1. A Theme Park Called Limited Government Land
Those with even a highly superficial acquaintance with conservative pundits and commentators know that one of the bêtes noires of conservatives, the bête noire, perhaps, is what they call the mainstream liberal media—ranging from The Washington Post and The New York Times to CNN and network broadcast news, from the Huffington Post and New Republic to Slate, Salon, and The New Yorker, the thought-shapers of our noble republic. No day goes by without famed conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh railing against the journalistic congeries that consistently and purposefully misinform Americans about the country and, indeed, the world. He calls them the “Drive-By Media,” which perfectly encapsulates for his audience what he feels is the lethal superficiality of the opinion-making orthodoxy. Former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin gets cheers from conservative audiences when she denounces the “lame stream media,” which she and most conservatives feel destroyed her, discredited and misrepresented her and her family, in the media’s efforts to assure the election of Barack Obama, the savior of “hope and change” (which, after eight years, may have been just another form of magical thinking) and the first black person who had a serious, realistic chance of winning, which, in the eyes of white liberal land, could not be thwarted by some white-trash dummy whose sole virtue was that she could stand impressively, even authoritatively, in high heels. But Palin was simply the latest example of what liberals consider conservative paranoia: the mainstream media is out to get us! But paranoids have to be right only once. And in a profession whose workers skew so dramatically to the Democratic Party, conservatives have surely been right about the mainstream media’s intentions at least that many times, that is, at least once.
When The New York Times stunningly announced that it may have to forego the usual journalistic practices and protocols in order to stop Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Limbaugh and other prominent conservatives thought that finally the mainstream liberal media had revealed themselves, had finally confessed that, in truth, their so-called objectivity was only a cover for assuming liberalism as a default, transparent ideology that, in fact, ceased to be in the minds of its adherents an ideology at all but rather was simply the final and irrefutable expression of human rationality. Trump, unhinged himself, (or pretending to be), had unhinged the liberals, had unhinged the smug liberal establishment, had unhinged the liberal mainstream media in its collective conspiracy to stop him at all costs. It was as if Trump impersonated self-consciously mocking versions of Andrew Dice Clay and former Alabama governor George Wallace that the mainstream liberal media self-righteously had to denounce while still figuring out a way how not to take such apparent lunacy seriously. In the end, they could not simultaneously critique and condescend with any real skill for the simple reason that they took themselves too seriously as the guardians of civilization. Trump succeeded in making his media opponents crazier than he was by making his campaign seem like an emergency that could never be controlled. (Elections might be the last confirmation of the right of people to be wrong.) Trump of course complained about how the media were out to get him—although it seems obvious that it is not unfair for the media to disapprove of one candidate more than another; after all, a particular candidate may indeed be worthy of the opprobrium he or she receives—but since he won the election, either the coverage was not as one-sided as Trump and many of his supporters thought it was or the unfair, biased coverage did not matter, which means the mainstream media does not have the power they once had. In any case, because of the long-standing history of how conservatives feel about the way they, their candidates and their politics are covered in the mainstream media, Trump’s making an issue of how he was covered was a smart thing to do. Trump understood how political martyrdom worked in limited government liberty land. For those among his supporters who were old enough or knew their history, it brought back shades of Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona who ran for the presidency in 1964 and was lambasted by the press in much the way as Trump: as a loose-lipped, undisciplined, anti-Social Security, warmongering, racist neurotic with a second-rate mind. Only Goldwater’s personal morals were better than Trump’s: Goldwater did not grab the pussies of strange women or lust after his daughter. For more on the press and the Goldwater campaign from a conservative perspective, see Lionel Lokos, Hysteria 1964: The Fear Campaign Against Barry Goldwater (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington Press, 1967). Marx was right: history does repeat itself: first as tragedy, then as farce.
Hemmer argues that this BL/AL construction (Before Limbaugh/After Limbaugh) not only does not go far enough; it does not begin to tell even half the story of how conservative media shaped American political opinion after World War II.
