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Placing Media in Conservative Culture

Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins

Beginning in the spring of 2011, real estate developer and reality television host Donald Trump began to appear weekly on the Fox News Channel morning television program Fox and Friends in a segment “Monday Mornings with Trump.” Trump used this regular platform on conservative media’s most influential outlet— which ended only when he announced his presidential candidacy four years later—to pontificate on current events, practicing his appeals to Republican base voters and earning the Fox News audience’s trust as a conservative in good standing. Trump proceeded to ride his newfound popularity with conservative viewers to capture the Republican presidential nomination and the White House in 2016 despite a lack of enthusiastic support from most conventional party' leaders. Fox News has not only continued to serve as a welcome source of reliably favorable publicity for Trump during an otherwise tempestuous administration but also functioned as an important instigator of presidential action. Aides have revealed that President Trump remains an avid Fox News viewer who regularly speaks privately with Fox prime-time anchor Sean Hannity; journalists have noted a repeated correspondence between Fox News segments and Trump’s subsequent tweets or comments on the same topic, and a number of conservative media figures have jumped directly from cable news perches to top positions in the executive branch during the first few years of the Trump presidency'—following in the footsteps of the president himself.

More than any other single person, Trump personifies the substantial influence of the conservative media universe within the contemporary Republican Party. But the emergence of prominent media outlets on the right presenting themselves as necessary alternatives to a biased mainstream press significantly predated Trump’s rise to power. Long before Fox News Channel and Breitbart, conservative talk radio generated calls to Congress, Republican politicians campaigned against the mainstream media, and media figures helped transform the party. Conservative candidates have also long grappled with the challenge of attracting electoral support for an ideological movement primarily dedicated to the perennially unpopular objective of limiting or rolling back major government programs and social benefits, with Trump-style “populism” representing merely the latest strategy for combating liberal accusations that the American right is primarily dedicated to the promotion of wealthy and corporate interests at the expense of average citizens. Both the role of ideological media as key actors in party affairs and the limited appeal of party leaders favored domestic policy agenda—even among their own voters—which are unique to Republicans, with no true parallel among the Democratic opposition.

Today’s multimedia conservative infrastructure reflects the conscious efforts of activists to mobilize popular conservative values and to counteract a mainstream media perceived as hostile to their beliefs, thus moving American politics to the ideological right. Like the officeholders and candidates of their party, most Republicans in the wider electorate identify themselves as political conservatives and hold a common set of general views about the proper role of government and direction of society. But Republicanism at the mass level is less motivated than its elite counterpart by commitment to a coherent policy agenda and is habitually frustrated by the continued resilience—and, in some cases, growing prevalence—of liberal ideas and social trends. Conservative media figures can thus win and maintain a large popular audience not only by attacking other media sources, Democratic politicians, and “the left” more generally but also by accusing Republican politicians of ineffectiveness in opposing, if not outright complicity in, the enduring nemesis of liberalism.

The rising power of the conservative media thus represents a mixed blessing from the perspective of Republican politicians and traditional conservative elites. Fox News, talk radio, and right-wing websites allow Republicans to communicate with their party’s popular base and help to mobilize conservative activists and voters against the Democratic opposition. But the distinctive popular conservative culture that these media outlets both reinforce and promote is also fertile ground for repeated challenges to the party’s existing leadership by self-styled political outsiders—including, most notably, Donald Trump—who are rewarded for their antipathy to liberalism and the “establishment” despite frequent difficulties in achieving broad appeal among the American public or demonstrating skill in governing.

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