The most basic question that the Trump presidency raises is: How the hell did this happen?
There is, obviously, no single answer for why this particular miscreant became president of the United States. Were it not for the Russians or WikiLeaks or James Comey, etc., etc., we might still resemble a normal nation. But these isolated explanations do not speak to the larger question of how this jerk got anywhere near the White House in the first place. In the past few months, three authors have sought to address that larger question, and with them, we can begin to see an outline of how the GOP allowed itself to be taken over by people with only a tenuous grasp of reality.
In his book American Carnage, Tim Alberta, a former reporter for National Review now with Politico, tells a straightforward tale, albeit one that whitewashes the dishonesty and extremism of the pre-Trump Republican Party. His well-researched thesis is that GOP leaders remained “blissfully ignorant of the discontent simmering below the surface.” Even so, they unintentionally stoked this anger by condescending to rather than challenging the increasingly demagogic representatives the grass roots were sending to Washington.
Brian Rosenwald, a coeditor of The Washington Post’s “Made by History” section, tells a complementary story in Talk Radio’s America. He argues that the profit motive radicalized talk radio and with it the Republican Party. Rosenwald describes a negative feedback loop in which any attempt by a Republican to compromise would “inflame conservative airwaves” and prompt hosts to call for “more combative Republicans willing to fight for listeners’ values at any cost.”
Given the devotion of talk radio’s increasingly ill-informed audience, no elected Republican was sufficiently powerful to survive accusations of apostasy. This was also in part because talk radio merged with the party; its leading voices became the GOP’s leading voices. The way Rosenwald puts it, as the business grew more competitive, “many conservative figures guarded their flanks by lacerating Republicans. Hosts demanded from elected Republicans a level of ideological purity—and warfare mentality—that made it far more difficult…to advance an agenda that would attract broad support.” A vicious cycle developed. Because conflict and scaremongering drove ratings and ratings drove profits, the more extreme the hosts became, the more listeners they gained, and the more money they made. As they amassed power and influence, the hosts could demand fealty from the politicians they were discussing every day.
Rush Limbaugh blazed this trail, but virtually every other conservative host followed his path. They exhorted “Republicans to sound more like them—standing up to Democrats, drawing lines in the sand and going to war…and excoriated politicians when they didn’t,” Rosenwald writes.
In order to bring his thesis into the current era, Rosenwald convincingly argues that Fox News constitutes a kind of talk radio on television. Its most popular hosts over the years—Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, among others—were and are reproducing right-wing radio on TV at night. They glommed on to Trump because their only genuine principle, aside from maximizing profits, is owning the libs. By 2016, Rosenwald notes, “Republican voters yearned for pugnacious, fire-breathing politicians who sounded like their favorite conservative media personalities and openly expressed what they themselves thought but felt unable to say.” He is too high-minded to point out that this often translates into unapologetic racism, ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.
In Audience of One, James Poniewozik, the chief TV critic for The New York Times, has another angle on Trump’s rise to power, arguing that the only way to understand him is as a television character. To do this, Poniewozik largely ignores politics and tells the story of the development of America’s TV tastes over the past half-century before getting to The Apprentice, launched in January 2004 by Jeff Zucker at NBC before he became president of CNN.
Although The Apprentice is discussed as reality TV, there was nothing real about the show. As with almost everything that Trump has been involved in, the show was a lie from start to finish. The truth was that his office at the Trump Organization was filled with “chipped furniture” and that he oversaw a “crumbling empire.” A producer told The New Yorker, “Our job was to make it seem otherwise.” The priority on every episode “was to reverse-engineer the show to make it look like his judgment had some basis in reality,” a supervising editor explained to CineMontage. “Sometimes it would be very hard to do.”
At first The Apprentice was a hit, but as Poniewozik writes, “after the first season, the ratings dropped; by season four they were nearly half what they were in season one. Trump reacted to his declining numbers by ratcheting up what worked before: becoming a louder, more extreme, more abrasive version of himself.” Later ensconced at CNN, Zucker remained all in on Trump, this time giving the now–presidential candidate millions of dollars’ worth of free airtime in which to spread his lies, racism, and general malevolence with impunity.
Zucker even hired Trump’s ex–campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a political commentator. This wouldn’t normally be considered unusual in the incestuous world of cable TV commentary except that in this case, Lewandowski had signed a nondisclosure agreement with a nondisparagement clause, meaning he was legally prevented from saying anything truthful that reflected badly on Trump.
Yet Zucker did not care: Trump drove the ratings, and ratings drove the profits. Recently, Lewandowski was back on CNN, fresh from his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, during which he declared, “I have no obligation to be honest to the media.” So again, while there is no one answer for how we got here; all of them proceed from the same foundation: greed, cowardice, and most of all, lies.