Standing up to runaway spending and big-government overreach were no longer winning themes. Neither were promoting free markets, personal responsibility, and moral decency. Constitutional conservatism? That was yesterday’s news. So was the importance of strong and competent American leadership both domestically and abroad.
A few things remained the same, like the culture war and those evil left-wing progressives hell-bent on destroying the America we love. But the broader formula that would all but assure those who followed it a healthier and more lucrative future in the business (at least for the next four years) was Trump fandom.
I’m talking about the folklore portrayal of Donald Trump as America’s great savior, a man who defied enormous odds to win the presidency, and was working tirelessly to deliver the country from years of societal decay brought on by the political left and the government establishment. For that, according to those who’d adopted the narrative as the central thesis of their brand, Trump deserved celebratory, unconditional loyalty and obedience. And those who stood in his way, or even so much as criticized him, or questioned his judgment, rhetoric, and actions, were the enemy.
Often that enemy was the media, usually the liberal media but really anyone who was reporting stories that were inconvenient to the president. Conservative commentators who rejected Trumpism were seen as especially horrid individuals — traitors in fact, even when they hadn’t changed their political and ideological positions on anything.
Particularly unsettling was watching a number of 2016 election-era “Never Trump” conservatives, upon realizing what Trump’s White House tenure could mean for their careers, do a rhetorical about-face on much of what they’d stood and spoken out for over many years. They even started publicly attacking their conservative colleagues (including friends), for still saying what they themselves had been saying just months earlier.
Principles were out. Trump-partisanship was in. And little has changed since then.
Those who chose to maintain their intellectual consistency, personal integrity, and conservative sensibilities paid a significant professional price in the era of Trump — a price that included lost radio shows, less air-time, contributor contracts not being renewed, speaking engagements drying up, and far fewer web-hits.
Those who sold out, by and large, reached new professional heights.
Looking back at that time, it’s still pretty striking how easily the political makeover came for some. People like Mollie Hemingway, Mark Levin, and Greg Gutfeld, who were once outspoken Trump critics, turned into some of the president’s most shameless sycophants and defenders. When one looks back at National Review’s famous “Against Trump” issue from 2016, they’ll find contributor names like Glenn Beck, Ben Domenech, Brent Bozell, Katie Pavlich, and Dana Loesch… all of whom now bend over backwards not to say anything the slightest bit disparaging about Trump. Some are even busy at the moment promoting Trump’s 2020 election conspiracy theories.
But as stark as such changes were, Trumpist commentary proved to be pretty simple, at least from an argumentative standpoint. It was definitely easier than laying out intellectual, good-faith thoughts on nuanced political topics. All one had to do is follow a cookie-cutter approach:
You begin with the premise that anything you said prior to the Trump era no longer applies, because the stakes are so much higher now. It’s even acceptable to pretend you never said those things in the first place. Sure, others will occasionally draw attention to your past statements, to point out your breathtaking hypocrisy, but you can just ignore those people because Trump and the Trump base — your key audience — don’t care about such things. All that matters is what you’re saying now, in service to Trump.
Next, you insist that the good things that have happened during Trump’s tenure (and there certainly have been some good things) are historically unprecedented in their greatness, and wouldn’t have come to fruition under any other president’s leadership. It doesn’t matter that in some cases Trump had little or nothing to do with them. It doesn’t matter that in some cases, good decisions he has made were so elementary that they would have been made by any president, or that they weren’t even “unprecedented” to begin with. It doesn’t even matter when the perceived victories are purely symbolic. Under Trump, they are glorious, single-handed achievements for which he should be recognized as one of the greatest presidents of all time.
Lastly, you rely on the whataboutism game whenever you can. It is effectively your Trump card to be played whenever you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to comment on the latest, outlandish and indefensible thing our president has done. Sure, true believers in Trumpism (like Lou Dobbs) will directly defend literally anything and everything the president does, but those who see value in not coming across as psychologically deranged on national television prefer the less clinical whataboutism route. The tactic lets you run interference for Trump by evoking similarly bad past behavior from someone on the political left (often in the mainstream media). Doing so serves as a magical defense against whatever Trump just did.
Sometimes the whataboutism comparisons line up, including in weight and scope, but far more often they don’t. A lot of times they’re not even in the same ballpark, and require rather absurd straw-man support from “the deep state” and “the establishment” to pull the pieces together. And when even that doesn’t work, it’s the unhinged reaction from some on the left, to whatever Trump just did, that becomes the real topic of concern.
But it all comes back to the narrative that Trump’s behavior is always defensible because liberals (and his other opponents) have created — in some way, shape, or form — a precedent or need for it. And those who preach this narrative can pull it off without drawing much attention to their past or current condemnations of the other side’s conduct, because — again — hypocrisy doesn’t matter when it’s delivered in service to Trump.
But now, the Trump era (at least in its current form) is almost over. In just a few weeks, Donald Trump will be gone from the White House, and Joe Biden will be sworn into office. While I don’t expect for a second that Trump will fade from the media spotlight (at least not anytime soon), it will be interesting to see how media-conservatives who went all-in on Trumpism will adapt to the new environment.
The culture war and “liberals gone wild” stuff will certainly remain big themes. So will liberal media bias. Those items transcend the landscape, regardless of who’s in power, and often deserve to.
But I suspect we’ll see far less whataboutism once Trump and his antics are no longer occupying every news cycle. His conduct as a private citizen won’t demand nearly the attention nor clean-up work that it currently does, and no one’s going to spend a lot of time running interference for Trump’s goofy acolytes in congress, like Matt Gaetz. I do, however, expect whataboutism to grow far more prevalent on the left, after four years of the “anything goes” mentality from Trump and the right. It’s hard to imagine that arsenal of protective shields going unused.
And of course, whenever they do use it, the right will cry foul without a hint of expressed irony.
Will media-conservatives suddenly care about conservative things again? Like moral character, personal responsibility, and small-government principles? Will they go back to lambasting careless, demagogic political rhetoric? Hey, remember how the national debt was a really big deal… about $7 trillion ago?
While it remains unclear if these people will wondrously revert back to their old selves from four or five years ago, they’ve already proven that past positions and rhetoric don’t particularly matter… which means it’s entirely feasible. Or perhaps they’ll just keep saying whatever they think the base wants them to say on any given day. Confirmation bias, after all, is a very powerful thing.
I’m guessing a lot of these individuals don’t even know the answer themselves, and are still trying to figure it out.
It will also be interesting to see what’s in store for those in the conservative media who didn’t sell out to Trumpism. I’m talking about that much maligned crowd who took a huge professional risk by continuing to play things straight. Jay Caruso of the Washington Examiner recently recognized some of these folks in his weekly newsletter. It was a good starter list. To it, I’d also add Jay himself, Guy Benson, Stephen Hayes, and this website’s owner, Bernie Goldberg.
“They all decided the proper path meant telling the truth instead of choosing sides,” wrote Caruso.
I think that’s an important point, and I hope it carries some weight as things begin to settle in the post-Trump media landscape. What I do know is that the Trump-era made clear which conservative commentators were saying what they responsibly felt their viewers, listeners, and readers, needed to hear… and which ones chose to cash in by feeding enthusiastic Trump fans a steady diet of red, hyper-partisan meat.
Let’s hope that sincerity and credibility matter a bit more in the future.
Note from John: I’ve been writing a weekly non-political newsletter since October, covering topics like art, music, humor, travel, society and culture. I’ve been surprised by, and thankful for, how many people have been signing up for it. If it sounds interesting to you, I’d love for you to subscribe (it’s free).