GOP Leadership Has Been Ejected From the Epistemic Bubble

Back in 2010, David Frum (former George W. Bush speechwriter) issued a warning to Republicans.

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination…If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

Of course, the GOP didn’t listen. Instead, they literally threw Frum out of the party and continued to tap into right wing media to fuel the anger that drove their strategy of total obstruction. As Oliver Darcy wrote:

For the most part, Republicans and the conservative media existed symbiotically. Republicans used their newfound apparatus as a vehicle to drive home their message to supporters. Simultaneously, the conservative news media sought to lock in its audience by characterizing the mainstream press as an industry comprising dishonest liberals — something with which the GOP was more than happy to go along.

“What it became, essentially, was they were preaching this is the only place you can get news. This is the only place you can trust. All other media outlets are lying to you. So you need to come to us,” said Ted Newton, president of Gravity Strategic Communications and former communications adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“And so in an attempt to capture an audience, they almost made them slaves to those news outlets. So there is a whole group of people who will only watch Fox, who will only read Breitbart. And they are living in a bubble,” he added.

But along the way, things went awry. Darcy points to this recent diatribe from Sean Hannity.

The Fox News host and conservative personality was fed up with Republican leaders in Washington — and he wasn’t hiding it from the millions of listeners tuned into his radio program.

“If in 96 days Trump loses this election, I am pointing the finger directly at people like [House Speaker] Paul Ryan and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain and John Kasich and Ted Cruz — if he won’t endorse — and Jeb Bush and everybody else that made promises they’re not keeping,” Hannity exclaimed, later threatening to endorse Ryan’s far-right primary challenger.

That was followed pretty quickly by Trump’s hire of Stephen Bannon from Breitbart News – which regularly echoes Hannity’s rant – as his campaign CEO.

The fact that Republican leadership has now become the target of right wing news presents them with two big problems. First of all, where do they go to tell their story?

That has left conservatives who oppose Trump in a tricky position when trying to get their message to supporters. No longer can Ryan or Cruz turn to Hannity for a softball interview. They can’t work with Breitbart or rely on Drudge to help with their legislative agenda.

These Republicans have effectively been exiled from the conservative news media, leaving them with a problem.

“They don’t have any place to go. How else do you get your message out? You can’t do it in the mainstream. This is the way you reach conservatives,” Ziegler said. “We have taught conservatives for many years to trust nothing other than what they hear in conservative media. Yet the conservative media has now proven to be untrustworthy.”

Secondly, where do the #NeverTrump people go to combat his attacks and lies?

One of the chief problems, Sykes said, was that it had become impossible to prove to listeners that Trump was telling falsehoods because over the past several decades, the conservative news media had “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers.”

“There’s nobody,” he lamented. “Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bulls—.’ There’s nobody — you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.'”

“And I have to say that’s one of the disorienting realities of this political year. You can be in this alternative media reality and there’s no way to break through it,” Sykes continued.

Julian Sanchez defined this as “epistemic closure” back in 2010.

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)

When we talk about how/why the #NeverTrump movement failed and why nothing Trump says/does breaks through to give his supporters pause…there you have it. The right wing media readers/listeners/watchers are living in the epistemic bubble created by the likes of Hannity, Drudge and Limbaugh.

I would suggest that this is a much bigger and long-term problem for the GOP than is presented by their current presidential nominee. Their leadership has effectively been kicked out of the epistemic bubble and are under attack from the base of their party’s support. As Frum predicted and we’ve witnessed over the years, there is not much the Republican Congressional leadership can do to satisfy these folks in the right wing media because their ratings rely on fomenting anger and threats to “blow shit up!” I suspect this is precisely why Paul Ryan resisted taking on the role of House Speaker after John Boehner was ejected from his leadership position. He knows that he is now the target and this won’t end well.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.