Michael Wolff’s new book has proven what we largely already knew: Donald Trump is patently unfit to be president. He has no policy instincts beyond prejudices that seem locked in the 1980s and zero-sum notions of industry and international relations that seem locked in the 1880s. He was never the most intellectually impressive person, but he is clearly in a state of cognitive decline, and he is also too stubborn to learn new information or even accept the advice of respected advisers. He is easy to anger, susceptible to flattery and given to authoritarian instincts. He is a clear and present danger to American democracy and world stability–and that’s without even delving into policy complaints like inaction on crises like climate change and inequality.
The big question is why Republicans not only tolerate him, but have scrambled to tie their entire brand to him and defend him even though they know a raft of damning allegations of corruption and collusion are coming soon from the FBI. It would be simple, in theory, for Republicans to refuse to act on legislation or confirmation until Trump resigned from office and allowed Vice President Mike Pence to take over. They could offer inducements behind the scenes, and a promise to pardon him for his crimes not only on the campaign but also for his business dealings.
The answer, of course, is that Republicans are far more afraid of their base than they are of Democrats, and Trump has the loyalty of the majority of the GOP base. But that’s a facile explanation that beckons us to go one layer deeper: what drives the Republican base?
The short answer is a combination of ugly prejudices, religious dominionism and upper-income greed. But it has been thus at least since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Nixon’s Southern Strategy. What has changed is the rise of the alternative conservative media apparatus, including and especially Fox News. Even as the Republican base soured on plutocratic economics with rising inequality, the failure of trickle-down policies and the decline of the fortunes of the white working class, outlets like the Drudge Report, Fox News, Breitbart and Alex Jones kept culturally conservative stewing in a distraction soup of resentments and conspiracies.
But for the conservative media apparatus, the Republican coalition would have toppled long ago. The party has failed for decades to deliver tangible policy results for dominionist crusaders as church attendance declines and conservatives lose the culture wars. The white working class no longer believes in the doctrines of free trade and unfettered capitalism after seeing Wall Street automate and offshore blue-collar jobs just to put a few more dollars in the hands of already loaded fat cat shareholders. The wealthy donors are getting what they want, but while they have lots of money to spend on elections they represent a vanishingly small portion of the actual electorate. And then there’s the demographic challenge: it’s hard to implement racist economic policy that hurts disproportionately lower-income people of color without also hurting lower-income whites. Moreover, with each passing year of demographic change there just aren’t enough angry old white people to sustain an entire political party.
The Republican Party should, under normal circumstances, have been forced to adjust. It should have found it necessary to moderate its economic policies to attract more minority voters and actually provide real tangible benefits to the white working class. It should have been pushed to embrace a more modern and secular approach to issues. It should, in short, have adapted to the twin pressures of demographics and the policy challenges of capitalism in the 21st century.
But it has instead remained either frozen in amber or drifting further and further rightward to cater to ever more extremist factions of its base. The conservative media apparatus from talk radio to Fox News to online outlets like Drudge and Breitbart profit from ratcheting up the fears and resentments of their thralls, and prevent the evolution and growth of the conservative movement.
Which leads us to Donald Trump. Conservatives love Donald Trump because he is one of them: an angry and delusional old man completely under the spell of right wing media. For all Trump’s golden toilets and ostentatious displays of crude dictator chic, fellow Fox News cult members recognize him as a fellow traveler sharing their very same obsessions. Trump watches hours and hours of Fox News every day, calls up Rupert Murdoch for advice and uses twitter to directly respond to and promote its programming.
And Fox News has returned the favor: it obsequiously praises Trump at all hours of the day, reveling in his attention and giving him suggested talking points for the day in a symbiotic relationship. Congressional Republicans, for their part, like having a president who puts no policy pressure on them and will essentially sign whatever they give him. But the stage direction is coming from Fox.
Fox News has frequently been described as state-run media–the communications arm of the Republican Party. But that’s not entirely true. The Republican Party is actually the legislative arm of Fox News.
If Fox News gave the directive to its hosts to suggest that the president had already made the country great again in the ways that matter, and that an appreciative nation would be happy to allow him to return to private life and let Mike Pence take over the duties, most of its audience would nod willingly. The president (who never wanted this job in the first place) would be grateful for the opportunity to escape his daily hell. Americans of all stripes could breathe just a bit easier.
But Fox News stands to gain too much from the symbiosis with its captured president. Each part of the conservative infrastructure is in competition with the others to keep ratcheting up the crazy.
So here we are–stuck with a idiot wholly created and controlled by a media channel whose profit model rests on destabilizing and agitating America’s most deplorable septuagenarians. Fox News could put an end to this anytime it wanted. But it doesn’t dare to.