Arriving on the scene of the wreckage days late, a number of conservative voices, including some Fox News employees, announced that it had been an "appalling" error in judgment for movement activists, media players, and Republican leaders to embrace and elevate the cause of rogue Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his law-breaking crusade against the federal government. The commonsense warnings were dated, of course, because by then Bundy had already uncorked his racist rant and had thoroughly embarrassed backers who had portrayed him as a folk hero, a "patriotic, heroic American," and a symbol of mighty resistance.
At the peak of the Fox-hyped Bundy frenzy (i.e. when irresponsible Sean Hannity wondered on-air if the federal government would kill the Bundy) those voices of dissent about the rancher were hard to hear. Back when The Drudge Report recklessly hyped the fear of a violent standoff between federal forces and anti-government militia members who had rallied to Bundy's side and uncorked insurrectionist rhetoric, cool-headed conservative observations about not cheering a rancher who refused for decades to pay his grazing fees were mostly muted. (Here's an exception.)
Why? Because at the time, the overblown Bundy controversy nicely fit the right wing's beloved Phony Outrage programming slot. Because the story provided Fox and others with easy, free content to obsess over for days and to stoke far-right paranoia about "government overreach" during the Age of Obama.
Only after Bundy revealed his ugly beliefs ("I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro") did many conservatives concede that cheering him represented a political and public relations debacle. That it was a "net-negative." (The Republican National Committee certainly thinks so.)
In the wake of that mess, recall that just this month Rupert Murdoch announced that his Fox News channel had “absolutely saved” the GOP by giving a “voice and hope to people who didn't like all that liberal championing thrown at them on CNN.” Yet it's hard to see any Republican positives following the Bundy debacle, which is now widely seen as having been another botched Fox News presentation.
These kinds of flops have become a bruising routine for conservatives. Instead of scoring points on its behalf, Fox News seems to be in the business of delivering black eyes to the GOP and its most devoted followers.
Remember on the eve of Election Day in 2012, when Fox cheerleaders, ignoring every single published poll in America at the time, confidently announced Mitt Romney would be the next president and that he'd win in a landslide? Romney himself had immersed himself too long in the right-wing information bubble and was reportedly "shellshocked" when he lost, badly, to Obama.
And it wasn't just the “unskewed” polling denial. Throughout the campaign, Romney damaged his presidential hopes when he embraced various Fox News foolery. Whether it was botching the facts surrounding the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, parroting the Fox talking point about lazy, shiftless voters who make up “47 percent” of the electorate, the Republican candidate did damage to his chances whenever he let Fox News act as his chief campaign adviser.
And remember when Fox cheerleaders led the way in pushing the unwinnable scheme to shutdown the federal government until Obama refused to rescind his signature legislative achievement of his first term, the Affordable Care Act? On the Fox frontier, the shutdown was celebrated and Republicans who engineered doomed maneuver were commended for their leadership. The easily predictable result? The Republican Party soon posted "record low" approval ratings, according to Gallup.
And now we witness the Bundy debacle, which stands out as just the latest in a long line of utterly avoidable missteps.
“As the network has become more extreme, it's become harder and harder to resonate -- it's become damaging to the Republican brand.” That's how Roger Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman recently described the dynamic to Media Matters.
Are Fox talkers that obtuse and out of touch with American politics? Not necessarily. The fact is they're just in a different business than the Republican Party and until the GOP recognizes that, Fox will continue to do damage to that party's brand. ("Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox.")
At Fox, boss Ailes is in the business of serving the channel's hardcore, far-right audience of approximately two million viewers who tune in throughout the day, every day, to be outraged about what awful plans Obama has allegedly hatched, and which liberties and freedoms are suddenly under fire. And as a business plan, phony outrage works just fine for Fox. But politically, it represents a possibly permanent dead end for White House aspirations.
Fox News long ago commandeered the GOP's communications apparatus and has been championing the type of paranoid rhetoric that loses national elections and turns off voters en mass. The relentless, paranoid crusade falls well outside the mainstream of American politics. But the GOP can't turn it off. In fact, most Republicans can't even work up enough courage to ask Fox News to turn down the volume. And that's how malignant characters like Cliven Bundy get elevated to hero status and why conservatives are now gnashing their teeth over the fiasco.
If Fox News really “saved” the Republican Party, as Murdoch insists, it's possible Democrats are so pleased with the results they'll beseech the media chairman to keep letting Fox rescue the GOP for many years to come.