Episode Summary

Politics in the United States has been so incredibly erratic since 2015 when Donald Trump began his political career in earnest. Much has been written and spoken about how Trump has transformed the Republican party by empowering its large extremist faction.

But it’s also the case that Trump transformed the complex and large advocacy media apparatus that the American right has been building for itself since the 1940s. In fact, you could argue that while more than a few Republican politicians are trying to copy Trump’s angry and conspiratorial rhetoric, his political ascent in the GOP actually had more of an impact on the right wing media. While conspiracy websites, talk show hosts, and writers have always found some success among American conservatives, the ultra reactionary dynamic that now prevails in right wing media is unparalleled in our history.

Joining me to discuss all this today is Nicole Hemmer. She’s a historian of American media who wrote a terrific book called Messengers of the Right about the emergence of right wing media in the 1940s. She’s also a contributor to a new book that just came out called The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment. And she’s got another book that will be released soon called Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.

The unedited video from our May 19, 2022 conversation is below. The transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today.

NICOLE HEMMER: Thanks so much for having me, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, let me just put up on the screen the book we’re gonna start off with today, the anthology. So you were a contributor to this, The Presidency of Donald J. Trump. It was a book about different aspects of the Trump presidency and written by historians who specialize in different subject areas.

And you contributed a part on Trump in the media and the right wing media.

But there was an interesting story that kind of happened with this book and that is that Donald Trump decided to participate in this book. And that was the first time ever. The gentleman who is the editor of these series, it’s the first time ever that he’s had a president be interested in being interviewed for the book.

And you were not in the panel interview that was done as I understand, but it was, it was an experience that made some news on its own, right? What were your thoughts on all of that?

HEMMER: Well, I mean, it’s not that surprising that Donald Trump would want to massage the narrative about his presidency. And that in fact is how it came about. Trump had heard about this book, and he knew that historians would be trying to analyze his legacy and he wanted to have a hand in shaping what that looked like. And that meant sending us a big compilation of all of his accomplishments to make sure that we understood the good things about his presidency.

So it really is of a piece with what his political career was like, what his time as president was like, that idea that he could control the narrative was a big part of why he sat down for this interview.

SHEFFIELD: And one of the things that came out of that was that he admitted that he lost the election in 2020. That was the first time publicly that he had ever said anything like that. Did they notice the significance of him admitting that at the time?

HEMMER: I don’t think so at the time, because there is this kind of slipperiness in discussions with Donald Trump. He will say one thing and then kind of float over and say something else. So he can be a bit of a slippery target, which is to say that admission is important, but it doesn’t have any sort of stickiness. He’s since then made very clear that he at least will continue to profess that election was stolen.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, that’s true. And an example of that is that in 2016, he actually said he didn’t think he was going to win the election. And he was surprised that he won. But meanwhile, his own supporters, they claimed to have been confident that he was going to win the whole time.

HEMMER: And I think there’s been some retroactive reinterpretation of that by Donald Trump as well. So he has said since then that of course he was going to win, and of course he was going to win by millions. So there’s always a few contradictory points in play.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. His political career, it began in earnest in 2015, but he had dabbled in politics for a number of decades, usually, seemingly trying to make himself more famous by doing it. Why don’t you just talk about a little bit of some of his earlier political feints, if you will.

HEMMER: Sure. So he sort of hooks up with the Reform party in the 1990s. This is the party of Ross Perot’s big runs in 92 and 96. After Perot has this unprecedented showing as a third party candidate in 1992, he creates the Reform party and this becomes a vehicle for a number of non-traditional candidates. You have people like Pat Buchanan, who, even though he had spent some time serving in Republican administrations, really was a media figure in 1992 when he ran for president. And as he sort of moves through the 1990s, he finds his way to the Reform party. People like Jesse Ventura, who was a wrestler who ends up running for governor of Minnesota.

And then Donald Trump sees this Reform party with its eclectic set of views as a potential avenue for yet another person who comes from a media celebrity background to present themselves as a viable politician. So the 1990s were big for Donald Trump within the Reform party, as someone who is now starting to tie his name to politics and to the presidency.

It doesn’t really go anywhere, kind of famously in 2000 as Pat Buchanan becomes the Reform party candidate, both Jesse Ventura and Donald Trump leave the party, they make a grand moral stand about Pat Buchanan’s racism and antisemitism, and Donald Trump turns after that and begins working more in the media space. His show, The Apprentice starts, it’s really in 2011 that he emerges again as a kind of political figure due to his regular spots on Fox News.

And if I were going to trace his move toward the Republican party, it really is during that period that he starts to not only become the leading birther in the United States, but somebody who a figure like Steve Bannon, who had been eyeballing Lou Dobbs is a potential presidential candidate, he abandons Dobbs, and starts to latch onto Trump in the 2012 through 2014 period.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And one of the parts of Trump’s laying the groundwork for himself was his appearance in 2011 at the Conservative Political Action Conference. And that’s something that I had a very small peripheral role in, that I was running social media for the conference at that time.

And we were having people tweet the lines from different people, speakers, and we all decided: ‘This guy is a joke. Why is he even here? We’re not going to, we’re not gonna tweet his lines.’ And so we didn’t, and no one got upset at us for not doing it. Nobody said, ‘oh, how dare you?’

People, I talked to multiple people about it afterward and they said, yeah, ‘he bought his way in here,’ basically is what they said.

