None of those rules held. Trump’s embrace of conservative media tropes, willingness to buck the party and constant dishonesty endeared him to a large chunk of the Republican base. Party loyalty did the rest, bringing him to the White House in January 2017.
That Trump was willing to buck conventional wisdom and conventional rhetoric was clearly part of his appeal to his most energetic supporters. But so was what Vox’s Ezra Klein astutely described in February 2016 as his utter lack of shame.
“[S]hame is our most powerful restraint on politicians who would find success through demagoguery,” Klein wrote. “Most people feel shame when they're exposed as liars, when they're seen as uninformed, when their behavior is thought cruel, when respected figures in their party condemn their actions, when experts dismiss their proposals, when they are mocked and booed and protested.”
But, he correctly noted, Trump doesn't.
The president has never been beholden to the idea that one should admit mistakes or own up to one’s decisions. In the book “Fear” by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, the author articulates Trump’s approach explicitly, quoting advice Trump gave a friend who had been accused (like Trump) of “bad behavior toward women.”
“You didn’t come out guns blazing and just challenge them,” Trump said. “You showed weakness. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”
This was the approach he brought to the White House. Nothing bad was his fault; everything which was good, from vaccines to airline safety, was to his credit. Any allegations levied against him were uniformly false even when they obviously weren’t. Trump lied and misrepresented his actions and positions and those of his opponents without regard for accuracy and inevitably doubled down on his claims when questioned.
It was a novel approach to the position which paid off politically in part because of that novelty: Institutions such as political parties and the media weren’t accustomed to someone with so much power being so willing to be dishonest. Perhaps for the same reason, a large portion of the electorate didn’t think it was possible that Trump was misleading them.
Speaking to Reuters last month about the president’s false claims that the 2020 election had somehow been stolen, Sundown, Tex., resident Caleb Fryar said he found it unlikely that Trump would mislead him.
“If I’m being manipulated by Trump … then he is the greatest con man that ever lived in America,” Fryar said. Instead, Fryar saw Trump as “the greatest patriot that ever lived.”
Trump’s ascent to the presidency showed the political utility of his deny-it-all, ride-out-the-controversy approach. But it’s been this period and Trump’s untrue post-election insistences that some massive, undetected fraud occurred which has proved how lucrative it can be to put all shame aside.
The president’s team reported on Friday that nearly half a billion dollars had been donated to various Trump-linked political committees since mid-October. Much of that followed the election and the campaign’s breathless insistences that only cash contributions could keep President-elect Joe Biden from being inaugurated. The campaign sent nearly as many emails in the three weeks after the election as it had in the three weeks prior, with most of those emails directing money to a pool of funds Trump can access directly.
The fraud claims are entirely unsubstantiated, of course, but that — also of course — hasn't deterred Trump. The president who carved out time in the pre-inauguration transition period to settle a fraud lawsuit seems not to be particularly concerned about the emptiness of the assertions undergirding this new payday.
Neither are his new allies in conservative media.
The Trump era has been interesting for Fox News. The cable-news behemoth was always a mix of regular news coverage and fringier conservative commentary. Since even before Trump’s appearance on the national political scene, though, the network was under pressure from its right as mostly online outlets pushed conspiracy theories and rhetoric which an institution even remotely dedicated to journalistic accuracy couldn’t touch. But precisely because those conspiracy theories were so wild, they were also very popular. Trump’s willingness to echo that rhetoric was part of what made him unique in the 2016 Republican field.
Fox’s occasional unwillingness to do so was a competitive disadvantage. Over the past four years, it’s had to put up with upstart networks such as One America News and Newsmax which have been less restrained in embracing far-right rhetoric and claims. But, after Trump took office, Fox News moved toward his worldview along with the rest of the Republican establishment, both strengthening its position and earning frequent endorsements from Trump himself. Sure, it had to put up with Trump’s occasional flirtations with OAN in particular, but those were mostly an effort to get Fox to merge even more fully with what Trump wanted to see.
Then the presidential election forced Fox to choose between MAGA world and reality — and the network chose reality. It called Arizona for Biden — perhaps too early, in fact — and ultimately called the race for the president-elect.
It was the right call, obviously. The results were clear, and any institution which wanted to claim any semblance of defensible credibility had to admit it.
But it was also an enormously unpopular call. Trump was mad. His base was mad. Trump pushed his supporters to go watch OAN and Newsmax, and those networks welcomed the newcomers with open arms.
The chief executive of Newsmax, longtime Trump friend Christopher Ruddy, was asked by the New Yorker last month why his network aired unproved theories about electoral fraud.
“I think before we even make the claim, we should say, ‘Hey, look at this anomaly. Why is this the case?’ And we start asking about it,” Ruddy insisted. “But you know what? At the end of the day, it’s great for news. The news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute, according to Nielsen, tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good.”
Sure, accuracy is nice — but viewers are better.
This is the core trade-off that Trump made long ago. It’s the choice that Trump’s emergence forced so much of the conservative establishment to consider, the choice that someone at Fox clearly has been considering in the weeks since Nov. 3.
It is not, however, a choice that One America appears to have been particularly concerned about at any point.
By now, the litany of examples of OAN amplifying untrue claims is almost too numerous to document. Its star reporter, Chanel Rion, once infamously picked a comment off Twitter to allege that the coronavirus originated in the United States. She later dutifully followed Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani around as he spoke to shady characters (including one later linked to Russian intelligence) offering dubious allegations about Biden’s family.
Unlike actual news organizations, OAN has no apparent commitment to transparency. It is shameless in the way that Trump is, and that pays off. So when the network hypes a poll showing how well Trump is doing in Florida only to discover that the poll shows no such thing, the poll gets dropped down the nearest memory hole.
This happens a lot at OAN. On Nov. 22, the network wrote up the accusations of then-Trump attorney Sidney Powell. In truly bizarre remarks offered at a truly bizarre news conference, Powell alleged that the election had been stolen using electronic voting machines somehow linked to a dead Venezuelan dictator, among other things. By that weekend, Powell’s antics and failure to deliver any actual evidence for her wild claims proved too much even for Trump and he dropped her from his legal team. And at some point, OAN deleted its article quoting Powell saying there was “lots of evidence” to prove her case.
Trump has rewarded OAN’s willingness to elevate random accusations. On Nov. 24, he retweeted someone who claimed that “6K fake Biden votes found in Arizona” meant that Biden’s “lead” — the scare quotes were the writer’s — had fallen to 4,000. Her source? OAN’s news crawl. The report, predictably, was wrong.
But what does OAN care? Trump proved that a certain segment of the country prefers comforting nonsense to uncomfortable realities. OAN and Newsmax, like post-election Trump, are using that as a revenue engine. If the only constraint is a set of archaic norms such as credibility and integrity, why be constrained?
As of writing, the tweet at the top of OAN’s feed celebrates how it, unlike Fox, won’t “censor factual reporting.” It includes multiple clips of Trump praising the network, making the unsubtle point: If you like this guy’s approach to accuracy, you’ll love ours.
Cynical, but not inaccurate.