Over the last few years, as ‘government shutdown’ went from being a crazy ass thing Newt Gingrich did twenty years ago – never to be tried again – to the top item on the Republican policy agenda, you could hear more and more Republicans saying something like this: We thought it was this great thing that we had our own cable news network as an arm of the GOP or the conservative movement, echoing talking points, spinning the news. But at a certain point we realized Fox News wasn’t working for us. We’re working for Fox News.
This isn’t something I’m fantasizing for effect. It’s a real recognition by real, specific people. Not everyone of course. In some ways it comes very much from ‘the establishment’ : elected leaders, campaign operatives, non-BS-based conservative commentators and intellectuals. They thought Fox News was the media arm or comms department of the GOP. But at some point the GOP, the institutional Republican party, the people who run campaigns, formulate policy or try to enact it, became a junior operational affiliate of Fox News. Whether Fox is principally a hugely profitable media company or an ideological endeavor is largely beside the point: the balance of power had shifted fundamentally. Like in decrepit, fragmenting imperial states where the powers-that-be keep on a powerless nominal emperor because he is so easy and convenient to dominate, a figure like John Boehner was kept at the helm by the fringe figures who had become the dominant force in GOP politics along with Fox News. Of course, that’s the conceit of Trumpites and Fox, a populist rebellion against the ‘establishment’ and ‘party elite.’ Only that conceit is mainly self-flattery and it obscures the deeper fragmentation and institutional collapse within the GOP.
Several months ago I described the build of ‘nonsense debt’ and ‘hate debt’ in the GOP which made Trump’s takeover possible. Indeed, whether genuine or merely opportunistic, you now have more than a few Never Trump conservative media personalities stepping forward to explain how the rightwing media echo-chamber created a framework in which you are immediately discredited if you do not subscribe to a series of demonstrably false claims, non-facts and theories. And there you have it: Years of build up of fantastical conspiracy theories, completely unrealistic political goals, all leaving the party ungovernable and vulnerable to a takeover by someone like Donald Trump who was willing to satisfy the demand the institutional GOP had studiously cultivated but was both unwilling and unable to satiate. Will Saletan had an observation several months ago which captures this and which I continue to think is one of most apt insights I’ve seen into contemporary American politics: the GOP is a failed state and Donald Trump is its warlord.
This isn’t just a clever aside. The prism of state failure is actually an apt way to look at the progression of the GOP over the last two decades. Trump isn’t the leader of the GOP. He’s not trying to be. Historic party leaders – FDR, Reagan, possibly Obama – fuse party coalitions together on new and transformative terms. McCain or Romney may have failed to achieve that goal in its entirety. But Trump hasn’t even tried. He’s simply taken control of the largest constituency block and decided to rule it as his own. The party’s institutional apparatus was too weak to prevent it. Like warlordization in a state collapse context, Trump’s action confirms the breakdown of institutional control but also makes recovery and unity even more difficult to recover.
The social realities of urbanization, race and deindustrialization are the true engines of change rumbling beneath our politics and driving these changes. But conservative media – Fox News, Talk Radio, Drudge, Breitbart – has been the mechanism of the transformation within the GOP. Fox News as the leader of the pack has increasingly been the one defining the choices and options for the GOP, even taking on the role of providing sinecures for once and future Fox-approved presidential nominees during the off-season. And out of the blue we’re now seeing the transformation take full effect with Trump.
Kellyanne Conway appears to be a nominal campaign manager, functioning as something more like a national spokesperson and chief surrogate. The campaign is now really being run by the head of Breitbart news, the disgraced former CEO of Fox News and talk radio host Laura Ingraham. Yes, yes, I know the latter two don’t have formal titles. But look at recent reporting about who Trump is really spending his time with and being advised by. Other than Limbaugh taking a sabbatical and taking over as chief strategist, I’m not sure how much more total the conservative media takeover of the rump GOP could be.
How this plays over the longer term is less clear to me. If the rumors are true that Trump wants to use his candidacy to launch a right-wing media empire, it could lead to an even more ridiculous development: right-wing media takes over the GOP; Trump takes over and takes the the GOP private in some sort of ersatz leveraged buyout of a distressed publicly traded company. For now at least the takeover seems total. And even though this precise configuration can’t outlast Trump’s likely defeat, it’s difficult to see how the warlordization of the GOP doesn’t become more entrenched by these events.