HEMMER: Well, he didn’t really have a conservative platform, to the extent he had a platform. It was around birtherism and in 2011, people didn’t really know. And I wouldn’t know for a couple more years how to treat him as a celebrity, as a punchline, 2011 is also that year when he goes to the correspondents dinner and Barack Obama rips several strips off of him in the middle of his performance.

But then just a year later in 2012, you have Mitt Romney accepting Donald Trump’s endorsement for president. So there was something that Mitt Romney and his team were seeing that made them think that Donald Trump was not just a cartoonish figure who could be ignored, but that there was something about him that they wanted to associate themselves with during that campaign.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And one of his lines at that time, Trump had this position, consistent position, that Americans were losing on foreign trade. And to be honest, it seems like he kind of picked that up from the 1980s media. That was a big topic in the media in the 1980s. And if you ask him to explain his view, he never really can get into it very much. And he doesn’t seem to understand the way that foreign trade works, in terms of that it’s not necessarily bad for the economy, because if it were, our economy would be really awful.

HEMMER: But it was this kind of interesting pain point in American politics in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of bipartisan concern and frustration over things like the North America Free Trade Agreement. There was a lot of xenophobia about Japan, especially in the 1990s.

And one of the things that has been consistent, in addition to this trade belief, is Donald Trump knows what is upsetting a certain segment of voters. And where the sort of openings are within the two party system, where those weak points, where someone can come in and say: ‘I’m the only one who is speaking for you. The rest of these people are controlled by the elites or they are elites.’

So I think that is something that he certainly honed in the 1990s, because that’s the decade where that kind of discontent around trade seemed to really be gelling in the United States.

SHEFFIELD: And one of the interesting things that– so there was a book that came out, and I forget the author right off the top of my head, Josh Green. And one of the points that was in there that was really fascinating about Trump’s early political career, is that early on, before he embraced birtherism and things like that, he was not liked by White people, predominantly.

So there’s this company that sets up these polling surveys about celebrities and they call them Q Scores, and Trump’s Q Score among Black Americans, that was his highest racial group. They liked him the most out of any race. And Hispanics, they didn’t quite like him as much, but he was more well regarded there. And The Apprentice obviously was a factor in them.

But it’s interesting also that as Trump decided that he wanted to move into the Republican party, there were two things that he did. One, as you said, was get into the birther argument that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. But then the other thing he did is that he actually paid a guy to just listen to right wing radio.

And he did it because he had an understanding that right wing politics in America is so wrapped up in the media much more so than it is on the left or in the Democratic party. And so Trump knew that ‘if I want to appeal to Republicans, I have to figure out what do they want to hear.’

And so he did that, and that really kind of fits in with your expertise on that. So tell us a little bit about your earlier book. Let me get that one up there, Messengers of the Right. Tell us about that. What that is.

HEMMER: Sure. So Messengers of the Right looks at conservative media activists, people who primarily pursued politics through media outlets, how they built those outlets in the 1940s and the 1950s and the 1960s, and then how they used those outlets to not only promote conservative politics, but to shape the Republican party and to shape presidential campaigns. Presidential campaigns was something they were kind of obsessed with.

They believed that if they could win the presidency, that they would win the party. And so as early as 1960, you have people like Clarence Manion, who was a radio host launching a campaign for Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Senator, very staunch conservative, to become the Republican nominee. It doesn’t happen that year, but actually Manion is a key figure in helping to ghost write and publish Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, which is the book that makes him Mr. Conservative on the American stage.

And then there are people like Bill Rusher, who’s the publisher of National Review who organizes that campaign for Goldwater in 1964. And they’re organizing things for for other candidates as well, at the federal level, and at the local and state level, they’re trying to remake the Republican party into a more conservative party.

And they believe that media are key for doing that. And they’re also building organizations, grassroots organizations, and others like the Young Americans for Freedom, which is founded by William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review. And as they’re building this right wing infrastructure in American politics, they’re putting conservative media at the heart of it.

They’re telling people on the right: ‘You shouldn’t be listening to mainstream media. Those media are co-opted by liberals. You need to listen to us. We are the ones who are going to tell you the truth. We are the ones who are going to tell you what’s really going on.’ And that helps to create a culture on the right and a politics on the right where part of being a conservative in the United States is about consuming these alternative media.

And it really gives conservative media a place built in right from the start in the infrastructure of conservatism. And then ultimately, as more or less the communications arm of the Republican party as it becomes more conservative. So it’s a really powerful movement and important movement that builds up over the course of decades.

And by the time liberals and Democrats really notice it, it already is this powerfully embedded institution.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. And. The idea being– your title though, I think is great illustration of the point though, because the messengers from the right to Republicans, like that’s who the audience is, they’re not trying to persuade the general public. They’re trying to persuade enough Republicans that they can take over the party.

And it’s clear also that they didn’t, they never wanted a majority. That’s the other thing that sometimes a lot of people recently have been saying: ‘Oh gosh, the Republican party doesn’t like democracy, but that’s how reactionary politics has always been in the United States, right?

HEMMER: Right. I would make one small amendment and say, back when this movement is getting started, you have conservatives in the Democratic party, you have conservatives in the Republican party.

So part of what they’re trying to do is to reshuffle the parties, to make them ideological parties, where all of the conservatives are in one, and all of the liberals are in the other. That was a really important goal for them. So they’re speaking to Democrats as well, but they’re saying you’re actually Republicans. You wanna go over to the Republican party.

