Many, though certainly not all, mainstream Republicans are increasingly worried that Donald Trump, a crude, thuggish man who calls for restricting all Muslims from entering the United States and “closing down” the Internet to stop terrorism, might somehow actually win the Republican nomination for President. The Wall Street Journal reports that GOP operatives plan a “guerilla” campaign against the Donald, and the Washington Post reports that one prominent Republican political consultant offered this advice to avoid an electoral nightmare with Trump at the head of the GOP ticket: “pray.”
Why is the Republican establishment so frightened that its party will be hijacked by a self-promoting huckster who alternates between xenophobic attacks and totally substance-free proposals like replacing Obamacare with “something really good”? Because the Republican noise machine has created fertile political soil for this kind of candidate, cultivating it for the past couple of decades on media outlets dominated by Fox News and abetted by conservative media in talk radio and Astroturf news sites.
The worst part for establishment Republicans? None of their candidates other than those polling at under 2% have the courage to really attack Trump because they know the GOP high-energy, low-information voters will turn on them if they do. Yesterday, after Trump made his latest inflammatory, illegal, and frankly fascistic remark, his Republican rivals with an actual chance of winning the nomination only offered muted, restrained criticism, afraid of the wrath of the legion of conservative voters who have been brainwashed by Fox News to believe that President Obama is letting the Muslim Brotherhood run the federal government.
A study by a former Reagan official argued that Fox viewers, by relying almost exclusively on the network for news, have engaged in “self-brainwashing,” becoming so ill—informed that as a professor at Farleigh Dickinson found, “the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don’t watch any news at all.”
But it’s hard to shed too many tears for the Republicans, who have relied on the Fox noise machine to motivate conservative voters. The less they know about the issues of the day, it seems, the more energized they have become, and their ill-informed, angry voices which echo the voices from Fox dominate the primary process in many states and now the process for selecting the Republican nominee for President. One need only look at Mitt Romney in 2012 to see the impact: a largely Establishment Republican had to transform himself into a right-wing ideologue insincerely mouthing rabid talking points to win the Republican nomination before being defeated in the general election. Today’s Republican field is led by Trump, a Canadian who thinks Harvard Law was dominated by Communists and who implied that Republican Chuck Hagel was funded by North Korea, a child of refugees who has turned on immigrants and who believes that raped women should be forced to carry their children to term, and this guy, who owes his entire political career to Fox patronage.
The monster of Donald Trump was created by the hate-filled incubator of conservative media and that Rupert Murdoch, of all people, is realizing the dangers of a candidate who is playing the Fox News game better than Fox News would be delicious irony, if it were not so terrifying.
This story, though, isn’t just playing out on the national scene. The political career and fast-rising star of Ryan Zinke illustrates the seductive nature of appealing to the base nature of the Republican base. While Zinke calls himself a “Teddy Roosevelt” Republican and once planned to write a book about being a moderate politician, the primary for his election to the US House showed him the danger of crossing the conservative base. As we’ve chronicled here repeatedly, Zinke shifted from being a pro-marijuana legalization, pro-choice, conservationist candidate to the kind of rabid conservative who goes on Fox News and Breitbart to argue that President Obama is abetting the enemy, to argue for torture, to argue for the invasion of Mexico, and to vote against abortion rights in every instance.
As I watched Trump speak last night, it was hard not to think of Congressman Zinke, who has echoed Trump’s xenophobic calls for excluding Muslims, who childishly insists that using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” will solve the issue, who has endorsed the use of torture, who has used the tragic figure of Bowe Bergdhal as a political punching bag, who pretends that Republicans will “repeal and replace” Obamacare without a replacement, and who, truth be told, suffers from the same surfeit of confidence and lack of experience that define Trump’s candidacy. He has either become, or been exposed as, a creature of and for the low-information Republican electorate that Rupert Murdoch helped create.
There’s one crucial difference at play, though: the role of the media. Last night, it seemed the national media heard a wakeup call, that they need to treat Donald Trump less as a ploy for ratings, but as a candidate whose views actually deserve scrutiny. Here in Montana, that simply didn’t happen with Congressman Zinke in his last campaign, with the major newspaper chain going so far as to cover for him when he suggested he had tortured people. One can only hope that the media will do a better job covering his next campaign, because the danger posed by this brand of reactionary conservatism is a threat to us all.