Fox's Tomi Lahren: "The liberal indoctrination ... starts in elementary school, middle school, high school"
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A coherent theme won’t emerge for a while, but here’s what’s in the works
As the first Democratic presidential hopefuls declare their candidacy, right-wing media outlets are launching a campaign of their own. The goal? Planting seeds of doubt about each of the potential nominees so that by the time the Democratic National Convention in July 2020 rolls around, voters will harbor negative feelings toward whoever comes out on top.
The message in the 2016 presidential campaign was that Hillary Clinton was an extraordinarily corrupt, pay-to-play politician who felt she was above the law. It was specific enough to be an effective message but vague enough that its exact interpretation remained subjective. After all, terms like “corrupt” and “crooked” can mean pretty much whatever the person interpreting wants them to. In June 2016, Gallup asked people, “What comes to your mind when you think about Hillary Clinton?” Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they “don’t trust her” or found her “dishonest” or “unethical,” 13 percent said they “dislike /or “don’t care for her,” and 8 percent described her as a “crook,” a “criminal,” “corrupt,” or said she “should be in jail.”
The early stages of a smear campaign can seem a bit absurd. Headlines will overpromise and underdeliver, messages won’t be consistent, and the purported scandals and gaffes will underwhelm.
“Elizabeth Warren’s first week on the stump filled with missteps” reads the headline of a recent article by The Daily Caller. Among the supposed flubs criticized in the piece:
“If her first campaign week is any indication, Warren could be in for a long and bumpy road ahead for 2020,” the article concludes.
It’s not really clear what the “missteps” mentioned in the headline were. Does “I’m gonna get me, um, a beer” come off like forced folksiness? Could her temporarily lost voice be used to paint her as “low stamina”? Will her saying “little people” be cited as insensitive toward people who have dwarfism or be divorced from context to seem like she’s smugly referring to people she met during her campaign stop as “little people”? Will her Amazon Prime Day purchases cost her regulatory credibility?
At this point in a smear campaign, the objective really is quantity over quality. Quality -- which is to say what message will stick with voters and sour their opinion of the candidates -- comes much later. The beer bit seemed to have legs. Fox News’ Outnumbered offered baffled criticism like, “Somebody tell me, why beer? Why that beverage? Is that to appeal to, like, male voters? I'm just wondering, because she's playing the gender card.” Also on Fox News, during an episode of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld said, “It's just obvious that she's inauthentic in everything she does.”
One of the first major policy positions Warren laid out at the beginning of her campaign was a 2 percent annual tax on wealth over $50 million. One can argue the pros and cons of any policy, but with a sprinkle of hyperbole and a dash of bad faith, anything can be turned into a smear narrative. For example, while reporting on Warren’s wealth-tax proposal, CNBC’s Joe Kernan claimed that Warren “wants billionaires to stop being freeloaders, stop creating jobs, stop creating wealth, stop succeeding.”
This narrative almost writes itself: Elizabeth Warren wants you to fail, America. While that’s a completely ridiculous reading of what she’s proposed, it certainly won't stop conservatives from running with it.
Other candidates found themselves at the center of outright lies and willful ignorance.
In early February, Booker gave an interview to VegNews, a news site aimed at vegetarians and vegans. Booker, who is a vegan, touched on the environmental sustainability of a world in which people get so much of their food in the form of meat. Booker discussed his own decision to go vegan, adding, “This is the United States of America, and I, for one, believe in our freedom to choose. So, I don’t want to preach to anybody about their diets; that’s just not how I live.”
Naturally, Booker’s words were twisted by right-wing media. He explicitly stated that he wasn’t advocating for the abolition of animal farming, but that didn’t stop Fox’s Lisa Kennedy Montgomery from claiming that Booker “wants to impose his meat rationing on the rest of us.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson made the odd claim that Booker was trying to carry out the supposed agenda of Pope Francis “to coerce farmers into abandoning animal populations in favor of vegetarian farming.” National Review claimed that “Cory Booker wants only the rich to eat meat,” another evidence-deficient claim.
Another line of attack right-wing media figures level against Booker includes accusations of religious bigotry. “Cory Booker is an anti-religious bigot and a disgrace to the Judiciary Committee,” tweeted The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro after Booker asked judicial nominee Neomi Rao if she thinks gay relationships are sinful. The Washington Examiner’s Becket Adams made a similar charge, accusing Booker of engaging in “gotcha” questions during Rao’s hearing. Booker is actually fairly well-known for his Christian beliefs and is a member of a National Baptist Convention church in Newark, NJ.
As for Harris, after an appearance on the radio show The Breakfast Club, she got slammed for, supposedly, lying about what music she listened to while she got high in college (seriously). A smile on his face, co-host Steve Doocy held her to account during Fox & Friends:
STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): She was listening to Snoop and Tupac when she was in college. We took a look at the record, and take a look at this. That was the appearance on the so-called world's most dangerous morning show, The Breakfast Club, here in New York. She graduated from college at Howard in 1986. She finished law school in 1989. She was admitted to the state bar of California in 1990 and then in 1991, Tupac's first album came out and in 1993, Snoop Dogg's first album was released. So there's a problem with the timeline.
Unfortunately for Doocy and others eager to rip Harris for being inauthentic and untruthful over this trivial matter, this isn’t exactly how it happened. The Breakfast Club published a clip calling out Breitbart, Fox News, and The View’s Meghan McCain for taking Harris’ comments out of context. The question about whether she smoked marijuana in college was separate from the question of what music she likes. Even if the likes of Fox and Breitbart had offered a fair interpretation of events, this is hardly the scandal they were trying to make it out to be.
