If you want to understand intra-GOP warfare, the decision-making process of our president, the implosion of the Republican healthcare plan, and the rest of the politics of the Trump era, you don’t need to know about Russian espionage tactics, the state of the white working class, or even the beliefs of the “alt-right.” You pretty much just need to be in semi-regular contact with a white, reasonably comfortable, male retiree. We are now ruled by men who think and act very much like that ordinary man you might know, and if you want to know why they believe so many strange and terrible things, you can basically blame the fact that a large and lucrative industry is dedicated to lying to them.
Because there was a lot of money in it for various hucksters and moguls and authors and politicians, the conservative movement spent decades building up an entire sector of the economy dedicated to scaring and lying to older white men. For millions of members of that demographic, this parallel media dedicated to lying to them has totally supplanted the “mainstream” media. Now they, and we, are at the mercy of the results of that project. The inmates are running the asylum, if there is a kind of asylum that takes in many mostly sane people and then gradually, over many years, drives one subset of its inmates insane, and also this asylum has the largest military in the world.
For years, the conservative movement peddled one set of talking points to the rabble, while its elites consumed a more grounded and reality-based media. The rubes listened to talk radio, read right-wing blogs, watched Fox News. They were fed apocalyptic paranoia about threats to their liberty, racial hysteria about the generalized menace posed by various groups of brown people, and hysterical lies about the criminal misdeeds of various Democratic politicians. The people in charge, meanwhile, read The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard, and they tended to have a better grasp of political reality, as when those sources deceived their readers, it was mostly unintentionally, with comforting fantasies about the efficacy of conservative policies. From the Reagan era through the Bush administration, the system seemed to be performing as designed.
But if this was a reasonably useful arrangement for Republicans, who won a couple close elections with the help of their army of riled-up kooks, it was a fantastic deal for the real engine of the right-wing propaganda machine: companies selling newly patented drugs designed to treat the various conditions of old age, authors of dubious investing newsletters, sellers of survival seeds, hawkers of poorly written conservative books, and a whole array of similar con artists and ethically compromised corporations and financial institutions. The original strategy behind demonizing the “mainstream media” may have purely political, to steer voters away from outlets that tended to present information damaging to the conservative cause, but the creation of the conservative media was also a revenue opportunity for shameless grifters from the very start, as Rick Perlstein showed in his classic Baffler piece on the snake oil-salesmen of the right.
The bottom-feeding amorality of the sorts of people who sponsored the right-wing press, and the crummy nature of the products and services sold, shows exactly who was supposed to be consuming it: suckers. Or, more specifically, trusting retirees, with a bit of disposable income, and a natural inclination to hate modernity and change—an inclination that could be heightened, radicalized, and exploited.
The grown-up Republicans in Washington, meanwhile, still existed in their own genteel bubble of misinformation—they convinced themselves that the occupation of Iraq would be over and done with in a few easy months—but the major figures in the Bush administration, and its allies in Congress, were not men who got the majority of their news from “Free Republic” and Alex Jones. They put their faith in a fairly traditional conservative orthodoxy: That you can use the levers of power to quietly enrich your friends and their firms, while pleasing the masses with some combination of tax cuts, loud proclamations of religiosity, and a modest, popular war or two.
But the complete and inarguable disaster of the Bush administration—a failure of the conservative movement itself, one undeniable even to many consumers of the parallel conservative media—and his abrupt replacement by a black man, caused a national nervous breakdown among the people who’d been told, for many years, that conservatism could not fail, and that all Real Americans agreed with them.
Rather rapidly, two things happened: First, Republicans realized they’d radicalized their base to a point where nothing they did in power could satisfy their most fervent constituents. Then—in a much more consequential development—a large portion of the Republican Congressional caucus became people who themselves consume garbage conservative media, and nothing else.
That, broadly, explains the dysfunction of the Obama era, post-Tea Party freakout. Congressional Republicans went from people who were able to turn their bullshit-hose on their constituents, in order to rile them up, to people who pointed it directly at themselves, mouths open.
Now, we have a president whose media diet defines his worldview, interests, and priorities. He is not one of the men, like most of those Tea Party members of Congress, whose existing worldview determined his media diet—who sealed himself off from disagreeable media sources. He is, in fact, something far more dangerous: a confused old man who believes what the TV tells him.