And so they play an important role in that change. But yes, I mean, this idea about democracy is really important. It’s during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, where you hear that sort of rallying cry, we are a republic, not a democracy, and that’s not purely an argument about structures of government. This is happening in the middle of the civil rights movement. This is happening when the Supreme Court is setting a standard of one man, one vote and the right, as opposed to that, there are moments when they are more interested in majoritarianism , and they will adopt a language of the silent majority when Richard Nixon uses it. But by and large, is often a minoritarian party and a party that is suspicious of democracy.

And that will ebb and flow. I mean, during the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, they’re like, ah, actually we’re popular. Okay. We can be majoritarian. But by the time the 1990s roll around, you have somebody like Pat Buchanan who is specifically arguing against democracy in his politics.

SHEFFIELD: And some of the early figures, especially in regard to their trying to take over the Republican party from within, they were explicit in that: ‘ We don’t have to have a majority of the votes. We just have to get enough precinct chairs and whatnot, and we can get the nomination and their strategy when they first ran it with Barry Goldwater effectively, the Republican party nationally, most of them had never really heard of this guy or to the extent that they had a lot of them had a negative opinion of him.

And so a lot of Republicans just didn’t wanna vote for him. And he got destroyed in the election and, but they were able to cement their gains a lot afterward because of that campaign, even though they lost so badly.

HEMMER: Yeah, the activists in the Republican party were pro Barry Goldwater. You can look at some straw polls in 1961 in 1962, and he’s coming out pretty favorably in those.

But like you said, he’s not someone who is winning a ton of primaries, but what the right learns is that if you can manipulate the institutions and the rules, then you don’t need majoritarian support. As you were saying, in order to make this happen, it’s something that people like Bill Rusher learned in fights over College Republicans in a slightly earlier era and that carries through in the Republican party.

SHEFFIELD: What’s interesting is that a lot of these techniques that they develop during this time period, the sixties, seventies, they actually learned them from communists. So the Marxist agents of the Soviet Union employed them as ways of taking over labor unions from within, from trying to take over Democratic local organizations. And basically a lot of the politics that Republicans have now is actually, well it’s Stalinist in terms of its practices, which is something I don’t think is remarked on enough.

HEMMER: And even a group like the John Birch Society– which is kind of the core, extreme anti communist organization on the right– Robert Welch, the founder explicitly models it after communist groups, because his argument is if we believe that the communists were able to organize this worldwide conspiracy and take over power in all of those countries, they must be doing something right. So let’s organize ourselves in these cells. Organize ourselves in the way that we understand communists are organizing themselves. And so there is that kind of explicit borrowing that’s happening.

SHEFFIELD: There are a lot of ways, but as you said, one of the ways was that they began trying to systemically cancel moderate Republicans. This is where cancel culture– and that term is so overused and almost meaningless– but that was the original cancel culture was being a moderate Republican. If you were a moderate Republican, you were a “RINO.” There is no “DINO” insult for Democrats. And so they’re saying the point of RINO is to say: ‘You don’t belong here. You’re not real, you’re fake. Get out, you need to go away.’

HEMMER: There are certainly fights that conservatives are getting in on the national level with liberals and Democrats over the course of the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. But the big fight that is happening on the right is within the Republican party, just as you’re saying. I’m sure you’ve read Jeff Kabaservice’s great book Rule and Ruin, which is about moderate Republicans and how they are trying in the 1960s and 1970s to claw the party back from Barry Goldwater and the conservatives.

And they believe, especially after Goldwater loses, this is going to be no problem, that they are the modern version of the Republican party. That it’s going to be very easy to build a coalition sort of, moderate thinking Americans.

And what they find is they are completely temperamentally unsuited for a fight with conservatives who are willing to go into knock down, drag out fights, and they’re easily overpowered by the right.

And then the right is able to, conservatives are able to, kind of mobilize and bring into the party discontented White people who will feel alienated from the Democratic party and are much more attracted to the tougher conservative message than they are the moderate message. Because remember, moderate Republicans, people like George Romney, people like Nelson Rockefeller, they’re pro civil rights. And that is not the direction that the party goes, the pro feminism, that’s not the direction that the party goes.

SHEFFIELD: And a big part of why the moderates lost was that they didn’t have an infrastructure to carry their message–

HEMMER: That’s exactly right.

SHEFFIELD: –to the average Republican. And so they became extinct, because the other thing about right wing media for these early activists is that it enabled their activism to be profitable. And that’s something that had never really been done before in American politics. That you had a political movement that was able to monetize itself. And obviously it helped that they had a lot of industrial magnates, and millionaires, and billionaires writing these checks to them, but it wasn’t just the billionaires who were doing it, they were able to get people to buy their books, and their magazines, listen to their broadcasts and give donations.

And so it became a self sustaining enterprise and it’s something that had not happened before in American history.

HEMMER: Yes. There, there were certainly millionaires and billionaires who were helping fund these organizations and these publications, but there were also tons of sort of middle management people, ranchers, people who own their own companies, but their company might only have like one or two branches. So these these folks were instrumental in writing the big checks and then listeners and readers would write smaller checks.