Harris was also the subject of a smear steeped in sexism. After former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote a short op-ed to say that he and Harris briefly dated “more than 20 years ago,” and that he had appointed Harris to two state commissions when he was speaker of the California State Assembly, conservative media jumped at the chance to baselessly accuse Harris of sleeping her way to the top and being some sort of #MeToo-era hypocrite. The story faded after a day or so; there wasn’t anything to suggest Harris did anything improper.
In Gillibrand’s case, one of the early narratives being used against her is centered on her decision to call for former Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) resignation after multiple women reported that he had touched them inappropriately. This isn’t a new attack on Gillibrand, but it does seem to be getting a bit more traction since she began hinting at a run. It’s most often used to paint her as opportunistic and power-hungry. Her evolving views on issues like immigration and guns have been cast in that same light. Like Warren, Gillibrand is framed as though her every action has been focus-grouped. The Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry asked whether she dyes her hair. Conservative radio host Mark Simone flipped out over news that Gillibrand seemed unsure whether to eat fried chicken with her hands or with silverware, tweeting, “Another example of phony, pay for play, politician Kirsten Gillibrand proving every move she makes is pandering and contrived.”
This collection offers just a small sampling of an untold number of attacks that conservative media will filter and refine for maximum political damage between now and Election Day. For the moment, these look more like hastily sketched prototypes of pointed political commentary than the works of rhetorical art they will most certainly become. One question worth asking -- for people inside and out of the media world -- is what makes a smear successful, and why do people believe things that are clearly untrue or exaggerated? Luckily, there is some insight to be had here.
Not every smear is an all-out lie. Some, as mentioned above, are built around exaggerations or bad-faith interpretations of candidate actions. Both types can be effective, even if the claim is especially brazen.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology General examined two of the more omnipresent smears of the 2008 presidential campaign in an attempt to better understand why people believe even the most blatantly false accusations against some candidates. One part of the research looked at claims that Barack Obama was secretly Muslim and that John McCain was senile and unfit to lead the country. Another portion addressed a less blatant but just as ubiquitous smear post-election about whether Obama was a socialist. The authors explain their motivation behind these studies:
During election seasons, media bombardments by political propagandists are pervasive and difficult to avoid. Such extensive exposure might have the unsavory consequence of instilling implicit cognitive associations consistent with smear attacks in the minds of citizens. ... One measure of the success of smear campaigns might thus be the extent to which individuals exhibit strong implicit associations between a candidate’s name and his or her smearing label.
What researchers ultimately found was that there’s a link between whether someone believes a harmful rumor and whether they’re politically aligned with the candidate beforehand. That is, a Democrat is more likely to believe a negative rumor about a Republican than Republicans are -- and vice versa. This conclusion may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s helpful in understanding why otherwise intelligent people might genuinely believe Obama was born in Kenya or that Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. It’s a case study in confirmation bias.
The idea of creating “strong implicit associations between a candidate’s name and his or her smearing label” gets at why it’s important for successful attack campaigns to keep a singular focus. For the many attacks Hillary Clinton faced during the 2016 election, the common theme was clear: She was “crooked.” In Donald Trump’s case, his scandals included financial corruption and reports of sexual assault, racism, and sexism. There was no single coherent association to be made here, and it’s entirely possible that that worked to his advantage with voters. (This isn’t to say that those scandals were part of a smear campaign, just that his opposition maybe didn’t utilize those stories to their maximum political potential.)
“At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” says Mark Whitmore, an assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University in a press release from the American Psychological Association about “why we’re susceptible to fake news.” “In fact, one could say the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”
Whitmore notes that thanks to the ever-expanding list of places people go to get their news -- whether that’s somewhere online or on cable TV -- “the receiver is often faced with paradoxical and seemingly absurd messages. It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality.”
“Trump Derangement Syndrome” is a popular phrase within conservative media to describe people who reflexively disagree with anything Trump does. The term originated in a 2003 Charles Krauthammer column as “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” which some reappropriated as “Obama Derangement Syndrome” to describe anti-Obama mindsets. Aside from the irony in Krauthammer using this newly created term to roll his eyes at people opposed to the invasion of Iraq -- a decision that only looks worse with passing time -- he was also essentially making reference to confirmation bias.
As news consumers, we need to be aware of how personal biases guide our judgment when it comes to determining the validity of both praise and attacks on various candidates. Now is the perfect time to be on the lookout for these narratives, while they’re still sloppy and unrefined.
On February 13, hosts of the New York radio show The Breakfast Club dismissed overblown conservative outrage attempting to smear presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) over her responses to questions about marijuana and music during their show. Despite the host criticizing and debunking Fox’s version of events, some Fox figures have continued to use the incident to smear Harris’ character.
On February 11, right-wing media attempted to scandalize an interview Harris did with The Breakfast Club, claiming she lied about smoking marijuana in college to seem relatable to voters. During the interview, Harris had said that she supports marijuana legalization and revealed that she smoked in college before answering one of the hosts’ question about what music she listens to. Right-wing media figures decided to interpret the sequence as Harris claiming she smoked marijuana in college while listening to Snoop Dogg and Tupac, which they noted would be impossible because their music wasn’t released until after Harris graduated from college. This trivial nitpicking of details gave right-wing media figures an opportunity to smear Harris as unrelatable.
The hosts of The Breakfast Club debunked right-wing coverage of the story two days later on their show. Co-host Charlamagne Tha God criticized conservative outrage while praising HuffPost for accurately reporting what happened, saying, “Finally, someone with no agenda; someone with no bias; someone who is just reporting on the facts and not some alternative version of the facts simply because they don’t like Kamala Harris.” He added that HuffPost “reported it exactly how it happened,” saying, “We can’t be reaching like this. All right? This [could be] dangerous.”
