What good is having a right-wing echo chamber if it’s not cranked up and blaring out a disciplined message during the presidential campaign? The conservative movement continues to grapple with that propaganda question in the wake of Donald Trump clinching the nomination, which has created deep fissures within the right-wing media and its historically united front.
For decades, conservatives have taken pride in their media bubble that not only keeps Republican fans selectively informed about breaking news, but also bashes away at all political foes. In full-fledged campaign mode, the right-wing media can effectively serve as a battering ram that Republicans use to attack their enemies or fend off in-coming volleys.
But Trump has scrambled that long-held equation. Embracing positions that often fall outside the orthodoxy of modern-day conservatism, while simultaneously rolling out non-stop insults, Trump has presented conservative pundits with a monumental headache: How do you defend a creation like Trump? Or as one National Review Trump headline lamented last month, “What’s a Conservative to Do?”
That riddle is especially tricky when Trump puts would-be allies in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the truly indefensible, like the widening scandal surrounding Trump University, the presumptive nominee’s former real estate seminar business. Over the years the dubious venture has been the subject of several ongoing fraud investigations and lawsuits, including one by the state of New York on behalf of 5,000 alleged victims.
“It’s fraud. … straight-up fraud,” the state’s Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reiterated during an MSNBC interview last week after a judge unsealed court documents from one of the Trump U. lawsuits and allowed for a more detailed look into the allegations of deceit.
The strange part? Some key conservative voices agree with the Democrat’s legal assessment. That’s why back in February, a National Review writer denounced the Trump seminars as “a massive scam.” And last month, The Weekly Standard warned that Trump U. represented a “political time bomb” that could doom the candidate’s November chances: “Democrats will see to that.” (Both magazines have opposed Trump for months and have pointed to Trump U. as a reason for their opposition.)
That’s what’s so startling about watching the conservative media this campaign season: It’s been completely knocked off its game. Known for its regimented messaging and willingness to almost robotically defend any Republican front-runner and nominee, Trump is finding only a smattering of defenders when it comes to damning allegations about his scam seminars.
And when Trump recently escalated the Trump U. story by attacking Judge Gonzalo Curiel and insisted he couldn’t be impartial because of his “Mexican heritage,” the presumptive nominee found himself even further isolated within the conservative movement. (The Wall Street Journal editorial page called Trump’s judiciary attack “offensive” and “truly odious”; Bill O'Reilly did defend Trump last night.)
As for the scamming allegations, even for members of the conservative media who are willing to try to assist Trump, there’s very little to grab on to in terms of defending the scandal-plagued Trump U. Based on mountains of allegations and complaints from angry students -- students with no partisan political ax to grind -- all indications point to a widespread fraud operating under Trump’s name and one that bilked victims out of millions of dollars.
As The Atlantic noted after reviewing previously secret training materials for Trump U., “the playbook focuses on the seminars’ real purpose: to browbeat attendees into purchasing expensive Trump University course packages.” According to an affidavit from former student Richard Hewson, he and his wife “concluded that we had paid over $20,000 for nothing, based on our belief in Donald Trump and the promises made at the free seminar and three-day workshop.”
The con appeared to touch every aspect of the real estate selling events. Instead of getting an implied, in-person meeting with Trump at one three-day seminar, some attendees were allowed to take their picture with a cardboard cutout of him. That’s one reason Schneiderman dubbed the whole program an “elaborate bait-and-switch” scheme. (Trump’s personal, immersed involvement was a key selling point.)
Still, some loyal conservative have tried to explain away the allegations. Last week on Fox, Tucker Carlson tried to downplay the damage by wondering if Trump U. was a “scam” the same way Princeton is a “scam.” Over at Outnumbered, co-host Jedediah Bila asked if Trump U.’s allegedly fraudulent practices weren’t just good "aggressive sales tactics.” She added, “I mean when the public hears this story, I'm wondering do they just see this as non-story?”
Bila’s co-host Melissa Francis also didn’t see what the big deal was: “You know, it goes to the story of him as an aggressive businessperson who wanted to sort of profit at all costs which is kind of what business is all about.”
And former Republican candidate Ben Carson assured Sean Hannity that, “I recently talked to a physician who went to Trump University, and this man is very wealthy, but he's not wealthy from being a physician. He's wealthy from what he learned at Trump University and learning how to do investments.”
Note that many of Trump’s other friends at Fox have been a bit more suspect on the matter. “Trump has a simple assignment, find five people who are graduates who are willing to go on TV and say, you know, my life was improved, my income went up, it was a good experience,” announced Newt Gingrich on Sean Hannity’s show, rather than categorically defending the dubious seminars. (To date, Trump has struggled to produce a multitude of satisfied graduates.)
Conservative talk show host Larry Elder also appeared on Hannity’s show last week to discuss Trump U. and insisted that while it was a “minor issue,” nonetheless “Trump should have settled this a long time ago.”
Even Trump’s fiercest media defender, Breitbart.com, has taken a timid approach to the Trump U. fraud story, with the site refusing to offer up a full-throated defense of the alleged scam.
The ferocious conservative echo chamber isn’t built for nuance and it’s not designed for internal debate. But by sparking so much general dissention and by putting conservatives in the position of having to defend something as noxious as Trump U., the nominee is helping to mute the right-wing media voice this campaign season.