The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump just launched the newest phase of the GOP’s romance with right-wing media

What does it mean for American democracy?

Singer Joy Villa smiles as President Trump speaks at his social media summit at the White House on Thursday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

On Thursday, the White House hosted a summit of right-wing social media gadflies designed to highlight purported bias by major tech and social media companies. While this event seemed uniquely Trumpian with its inclusion of conspiracy theorists and peddlers of nutty ideas — people like Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, Project Veritas’s James O’Keefe and social media provocateur Bill Mitchell — it is also a logical outgrowth of Republicans’ decades-long relationship with conservative media.

In fact, this historical bond between the GOP and entertaining pundits, from Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity, paved the way for the Trump presidency. Now, Trump threatens to legitimize the very people (and organizations) who spread misinformation, thrive on dysfunction and threaten to deepen the divides fracturing our society.

In 1988, Limbaugh brought a path-breaking blend of topical political humor and commentary to the national airwaves. Many Americans, especially those outside of major cities, had never heard anything like Limbaugh’s boundary-breaching content. It wasn’t just his conservative views that appealed to audiences: Limbaugh also applied the fun stylings he had developed during his 1970s disc jockey days to topical events.

That fall, as the presidential campaigned raged on, Limbaugh nicknamed the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, “the loser.” When Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright, whom Limbaugh dubbed “Fort Worthless” (a play on the Texan’s hometown), promised that congressional Democrats would still set the agenda after Dukakis lost, Limbaugh started playing the Beatles’ “I’m a Loser” to introduce segments about Dukakis and remind the candidate’s party of its status.

Thanks to this sort of content, Limbaugh became a cultural phenomenon, especially for conservatives who rejoiced that someone in the media was finally fighting against a liberal establishment that they felt unfairly maligned them. So often did callers gush about how great it was that Limbaugh was on the air that the terms “dittos” and “mega-dittos” became shorthand for this sentiment.

Mainstream Republicans were slow to catch on to the potential political value of talk radio. But during the 1992 campaign, President George H.W. Bush hosted Limbaugh at the White House, putting him up in the Lincoln Bedroom. By the last day of the campaign, Limbaugh was introducing Bush at a campaign rally in New Jersey. Vividly illustrating the host’s stardom, Bush recounted how Democratic candidate Bill Clinton had appeared with actor Richard Gere the night before, proclaiming, “Well, here’s a good deal for you. Let Governor Clinton have Richard Gere. I’ll take Rush Limbaugh any day.”

That was just the beginning. Crediting talk radio with the historic Republican victory in the 1994 midterm elections, the newly elected freshman members put the medium front and center, making Limbaugh an honorary member of their class and inviting him to speak at their orientation.

By the time Bush’s son, George W. Bush, entered the White House in 2001, Republican outreach to talk radio was so robust that the new president’s communications staff included someone monitoring talk radio and ensuring that hosts received the administration’s message of the day.

As his time in office progressed, the president hosted Limbaugh for an evening of dinner and cigars, and on the host’s 20th anniversary on the air, the president, his father and brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, surprised Limbaugh with a call to mark the occasion. And these ties extended to other hosts: Hannity and Laura Ingraham, among others, took part in off-the-record meetings with the president in which they could talk candidly and the commander in chief learned how the conservative talk audience felt about issues.

Yet conservative talk radio hosts were anything but Republican puppets. They played an integral role in torpedoing a bipartisan immigration reform bill important to Bush in 2007. And as competition in right-wing media grew ever more fierce on the airwaves, with Fox News and eventually other cable channels and digital outlets like Breitbart blossoming, business motives drove hosts to advocate more extreme positions and tactics, in increasingly incendiary terms.

By the 2010s, conservative media often hampered the ability of Republicans to govern. After all, it was first and foremost a business, driven by profit margins, and hosts couldn’t risk appearing ideologically impure or getting out of step with their audiences. Even more importantly, the sorts of compromises demanded by governance, especially divided governance, were boring — the one thing hosts couldn't afford to be. Hosts instead exhorted Republicans to sound more like them — standing up to Democrats, drawing lines in the sand and going to war to defend conservative principles — and excoriated politicians when they didn't.

After President Barack Obama won reelection and Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress in 2012, for example, it seemed logical that Republicans, who still controlled the House of Representatives, would compromise as the nation approached the “fiscal cliff.” But Limbaugh dubbed House Speaker John A. Boehner’s efforts to do this as “a seminar on how to surrender.”

Even as they ripped the Republican establishment, however, many hosts didn’t eagerly embrace Donald Trump — the ultimate outsider — when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. True, Trump sounded very much like someone talking on the AM dial, using nicknames like “Crooked Hillary” to run down opponents, excoriating the mainstream media for its bias and punching back against any critics of his more extreme or bombastic statements. But many hosts had concerns about whether Trump was actually a conservative.

Fox News host Sean Hannity slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for saying she'd rather see President Trump in prison than impeached. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

So during the Republican primary, the most extreme, populist outlets, like Breitbart News, were far more with Trump than conservative media royalty like Limbaugh or Fox News. This led Trump to embrace figures who hadn’t previously been part of the mainstream of conservative media. That included Alex Jones, the notorious conspiracy theorist, who scored an interview with the candidate, and Mitchell, who provoked ridicule for asserting that Trump’s large campaign rallies and pro-Trump yard signs were far more important than polling in determining the state of the race.

Even as the longtime lions of conservative media came to embrace Trump once he locked up the nomination and captured the White House, he continued to engage with and promote voices on the fringes: giving White House press credentials to conspiracy theory site Gateway Pundit, reportedly speaking with Jones and now hosting figures like Mitchell at the White House. During the social media summit, Trump even revealed that most of the figures in attendance had regular access to White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino.

On one level, this shouldn’t be too surprising: In the 1990s, many nonconservatives saw Limbaugh as a radical figure promoting conspiracy theories about the Clintons.

But Trump’s embrace of these figures threatens to do even more damage to American governance. Over the past few decades, Americans, especially those on the right, have retreated into echo chambers, looking more for news sources that share their viewpoints than those that prioritize accuracy and balance.

By inviting such extremist voices to the White House, Trump is signaling to his base that they are credible sources and worthy social media follows. This will exacerbate polarization, misinformation and gridlock by fueling the right’s embrace of the worst — and least true — ideas about the political opposition.

After President Trump’s July 11 census announcement, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka argued with Playboy magazine’s Brian Karem about journalism. (Video: The Washington Post)

Indeed, one figure at the White House summit was former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, now a talk radio host. Gorka, who almost started a skirmish with a reporter after the summit, last month called Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. a “traitor to the Constitution” for ruling against the administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the census. This sort of poisonous rhetoric, which now dominates the conservative airwaves and social media, continues the degradation of our democracy and, with an assist from the Oval Office, threatens to grow even more pervasive and damaging.