The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sean Hannity isn’t a leader. He’s just a fan of powerful Republicans.

The Fox News host has Trump’s ear because he’s a booster, not because he’s influential.

Fox News host Sean Hannity has spent his career cozying up to GOP politicians like President Trump. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Sean Hannity is exactly where he wants to be, despite the questions of conflicts of interest raised by the revelation this week that he is also a client of President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen. His relationship with Trump is so tight that one presidential adviser says Hannity “basically has a desk” in the Oval Office.

Hannity isn’t the first conservative media personality to gain the ear of a president. Unlike most before him, though, his role is not that of kingmaker but of loyalist. Fealty to people and power, not to ideas or policies, has defined Hannity’s career — which makes Trump the perfect partner for him.

All right-wing media personalities modulate to some extent, but they also have a core approach that sets them apart. Tucker Carlson, now that he’s lost the bow tie, is defined by his patently populist rhetoric and his criticism of interventionist foreign policy. Ann Coulter, who has perfected the art of Trump-era trolling, marries vicious insults to an unshakable nationalist and racist agenda. Rush Limbaugh is known for exaggerated egotism and imperviousness to criticism. Glenn Beck is famous for his conspiratorial chalkboards, nutty morning-zoo antics and teary, quasi-religious passion.

Fox News host Sean Hannity has cultivated a strong conservative following from his early days in talk radio, building an image of a blue-collar, working class guy. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Marc Fisher/The Washington Post, Photo: Chris Gardner/The Washington Post)

Hannity’s affect — embattled and aggrieved — and the fervor and repetitiveness with which he regurgitates the party line, however regularly it changes, has always most defined his programs. Not as clever or easygoing as Limbaugh, not as emotive or earnest as Beck, in place of an issue that deeply moves him, Hannity has snark, anger and a reflexive anti-liberalism that keeps audiences coming back. 

For all that, though, Hannity is a megaphone, not an independent voice. He would never, as Beck did, refuse to support the GOP presidential nominee or apologize for “helping tear the country apart.” Nor does he have Coulter’s red line on immigration, which led her to slam Trump as “a shallow, lazy ignoramus ” when she thought he had gone wobbly on the Wall. 

Hannity has always attached himself to powerful men, constantly scanning for another set of coattails to ride. First came Newt Gingrich, the Georgia congressman who led the Republican Revolution of 1994. Hannity, who was hosting a radio show out of Atlanta after being booted from a Santa Barbara, Calif., station for virulently anti-gay remarks, served as emcee for Gingrich’s election night victory party. Then came Roger Ailes, who plucked Hannity out of obscurity to host a show — working title: “Hannity and LTBD (Liberal to be Determined)” — on his new cable network when it launched in 1996. (The liberal wound up being Alan Colmes, who played the hapless lefty foil to Hannity’s tough-talking conservative until 2009.)

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Fox News made Hannity a national figure. During the talk radio boom of the early 2000s, his radio program went coast to coast; he was broadcast live for hours a day, five days a week. His shows became the stomping grounds of national politicians, conservative leaders and the lucky few listeners who could get their calls on air. And while the recent sexual harassment scandals that rocked Fox forced out his patrons, Ailes and co-president Bill Shine, they also ousted Bill O’Reilly, who had been the centerpiece of the network’s weeknight prime-time lineup. That left room for Hannity, whose predictable but star-powered program is now the top-rated show on cable news , drawing an average of 3.3 million nightly viewers in February and earning him nearly $30 million a year.

Opinion writers Molly Roberts, Erik Wemple, Jennifer Rubin and Jonathan Capehart excoriate Fox News host Sean Hannity for his ties to President Trump's lawyer. (Video: The Washington Post)

But does he have power? 

After the 2012 election, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) joined a bipartisan push for immigration reform. Hannity stood in his corner. Declaring that he had “evolved” on immigration, he came out in support of Rubio’s legislation, calling it “the most thoughtful bill” on the issue that he had ever seen. He even held an hour-long town hall with Rubio, giving the senator a chance to make his pitch to the Fox News audience.

Not out of principle, though. As the New York Times reported in early 2016, Rubio had met with Ailes and Rupert Murdoch to persuade them to back his bill. They agreed — and soon Hannity was making the case for reform. 

Until he stopped. The Republican base’s harsh and total rejection of any attempt at immigration reform dismantled Rubio’s support — and once that happened, Hannity flipped, as well. Soon he was devoting an hour to “The Cost of Amnesty,” slamming the Senate immigration bill and lamenting that “only Washington can screw something up this bad.” He warned that Congress would never actually tighten immigration laws after allowing undocumented immigrants to get legal status. By the summer of 2013, it was evident that, at least on immigration, Hannity wasn’t a leader. He was a right-wing weathervane. 

