My colleagues Oliver Darcy and Pamela Engel have written a good account of the Republican Party’s captivity to its own disinformation complex of talk radio and conservative websites that push both extremism and false information.
Donald Trump has been helped by a conservative-media environment in which there is no penalty for being wrong all the time, for being openly bigoted, or for being obviously doomed to failure in a general election.
I just want to note that the Republican Party cannot be fixed through the taming of its most committed members’ favorite media outlets. The popularity of figures who fill Republicans’ heads with disinformation – people like Sean Hannity and Alex Jones and Matt Drudge – is mostly a symptom of the problems in the party, not a cause.
So before they try to bring figures like Hannity to heel, conservatives should consider how someone like him came to be so popular within their movement.
If they look honestly enough, they will realize the conservative information sphere has long been full of lies. The reason for this is that lying has been the most effective way to promote many of the policies favored by donor-class conservatives, and so they built an apparatus to invent and spread the best lies.
For example, wealthy conservatives favor lower taxes on themselves for the obvious reason that this lets them keep more wealth for themselves. This is sensible enough from a perspective of self-interest and a defensible idea under some moral systems (Ayn Rand’s, for example), but it is not a compelling electoral argument.
So, conservatives built a network of think tanks and magazines and pressure groups funded by wealthy donors whose job was to come up with arguments that would sell the donor-class agenda to the masses.
In a substantial number of happy instances, there was a valid case to be made that what was good for the rich donors was also good for everyone else, and these organs made that case.
When there wasn’t such a case, conservatives had two options: abandon their position or make something up and do their best to sell it. Before the creation of the broad conservative information apparatus, conservatives had done a fair bit of the former: Making peace with the New Deal, for example, after repeated electoral shellackings in the 1930s and 1940s.
- Bill Pugliano/ Getty Images
In recent years, they have increasingly chosen the latter option.
For example, conservative think tanks have put out elaborate models, purporting to show enormously positive economic benefits from Republican plans to cut taxes on owners of capital and spending on social programs. The point of these models is to show that fiscal policy that would seem to be regressive is actually good for everyone.
These models rely on assumptions that are outside the mainstream of economic opinion and overstate the economic benefits of regressive fiscal policy. That is, they lie. (See, for example, my column for The New York Times last year and Annie Lowrey for Slate in 2011.)
Climate change is another area in which conservative disinformation has been dressed up with numbers and eyeglasses. In each case, the models’ lies come with math that is supposed to give the lies an aura of authority.
This math-based approach to disinformation has led to a weird set of conventions about which lies are OK to tell and which are not. For example, you can promise your tax cuts will generate 4% economic growth; 5% is considered silly. Or, you must place your objection to climate-change mitigation downstream of the question of changing climate, rather than outright denying that global temperatures are rising.
Trump’s contribution to conservative messaging has not been the introduction of widespread lying. Rather, it has been his realization that you don’t have to just lie about what the donors want lied about, and you don’t need a fake model, because nobody’s paying attention to the numbers anyway.
You don’t need an elaborate approach to “dynamic scoring.” You can just say, “I’ll make us so rich,” and mutter some nonsense about the trade deficit, and you can convince approximately the same set of voters.
- Ethan Miller/Getty
You don’t need a clever replotting of climate data when you can just say the whole thing is a conspiracy invented by the Chinese.
Trump lies and lies and lies and lies and lies and he does not even respect his supporters enough to lie well. You would think he would get in trouble for this, but Republican elites have spent so many years intentionally discrediting the media and policy experts and others who would dare to tell the truth about the public policy that his lies are, in fact, convincing enough for the conservative base.
As a result, the trouble with establishment conservatives’ complaints about new conservative media is that they’re not really committed to an honest politics, just to a differently dishonest politics.
Trump talks about a (fake) crime epidemic and a (fake) invasion of Mexican criminals and a (fake) Chinese trade conspiracy and a (fake) plot to rig the election. Do conservative elites hate these claims because they are lies, or because they are lies that do nothing in particular to advance the interests of elite conservatives?
Conservative elites might hope to put the lies back in their box, where the subject matter of the lies is developed by wealthy donors (establishment ones, not the Mercers) who care mostly about taxes and not the restoration of overt racism – and where the quality of the lies becomes less embarrassingly low, so it’s not so hard to go defend them on cable news without feeling like an idiot.
That’s not going to work for a couple of reasons, the main one of which is that Trump’s lies are more fun for Republican voters than the usual set of lies. Another reason is that the old rules boxing in the lies never made much sense – if you can say a $4 trillion tax cut will pay for itself, why not a $10 trillion one?
You can most easily tell you can’t put the conservative media back in the box when you consider one of its most powerful elements – email forwards and Facebook memes, which are controlled by no authority and make profits for nobody (except Facebook).
These media reflect the huge demand for Trump-style lies – even if you shame Hannity out of the business, someone else will rise up to offer these lies. The donors cannot ever regain control over the machine.
Furthermore, establishment Republicans should be careful about any plan to rely on sunshine and reality and facts as the antidote to Trumpism, as they will need to be prepared to face uncomfortable facts of their own.
A fact-full environment wouldn’t just stop candidates from running on a platform of bombing ISIS to take the oil and getting Mexico to pay for the wall so we can beat China and be so rich. A fact-full environment will also be very inhospitable for ordinary Republican policy platforms of the sort advanced by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
Bush’s promise of 4% growth wasn’t more honest than Donald Trump’s promises; it was just more artful.
If Republicans want to tell the truth and win elections, they will have to advance different policy ideas – and that’s why they lie.