Now it, it is also the case that for many of these media institutions, certainly in the fifties and sixties and seventies, they have a hard time making ends meet, like National Review is never really in the black. But once you get to the 1990s, once you get to figures like Rush Limbaugh, ultimately Fox News, some of these publications, like the American Spectator, which has millions of dollars flowing to it from billionaire donors. That’s where you find that these media outlets are not just propaganda outlets, not just communicating conservative ideas, but somebody like Rush Limbaugh is going to be making $50 million a year. Fox News is going to be making millions and millions of dollars.

And you’re exactly right. You have that combination that you hadn’t really seen before in U.S. political media. And it has real implications because now you’ve introduced another set of incentives into how you share your message. Not only: is this matching up with our ideology, is this going to be politically useful for us, but also is this going to help us to continue to make a profit?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and that time period is the subject of your next book that’s gonna be coming out. I’ve got that up on the screen. The title is Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. Tell us a little bit about that book.

HEMMER: Sure. So this book is kind of challenging the idea that the Republican party and the conservative movement were Reagan’s after the 1980s.

Ronald Reagan was very much a Cold War president, and there is a strand of conservatism that would become dominant that emerges in that post Cold War period that is nothing like Reaganism, it’s pessimistic. It’s anti-democratic. It is very much based in these new media. It is openly conspiratorial, it’s anti-free trade, anti-immigration. So it is this new kind of new-old kind of populist politics that would become known as paleo conservatism.

Pat Buchanan is one of the main figures, but even though somebody like Pat Buchanan is one of the main figures, you do have this newly visceral politics that’s emerging in the 1990s, you have a figure like Newt Gingrich who was born out in a revolutionary spirit. He becomes speaker [of the house] by overthrowing all of his enemies using a series of dirty tricks. But what he finds is when he enters the speaker’s office, there’s a whole new flock of conservative Republicans who are, who think that he’s too squishy and moderate who want to overthrow him.

So there’s this kind of constant revolutionary cycle that keeps moving the Republican party further and further to the right, not just in the 1990s, but over the past 30 years.

SHEFFIELD: Although that’s true in a lot of ways, but it, in some senses, it might not be in terms of originally Republicans campaigned on eliminating Social Security, they campaign on eliminating Medicare or Medicaid.

So they don’t do that anymore, and that’s something that often I hear Republican activists say, they claim they’re not as radical anymore. What do you mean when you say that?

HEMMER: So I would not say that they’re not as radical anymore. I think that their politics shift, right? There is an economic populism that’s occasionally protective of programs like Social Security and Medicare, especially for White people, those become entitlements that people should have access to. There’s a belief that governments should be doing things in order to help those people.

But it is also wrapped up in a radical exclusionary politics that, again, can be anti-democratic, something that we’ve seen over the past five to 10 years. And that even though, it is too easy to sort of try to speak only on a clear, left-right axis. It’s not quite the way that politics works. So yes, it is the case that they might be rejecting the kind of hard line fiscal conservatism that somebody like Paul Ryan represents, but their policies are pretty radical in other ways, fundamental rejection of liberal democracy kind of ways.

And so if you just look at it on one metric, it might look like they’re becoming less radical, but if you look at it in terms of the place of the right within the idea of liberalism and liberal democracy, then they’ve become much more radical. And then also you should, it’s also worth noting that there hasn’t actually been a lot done on the right, as they’ve adopted more and more of these politics to protect those social safety net programs, that we’ve actually seen cuts to those programs, and traditional policies like tax cuts the wealthiest.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s true. And then also, just because they don’t talk about things doesn’t mean that they don’t believe them. And we’ve seen that recently after the Supreme Court, the draft opinion about overturning Roe versus Wade leaked out, suddenly you’ve had a lot of reactionary activists say: ‘Oh and by the way, yes, this is right, there is no right to privacy. And so therefore we need to criminalize same sex marriage.’

So they never stopped being against it, they just weren’t talking about it as much.

HEMMER: Right. It’s a matter of emphasis, and in understanding that a lot of these policies are really unpopular. And this is kind of the paradox of contemporary politics, that despite their embrace of really unpopular politics, that doesn’t always hurt Republicans when it comes to the voting booth.

And it means that there are all of these policies that American people, 70% of the American people want when it comes to things like gun control, when it comes to things like access to abortion. Obviously these can be complicated and complex issues, but those very popular policies don’t end up being put in place.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I agree. Alright, well, so now that we’ve laid the historical groundwork here, let’s get into your chapter in the Trump history book. So Trump had gradually been increasing his name recognition in the early two thousands, late 2010s. But then he goes out and declares his candidacy in 2015. And the right-wing media, generally speaking, hated him

HEMMER: And understandably so. He didn’t fit in neatly with the conservative philosophy. He wasn’t somebody who was broadly associated with the conservative movement. And he was seen as kind of running as a joke. People thought that he was running in order to up his name recognition and maybe get a few more people to tune into Celebrity Apprentice.

But nobody really, not nobody, most people didn’t take his candidacy seriously. And so you end up having this Republican party that is fully against Donald Trump. There are few exceptions, but they kind of want him to get out of the way so they can get about the business of picking an actual candidate to nominate for president.

What they don’t understand is that once Donald Trump takes the lead in the polls, which he does pretty much like three weeks after he makes his announcement, he never loses that lead. He is a kind of media force, right? People can’t seem to get enough of him. Can’t seem to take their eyes off of him.