Despite The Breakfast Club’s rebuke of the version of events right-wing outlets originally reported, some Fox News figures have continued to run with the lie.
The same afternoon, Fox co-host Jesse Watters criticized the 2020 Democratic candidates for trying “to be everything to everybody,” adding, “Kamala, you’re not hip-hop. Trump’s more hip-hop than you are.” As Watters spoke, the chyron at the bottom of the screen read, “The art of the pander. 2020 hopefuls bend over backwards to impress voters.”
From the February 13 edition of Fox News’ The Five:
On her Fox Nation show First Thoughts the next day, Tomi Lahren dedicated a segment that lasted over two minutes to talking about the The Breakfast Club interview. She condescendingly berated Harris, calling her “Kam-Kam” multiple times and saying it is “another example of Ms. Harris saying and doing things [that] just don’t quite add up.”
From the February 14 edition of Fox Nation’s First Thoughts:
On Fox News’ Fox & Friends, guest Mark Steyn sarcastically said Harris “just lights up and suddenly Tupac is there in the room with her, six years before he’s made his first CD,” adding, “That’s a magical Valentine right there.”
From the February 15 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:
As President Donald Trump continues to cite an immigration “crisis” and demand funding from Congress to build a wall along the U.S. southern border, Fox News figures are admitting that the wall is especially crucial because it impacts Trump’s political standing and re-election chances.
Fox contributor Dan Bongino explicitly said that Trump’s insistence on building a wall is about giving him a "political victory,” stating, "This is not about immigration. I think everybody at this table knows this.” Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy claimed Trump needs a wall "because he needs to start running for re-election." Fox’s Tomi Lahren argued, “When President Trump listens to his instincts on this, he is right, which is why he won the election in 2016. He will win on it again in 2020. But he has to hold firm on this. The American people want a wall.”
Fox’s Tomi Lahren embraced and amplified a sexist smear against Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) by accusing her of “using an extramarital affair to boost her political career.” The misogynistic smear has been gaining traction among anonymous message board users and right-wing influencers on Twitter.
Lahren devoted the January 29 edition of her show Final Thoughts on Fox Nation to alleging that all of Harris’ professional accomplishments by claiming they were due to a past relationship, and calling the Democrats who support the #MeToo movement hypocritical. Newt Gingrich had made a similar allusion just the day before on Fox & Friends.
As when Lahren spread a 4chan smear about Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), this misogynist smear about Harris was ripped from right-wing digital influencers and anonymous accounts in the fever swamps of the internet.
The sexist narrative started gaining traction in Reddit’s “r/The_Donald” subreddit (a forum devoted to President Donald Trump) closely following Harris’ announcement of her intention to run for president. Reacting to Harris’ announcement, users of the subreddit upvoted misogynistic memes and awful smears of a sexual nature (screenshots may not be safe for work).
In a January 26 San Francisco Chronicle column, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown addressed the press’s interest in his relationship with Harris. Brown stated that they had dated more than 20 years ago and that he had appointed her to political posts. Brown also wrote that Harris was the only one among “a host of other politicians” he had helped who “sent word” later that she would indict him if he “so much as jaywalked” while she was in office. Fox News spun Brown’s column in a sensationalistic article that amassed over 99,000 total interactions on Facebook; it then went viral on Reddit and inspired racist slur-laden posts on the anonymous message board 4chan.
The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft accused Harris of launching “her political career in bedroom.” On his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh compared Harris to an adult entertainer. A host for conspiracy theory outlet Infowars went on a rant filled with demeaning accusations sexualizing Harris, saying she “basically sucked and ducked her way to the top.” (This show still livestreams on Facebook despite the platform’s supposed commitment to combating hateful speech from Infowars.)
On Twitter, far-right users including YouTube conspiracy theorist Mark Dice and actor James Woods joined the attack against Harris while pushing misogynistic hashtags. Woods, particularly, has been a major driving force in pushing the offensive #HorizontalHarris hashtag, which right-wing crank Dinesh D’Souza has also amplified.
Alex Kaplan contributed research to this piece.
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Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren slandered a sitting senator and a 2020 presidential hopeful by accusing her of racism and amplified a hoax that originated from anonymous message boards. In the days since, Fox News has done nothing to hold Lahren accountable.
Four days after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced that she was launching an exploratory committee to run for president in 2020, Lahren shared with her 1.2 million followers on Twitter the slanderous accusation that Warren had a racist ornament in her kitchen:
The screenshot of Warren’s kitchen is from a live Instagram Q&A session she did on New Year’s Eve. Lahren was amplifying and spreading a hoax that previously was spread in the anonymous message board 4chan and “r/The_Donald” subreddit on Reddit, in which a vase was misconstrued to be a racist figurine of a Black child eating a watermelon. As documented by Right Wing Watch, Lahren deleted her tweet but did not apologize or provide clarification to her massive audience. Fox News not only failed to acknowledge the slander, but Lahren’s Fox Nation shows, First Thoughts and Final Thoughts, continued to stream as scheduled on Fox’s online platform. The network also continued to book Lahren on its cable morning program, Fox & Friends.
Lahren’s Twitter feed is a constant stream of inaccuracies, falsehoods, and vitriol. She once apparently echoed the idiotic conspiracy theory that white supremacist Jason Kessler (who organized the 2017 racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA) was a tool of the left. She tweeted that watching immigrants getting tear-gassed at the border was the highlight of her Thanksgiving weekend. And just this week, Lahren baselessly claimed that the remittances that undocumented immigrants send to their home countries are used to fund “cartel and criminal organizations.” Fox News kept her on air and even gave her a hosting gig on Fox Nation.
