Sean Hannity is a “welfare queen,” according to fellow conservative Bret Stephens of the New York Times. The Reagan-themed insult refers to Hannity's use of a federal guaranteed-loan program to fund real estate purchases and is meant to suggest that the Fox News host who often decries government handouts is a wealthy hypocrite.
But Hannity's target audience comprises the same people who voted for President Trump, an even wealthier figure who complained that immigrants are taking U.S. jobs yet employed foreign workers. Walking the talk is not necessarily required, if the talk is appealing enough.
Hannity's talk was on-point Monday night. Rather than address the particulars of a Guardian report about his real estate empire, Hannity simply told viewers that “the liberal media ... can't stop talking about me,” then played a montage of people saying his name on other networks.
“They are obsessed,” he said. On Hannity's program, whatever the “liberal media” is “obsessed” with is automatically “fake news.”
“The show will always be fair and balanced,” he added. “We are not the destroy-Trump media. We never will be. Let not your heart be troubled. One of my favorite — my favorite biblical quote.”
In the Bible, the quote is attributed to Jesus, comforting disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Borrowing the phrase under slightly less solemn circumstances, Hannity sought to focus viewers on what he hopes is the only thing that really matters: his commitment to providing them the best version of the Trump presidency.
The proposed bottom line is that Hannity offers a service — a nightly escape to a world in which Trump is an unalloyed success unfairly attacked by people who just don't love the United States very much — and real estate deals don't hamper Hannity's ability to deliver such a service.
What's important to his audience is not that Hannity lives out the conservative ideal of rugged individualism; what's important is that he be entertaining.
The Guardian report chronicled Hannity's investments in hundreds of properties but spotlighted two in particular: apartment complexes in low-income parts of Georgia that he bought for $22.7 million in 2014 while borrowing $17.9 million in the form of mortgages insured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Journalist Jon Swaine explained the details:
The Georgia mortgages supported by HUD were guaranteed as part of a program aimed at protecting investors such as Hannity who buy rental apartment buildings. The government promises to cover losses if borrowers default on their mortgages. Borrowers pay an insurance premium to HUD in return. Bigger loan guarantees are available if the building houses low-income families.
There is nothing inherently wrong with making use of the federal program, which is designed to encourage landlords to rent to tenants who might seem unreliable. A landlord such as Hannity can rest easy, knowing that if his tenants falls behind on rent, the mortgage on his apartment building is covered because taxpayers have assumed some of the risk.
“It's a pretty standard way of financing a property,” said Mark Willis, a senior policy fellow at New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
“It is to be expected that wealthy individuals involved in real estate deals will find it advantageous to engage in borrowing to use other people's money,” added Lawrence J. Vale, a public-housing expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
On his website, Hannity wrote, “It is ironic that I am being attacked for investing my personal money in communities that badly need such investment.”
In reality, Hannity is being attacked for his apparent inconsistency. He has criticized Obama-era loan guarantees, most notably one that left taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars when the clean-energy company Solyndra went bankrupt in 2011.
Hannity's opposition to such an arrangement is not so principled that he would not accept one of his own. But Hannity's appeal is not rooted in principle; it is rooted in his ability to articulate viewers' feelings.