At the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, guest performer Seth Meyers joked that he was surprised presidential hopeful Donald Trump was thinking about running as a Republican since Meyers just assumed Trump "was running as a joke."
The dead-on punch line, which created a small tidal wave of laughs, gasps and "ooh's" inside the Hilton ballroom that night, landed like a stake though the blustery billionaire's ego. (C-SPAN cameras captured Trump looking perturbed after the barb, which only added to the toll.) Meyers' put-down perfectly captured the absurdity of Trump's grandiose desires. And sure enough, he opted out of running and largely faded into the political background.
But fast-forward four years and Trump and his divisive brand of nativist, right-wing rants have risen from the political dead to capture the spotlight. Basking in mounting headlines less than one month before the first Republican debate, where Trump and his bombastic immigrant bashing is almost sure to dominate the news cycle, the Republican brand-maker has created massive headaches for the GOP.
And note that the emerging Trumpmentum unfurled itself at the same time Republicans have struggled during the national debate about the Confederate flag, coming in the wake of its association with the alleged killer in last month's South Carolina shooting rampage in an historical black church.
Indeed, the front page of the New York Times last Friday featured two articles detailing a pair of mini crises Republican leaders were forced to grapple with: Trump's troubling rise in the polls, and the messy debate that broke out in the House of Representatives when Republicans at the last minute tried to introduce an amendment to protect the Confederate flag in national cemeteries, only to then withdraw the controversial measure. A "fiasco," is how the Washington Post's Dana Milbank described the GOP's confederate flag two-step; the Times tagged it "an embarrassment."
Those two issues bedeviling the GOP are inexorably linked. And a key force driving both is Fox News.
Contorting itself into ugly dead ends over the issues of race and immigrant bashing, Republicans have themselves to blame for allowing this kind of ugliness to fester unobstructed for years. But Republicans can also blame Fox News for the party's unfolding summer of discontent.
Why Fox? Because the cable channel has given Trump a platform for years to spout his loopy, hateful rhetoric, including his "birther" charade from 2011, which Fox practically co-sponsored. And note that last month, Trump landed more Fox airtime than any other GOP campaign hopeful. So yes, when Fox's programming regularly pushes out xenophobia to Republican viewers, you can't be surprised when Republican viewers embrace a xenophobic candidate.
As for the Confederate flag, Fox News shoulders some blame because of the channel's hallmark, toxic race-baiting during the Obama years. As conservatives grapple with the historic legacy of slavery and day-to-day racial injustices it's impossible not to notice that previous pattern of ugly rhetoric lurking beneath the surface of the flag debate, especially while Fox hosts and analysts play down the significance of removing the Civil War artifact. (One Fox reporter asked if the American flag would soon be targeted.)
The conservative media's soft spot for the Confederate flag doesn't exist in a vacuum. It seems to spring from a dark, ugly well of race baiting. Recall that it was one of Fox's most famous hosts who called Obama a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture." Fox's Eric Bolling once referred to the President of Gabon's visit to the White House as Obama hosting a "hoodlum" in the "hizzouse" and suggestedthat President Obama was "chugging 40's" during a state visit to Ireland. Geraldo Rivera placed blame on unarmed Trayvon Martin for his own death because he was wearing a hoodie. And Megyn Kelly once hosted NRO's Andrew McCarthy to argue that race-based voter suppression "has long ago passed to the dustbin of history," calling anyone who thinks otherwise demagogues and "race hucksters."
Then there was the racially-tinged birther nonsense, which Fox was central in helping to market. (The uglinesswas adopted by some within the Tea Party movement, too.) And that brings us back to Trump, who just last week told a CNN interviewer he wasn't sure where Obama was born.
Trump is widely perceived to be a racist buffoon, and corporate America (NASCAR, Macy's, NBC, etc.) is now sprinting away from him for fear of being associated with his brand of hate. Yet among Republican voters, Trump's favorable rating has actually been on the rise in recent weeks -- as he makes more and more outlandish claims, more and more conservatives embrace him.
Appearing on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show last week, Tom Jensen from Public Policy Polling explained what North Carolina Republican voters were saying via a new PPP survey that found Trump as their top pick. From Nexis: "Republicans in North Carolina love the Confederate flag. It is getting taken away. Republicans in North Carolina hate gay marriage. It is here to stay. Republicans in North Carolina hate Obamacare, it's here to stay."
Jensen may as well have been describing Fox News' most loyal viewers.
Trump is a loud, offensive and ill informed birther who thinks climate change is a hoax. As I noted in May, Trump represents not only the Fox News id, but he mirrors the extreme dark side of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, a man who has reportedly advocated sending Navy SEALs to the U.S.-Mexico border in order to kill undocumented immigrants crossing over into America.
This tweet from Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman says it all about the spectacle now unfolding: "Trump is what Ailes did to the GOP."
And what Ailes and Fox are doing to the GOP this summer may not be reversible.