The network ignoring its host amplifying a easily-debunked hoax from 4chan shows the garbage that the network finds acceptable. The network also recently gave a pass to Rep. Steve King (R-IA), after King embraced white supremacy in an interview with The New York Times. Fox covered the story for a mere 42 seconds, framing its coverage as King “fighting back against a New York Times article” (a reference to King’s statement in response to the Times article).
What Fox does find unacceptable, however, is cursing. The day after Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) said “impeach the motherfucker” in reference to President Donald Trump, the network gave 52 minutes of coverage to her comment -- 74 times more than it gave to King’s white supremacy.
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After criticism from right-wing figures who usually push pro-Trump propaganda, President Donald Trump has backed away from previous plans and instead set up a potential government shutdown by demanding money for a border wall be included in any stopgap government funding bill.
Fox News spent last week pushing for a government shutdown, cheering on Trump when he firmly declared that he would be “proud to shut down the government.” But after the White House signaled earlier this week that it would back off its $5 billion demand to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border in a resolution to keep the federal government funded until next year, right-wing media figures began criticizing Trump and goading him into shutting down the government. Many of his most ardent supporters began to perceive his decision to sign the bill as weak, calling on the president to change his mind and refuse to sign any proposed spending bill that does not include funding for the wall.
Responding to these criticisms, Trump sent a flurry of tweets adamantly defending his position just one day after CNN reported that the president “has become increasingly sensitive to criticism” from his base over the border wall. Trump then renewed his call for funding, telling lawmakers that he will not sign any bill that does not include funding for the border wall in an apparent nod to his supporters.
Here is a timeline of some of that recent criticism:
Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren, who has previously made it clear where she stands on the border wall, said on Fox & Friends that “if we need a government shutdown” to build a wall, “then a shutdown is exactly what we need.”
Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy declare that “effectively, the Democrats win because they didn’t want any money for wall. And the swamp wins because runaway spending, which is in the current budget, continues.”
Steve Doocy: “It looks as if he’s not going to get any wall money. … effectively, the Democrats win. Because they didn't want any money for wall. And the swamp wins, because runaway spending, which is in the current budget, continues.” pic.twitter.com/yOJPXkxziJ
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) December 19, 2018
Doocy later in the show said that Trump will “look like a loser” to his supporters who “drew that line in the sand and said, ‘This is worth shutting down.’”
Fox & Friends guest Michelle Malkin said that she’s “not going to sugarcoat it” and “not going to spin it” if Trump backs down, describing his decision as “a cave” and “a blink.”
2000s has-been and Fox & Friends mainstay Michelle Malkin: “I’m not going to sugarcoat it and I’m not going to spin it. I wish I could but I can’t. This was a cave. This was a blink. … because [Mitch McConnell’s] afraid of a shutdown” pic.twitter.com/tSkVNCE96m
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) December 19, 2018
On Fox’s Outnumbered, Fox Business host David Asman emphasized the importance of the wall to Trump’s supporters, saying that “if [Trump] is viewed by his base as caving on the issue, no matter how they try to spin at the White House, already some of the base is beginning to fray a little bit.” Referring to the White House’s pledge to find funding for the wall elsewhere, Fox host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery claimed that “if this were the Obama administration … we would all be up in arms.”
Rush Limbaugh attacked the Senate-passed resolution, saying, “Trump’s gonna get less than nothing because this compromise strips out the $1.6 billion for the wall that the Senate Appropriations Committee had already approved weeks ago.” He added, “You can’t say for four years, 'Well, I gotta do this and this and this and this and this before I can accomplish this ... He doesn’t have limitless time to do this."
Ann Coulter unloaded on Trump in a podcast with The Daily Caller, accusing him of being “a joke presidency who scammed the American people.” Coulter said that she will not vote for Trump in 2020 without a border wall, adding, “nor will, I think, most of his supporters.” (Coulter had also vowed earlier in the week to not support Trump in 2020 if the wall was not built.) Within hours of these comments, the president unfollowed Coulter on Twitter.
Fox regular and former NRATV host Dan Bongino filled in as guest host for Sean Hannity’s prime-time Fox News show on Wednesday, discussing the spending bill and the border wall, which he described as “essentially the Trump-MAGA agenda.” Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, claimed that “the fact is is this: The president should veto this bill. This breaks the promise with his supporters.” Though Schlapp admitted that a shutdown “doesn’t mean you get all you want, but you send a message to the liberals” and “that’s why it’s critical for the president to not sign a bill which is a white flag.”
Erick Erickson criticized the negotiating skills of Trump and Republicans:
Central America gets $10.6 billion.
Planned Parenthood still funded.
ISIS gets a reprieve in Syria.
Well done, Republicans.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) December 20, 2018
On her Fox News show, Laura Ingraham chastised Trump for not getting the funding, declaring that “not funding the wall is going to go down as one of the worst, worst things to have happened to this administration. … It’s a scandal that it hasn’t been built.” Fox regular and Trump legal adviser Joe diGenova agreed with Ingraham, saying: “I hope that when this thing runs out in February, the president says, ‘That’s it, no more. A wall or I’m shutting it down.’”
Breitbart's Joel Pollak said that he would prefer a shutdown:
On the wall: first, I've stated I prefer Trump to follow through on his threat of a shutdown over it because he made a threat and must follow through on threats if they are to be credible again -- as they will have to be when he tries to wield his veto against a Democratic House.