The entire media apparatus, both conservative and non-conservative, even though it’s not necessarily supportive of Donald Trump, it can’t stop talking about him. So he becomes the center of conversation. And even though you have folks like Megyn Kelly challenge him for Fox News in a Republican debate, even though you have National Review comes out and they have this whole magazine edition that’s all about against Trump.

What they quickly learn is none of it matters. Voters don’t seem to care that these conservative outlets are opposed to Donald Trump. And Trump pushes back very hard and is actually able to get people to pay a little less attention to Fox News for a while and disregard magazines like National Review altogether.

SHEFFIELD: But the reality is though that National Review, comparatively speaking, has a small audience compared to right wing talk radio.

HEMMER: Absolutely.

SHEFFIELD: And for right wing talk radio, it was always more complicated for them, their relationship with Donald Trump. Because their audience, they have to be more in touch with the Republican base. National Review’s primary constituency is well educated professionals and millionaires and billionaires. That’s who reads National Review. And so that’s obviously not the majority of the Republican party, anywhere close to it. And so what they said about Trump really had no effect on him at all.

HEMMER: That’s right. And you’re exactly right about conservative talk radio, because you have programs like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity’s, which draw millions of viewers, millions of listeners to the show every week. And they’re both pretty early on open to his candidacy.

Sean Hannity was a personal friend of his. Rush Limbaugh got what his appeal was, even though he doesn’t sort of wholeheartedly embrace him, he finds him interesting– and isn’t saying a ton that’s negative about him. The real holdout in that big national picture is somebody like Glen Beck and Glen Beck opposes Donald Trump through the election.

SHEFFIELD: Mark Levin was another one who hated him continuously.

HEMMER: Right. And this all will change. This all will change when he wins. And then you also have Breitbart which Steve Bannon runs, which becomes a cheerleader for Donald Trump. And it becomes a bigger force in the conservative media ecosystem as Donald Trump is running.

And so you have these digital outlets where, there’s a comment section in Breitbart that during these years was just extremely active. There’s a community of people on the right who are engaging there on conservative talk radio. You have the ability to call in and talk to the host as you get more distant from that kind of feedback.

Something like Fox News, which doesn’t have that same kind of interactivity, it’s more difficult. I think for them to dial into where audiences are, it takes them a little bit longer. And so what you have is Fox News thinks that it can throw its weight around. And it turns out that it doesn’t have quite as big of an effect as it thought it might.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And and the other thing also is that the Trump ascendancy was kind of a wake up call for only a few minutes. Seems like a few months to a lot of right wing commentators that their audience wasn’t there for the ideology.

They were there for something else. They were there because they were angry at the world. They had anti-establishment viewpoints, whatever it was. They were there for the visceral reactions to everything. And they weren’t there because they wanted to hear about Friedrich Hayek or Ludwig von Mises. They didn’t know who these people were and they had no interest in them. They just knew that they hated liberals and these people did also.

HEMMER: Right. And that there was this seriously visceral and emotional component to conservative media. And that was more true, I think, of conservative talk radio than it was necessarily of something like Fox News.

And so I think that’s why you also see conservative talk radio being a little ahead of the curve there. Although of course, again, there are exceptions. And one of the big things that happens is that as Donald Trump becomes more part of the Republican party, when he wins the nomination, when he ultimately wins the presidency, these outlets sort of understand their powerlessness.

They understand they have to get with the times and for people who don’t, they just get purged. They lose their job. People like Charlie Sykes, gets kicked off the radio. There’s a big purge over at Red State of people who aren’t fully on board with Donald Trump, and for a lot of people who even define themselves as sort of anti-Trump, they quickly start to see that there’s not a big audience for that within conservative media.

And so what you see is even the anti-Trump people just kind of become anti- anti-Trump. Even if they don’t go all aboard with the Trump phenomenon.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s true. And that has really kind of. Anti anti-Trump, that has emerged as its own kind of constituency, especially on right wing Twitter. That they will say yes, Donald Trump is a dufus and he says stupid things, has dumb policies sometimes, but on the other hand, he really sticks it to the libs. So I’m just not going to criticize him very much.

And instead, and so you have the emergence of this idea, this argument “Orange Man Bad.” You’ve heard that one I’m sure, right?


SHEFFIELD: Tell us, For those who don’t know, what is the crux of that argument?

HEMMER: That, that statement is basically just saying that what is happening for critics of Donald Trump is that they are just having this impulse, this reaction that no matter what Donald Trump says, ‘oh, well, it’s just Orange Man Bad. That’s anything he does, you’re just automatically opposed to it, that there’s no set of political commitments or set of ideas that are guiding that opposition to Donald Trump, that it’s reflexive and reactionary.

And so that becomes the criticism that liberals are just flexibly anti-Trump and that they don’t have any real sustained criticism of him. And then whoever the writer is or whoever the media figure is, commentator, can then just focus on what they see as the excesses of liberalism or the problems with liberalism, and then change the subject altogether from Donald Trump.

And that’s what you see, especially with anti-Trump people, is that they’re dismissive of liberals. They talk a lot about liberals being conspiracy theorists around the 2016 election around Russia in particular, and then focus instead on that– instead of focusing on Donald Trump, because there’s not a space in conservative media for much Trump criticism, except maybe a little bit for people who want Trump to be even Trumpier, but that’s the access now. It’s not conservative ideology, but it’s loyalty to Donald Trump and to his agenda.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and it hits to the dynamic of right wing media, which is that it’s not about ideas. It’s not about competency. Basically the only thing you can say as a Republican about the Republican leader is you’re not far enough to the right, like any other criticism is out of bounds. It cannot be allowed. You will lose your audience. You’ll lose your job if you say it.