Limbaugh enjoyed the media meltdown over Trump immensely (all the more so as Trump, amazingly, won the election). I suppose all conservative pundits did in some form or fashion: Sean Hannity (a conservative Republican water bearer from the Newt Gingrich/Contract with America days who supported Trump), Dana Loesch (the conservative woman with an attitude who hated Trump as much Glenn Beck, the former shock jock, conservative Mormon polemicist who keeps claiming, like Hank Williams, to have seen the light and is playing footsie now with leftists like Black Lives Matter), the National Review bunch (Goldberg, Lowery, French, Williamson et al who also hated Trump but are rather pleased that he won), Allahpundit (a Never Trumper who remains so but is still pleased the Democrats lost), Mark Levin, Andrew Wilkow, Ann Coulter (who loves Trump, wrote a book endorsing him, and who has made a living blasting the mainstream liberal press’s hypocrisy and incompetence in ways, at times, that are rather witty), and Michael Savage (an apocalyptist who supported Trump as America’s last, best hope as did the late conservative activist, Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly), to name only a few of the Right’s major word-slingers and opinion makers. If the world of liberal/left opinion makers were a theme park, it might be called multi-culti equality land; the world of conservative media I call limited government liberty land. Both may be similarly hyper-illusory, as theme parks often are but we all prefer one set of amusements, one set of illusions, over another.
In Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, Zev Chafets gives this account of media in America when Limbaugh appeared:
When Rush Limbaugh came along, in 1988, the elite national media consisted of four conventionally center-left liberal television networks, three big Democratic newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times), two politically correct weekly news magazines (Time and Newsweek), two nominally objective wire services (AP and Reuters), and the unmistakably liberal PBS and National Public Radio. There was no Internet, no Drudge Report, no Fox News, and no conservative talk radio. Right-wing opinion could be found on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, in a couple of small magazines of opinion, and in the columns of a few token conservative pundits like Bill Safire and George Will. Limbaugh rudely shattered this soothing consensus. He was the un-Cronkite, the anti-Moyers, the Bizarro Brokaw, the inventor of back-talk radio. He wasn’t fair or objective and he didn’t pretend to be. His very existence on the other side of the teeter-totter provided balance. “I am equal time,” he has boasted.
This is the standard summary of the world of conservative media before Limbaugh. There is nothing wrong with it as far as it goes. By the 1980s, ironically, the age of Reagan and the triumph of conservatism as a national political movement, Regnery Books, one of the leading conservative book publishers, was on the brink of insolvency and not even the property of the Regnery family; rightwinger Clarence Manion had bitten the dust as a radio personality; National Review and Human Events, the two leading conservative magazines, despite Reagan touting them, were struggling to keep the wolf from the door. But Nicole Hemmer’s Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics argues that this BL/AL construction (Before Limbaugh/After Limbaugh) not only does not go far enough; it does not begin to tell even half the story of how conservative media shaped American political opinion after World War II. As Hemmer states, “ … these well-known figures [of today like Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al] comprise the second generation of media activists. Messengers of the Right tells the story of the little-known first generation.” (emphasis mine) Rush Limbaugh did not come out of nowhere. He had antecedents. He had roots. Even his claim of being “equal time” was decades-old. As Hemmer writes, “ … conservatives [in the early 1960s] understood right-wing broadcasts not as controversial anomalies in need of balance but rather as answers to the slanted reporting that dominated every other sector of American media.” Hemmer tells how conservative media developed from World War II to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, concluding with a chapter about the arrival of Limbaugh, Fox News, and the big money and fame for conservative media types, many of whom, like Limbaugh, came from the world of entertainment. It is a fascinating account which takes a different point of departure in relating the familiar tale of the development of the American conservative movement.
2. An Origin Story of the Modern American Right
Messengers of the Right tells the story of the rise of the post-World War II conservative movement in the United States through the careers of three conservative media movers-and-shakers: former dean of Notre Dame Law School, head of the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations under President Eisenhower (very briefly), and radio personality Clarence Manion, book publisher Henry Regnery, and magazine publisher and former Republican Party field hand William Rusher. Among the trenchant points Hemmer makes are:
First, the conservatives understood as soon as they became a self-aware movement that they need media and vigorously formed ways of reaching, informing, and politically activating their audience. As Hemmer relates Regnery’s observation from 1953, “the left controlled the institutions: the media, the universities, the foreign policy establishment. Until the right had a ‘counterintelligence unit’ that could fight back, conservatives would remain a group of elites raging against a system that by all rights they [conservatives] should control.” According to Hemmer, Regnery would reiterate this observation in 1976: “Liberals … still controlled the institutions that disseminated ideas and shaped public opinion: the schools, the media, the publishing industry. And the people who controlled those institutions controlled the culture. For Regnery, the liberal domination of cultural institutions—especially the media—explained so much: the corruption of Watergate, the unchecked growth of government, the permissive court decisions on issues like integration, criminal rights, and pornography. If conservatives wanted a better America, they would have to invest in better media.”