— Joel B. Pollak (@joelpollak) December 20, 2018
Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee said on Fox & Friends that Trump “has got to look in the mirror and remind himself he ran … on the idea of we’re going to secure the border.” Huckabee also downplayed the impact of a shutdown, saying that “the things that really matter to most Americans day-by-day will be funded.” Guest co-host Jedediah Bila responded by saying that “this is his signature issue, this is what arguably he won on,” claiming that she doesn’t “understand how he survives this personally, for his own legacy.”
Fox host Pete Hegseth, who is known to speak directly to Trump, called for Trump to shut down the government.
(2 of 3) ...Don’t listen to squish advisors. Your instincts are right. Dig in and fight. Veto a crap CR bill w/ no WALL funding. Make Dems own “open borders”. Disrupt Washington, DC. Make them all squirm. The American People are behind you.
No WALL = SHUT IT DOWN...
— Pete Hegseth (@PeteHegseth) December 20, 2018
On Fox & Friends, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch called on Trump to shut down both the government and the border until he receives funding, saying that she “would love to see the president … just go ahead and shut down the border, and then shut down the government.”
On Fox’s America’s Newsroom, James Freeman of The Wall Street Journal downplayed the significance of a government shutdown, claiming that “if you look at recent history, shutdowns don’t actually do that much political damage.”
On Fox’s America’s Newsroom, Fox contributor and former acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan said that Trump “needs to veto any sort of continuing resolution” so that “he can stand up and say, ‘I have done everything I can to protect our border.’”
Ben Shapiro said Trump should veto "any funding that doesn't include the wall."
Shortly after it was announced that Trump would refuse to sign the bill to keep the government open, Limbaugh said that "the president has gotten word to me that he is either getting funding to the border or he’s shutting the whole thing down." Earlier in the show, Limbaugh had told him to do exactly that in order to be "a hero" to the far right.
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The threat of a partial government shutdown looms over Capitol Hill as the deadline to pass a spending bill by December 21 approaches. President Donald Trump has demanded that $5 billion be included in the final spending package for the southern border wall, which Democrats refuse to accept. Feeling the pressure of a Democratic-controlled House in January, Trump is threatening to shut down the government if he does not receive the funding -- and some at Fox are encouraging him.
Tomi Lahren, host of Fox Nation’s First Thoughts, expressed strong support for a government shutdown, telling Trump to “shut it down” because “the promise of a big, beautiful border wall” was at the “top of [her] list” when voting for Trump. She doubled down on her support by saying, “A good old-fashioned government shutdown spanking might be exactly what our politicians need.”
Lisa Boothe, a panelist on Fox News’ Outnumbered, claimed that she is “perfectly fine with shutting the government down” because “it’s a partial shutdown” and “people will forget about this by 2020,” so it will not “impact Republicans politically.” Some of her fellow panelists also suggested that a government shutdown would be a good idea.
Fox host Laura Ingraham expressed support for Trump's proposed government shutdown on her radio show, saying that if he doesn’t “get this wall built," then "we’ve lost the country anyway.”
On Fox Business' Lou Dobbs Tonight, Republican strategist Ed Rollins justified a government shutdown on Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight, saying, “The bottom line is you’re not shutting the whole government down. You’re only shutting a part of it down.” He also said that Trump needs to show that he means “serious business” and that he “needs this to hold his base.”
Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee said on Fox & Friends that Trump should shut the government down, justifying it by saying, “The terrible thing is to let the Democrats bully this president who was elected by the people of this nation.”
Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz argued that in a shutdown fight, “the president is on the winning side.”
On America's Newsroom, Republican political consultant and Fox News regular Brad Blakeman said that he supported Trump’s rhetoric on shutting down the government, arguing, “The president’s got to use leverage.”
Ned Ryun, founder and CEO of American Majority, argued on Fox & Friends that Trump “should shut down government because then we can have a conversation about what size government do we really want.”
On his daily radio show, Fox host Sean Hannity downplayed the impact of a government shutdown, saying that “essential services all continue” and characterizing a shutdown as a “free vacation” for bureaucrats.
Fox host Lou Dobbs asked his guest “who’s going to notice” a government shutdown, before falsely claiming that “the principal beneficiaries [of government programs] seem to be the estimated 22 to 30 million illegal immigrants in this country.”
On her Fox show, The Ingraham Angle, Ingraham also championed Trump’s decision to potentially shut down the government, claiming that a shutdown would “absolutely” yield positive results for Trump. Ingraham also claimed that the 2013 government shutdown “didn’t hurt the Republicans at all” and that Trump has “got to get that wall built.”
Update (12/12/18): This piece has been updated with additional examples.
We’re all being trolled by attention-starved wannabe media stars
When right-wing pundit Erick Erickson suggested last week that the U.S. cut foreign aid to Central American countries and instead use those funds to “prop up the next generation of Pinochet types,” it didn’t come as much of a surprise. A number of conservatives have a bit of a soft spot for the former Chilean dictator. When Erickson said that he was “hoping for some helicopters in this plan,” though, he raised a few eyebrows, as such a statement is designed to do.
His reference to helicopters was a nod to Augusto Pinochet’s history of having at least 120 political dissidents thrown to their deaths from helicopters into the “the ocean, the lakes and the rivers of Chile.” On his blog, The Resurgent, Erickson elaborated a bit on that tweet, still straddling the line between being serious and just joking around, and writing that he’s “not actually fully on board” with his own idea.
Does Erickson actually think helicopters are essential to this tweet, blog post, or political suggestion? Probably not. Certainly, he knows that the extrajudicial murder of political opponents is a reprehensible thing to praise. Why say it, then? Because it gets him attention, and in a sea of political media takes, attention is everything. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time watching political talk shows or cable news channels knows that it’s the loudest and most extreme voices that rise to the top of the punditry food chain. It’s as true for Erickson as it is for more recent additions to our national discourse, Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos. The power to provoke has replaced intelligent discussion, and would-be commentators are catching on.