Donald Trump is 70 years old. He has always, clearly, been an incoherent thinker, contradictory and prone to self-gratifying delusions. But if, for much of his life, he was able to pass as an intelligent and well-informed man, it was probably just because he religiously read newspapers, especially the New York Times. That was and is a decent way to sound like a smart person, at least for a few minutes, which is long enough to impress most rich people. Now, though, Trump is older, his thinking more rigid, his favored media outlets less trustworthy and more likely to reinforce reactionary tendencies. Cable news has largely replaced newspapers as his primary source of information about the world. He has also taken to reading conspiratorial websites run by kooks and con artists. Perhaps, if you have a white parent or grandparent over 60, this sounds familiar?
Trump was always venal, dishonest, genuinely deluded about his financial acumen and business success, and, you know, a wildly misogynistic accused rapist and sexual harasser. But for most of his public life, he also clearly knew the right sorts of things to say to sound like a reasonable person, albeit a mostly ridiculous one. Donald Trump the deranged believer of bizarre untruths about the world at large is actually a fairly recent development. This is why, when he flirted with presidential runs in the past, he spoke positively of universal healthcare. This is why, when he planned to win the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000, he attacked Pat Buchanan as a right-wing extremist. This is why he spent many years claiming to have opposed the Iraq War—which he did, albeit after it was too late, and not before. Trump learned what to think about the world at large from the media, and for most of his life, he was a consumer of the mainstream media.
Donald Trump today is a cruel dolt turned into a raving madman by cable news and Breitbart.com. You could see the descent happen during the Obama era, in concert with the broader maddening of the GOP. The major difference between Trump and the other old white men who’ve been radicalized by the conservative press is that his was a strangely self-directed conversion, based on his desire to make himself known as a plausible Republican presidential candidate.
If, at first, Trump’s 2011-2012 embrace of birtherism was a ham-fisted attempt at winning a political constituency for himself on the far right, at a certain point the distinction between cynical appropriation of the right-wing fever swamp and actual immersion in it dissolved. Whatever his original level of sincerity, Trump became a man who extensively reads conspiracy-obsessed right-wing blogs, and then a president who is closely advised by the dude in charge of Breitbart. And now, all you need to know to understand the president’s entire world view is that he is an old man who religiously watches “Fox & Friends.”
A media apparatus that was built to fleece gullible, generally older people now holds sway over much of Congress and the president himself. It turns out gerontocracy is an even bigger disaster in a nation with a giant media industry dedicated to scaring and lying to old people.
Here’s the real, non-ideological difference between Republicans and Democrats:
Democrats by and large are convinced that no one actually supports their agenda, and they devote a not insignificant amount of time and political capital to explaining to their own constituents why they cannot pursue goals that a majority of them support. (“I supported single payer since before you were born,” says Nancy Pelosi, who has the legislative and leadership record of someone who may support single payer but clearly doesn’t actually expect it to happen in our lifetimes.)
Conservatives, especially those who came up during the Obama era, have, more or less, the opposite problem: They’ve convinced themselves that their agenda is hugely popular and that everyone supports them.
There’s actually been some research on this: Politicians—both liberal ones and conservative ones—believe that the electorate is more conservative than it actually is. Conservative politicians believe the electorate is much more conservative than it actually is. Once you learn this, suddenly a lot of things about how elected officials act make more sense.
The most important major divide among Congressional Republicans isn’t between moderates and conservatives, or establishment and anti-establishment politicians, but between those who know that their agenda is hugely unpopular and that they have to force it through under cover of darkness, and the louder, dumber ones who believe their own bullshit. And for those loud, dumb members, egged on by a media apparatus that has trained its audience to demand the impossible and punish the sell-outs who can’t deliver, those more tactical members are cowards and RINOs.
