What’s behind right-wing media’s curious lack of interest in $1.9 trillion

Fox stimulus

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

In February 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to try to stave off the worst economic environment since the Great Depression. The legislation, an aggressive stimulus package of tax benefits and government spending totaling roughly $800 billion over 10 years, overcame an all-out onslaught from the Republican Party -- and from their right-wing media allies.

Conservative journalists and pundits laid the groundwork months before Obama even took office, pushing back against calls for Keynesian stimulus, like that employed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by creating a mythology that such New Deal policies had failed. Once the bill was unveiled, they vilified it with an ideological misinformation campaign aimed at convincing the public that Obama was a dangerous radical pushing a Soviet-style vision that would enslave Americans while killing jobs, not saving them. Their denunciations kicked off an eight-year campaign in which the right-wing press used lies, demagoguery, and vitriol to try to curtail Obama’s successes, denouncing government spending and health care legislation with apocalyptic fervor. Fox News led the way, identifying itself during the period as the “voice of opposition.”

A dozen years later, Democrats in both chambers of Congress have passed versions of the American Rescue Plan, a response to the coronavirus pandemic that is President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority. The bill is more than twice as expansive as the 2009 package at nearly $1.9 trillion, featuring $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans, an expanded child tax credit that would drastically reduce child poverty, and other provisions that led Sen. Bernie Sanders to describe it as “the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working people in the modern history of this country.” The House of Representatives is likely to approve the Senate’s version and send it to Biden’s desk to sign later this week.

This time, however, the response from the “loyal opposition” at Fox and the rest of the right-wing press has been oddly muted. 

It’s not that there are a host of apostates -- the right’s commentators are once again nearly united in opposing a Democratic president’s proposal to help rebuild a U.S. economy damaged under his Republican predecessor. But the volume and tenor of their coverage little resembles the frenzied doomsaying of 2009. When they mount the barricades, their battle is instead usually part of the never-ending culture war, as they defend the likes of Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss from the “woke mob.” 

Tucker Carlson, the Fox star whose occasionally heterodox commentary has led some to inaccurately characterize him as an economic populist or even a “socialist,” provides a good example of this phenomenon.

Video file

Citation From the March 2, 2021, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight.

Carlson tackled the House package on Tuesday, describing it as a “historically expensive bill” before turning to Fox contributor Lisa Boothe to run down its contents. Boothe provided a two-minute monologue in which she termed the legislation “progressive priorities cloaked as a relief bill.” She praised the $422 billion in stimulus checks as “good news” but insufficient, and derided roughly $1.2 billion of the spending (.06% of the total) as wasted on “social justice stuff.” 

Carlson, furrowing his brow, replied at the end of her description that the bill is “an insult for the people who died and to the country itself.” With that, he ended the segment, and did not return to the topic for the rest of the week. 

By contrast, Carlson was significantly more heated about the controversy surrounding Dr. Seuss’ foundation saying it will no longer publish a handful of Seuss’ lesser works because of racist imagery, running segments about it on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The Fox host is at least pretending to be genuinely impassioned about the celebrated author’s purported cancelation, while his reaction to a $1.9 trillion recovery bill is just a rote rejection of whatever Democrats support.

Carlson’s Fox colleagues are likewise much more interested in the culture war. They have similarly echoed GOP talking points in criticizing the bill by seizing on an infinitesimal fraction of its spending, but their hearts don’t really seem to be in it. 

The network spent more than four and a half hours covering Mr. Potato Head, Dr. Seuss, and a similarly undercooked attempt to convince its audience that Biden had accused them of “Neanderthal thinking” from February 25 to noon on Friday. Fox threw away crucial time that could have been used to try to halt the progress of a massive Biden priority on ludicrous grievance-mongering.

Fox’s cable news competitors seem similarly distracted.

So does the broader right-wing press. On Sunday afternoon, none of the eight major right-wing outlets I reviewed had the recovery plan’s passage as their lead story. 

A fear of being hypocritical does not explain this shift. It’s true that Fox hosts would look fairly ridiculous opposing pandemic aid and preening about the dangers of federal debt and inflation after four years of shilling for Donald Trump and his tax cuts. But they did not pause their turn against stimulus spending under Obama on the grounds that it followed President George W. Bush’s years of running up the federal deficit.

Some argue that right-wing outlets are hesitant to challenge the legislation because polls show it is quite popular, including among the Republicans that make up their audiences. But it seems at least as likely that the causality goes the other way -- the bill is so popular because right-wing media aren’t digging in and signaling to their audience that opposing it is important. Moreover, the 2009 stimulus bill also drew broad support at the time of its passage.

The simplest explanation might be that the right-wing media -- and its audience -- have both metamorphosed over the last decade in a way that increasingly favors the empty calories of culture war grievances. 

Trump, who is notoriously ignorant of and uninterested in policy outside of a small number of issues such as immigration and trade but deeply invested in stoking cultural fires, dominated the Republican Party over the last four years. This shifted the priorities for would-be GOP leaders, who became much more focused on posting and much less devoted to legislating under his tenure. 

But it also altered the calculus for Fox, which tends to mimic the attributes of the leading elements of the party for which it advocates. As the network’s hosts started filling a larger portion of their programs with heated diatribes against “cancel culture,” its audience became addicted to that vein of programming, and the incentives for the rest of the increasingly competitive right-wing press shifted in accordance with those tastes. Commentators have become more practiced at demagoguing such issues, while the muscles used to denounce liberal legislation have atrophied. 

As a result, the right has spent the last months on its back foot, unable to assemble a comprehensive response to the Biden presidency as they did against the Obama administration. On issue areas that fit neatly into their culture war buckets, these right-wing figures can still muster a rant. But on economic issues, including nearly $2 trillion in recovery spending, they have shockingly little to contribute.