Erickson, along with the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, or any number of other conservatives coming out of the world of talk radio, have made entire careers based on saying things so outrageous that the rest of us ask whether they even mean what they’re saying. Does Coulter actually wish that Timothy McVeigh had bombed the New York Times building? Or that politicians who support immigration reform should face “death squads”? Probably not, but her many outrageous statements have helped make Coulter a bestselling author and mainstay in the world of political commentary for two decades running.
The truth is that you don’t have someone like Erickson or Coulter on your Sunday morning political talk show if you’re interested in an-depth discussion about policy. No, you have them on because of their potential to generate controversy. Their entire brand is built upon being predictably unpredictable.
The truth is that discussing politics can be boring, and maybe it should be. Deficit discussions and tax talk just aren’t sexy. Foreign policy is probably better considered with a sober seriousness, and the economy is best understood as a complex mess of systems only a technocrat could love. But people like their politics with a side of entertainment. After all, there’s a reason people tune in to CNN over C-SPAN, and this creates a major incentive for would-be commentators to embrace a politics-as-WWE approach.
Before becoming the poster boy for crude offense masked as commentary, Milo Yiannopoulos was the editor of The Kernel, an online tech and culture magazine he founded. Though he was never shy about his conservative beliefs, he was far from the firebrand who’d later publish Breitbart articles under such headlines as “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Teenage Boys With Tits: Here’s My Problem With Ghostbusters.”
While he’d always had a reputation for his inflated ego and a tendency to pick fights, back in his days writing at The Kernel, Yiannopoulos could actually be -- dare I say -- thoughtful. Based on his writing, 2012’s Yiannopoulos would have almost certainly hated his 2018 self. Take, for instance, a 2012 blog post titled “The internet is turning us all into sociopaths,” in which he describes the rise of a new sort of anti-civility, online and off:
What’s disturbing about this new trend, in which commenters are posting what would previously have been left anonymously, is that these trolls seem not to mind that their real names, and sometimes even their occupations, appear clamped to their vile words. It’s as if a psychological norm is being established whereby comments left online are part of a video game and not real life. It’s as if we’ve all forgotten that there’s a real person on the other end, reading and being hurt by our vitriol. That’s as close to the definition of sociopath as one needs to get for an armchair diagnosis, though of course many other typical sociopathic traits are also being encouraged by social media.
In “When ‘free speech’ means defending evil murderers,” Yiannopoulos lambasted social media companies that refused to take swift action against cyberbullying and extremist content. In another blog, he argued that “free speech has its limits,” and in yet another, he took one of his own cyberbullies to task. He called Laurie Penny’s book Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet “terrific,” writing, "We do need to think more carefully about how women are spoken to online."
In 2013, The Kernel shuttered after being sued by former contributors over unpaid wages. It was acquired by a German company called Berlin 42 before being sold to the publisher of The Daily Dot. By 2014, Yiannopoulos was writing for Breitbart and fanning the flames of Gamergate, a controversy he would use to propel himself to U.S. stardom. The rest is, as they say, history.
Tomi Lahren went from hosting a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political roundtable show in which she accepted the realities of climate change to becoming a Fox News megastar. The secret to her success: a newfound embrace of the theatrical and outrageous. Her road to stardom was paved with tweets calling the Black Lives Matter movement “The new KKK,” videos in which she said that the U.S. government during the Obama administration had a “be-friendly-to-Jihadis mentality,” and more recently, a tweet saying that the “highlight” of her Thanksgiving weekend was watching the tear-gassing of migrants (including children) at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bum-rushing the border is a CHOICE and has consequences. Watching the USA FINALLY defend our borders was the HIGHLIGHT of my Thanksgiving weekend. 🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼 https://t.co/jAkfcgzRuN
— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) November 26, 2018
Lahren found a shortcut to success, and she took it. How many of us can honestly say that we wouldn’t act out a more extreme version of ourselves if it meant a one-way ticket to the top? Because if it’s not Lahren filling the rage void in political media, it’d be someone else just as over-the-top and abrasive. If social media has shown us anything, it’s that there are always people waiting in the wings, longing to be discovered.
The Yiannopoulos star burned bright, but for now, it’s fizzled. He knows that the only way to stay relevant is to say truly outlandish things, like when he told The Observer in June, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” He’s become the political embodiment of The Onion’s brilliant 2001 “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People” article.
He faded because the blueprint shifted ever so slightly. People got bored of watching an entirely unserious man shout slurs and call it commentary, because he couldn’t take off the “Milo” public persona he’d created for himself, even for a moment. He tried, as in the wake of comments he made that appeared to condone pedophilia, but it came off as hollow and insincere. The trick for media provocateurs is to offer a dash of humanity in with the vitriol. Lahren did this when she opened up about being pro-choice on an episode of The View. Erickson does this whenever he stops by a respectable talk show to promote civility or denounce conspiracy theories.
As the rules change, so do the players. Uninterrupted trolling no longer has the power it once did. Maybe we can move the bar further still. Maybe the answer to professional trolls is to deny them the attention they so desperately need to remain relevant. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about Erickson’s “helicopter” tweet at all. Maybe I shouldn’t bother to note when media figures hang a neon “pay attention to me” sign above their heads as they tweet things like “Can someone explain to me why I'm supposed to lose sleep over Saudi Arabia killing an Islamist political opponent?” about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or when they tweet “I've found my Christmas card photo. #Caring” in response to a photo of a family running from tear gas on the border.