Second, conservatives challenged the idea of liberalism as an objective, self-evidently transparent non-ideology that could only be challenged by “extremism.” Conservatives, as a result of their media challenges forced “objective” liberalism to expose itself as an ideology, changing “the meaning of objectivity [in journalism] from factuality to balanced reporting.”
Third, Robert Taft, Mr. Republican, senator from Ohio, and son of former president William Howard Taft, was important to the formulation of post-war conservatism, particularly its non-interventionist strand. In fact, two of the three persons Hemmer writes about—Manion and Regnery—were part of the pre-war non-interventionist movement. William F. Buckley, one of the major progenitors of the conservative movement, was a Taft Republican.
What the conservatives hated was not simply liberalism as statism and one-worldism but liberalism as consensus, as a kind of stifling conformity. A conservative accusation against liberals was that in their quest for equality, a quest that could only be satisfied by socialism, what the liberals really wanted was a mass conformity.
Fourth, conservatism became a youth movement in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of Young Americans for Freedom and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, each spearheaded by conservative media: the former by Buckley’s National Review, the latter by Felix Morley’s Human Events.
Manion launched his weekly radio program in October 1954; Regnery’s first truly significant publication was Buckley’s critique of American undergraduate education, God and Man at Yale in 1951, and ardent anti-communist Rusher left the Republican Party disappointed, nay, disgusted that Eisenhower would not defend senator Joe McCarthy, joining National Review in 1957, two years after its inception. So, the origins of the first generation of conservative media are the early and mid-1950s, at the same time as the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools and launched the civil rights era, the Korean War where U.S. troops fought under the aegis of the United Nations in an intervention against Asian communists that turned out to be only partly successful at best, and the rise of television and mass market consumerism. Conformity was the key word of the era and, if anything, conservatism was not an endorsement of conformity—as many liberals and leftists have misread it—but an active challenge against it. What the conservatives hated was not simply liberalism as statism and one-worldism but liberalism as consensus, as a kind of stifling conformity. A conservative accusation against liberals was that in their quest for equality, a quest that could only be satisfied by socialism, what the liberals really wanted was a mass conformity. (This explains why Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 story, “Harrison Bergeron,” remains such a favorite with conservatives for it satirically describes exactly the world liberals want, for conservatives the only kind of world that liberals could possibly want.)
Hemmer is right that the future of the relationship between conservative media and Republican politicians will revolve around identifying which is the tail and which is the dog, as conservatism is no longer the outsider, the exile, but in fact part of the very mainstream it deplores and denounces.
What some conservative intellectuals and thought leaders feared even more than conservatism becoming a prisoner of a kind of white populism edging toward demagoguery was it becoming an expression of a sort of white political middlebrow-ism (another term of the era), a sort of pseudo-intellectual pose of white contrarianism and disgruntlement. Ayn Rand was right in her 1962 essay “Conservatism: An Obituary” in suggesting that the conservative movement made perhaps its worst concession to its era by calling itself conservatism which meant that it was always in a fight against the reaction-ism, status quo-ism, and anti-intellectualism the name itself implied which she found to be particularly ironic as conservatism was supposed to be a full-throated apologia of capitalism which actually stood for none of those things. “Those who reject all the basic premises of collectivism are radicals in the proper sense of the word …” (emphasis Rand)
Hemmer’s book is a fine scholarly study of the rise of modern American conservatism, a more than twice-told story recounted through the less familiar frame of the rise of conservatism’s media. Hemmer is right that the future of the relationship between conservative media and Republican politicians will revolve around identifying which is the tail and which is the dog, as conservatism is no longer the outsider, the exile, but in fact part of the very mainstream it deplores and denounces. The main dilemma facing conservatism now is, not how to storm the citadel, but rather how to handle its enormous success.