“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike," Trump said. "I guess you have one of your wealthy people … the server, they say Ukraine has it.”
I won’t waste your time detailing the bonkers conspiracy theory the president was referring to, except to say that it holds that Russia never actually hacked into Democratic Party email systems in 2016, it was all some kind of false flag operation, and DNC computer hardware was spirited away to Ukraine. The reason I bring this up is that it offers us a reminder that this entire scandal has roots in some of the most bizarre corners of our information ecosystem, places from which the president imbibes fantastical stories, arguments he then passes to the broader public, and instruction in what decisions he should make.
We’re now entering what will surely be one of the most intense and consequential episodes in American political history. And everything that happens will be shaped by the calliope of craziness that is the right-wing media.
The president of the United States spends hours every day watching Fox News — the most important, but by no means only, conservative news outlet that has a direct line to his brain. He treats what he sees in those outlets as the indicator of his success, his best source for information about the world and his most trusted source of advice. His relationship to the conservative media has always been disturbing, but it has never been more important than it is right now.
As the CrowdStrike story shows, right-wing media has a profound influence on Trump’s thinking with regard to this and many other issues, encouraging him not just to be as angry as possible about his real enemies but to see conspiracies where they don’t exist. Now that Trump is in more political peril than he has ever been before, they are swinging into action.
It is a multifaceted war, one that must be understood in a political, economic and sociological context.
The people involved — writers for conservative outlets, on-air personalities, producers, editors — spend most of their time with people like themselves, convincing each other that the impeachment controversy is the most righteous of holy wars and no tactic is unjustified. They will draw purpose and meaning from the effort, going in to work each day with a spring in their step. And of course, a controversy like this one means great ratings and more revenue.
It will not be different in kind from what they’ve been doing all along, painting a picture of the world in which Trump is a noble hero and Democrats are villainous scum. But those twin stories will take up an increasing portion of their time and be presented with a heightened intensity and urgency.
The material they pump out, whether it’s questionable “scoops” or opinion, will serve to whip up anger among the Republican base. Those voters will in turn pressure their representatives to take as maximal a position as possible, to never even consider the possibility that the president might have done anything wrong and defend him with all the vigor they can muster.
Trump himself will be watching those media closely for hours every day. They will feed him more conspiracy theories (unsurprisingly, on Fox they’re already tracing everything back to George Soros), remind him again and again that Democrats must be despised and destroyed, and encourage all his worst instincts.
In this furious atmosphere, all good sense will be discarded. Fox will keep bringing on Trump’s “lawyer” Rudolph W. Giuliani, who will continue to blurt out extraordinary admissions. Among other things, Giuliani has already said proudly on television that he was engaged in a project on Trump’s behalf to pressure Ukraine and that he was running this project with the cooperation of the State Department.
It’s been asked before whether Richard Nixon would have survived if Fox News had been on the air in 1974, pressuring Republican lawmakers to stay loyal to the president rather than to the country. Given that Nixon only resigned after it became clear that he had lost the support of enough Republicans in Congress to make impeachment and conviction likely, he well might have.
We can take another lesson from the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton. At the time, Fox had only existed for two years, so conservative talk radio, particularly Rush Limbaugh, played a much larger role, relentlessly pressuring Republicans to keep pushing no matter what the facts and public opinion said. With that message pounded home day after day, they did just that, to their eventual detriment.
These days, Fox is the humming voice in every Republican’s ears — particularly Trump’s. At every turn of the impeachment process, he’ll be telling them what to say, they’ll be prodding him to new heights of lunacy and every Republican will know that if they step out of line, that media machine’s wrath will come down upon them. It’s not going to be pretty.