If the expected response is reactive outrage, maybe deliberate disinterest is the answer. So, why am I writing about this, you might ask. I think it’s important to recognize the patterns at play. Starving the trolls of the attention they seek is a reasonable long-term goal. But in the meantime, we need to recognize that there are people toying with our national political discourse just for a shot at fame and fortune.
I think it was the cake that broke me.
Roughly eight hours into my quest to watch as much programming as possible from Fox Nation, the right-wing cable network’s new streaming service, the debut episode of D-list conservative commentator David Webb’s Reality Check was interrupted when a gentleman with a magnificent beard walked onto the set unannounced and sat next to the host. It was, we learned after some baffled hemming and hawing from Webb, the executive pastry chef and sometime Food Network competitor Robert Teddy. Apparently scheduled to talk to the host about a charity that sends pastries to the troops, he had instead shown up with a cake shaped like a hot air balloon featuring a miniature model of Webb himself as a passenger, which was soon plopped on the table.
“You’ve thrown me all off here -- I’ve got my papers here everywhere,” Webb said, waving his pages of notes and desperately trying to transition to the next segment of a show that had quickly gone off the rails.
Fox Nation’s first day was a shit show. The execution was terrible, with shows frequently failing to load on the website, mishaps on the set, and a collection of on-air talent that is in no way ready for prime time (which is, perhaps, why their shows are running online in the first place).
But what Fox seems to be building -- shorn of the cable network’s pretenses of journalism, out of sight of mainstream audiences, and without fear of advertiser boycotts since the service currently features no commercials -- is a safe space to try out commentators and ideas that might otherwise be shunned. Fox is charging $5.99 a month for access to the service, and its executives clearly think that the audience wants angry far-right opinion programming.
Take Tomi Lahren, the former host on One America News Network and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze whom Fox has made the face of Fox Nation. Her Tuesday shows bookending the streaming service’s live programming were rants unhinged even by Fox News’ standards. She began the day by denouncing the “invasion” by migrants attempting to seek asylum in the U.S. and mocking the “ungrateful” people because “apparently tortillas and refried beans aren't good enough for these so-called asylum seekers, imagine that.” She also said, “Here’s some advice: If you don’t want to be tear-gassed when you rush the border, don’t rush the border.” Lahren ended the day by denouncing singer Barbra Streisand for her recent comments about the 2016 election, shouting through a litany of reasons she had supported Trump, arguing that “President Trump isn’t assaulting democracy or institutions; he’s saving them from the socialist utopia people like you dream of” … and attacking Streisand’s dog.
Throughout the day, Fox Nation’s commentators pushed this sort of virulent commentary, hitting all the usual sweet spots for Fox viewers -- denunciations of immigrants, Democrats, college students, and the media, and hosannas for Trump -- with little indication that the service is trying to put in place any sort of guardrails. The sorts of factors that typically cause the network to at least pretend to hit the brakes -- unnerved staffers from the network’s “news” side and advertisers wary of being tarred with the network’s bigotry -- don’t really apply.
Beyond political red meat, Fox Nation provides a home for the soft-focus passion projects of Fox News’ higher-profile personalities: Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy has a cooking show, his co-host Brian Kilmeade travels the country visiting sites relevant to the nation’s history on What Made America Great, The Five’s Dana Perino hosts an interview series featuring prominent authors, and Rachel Campos Duffy has a show about motherhood.
The service pads out the original offerings with a large assortment of old Fox News specials that have aired over the years, which fall neatly within the ideological contours of the network’s hosts and audience. If you have an urgent need to re-watch Fox News host Bret Baier’s 2006 hagiography of Bush administration Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, his 2014 documentary purportedly showing the “smoking gun of Benghazi,” or his 2015 look at “The Tangled Clinton Web,” you can call them up on demand. You also have access to 95 episodes of National Rifle Association President Oliver North’s Fox show War Stories.
In its initial offerings, Fox Nation is leaning heavily on its close ties to the Trump administration and family. One of the service’s premiere shows is The First Family: Donald J. Trump, which promises an “exclusive look” at how the president’s children are “balancing their own home lives, yet also dealing with the spotlight of their father being the President of the United States.” The first episode features Fox Business host and Trump cheerleader Maria Bartiromo’s softball interview with Eric Trump and footage of him at home with his wife, son, and dog, at the Trump Organization headquarters in New York City and at the Trump Winery in Charlottesville, VA. Likewise, Kilmeade’s show features him getting a tour of the Naval Observatory with Vice President Mike Pence’s wife Karen and climbing Mount Rushmore with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
There are a few flaws in the Fox Nation plan thus far, beyond the shoddy production values.
The talent level of the service’s newly branded hosts may prove a problem. Fox founder Roger Ailes was a monster who created a propaganda machine that has been terrible for the country. But he was also a shrewd judge of talent. In his absence, Fox appears to be throwing stuff at the wall to see what will stick, lifting up people like Lahren -- a grifting Trump sycophant with no real principles whose first Fox Nation offerings suggest that she recently discovered sarcasm and air quotes. Fox is rounding out the service’s programming by giving shows to decidedly third-tier talents like Webb and Todd Starnes.
Then again, Fox News has managed to retain viewers while rather drastically shifting its lineup since Ailes’ 2016 downfall, suggesting that perhaps the audience is willing to sit through whatever right-wing commentator the network serves up.
There’s also a question of who the service is for. Fox is billing it as a product for the network’s “superfans,” the “folks who watch Fox News every night for hours at a time, the dedicated audience that really wants more of what we have to offer,” as Fox executive John Finley told The New York Times in February.
