Establishment Republicans were initially elated with the power of right-wing media. By the early 1990s, conservative radio and television talk show hosts were delivering the party’s message to millions of Americans each day. After winning the 1994 midterm elections, grateful Republicans in the House of Representatives named radio host Rush Limbaugh an “honorary member” of their chamber. What the Republican establishment didn’t recognize back then was that the right-wing media would grow beyond its control and put the party at risk.
The right-wing media split with the Republican establishment over the 2008 bank bailout, signed into law by George W. Bush near the end of his presidency. Limbaugh called it a “dirty” deal. Turning away from the establishment GOP in the 2010 Republican primaries, right-wing media championed the Tea Party candidates who were challenging the party’s moderate incumbents
By then, right-wing media had a massive power base. The success of Limbaugh and Fox had spawned scores of imitators. Each week, more than 40 million Americans were listening to right-wing talk shows, with millions more tuned to right-wing blogs and websites.
If there was any doubt about the GOP’s new power center, the 2014 primary defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor erased it. After he endorsed amnesty for Dreamers — immigrants brought to the United States as children — the right-wing media, led by talk show host Laura Ingraham, backed Cantor’s Tea Party challenger, David Brat. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential candidacy also died at the hands of right-wing media. “He’s not a conservative,” Limbaugh said, “Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush . . . two peas in the same pod.” Said commentator Glen Beck, “Jeb Bush . . . despises people like us.”
When the attack started, Bush was the Republicans’ top choice for presidential nominee. By the time of the Iowa caucuses, he was the choice of a mere 1 in 17 Republicans.
The GOP’s ability to govern has been stunted by right-wing media. The framers of the Constitution designed a governing process based on compromise and accommodation. Yet the mere hint of compromise sends right-wing media into a frenzy. Upon retiring in 2015, 10-term Republican congressman Tom Latham said that right-wing media “will not take 80 percent — it’s got to be 100 percent or you’re not pure. They don’t give a damn about governing.”
After Republicans lost the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee concluded that the party needed to soften its immigration policies in order to attract Latinx and Asian-Americans. Right-wing media weren’t buying it. Pundit Ann Coulter declared that the RNC’s strategy would “wreck America.” To hear right-wing media tell it, Hispanics and Asian-Americans aren’t “real” Americans. “It does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” Ingraham said. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”
Wild thinking is yet another burden that right-wing media have imposed on the GOP. On everything from climate change to immigration, right-wing Republicans have views that are wildly at odds with the facts. Large numbers of Republicans thought, for example, that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, provided free medical aid to unlawful immigrants. Where do they get such far-fetched ideas? In a study of 4 million media messages, Harvard’s Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts concluded that messaging on the right is laced with “disinformation, lies, and half-truths.” As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted, there’s been a breakdown in Republicans’ ability to deal with reality, to sort through complexity, to make use of evidence. When a party makes a habit of playing fast and loose with the facts, other things begin to unravel.
If you’re wondering why most Republicans have embraced a president who lies with abandon and is soiling the party’s reputation, look to the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt. The rise of demagogues, she wrote, is abetted by “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
Thomas E. Patterson is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. This series is adapted from his book “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?”