Ann Coulter
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Fox News is no longer the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. The Republican Party is the legislative arm of Fox News.

This reality is essential to understanding the Fox News-led government shutdown afflicting the country just in time for Christmas, spurred on by some of the lowest lights in the conservative movement: Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Laura Ingraham.

How did we get here? On Wednesday December 19, far-right website Breitbart ran a furious opinion piece by the legendary conservative troll Ann Coulter titled  “Gutless President in a Wall-Less Country.” The same day, Donald Trump unfollowed Ms. Coulter on twitter. Just one day earlier, disgraced Fox News host Laura Ingraham had issued a long screed on the network’s website lambasting Congressional Republicans for not providing wall funding and telling Trump to “bring on the shutdown.” They were not alone: Rush Limbaugh and others in the conservative infotainment complex had also decreed that Trump would be a big loser if the wall remained unfunded before Democrats took control of the House.

By close of business on December 20, President Trump called Paul Ryan to the White House to inform him that he would refuse to sign a short-term spending measure, in effect unilaterally shutting down the government.

Best as anyone can tell, two waning stars of conservative media had either shamed or more likely frightened the president of the United States into a government shutdown to support a wildly unpopular policy, despite the president’s party holding all branches of power.

Of all the horrors of the Trump presidency, one of the scariest is that the worst elements of the far-right media have gained a lock on both Congress and the White House. Both the House and Senate Republican caucuses are filled to the brim with politicians who are either true believers in the Limbaugh-Hannity-Carlson line, or are running so scared of their dedicated conservative audiences that they will capitulate to their reckless demands. Trump, meanwhile, is a television addict whose descent from mere wealthy hubris and entitled racism into dangerously extremist paranoia can credibly be traced to when he began to consume a steady diet of Fox News over a decade ago.

This carries devastating consequences. Regardless of whether one agrees with the foundational premises of conservative American policy doctrine (and of course no thinking person should), the takeover of the entire Republican Party by extremist media organs should be a huge cause of concern from a structural standpoint. Infotainment figures do not share the same incentives as politicians and political parties. The latter must gain the trust and support of a majority of voters in serious direct competition with only one other entity–i.e. the opposing party–while the former need only to secure the rabid loyalty of a segmented media audience. Because the amount of competition in the infotainment sector is large and the attention of audiences is fleeting, the incentive is to be the loudest, most partisanly aggressive voice in the room. This is especially true for the American right, whose audience leans authoritarian and embraces fear of the “other” as its driving impulse.

In other words, Fox News hosts don’t have the same goals as the president or the Speaker of the House. Ideally, the job of the president and the Speaker is to govern effectively; viewed cynically, their job is at the very least to do the minimum necessary to ensure re-election. A Fox News host has no such predicament: they don’t need to prove that their ideas make for good governance, nor do they need to answer to a majority of voters. Their job is to grab as big a share of an angry and paranoid audience as possible by ramping up the outrage. A few Republican Senators like Bob Corker (R-TN) have begun voicing their misgivings over the situation–but it is far too little, far too late.

The occupation of a political party by a media infotainment complex cannot help but spell doom for that party, even if it didn’t already face enormous demographic and public opinion hurdles. But until that party is fully run out of power, they can do enormous damage.

That’s where we are now: a government shutdown precipitated by a brainwashed president, fighting with members of his own party, both flailing at the end of a series of puppet strings that are wielded by low-rent niche media shock jocks.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.