But Fox News is a 24/7 news network, and its superfans also have access to the network’s B team on Fox Business, so when are they supposed to be tuning in to Fox Nation? The network’s schedule gives a strong hint -- daily streaming shows are almost entirely running during daytime hours, when the network is purportedly devoted to “news” programming as opposed to its morning and evening “opinion” shows. The bet is presumably that there's an audience that would watch C-team opinion programming or old Fox documentaries but isn’t interested in the network's news hours -- and the risk is that Fox Nation ends up cannibalizing Fox News’ daytime ratings.
The truth, of course, may be more cynical than that. Maybe, given the advanced age of the network’s typical viewer, the audience for Fox Nation is actually people who have trouble unsubscribing after signing up for services. Perhaps the hope is if the network promotes this schlock enough on Fox News, enough of its fans will sign up and then forget that they did so, making it a lucrative revenue stream, even if its audience is low.
Either way, here’s what that audience is getting, based on the 10 hours or so I spent pursuing the programming on Tuesday:
Rob Schmitt and Carley Shimkus do brief intros for segments from Fox News’ prime-time programs -- one each for Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle. Think of it as the worst possible version of the Academy Awards, complete with one host finishing the other’s sentences.
I was ready for a Bartiromo interview with Eric Trump to feature questions like “Tell me about, like, growing up with this bigger-than-life father” (answer: “He’s so unconventional, but also incredible”) and “Who’s your mentor?” (“My father”). I wasn’t expecting the show to turn into an extensive infomercial for the Trump Winery and the adjacent hotel in Virginia (according to Trump, “the Mar-a-Lago of the South,” which is strange since Virginia is north of Florida), complete with a tour of the Jefferson Suite. What an incredible grift.
“This day in U.S. history” as presented by Fox’s Bill Bennett, who served in President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Tuesday’s offering was about the U.S. Senate voting to confirm Gerald Ford as vice president. The segment did touch on President Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation, though curiously did not discuss the reason behind it.
This program airs immediately after Fox & Friends, apparently with a cast wholly unprepared to host the show. Tuesday’s version included Janice Dean discussing her neck pain, Steve Doocy mixing up the names of two members of the crew, and Jillian Mele declaring, “Fox Nation, I swear we’re better than this.” They are not.
This is a mini-cable news program featuring Fox’s Andrew Napolitano interviewing former independent counsel Kenneth Starr and then doing a “news I like and news I hate” lightning round. This was by far the most professionally done program on Fox Nation. Who knows how long it will last, though -- the “news I like and news I hate” segment included the sole criticisms of Trump I saw, with Napolitano denouncing Trump’s recent comments about special counsel Robert Mueller, General Motors, and the need for a state TV network.
Brian Kilmeade is traveling the country visiting historic sites. One episode featured his visit to President Andrew Jackson’s Nashville, TN, home, The Hermitage. In the second, he visited Mount Rushmore, climbing to the top with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Kilmeade had no questions for the interior secretary about the series of scandals he’s overseen, but he did give Zinke the opportunity to declare that “the president is a builder; it’s time to rebuild our parks.” In the third episode, Kilmeade received from Karen Pence what he called “a tour of One Observatory Circle that no member of an administration has ever given before.” As he played fetch with the Pences’ dog, he declared, “Not only is your husband a really good legislator, a great politician, and the second most powerful person in the country -- he also can train a great dog.”
In the first episode, four people who agree with each other talked about whether American college students can “still exercise free speech and free minds.” These people were: The Wall Street Journal editorial page’s James Freeman (who is also the host), his colleague at the Journal Jillian Melchior, CampusReform.org Editor-in-Chief Lawrence Jones, and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz. The segment began with Freeman warning his viewers that “Deep Dive is not a safe space and ... microaggressions against the dominant campus culture will be not only tolerated, but even encouraged.” Somehow, it got worse from there.
Somehow, Fox Business’ Stuart Varney also arranged to do his Fox Nation show about how “free speech is being silenced” and also booked a CampusReform.org staffer to discuss it with him. Varney broke new ground in stopping the interview to complain that some of his own staffers had suggested it might be inappropriate to use the word kowtow, adding, “Can you imagine this? You can’t even -- you have to think about using the word” -- and here he attempted a Chinese accent -- “do the kowtow.”
Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt and producer Brianna McClelland sit in front of his desk and discuss which stories will run in Stirewalt’s daily newsletter. This is exactly as boring as it sounds.
Dana Perino’s second episode features Joseph Ellis, the eminent historian of the founding fathers who won a National Book Award for American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and a Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
The first episode features Fox colleague Greg Gutfeld, whose books include The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage.
This is a pretty traditional cable news-style show, with an opening monologue and guests. Webb also managed to book an actual congressman, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), who offered this rambling promise: “You and I are on the same page. We’re going to come after it, we’re going to be strong, we’re going to stay together, and we’re going to prove to America that in 2020, we’re coming back into power and we’re going to continue to make America great again every single way.”
In another traditional cable news-style show, Fox Radio host and noted bigot Todd Starnes is extremely angry that “an invading army of illegal aliens tried to storm our border,” which he termed “an act of war” in which border patrol agents “were forced to use tear gas and defend themselves and the American people from hundreds of invaders.” In case you weren’t clear that Starnes is a bigot, later in his opening monologue, Starnes vigorously name-checks “Barack Hussein Obama, BH Obama.” Starnes also slams the press as “the state-run media and ... the propaganda arm of the Democrats” -- during an interview with Mike Huckabee, a Fox commentator whose daughter is Trump’s press secretary. There’s also a “Heartland Headlines” segment featuring culture war controversies from around the country, like a school administrator who had recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, that Starnes yells about.
Stand-up comedian and Fox contributor Tom Shillue has a show in which he quizzes people. This happened: