Back on September 17, as Donald Trump basked in the post-Labor Day glow of being the Republican Party's undisputed frontrunner, he spoke to a boisterous crowd in New Hampshire and took a question from an especially boisterous fan. “We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American,” said the Trump t-shirt-wearing man. “We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question: When can we get rid of them?”
Trump reassured the agitated man: “We're going to be looking at a lot of different things.”
Turns out one of those “things” under review was Trump's stop-the-presses, are-you-kidding-me? proposal this week to implement “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.” (Yes, it's likely unconstitutional. Yes, logistically it's not possible.)
The announcement dropped so many jaws that not only did key Republicans denounce the move, but lots of conservative commentators also rushed to deplore Trump's shortsighted extremism.
But boy, talking about shutting the barn door about three months too late. These are many of the same players who enabled Trump's bigoted rise and cheered his derogatory, especially when its target was the White House. The conservative media helped lay out a blueprint of fear and paranoia for him.
As Nathan Lean noted in his book, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, back in August 2006, Fox News guest Mike Gallagher suggested an “all Muslims checkpoint line” at American airports. And after the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009, Fox's Brian Kilmeade suggested “special screenings” for Muslim U.S. soldiers.
Talk radio fearmongers and cable television personalities have “created an environment where people are comfortable expressing these kind of sentiments,” noted CNN's Michael Smerconish this week. Indeed, Trump's right-wing media cohorts helped him unleash the hounds of bigotry and now some in conservative circles are desperately searching for a harness?
They're not going to find it.
In August, I suggested that Fox News, via the unwieldy Trump charade, had “eaten the Republican primary season” and that the “slow-motion fiasco is only going to get much, much worse for Republicans.”
Has it ever.
Trump is now on the verge of devouring the entire Republican Party in terms of its branding and what it stands for in the minds of voters. How can the GOP reach out to mainstream, independent voters next November when Fox News defends, or explains away, Trump's bouts of birtherism and Islamophobia -- while he leads the Republican polls?
Actually, note that most conservative commentators deplored Trump's outlandishly unconstitutional anti-Muslim plan. But not all. On Fox News Tuesday morning, the crew blamed Obama for essentially forcing Trump to take the radical leap. (Fox's Kilmeade did concede Trump's idea “seems extreme.” )
And yes, we've seen Fox (and Rush Limbaugh and right-wing bloggers) employ that same backstop technique in the past, like after Trump lied about “thousands” of people in Jersey City, N.J., cheering the September 11 attacks.
Indeed, huge chunks of the conservative media signaled to Trump long ago that no matter what lie he concocted and no matter how many people he smeared, they would support his campaign of cultural paranoia. Maybe he interpreted that as a green light for suggesting we ban Muslims from coming to America?
Politically, Trump's radical move represents a train wreck for the GOP and the conservative movement. “You can either defend the indefensible (Trump's ridiculous proposal), or spend your valuable time and energy policing your own side,” explained conservative Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller.
But again, there's thick irony surrounding today's whining because the conservative media created Trump and his off-the-rails campaign. In fact, they've been building it for years. Specifically, you can trace the origins back to 2011 when Fox News decided to sponsor Trump's months-long resurrection of the long-debunked “birther” crusade. By doing so, Fox gave Trump a national platform where he won over converts on the fringe, many of whom to this day assume Obama's a foreign-born Muslim.
In his new book about the conservative movement, BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins writes how Trump over time lassoed what the author calls the Fringe Establishment, which includes talk radio and blocks of the far-right, Obama-hating conservative media:
An entire right-wing media ecosystem has sprung up, where journalist-warriors flood social media with rumors of sharia law coming to suburbia and hype a fast-approaching “race war” in America targeting whites. The Republican establishment -- a loose coalition of party committees, moderate donors and business interests -- once hoped to harness this tremendous new energy to recapture the White House.
Instead, the Fringe Establishment is the one doing the harnessing.
Fox News now awkwardly straddles that line between Fringe Establishment and the Republican establishment. And Fox News should be taking on most of the slings and arrows from Republicans who are furious about Trump and damage he's inflicting.
Circle back to this August tweet from Gabriel Sherman, who penned a biography of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes: “Trump is what Ailes did to the GOP.”
But is Trump simply appealing to the Fox News and AM talk radio base of the GOP? Is he simply appealing to a blanket of Islamophobia that's been relentlessly stoked by the far-right press? Here are some key findings from the latest survey from Public Policy Polling:
*67% of Trump voters support a national database of Muslims in the United States.
*51% want to see the mosques in the United States shut down.
*Only 24% of Trump supporters think Islam should be legal at all in the United States.
For Fox News, it's mission accomplished. For the GOP, it's an unfolding nightmare.
P.S. In terms of understanding the dynamic playing out within the conservative media, an October piece on the unfolding Republican “crack-up” from the Daily Caller is helpful. At the time, the piece examined the internal split between establishment and grassroots forces over Rep. Paul Ryan's rise to Speaker of the House. But this lengthy excerpt is useful if you understand the GOP's populist-nationalists faction represents Trump's most ardent supporters, and why the Republican Party can't restrain them:
On the other side is a faction that's best described as populist-nationalists. Immigration is starting to become the core issue for this group, along with the belief that America is in serious decline, that elites are completely out of touch with the heartland and business interests aren't synonymous with national interests. They're willing to accept, and even encourage unorthodox positions among conservatives, such as higher taxes on billionaires.
The conservative establishment counts its members as most of the think tanks, foundations and publications that have been the bedrock of the conservative movement for ages.
The populist-nationalists includes talk radio, Breitbart News and a few prominent conservative columnists like Ann Coulter.
The establishment, being the heir to the quintessential conservative institutions of the past, wants to purge the populists from their midst. The problem is the populists have connected with a large swath of the base that has lost complete interest in the orthodox movement position.
The establishment has declared total war on Donald Trump and is starting to pour millions into attack ads and has published hundreds of hit pieces on the insurgent billionaire. In spite of these efforts, Trump remains at the top of the polls and doesn't look to be going away anytime soon.
That's because the base has embraced The Donald, and so has talk radio.