Contrast that with Limbaugh. While Hannity was hosting Gingrich’s after-party in 1994, Limbaugh was being toasted as a “Majority Maker” and made an honorary member of the incoming class of Republican lawmakers. Hannity was invited to celebrate the victory; Limbaugh was credited with making it happen.

Limbaugh has a reputation for wielding power over politicians. In 1992, he spoke so favorably of Pat Buchanan that George H.W. Bush, caught in a tough reelection campaign, invited Limbaugh to stay over in the White House. In 2009, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele publicly dismissed Limbaugh as an “entertainer” whose rhetoric was “incendiary” and “ugly.” Within a few days, Steele was issuing apologies. Fear of Limbaugh was such that in 2012, when he slurred Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute,” GOP candidates stuck in a heated presidential primary race refused to denounce him

Hannity has no such record. Republican politicians aren’t afraid of him — former House speaker John Boehner (Ohio) called him “nuts,” and Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) suggested that he doesn’t support constitutional principles. Neither seems to have felt any pressure to apologize.

There is no policy issue on which Hannity has emerged as influential. The one area where he stands out is in his fervor for proclaiming Trump’s greatness and pushing conspiracy theories about the White House’s adversaries. That’s not as small-bore as it may seem: Hannity plays an important role in Trump World. All political leaders need outside sources to bolster their claims — it’s one reason authoritarian systems have state-run media. Even a philosophy as free-floating and fact-light as Trumpism benefits from outside evidence, and Hannity serves as a fairly mainstream source that the president can cite to bolster his outlandish claims. And so it’s Limbaugh, not Hannity, who’s bordering on irrelevance these days. 

Trump and Hannity have a natural affinity. They share New York roots (Trump in Queens, Hannity in Long Island ), and they both marinated in the city’s raucous media landscape of confrontational radio talk shows and titillating tabloids.  

Both dwell in the world of conspiracies. Early this decade, they bonded over their interest in false claims that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, which Trump spread on Hannity’s show (and elsewhere on Fox). As the Trump campaign heated up in 2016, Hannity emerged as “the media’s top conspiracy theorist,” as Vox dubbed him. For weeks last year, he propagated the strange conspiracy that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was somehow responsible for the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, which naturally piqued Trump’s interest. (Hannity stopped talking about the story after public outrage and pressure on advertisers threatened to engulf the network.)

But the two share more than interests (and lawyers). Their relationship blossomed when Trump, building his profile as the nation’s leading birther before the 2012 election, became a regular on Fox. Once Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, Hannity became a staunch defender, marking him as an outlier at the network in the days when the nomination seemed wide open. Hannity understood something that most Fox News hosts wouldn’t realize until Megyn Kelly asked Trump a tough question in the first Republican primary debate: Fox News viewers weren’t on Fox News’s side. They were on Trump’s — and Hannity’s. 

As the campaign developed, Hannity increasingly mirrored Trump’s grandiose self-descriptions and petty insults. He lauded the “artistic beauty” of Trump trolling the press and defended the nominee in the heat of the “Access Hollywood” controversy, slamming Trump’s Republican critics as “wimps” and “babies.” He even appeared in a campaign ad endorsing Trump, violating Fox News’s ethics rules. 

The sycophancy only dialed up once Trump became president. Hannity praised a Trump Twitter missive as “one of the most brilliant, strategic, doubt-inducing, mind-messing tweets in the history of mankind” and cooed that one of Trump’s speeches was “delivered perfectly: the right tone, the right cadence, the right pitch.” And throughout all this, he served as an informal adviser to Trump, burnishing a reputation as an insider, a man with the president’s ear.  

Or more accurately, the president’s eye. Television is one of Hannity’s natural advantages over Limbaugh, who quit TV in 1996 to focus on radio. Trump is a devout consumer of television, especially Fox News, but there’s no sense he’s an avid listener of talk radio. Sure, he appears on it from time to time, a habit dating back to his days on “The Howard Stern Show.” But television is the medium Trump devours, and Hannity has a prime-time spot on his favorite network.  

They should be able to coexist this way indefinitely. Trump is not a man of consistent positions; Hannity’s consistency rests in deference to power. As Trump’s star rose, Hannity increasingly molded himself in Trump’s image, even forging ties with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. That dogged loyalty, rather than devotion to some higher set of values, makes Hannity the perfect avatar for both Trump and Trump’s Republican Party. He may not be a power broker, but Hannity nonetheless finds himself the ultimate insider.

Twitter: @PastPunditry

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