And you talked about this idea of this cycle of rightward radicalization, that it’s happened multiple times now where you’ve had the candidates come in and say: ‘I’m the real conservative, I’m the real Republican, these other people who are here, they’re just imposter, moderate.’

And then once they get in, then 10 years or 20 years later, these other people come in and say: ‘This guy is not the real conservative, I’m the real conservative. And you need to listen to me.’ And this has now happened, like four or five times now.

HEMMER: That’s right. And I think that there has been an important shift from ‘well, he only wants to get rid of one of the cabinets in the administration. I wanna get rid of three departments. I wanna get rid of five agencies. I wanna shrink the government down, even smaller.’

And now I think that it is much more associated with I’m going to use even more extreme tactics. ‘I’m going to be even more loyal to Donald Trump. I’m going to take this agenda even further.’ And it looks different than it would have looked in, say, the 1990s, when it still was a little bit more about that kind of a combination of making the government even smaller, shrinking and even more cutting, even more being more anti-tax.

And then that kind of radicalization around procedure becomes more important in the 1990s. And of course, during the Obama era became even more experimental and even more willing to break norms and institutions. That’s one of the axes that we’re seeing all of this navigate on. And I think that the January 6th insurrection is a good example of this.

The move to go all the way to where Tucker Carlson winds up with something like “Patriot Purge” to say that the violence was all caused by agents provocateur, that the people who are arrested are political prisoners. The idea that you have to go to that maximalist conspiratorial position and anything less than that, acknowledging the violence on January 6th and the fact that it was folks who were supporters of Donald Trump, that could be career ending, and that kind of radicalism has become increasingly important.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it has. And and I guess from the media standpoint, not only was the audience driving some of these shifts in right wing media, but also Trump himself was directly driving these changes, especially at Fox, when he decided that they were not sufficiently obeisant to him, he decided he was going to start boosting these further right rivals like Newsmax or OAN, and give them special access and interviews.

And in fact, he didn’t do anything with Fox on their news side for at least a year, if I remember right into his presidency, whereas with OAN and Newsmax, he got in bed with him immediately.

HEMMER: That’s right. He really was throwing around his weight. Saying Fox News, you need me and Fox News right away was making changes to their lineup once Donald Trump won the election to make it a more Trumpy network.

It’s in that period that they put Tucker Carlson into the prime time lineup, where they put Laura Ingraham into the prime time lineup, where they get rid of some of their anti-Trump voices and replaced them with pro-Trump voices.

And so you have this change, that’s already happening at the network, but it’s not enough, right? You have to show fealty, you have to show loyalty. And that, as you were saying, it was what would happen and would usually play out over Twitter that if Fox News displeased Donald Trump, then he would promote these other networks.

And you didn’t necessarily see that having a huge effect on Fox News viewership until the 2020 election. That’s where the the division, the difference between Fox News’s position on the election and NewsMax and OAN, NewsMax in particular, their position on the election really comes into play. And you can see it actually in the ratings, you see Fox sliding in the ratings and you see Newsmax attracting all of these new viewers.

And that is a protest movement led by Donald Trump to get people to change their viewing habits, because he was so displeased with Fox News. Now that snaps back into place particularly as Fox News puts some distance between itself and the 2020 election. And they move on to attacking Joe Biden and promoting again, Tucker Carlson’s conspiracy theories and they can come back to a more pro-Trump position.

But it is interesting to see in that moment that Donald Trump really does have an effect on how people are viewing, which outlets they’re choosing to view, and able to point to, okay, see now Fox News, you’re third in in cable news, as opposed to first. And I did that.

SHEFFIELD: And they saw it and they adjusted accordingly.

HEMMER: Yes, they did.

SHEFFIELD: They did. And the other thing also about the Trump years with right wing media, in regard to Fox News, was that, he went after people at Fox who said he lost the election and put a lot of pressure on them on election night and thereafter to lie and say that he won and to rescind a call that they had made very early on about that he was going to lose Arizona.

And of course they were correct, but the people who made that call got fired for being correct, that’s what happened.

HEMMER: They did. And having that kind of influence, I mean, Fox News ends up getting kind of wedged, because they want to show fealty to Trump, they want to give their audience what their audience wants to hear.

And at the same time, there’s this need to try to retain some credibility around the election. I don’t know that’s necessarily going to be the case in 2024, but there was still some need in 2020 to maintain–

SHEFFIELD: Well, at least from a legal standpoint,

HEMMER: –from a legal standpoint. Well, exactly right. Like first on the news side, but then especially when it came to conspiracy theories involving voting machines, what we saw was they very quickly got into hot water and they very quickly were like ‘We’re not doing this anymore because we are going to be sued out of existence if we continue to promote these conspiracy theories.’

And so you do see people from the decision desk let go, you do see people who acknowledge the election let go at Fox News, but you also see somebody like Lou Dobbs let go from Fox Business. And he had been one of those primary promoters of the voting machine conspiracy.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s right. Ultimately though, the net effect is that right wing media for Republicans, it has both positive and negative effects. So it’s harmed their ability to understand the world. So like if you watch Dinesh D’Souza’s 2000 Mules movie, it’s just a pastiche of nonsense. He doesn’t present any evidence for the things he says. He doesn’t understand the things that he says and what the implications are. And he draws insane inferences, like there’s at one point in the movie, he talks about how that there’s something nefarious that somebody took a picture of their ballot box. When, of course, the reality is people take pictures of everything and post them on the internet.

