Peril comes with taking up a position in today’s polemical trenches alongside a man with no convictions. In keeping with President Trump’s hard line on immigration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April launched a “zero tolerance” policy vis-a-vis “criminal illegal entry.” Noted Sessions, “To those who wish to challenge the Trump administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: Illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice.”
Omitted from the Justice Department announcement was its core ugliness. The spike in prosecutions, as it turns, out would necessitate the separation of children and parents at the border, with about 2,000 kids so yanked between April 19 and the end of May. Once the backlash surged, so did the gaslighting. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claimed there was no policy to separate families, that “Congress alone” could fix the matter. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke over and over again about following the law.
Which brings us to Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who appears to seesaw between parroting the White House line and dictating it.
Hannity is known as the president’s “shadow chief of staff,” and a man reaches that exalted perch only via skill. Look, for instance, at how Hannity maneuvered through this week’s awkward events. When criticism of the family-separation policy was peaking earlier this week, Hannity lashed back at the critics by saying such things as, “As I said earlier, no one likes the idea of separating any child from any parent. But this issue has been in the hands of Congress, and right now, the whole issue can be fixed. Every law can be changed, and if they did their job, it would happen. It is the law.” And: “Fix the law.”
Everyone who had stuck a neck out for the Trump-Sessions act of inhumanity — i.e., Nielsen, Sanders, Hannity, Corey Lewandowski, among many others — found themselves exposed on Wednesday, when Trump signed an executive order that backpedaled. “We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together. I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” said Trump.
While many of the policy’s defenders can duck the media spotlight for a few days, Hannity has no such luxury. He hosts a weeknight program on Fox News, and his ratings are the envy of his competition. Accordingly, this man has to find the least intrusive, the most logical-sounding, the most plausibly specious way of disappearing his previous remarks and replacing them with a brand-new defense of the president. That genius was fully engaged on Wednesday night, as Hannity offered these words about the executive order:
“And earlier today — by the way, the president has been saying it all week. The president addressed this important issue, and he signed an executive order undoing their damage and ensuring that illegal immigrant families would be kept intact. By the way, not his law, he didn’t pass it. Congress did. Another president signed it, but he fixed it.”
If you’re a Hannity viewer, and you missed the Justice Department policy announcement or the hundreds of fact-checking stories on just who caused this crisis, you might suppose that the family-separation policy fell from the scorching skies of the Southwest onto the vast U.S.-Mexico border. And there it sat, awaiting a “fix” from the president.
Elsewhere in his rant on the matter, Hannity continued casting the impression that the scandal was purely legislative: “By the way, what Donald Trump signed today, let me be blunt, it’ll last five minutes in a courtroom before it’s thrown out, but at least gives Congress time to do their job,” he said.
The contortions showcased on “Hannity” aren’t an isolated or accidental phenomenon. They’re programmatic, not to mention unconscionable. Earlier this week, the general tenor of Fox News prime-time apologism for Trump’s immigration policies caught the attention of Hollywood types working with Fox News’s corporate sibling. In response to a tweet highlighting Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s argument that people should believe the opposite of what mainstream outlets are reporting, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane riffed, “In other words, don’t think critically, don’t consult multiple news sources, and in general, don’t use your brain. Just blindly obey Fox News. This is fringe [stuff], and it’s business like this that makes me embarrassed to work for this company.”
Antagonism from members of the Hollywood elite, of course, can only delight people such as Hannity, Carlson and Laura Ingraham, the other main feature in Fox News’s prime-time opinion block. In cable news, ratings justify everything, and Fox News opinionators won’t imperil their standing with the backbone of the Trump plume. And that particular demographic cares a great deal about immigration, as voter surveys have concluded. Per the Atlantic:
Contrary to popular narratives, only a small portion—just 27 percent—of white working-class voters said they favor a policy of identifying and deporting immigrants who are in the country illegally. Among the people who did share this belief, Trump was wildly popular: 87 percent of them supported the president in the 2016 election.
We don’t know for sure how many of those folks watch Fox News — probably a great, great number. We do know, however, that Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham fashion their presentations with them in mind. In her remarks this week, Ingraham referred to the facilities holding separated children as “summer camps”; Hannity grasped for any stray talking point to deflect from the president’s culpability; Carlson earlier this year shouted down the president when he appeared to go a bit wobbly on immigration — signals to the Trump White House that if you want to get even more extreme on this policy area, your cheerleaders on cable news remain with you. No one nourishes white cultural anxiety like this crew.