This is how Mitch McConnell ended up so hugely unpopular and despised in his own party that he attracted a high-profile primary challenger during the period when he was doing more than any other person in Washington to thwart the Democratic Party. This is how and why a deal to cut social insurance benefits with support from a Democratic president repeatedly failed to happen despite President Obama’s best efforts. And this is why Republicans couldn’t repeal Obamacare. The marginally cannier guys thought up a plausible legislative strategy for forcing through an unpopular proposal with minimum oversight, and the House Freedom Caucus guys played a key role in blowing it up because it didn’t repeal Obamacare enough.
The Freedom Caucus, a group of 30-odd true-believers (all men, of those publicly identified as caucus members, and mostly men over the age of 50), rejected the deal because it was hugely unpopular, but what they can’t grasp, or admit to themselves, is that it was hugely unpopular mainly because of the ways in which it did resemble their preferred set of policies, not because of how it diverged from them. It does not compute that a bill that follows their stated priorities—a stingier government that is crueler to its citizens of modest means—would be unpopular even among their own constituents.
And because the right-wing media machine has no incentive to actually help Republicans govern—it thrives on conflict, not consensus—it did nothing to help sell the deal. And the Republican president, who doesn’t care about or understand policy, and who acts only based on what he thinks will play well on TV, got bored with the negotiation and thought he could just bluster his way to a deal that would make him look like he got something done. This is the blueprint for the next four years, if Trump manages to last that long before giving up. The president won’t have the patience for the legislative process, and the legislators will be dealing with the cognitive dissonance of learning repeatedly that the real-world version of their fantasy politics is massively unpopular.
Being the head sucker of the party of suckers is in some sense an appropriate fate for a veteran purveyor of substandard garbage like Donald Trump. Slapping his name on shoddy products marketed to people who—like Trump himself!—buy into the myth of Trump as a man of class, intelligence, and distinction kept him afloat after real estate and casinos nearly ruined him. Trump Steaks, Trump University, Trump Wine, “Trump”-branded developments he had no part in building or managing; Trump sold bullshit for so long that he seemed to begin to believe in the bullshit himself. And once the product was literally him, how could he not believe in it?
As always, the people who’ll truly be burned are the ones who bought into the sales pitch, from voters in opioid-ravaged post-industrial shitholes (Chris Christie’s on the way!) to Trump-supporting right-wingers in Congress, who will find their president mostly uninterested in their agenda (and unable to help them implement it even if he did care). The operators will still get something out of it, because they usually do. Paul Ryan won’t get to completely dismantle the welfare state, but he’ll still probably get a friendly Supreme Court justice or two out of him.
Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus both probably think they can “manage” Trump, the same way a coterie of movement conservatives “managed” the elderly and checked-out Reagan, putting him out in front of the cameras to deliver his patter while they went about the business of running the country. You can see this in how apparently warring factions within the White House are attempting to control what intelligence Trump sees and who is responsible for analyzing it before it reaches his desk. But no matter what his handlers put in his briefing book, the president is getting his actual briefings from “Fox & Friends”—as if Reagan had listened only to Paul Harvey to determine his agenda and strategy.
There’s plenty Trump’s minders can accomplish despite how distractible and unmanageable he is. They’ve already planted right-wing shock troops in all the federal agencies. They’ll fill the judiciary with extremists. They can do a lot of damage simply because the boss doesn’t care about the actual details and responsibilities of his gig. But on the major legacy-building (or other side’s legacy-destroying) stuff, really anything involving Congress or extensive public debate, there’s no coherent path toward anything that looks like victory. If the bullshit-peddlers who attached themselves to Trump truly want to remake the nation—beyond making it meaner in the areas in which it is already pretty persistently mean, or beyond simply raining death down upon foreigners with even less regard for casualties or consequences than evinced by prior administrations—they’re screwed. They’re screwed because they and their predecessors engineered a perpetual misinformation machine, and then a bunch of people addicted to their product took over the government.
Now, and for the foreseeable future, the grifter-in-chief sits alone in the White House residence every night, watching cable news tell him comforting lies—that he’s a hugely popular president, that responsibility for his myriad setbacks and failures lies with the many powerful enemies aligned against him a grand conspiracy—in between the ads for reverse mortgages and “all-natural male enhancement.” There’s an image of America in the age of the complete triumph of bullshit. You spend a few years selling lousy steaks to suckers, then one morning you wake up and you’re the sucker—and the steak.