And as a matter of fact, one of my Twitter followers found literally dozens of photos of people posting their ballots, their mail ballots. But in their minds, it has to be that the Democrats cheated, because even though they can’t prove it, that’s what the truth is.

And so from an epistemic standpoint, it’s harmed their ability to understand the world. But on the other hand, it’s also made it so that they can have this movement that has policies that its own voters don’t like, and yet they still continue to vote for them. And so that ultimately probably is the biggest net positive for them.

So they’ve been able to keep these policies for decades that are unpopular and disliked. But the weird thing is that if you look at the political left, there’s really nothing analogous to this gigantic structure that exists on the right, in terms of media, at least as far as I’ve seen.

HEMMER: No, not at all. I mean, the people will often compare Air America to the Rush Limbaugh show or MSNBC to Fox News. And those not only have tended to be smaller, but they just, they don’t hold the same place in the left ecosystem, in the Democratic party.

It used to be that the head of the RNC would have to go apologize to Rush Limbaugh for offending him. You just can’t imagine that happening with Rachel Maddow, right?

The Democratic party does not feel obligated to match their politics with those on these liberal outlets. And they don’t have the same organizing function. They just they don’t have the same profitability. They don’t have the same propaganda function.

And sometimes that is lamented. We’ve seen that lamented quite a lot on the left, that ‘we need to have our own Fox News, we need to have our own communications infrastructure.’ And you’ve seen some efforts by groups like Crooked Media, Pod Save America, of trying to figure out how to build a media infrastructure that’s also about political mobilization, but again, it’s tiny in comparison. It doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of political and cultural power that right wing media have.

And there’s also this question that I often think about when people say ‘we need a liberal or a Democratic Fox news,’ so much of a conversation among liberals over the past decade or so has been about how bad Fox News is for democracy, how detached it has left its viewers from reality.

And so there’s also this question of what is it that you actually want? Do you want a propaganda machine that gets your politics across at the expense of reality? What is it that you want your media infrastructure to look like? But it is the case that it’s a big gap between left and right between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not entirely clear what closing that gap looks like.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, the other thing also is that to the extent that there are left of center media organizations, to a large degree they tend to be owned by corporations. So like, Daily Beast, or let’s say Vox or New York magazine, and MSNBC, like any number of these things, they’re owned by gigantic media organizations whose goal is to make money.

It’s not to drive an ideological agenda. So it also makes it so that a lot of these organizations actually have centrist left power structures and those things don’t exist on the right. And then, whereas if you look on the left, there, there really is only one that I can think of.

And that’s a More Perfect Union, which is a media outlet that is designed to have an explicitly, progressive viewpoint that has a large audience. And other than that, some handful of podcasters who don’t really do anything other than podcasts, they don’t seem interested in this stuff and making the Democratic party more progressive, at least in terms of telling the voters, this is what you should do.

HEMMER: Right. And that is a big deficit. And I don’t think that the Democratic party necessarily feels like they need that kind of effective communication structure. And what I mean by that is there are a lot of folks within the Democratic party who don’t necessarily feel they need to win the argument.

All they need to do is they need to say: ‘Well, this is what we’re doing. And it is a good thing, therefore, vote for us.’ And that both failure to connect with a broader swath of voters to make people feel like they have a voice and a connection, I mean, this is one of the brilliant things that conservative talk radio was able to do.

It had that interactive quality that made people feel like they had a say, even if, three people had an opportunity to call into the Rush Limbaugh show in a three hour period, that idea that it was interactive and that you had a voice, really mattered. But also it provided a connection as we’ve been talking about with a conservative base that talk show hosts were able to pick up on and then serve as a mediation point, a mediator between the base and politicians.

And that kind of mediation is really important for making people feel heard, but also making sure that some of the core commitments and convictions and desires of the base are translated all the way up through the political infrastructure. And so it’s certainly the case that the Democratic party not only needs to become better communicators, but better persuaders and progressives and leftists who wanna make the Democratic party a more progressive, left leaning institution have to also be making the argument.

And that is a space where they haven’t necessarily refined the tools of persuasion. In part because they, I think, a lot of people feel also a dedication to, fealty, to the truth and to information, and to expertise that doesn’t always line up. It’s easier to do propaganda if you’re not beholden to reality.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, that’s true. And the other thing also is that there is a– there’s a sense that getting a story in the New York Times or placing an op-ed in the Washington Post or something, that the job is done, now the public will see what I’m doing and they will like it.

But the reality is of course, these publications as large as they are, or, as many people are watching MSNBC, there’s still not that many people in the broader American public. So if you have, especially in regards to one particular piece of content, 99.999 percent of Americans did not see your article, did not see your interview. And so if you think your job is done with that, well, you’re very grievously mistaken.

HEMMER: That’s exactly right. I’m thinking about this letter that Barack Obama wrote to a woman who– a Black woman wrote into the White House and said that she was disappointed in his presidency, that she felt that he hadn’t done enough for the Black community.

