In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the odds were extremely high that Cliven Bundy was going to embarrass the various conservative pundits and politicians who supported him in his stand-off against the federal government over his desire to continue stealing federal grazing lands from taxpayers without paying the fees for using them.
Bundy already had a well-established record of saying nutty things, such as, “But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing,” as if that somehow magically spares you from having to follow its laws. Even the central claim he is making—that he shouldn’t have to pay the taxpayers their proper fees for using their lands—is so self-evidently ridiculous that many of his supporters had to tacitly admit he didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. That such a nutty crank would have nutty crank opinions on the topic of race relations was entirely predictable and no one, not even his most ardent supporters, seems particularly surprised to hear that he thinks black people were better off under slavery.
Now, of course, the vast majority of Bundy’s supporters in the media and in politics are running as fast as they can away from him. Does this mean that conservatives have learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of cravenly and opportunistically pouncing on every angry white guy with a grievance? Not hardly. Conservative pundits and politicians are addicted to exploiting all manner of right-wing cranks and loonies, and an embarrassing setback like this is not nearly enough to dissuade them from doing it in the future.
Part of the reason is that right-wing loons are their bread and butter. Ranting conservatives with half-baked ideas they seem to think were handed to them directly by God are the core demographic of Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Conservative media knows it’s just good business to flatter its audience repeatedly by taking right-wing cranks and elevating them to the status of “heroes” and “patriots.” Doing so keeps the audience tuning in, which leads directly to making more money.
However, there’s more going on here than simple financial interest for corporate right-wing media. A lot of what’s going on is that the political benefits of making a cause célèbre out of a parade of right-wing nuts and crank movements far outweigh the deplorably minimal risks.
Conservative media and politicians run shockingly low risks of ever paying any real penalty for embracing crank ideas and figureheads. At most what happens is that the person or movement in question is exposed in the media and liberals cackle with schadenfreude for a day, and then the whole thing drifts under the waves and conservatives get straight to pretending it never happened. The worst that ever happens is a few minutes of embarrassment while you swiftly distance yourself from your previous position of support, and then it’s on to go look for the next wacky figurehead or group to start hammering as the next big thing in the world of aggrieved conservative whining. Meanwhile, the latest conservative embarrassment is shoved right down the memory hole, never to be acknowledged again.
It has happened time and time again. Remember when Herman Cain was supposed to be the next big thing in Republican politics? Then his sexual harassment scandal happened and contestants on Jeopardy can't even remember his name. Or how conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth certificate became so popular that every other Republican media figure—including presidential candidate Mitt Romney—made sympathetic gestures in the birther direction? After President Obama won re-election, the mentions of birth certificates dried up so quickly on the right it’s easy to forget it was a multi-year obsession. The familial dispute over whether to pull the plug on Terri Schiavo was deemed a national crisis by Republicans, but the incident was never mentioned again after it became clear that the public found the whole debacle to be shameful. Joe the Plumber also evaporated as quickly as he appeared. Rand Paul gets to be treated like he’s the “cool” Republican day in and day out, as if his embarrassing objections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 never happened.
The issue with Paul points to the larger reason conservatives get such wide berth when it comes to “forgetting” about all the idiotic things they’ve done and supported in the past: Most of the mainstream media is reluctant to hold conservative pundits and leaders accountable for these past actions. Journalists could, if they wanted to, make a point of asking Rand Paul about his views on desegregation every time he walked near a microphone, but they refrain, in no small part out of fear that they’ll seem like they have a vendetta against the man in the eyes of the public. On top of that, there’s always another news story to tend to. It’s hard to remember the past when the present is always so pressing.
Not only is the price of backing right-wing cranks and loony ideas depressingly low, but the rewards of doing so are actually quite high. It’s not just in increased ratings for Fox News, though that does play a role. The goal of most right-wing media is always to push boundaries. By trotting out ever more extremist ideas, the conservative media can make what used to see extreme seem moderate in comparison, which helps push the public discourse to the right.
But this project isn’t just about pushing the boundaries of the public discourse. They’re also pushing the boundaries of their own audience, constantly testing them to see what level of nonsense they’re willing to go along with. The Bundy Ranch debacle was a classic example of this. If Sean Hannity can get his audience on board with supporting an anti-government conspiracy theorist touting transparently self-serving arguments, then he can get them to buy pretty much anything—and bug their representatives about it, too.
That’s why the conservative media just keeps pushing these crank figures and ideas. Even if most of them fail to get any traction or end up burning up upon contact with the real world, they are still useful for shifting the public discourse in the right’s favor and in continuing the project of separating the conservative faithful from reality. They have no reason to stop doing it. Unless, of course, the mainstream media starts making it harder to forget their past embarrassments.