As Dhrumil Mehta of FiveThirtyEight notes, in just the past couple of weeks, Warren has gotten dramatically more attention on Fox News. Last week she was mentioned 327 times on Fox, almost twice as often as on MSNBC and three times as much as on CNN.
An increase in attention might not be too surprising given that she is building support and in some polls is now leading the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But it’s the focus on her from Fox that stands out. It’s an indication that the conservative media are about to initiate a protocol they’ve had great success with before.
Just to be clear, conservatives, including those in the media, have every right to explore Warren’s history and record to explain to their audiences why she’s the most villainous person to walk the Earth in millennia and, if she became president, would leave America nothing but a rancid heap of burned-out rubble and rotting flesh. But there’s a particular pattern that repeats itself in election after election. At first, someone like Warren is paid only marginal attention — criticized, to be sure, perhaps even mocked, but not with the volume and intensity to come. Then at some point, when it looks like that person at least might be the Democratic nominee, those outlets — Fox, radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, conservative newspapers, magazines and websites — pull the switch on a project to focus their audience’s attention on the threat the candidate represents. While some of the energy goes into genuine investigations — if they can discover some dirt on the candidate, they’re only too happy — for the most part it’s about shaping the emotional responses of their audiences, which also happen to overlap almost completely with Trump’s base.
The goal is to produce not just opposition but venomous hatred through stoking fear and anger. If Warren continues on her current trajectory, conservative audiences will be told day after day that her prospective presidency will be a nightmare of suffering, a betrayal of what the country represents, an attack on them and everything they stand for.
To see how effective it can be, consider a fascinating poll result from a few months ago. Gallup asked respondents their opinions of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and found her image positive among Democrats by 56-15 percent but negative among Republicans by 73-5 percent. In other words, Republicans felt more strongly about her than Democrats, and more of them had opinions about her. Why? The best explanation is that for some time Ocasio-Cortez had been a constant topic of discussion on Fox and other conservative outlets, bordering on obsession.
One of the critical characteristics of this process of turning vague dislike among the Republican base into outright loathing is that the substance of the criticism is in some ways almost irrelevant. Three years ago, if you asked a Republican why they hated Hillary Clinton so much, it’s a good bet they would have cited her supposedly problematic use of email, as absurd as that was. That, of course, was just a vehicle for a whole complex of negative feelings that had been cultivated for years about her, many having to do with a backlash against the idea of women with power.
Near the center of their critique, conservatives will often put some lie or series of lies, like the idea that Barack Obama isn’t an American or that John F. Kerry faked his war record. They’ve already given it a shot with one bogus story about Warren, that she supposedly wasn’t telling the truth about losing her job as a teacher in 1971 because she got pregnant. It failed, but they’ll try again and again in an endless quest for something that will resonate.
For each Democratic presidential nominee, the raw materials are different, but the result is the same: taking the fear and anger that conservative media create year-round about Democrats in general and focusing it all on one person until the hatred of that person burns with the fire of a thousand suns.
Once that machine starts to crank up, a lot of Democrats are going to panic. Look at how vulnerable our nominee is, they’ll cry. They’re going to do to them just what they did to Clinton and Kerry and Gore! We’re doomed!
But the truth is that they’ll do it to any candidate with a real shot at becoming the Democratic nominee. If Warren is going to be that person, how she responds to the onslaught will tell us a lot about her resilience as a candidate. We’re going to get a taste of it now, but the real storm is yet to come.