And he wrote back and he was like, tell that to the millions of Black people whose homes I’ve saved, whose jobs I’ve saved, who I’ve created opportunities for over the course of my presidency. And of course, he’s right about those statistics, but he wasn’t making, he wasn’t addressing, people’s felt, lived experience.

The people didn’t feel they were doing better. And there were still kind of this persistent gap in Black unemployment and Black home ownership, and all of these different metrics. And so you can say, you can say, ‘we did this good thing,’ but if people aren’t necessarily connecting with that, then you have to do more than just point to your record, I think.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, or let’s say they are aware that it happened, they’re not aware that you did it.

HEMMER: That is such a huge problem.

SHEFFIELD: And one of the kind of interesting dynamic is that when you look at the Donald Trump 2020 message, it was very heavily on I’m against the radical left.

And that’s a message that is said so often in right-wing media, that if you talk to your average Republican voter, they really think that the Democratic party– which formally rejected all of its most left wing candidates in 2020 and went with the furthest to the right candidate to become the president– that party is beholden to extremists. It’s a ludicrous argument and of course, Democrats did not organize at any point a mob to go and try to kill the vice president and the speaker of the house.

So these arguments don’t make any sense. But when I interact with a lot of sort of centrist type people, they’ve got this sense that there is this gigantic extreme left that controls the Democratic party.

And then when I ask him what policies do they implement? And I never really get any answers to it, but it’s a very effective narrative. And then on the flip side, you don’t see, only until recently has Joe Biden started talking about, and he does it poorly in terms of “Ultra MAGA.”

What does that even mean? Ultra Make America Great, huh? Who would be against that? It doesn’t make any sense. And so when you’re trying to, there’s so much rhetoric about our democracy is at stake, you hear that a lot on the center-left, but they don’t explain specifically how is it at stake and who are these groups that are doing it? And they don’t boil it down in simple terms. I just don’t see it.

HEMMER: And they don’t actually explain how it’s going to make your life worse.


HEMMER: Democracy is an idea. And I think an incredibly important one, it’s a form of government that’s incredibly important, and it’s worth defending and protecting, and it’s worth pointing out that it’s under threat, but people have to, have a message that helps them understand why that matters to them, why that matters to their daily life.

And I also think that, Democrats have been at a real deficit here, not only in the creation of rhetoric, but it does feel like they’re on an uneven playing field when it comes to the broader media environment.

Because you remember Hillary Clinton talking about deplorables during the 2016 campaign, and that was framed as a gaffe, as a real mistake for her to call out what was something that was very true. There was a radicalism, and a real set of vicious ideas that had taken hold in at least part of the Republican party. And that there were millions of Republicans who were willing to set aside the viciousness of those politics and still vote for Donald Trump.

And why was it that when she talked about deplorables, that became a albatros around her neck during the campaign, whereas the invocations of radical left actually have this real power within the Republican base and among Republican voters.

And that’s something, it’s in part about finding the right language. It’s in part about the media environment. And part about it kind of timidness that because of those things that Democrats have about making those charges and those kinds of attacks, and that is something that they’re just going to have to get better at, because the Republican party is not getting less radical.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, agreed. Alright, well, so, tell us a little bit more about your upcoming book. Before we get out of here, let me just put it up on the screen again. Who’s in the book, the main figures you’re looking at?

HEMMER: All right. So the person here on the cover is Pat Buchanan in a very Mussolini-esque pose.

There are some familiar figures that you’ll see in the book. So people like Ross Perot, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich. And then there are also people who you may be less familiar with, people like Peter Brimlow who writes this book called Alienation which really is a repackaging of “great replacement” ideas and a pretty racist anti-immigrant and nativist book.

SHEFFIELD: And he works for a Rupert Murdoch right now.

HEMMER: Yes. And he was kind of mainstream in the mid 1990s. When this book comes out, he was a senior editor for Forbes. He had written a cover story on this topic for National Review– he was.

SHEFFIELD: He got hired by National Review, actually, as a top editor.

HEMMER: editor.

Yeah. And then he would go on to found VDARE, which is this white nationalist site at the end of the 1990s, and becomes kind of marginalized for a while before working his way back in.

And then people like Helen Chenoweth, who was an Idaho congresswoman who represented the Ruby Ridge district or the district with Ruby Ridge in it, and was one of the conduits between the Republican party and the militia movement. And I look at the way that her particular form of Republican anti feminism becomes a powerful force in the mid 1990s and becomes part of mainstreaming extremism in this period.

The story is how does the Republican party radicalize during this period, and it’s happening in a lot of different vectors in a way that I think better helps us understand why in 2016, Donald Trump becomes the nominee for the party, that it is not a rupture with tradition, but in fact, part of a movement that had been emerging within Republican politics, certainly since the 1990s, although of course, the roots go back much further.

SHEFFIELD: They do indeed. We’ve been talking with Nicole Hemmer. She is on Twitter at pastpunditry, and she’s also the author of the upcoming book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. Now when is that going to be available? And people can pre-order it, right?

HEMMER: People can pre-order it. Now it’s going to come out at the end of August. So later on this summer,

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right, well, great. Thanks for joining us today and good luck with the book.

HEMMER: Thank you so much for having me, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, so that’s our program for today. I just wanted to remind everybody that if you like what we’re doing here today, please support us at patreon/discoverflux. And as I said earlier at the top of the program, this show is part of the Flux media network. is our address, please do check us out.

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Thank you for watching, reading, or listening. I’m Matthew Sheffield. See you next time.