One of the most intensely felt and least articulated pleasures of Donald Trump’s bizarre political ascent is the manner in which it has exposed the “modern conservative movement” as an utter sham.
After all, if you listen to the giant, for-profit conservative media machine, what GOP voters want is ideological purity: candidates who toe the line drawn by Fox News, the RNC, and their various corporate minders.
Trump, as a reminder, is a candidate who once declared himself “very pro-choice,” who supported taxing the wealthy and legalizing drugs and universal health care and an assault weapons ban, who was a registered Democrat for years and contributed millions to liberal candidates, who blasts special interests and Super PACs . How could such a flaming lefty ever win over conservatives, especially the hyper-partisan folks who vote in the primaries?
The answer, of course, is that most “conservatives” don’t really care much about ideology. What they care about is the joyous experience of their own forbidden feelings. That’s what Trump’s unexpected and enduring popularity proves—whether or not it results in his being the Republican nominee.
Ever since Richard Nixon devised his Southern Strategy, the GOP has charted a course in which the assumption of power has been predicated an appeal to primal emotions: hate, fear, grievance.
Sure, the party establishment has particular policy goals (lower taxes, deregulate, etc.) but they garner support from the “base” only by riling them up. Anyone who has attended a Tea Party rally, or a Sarah Palin rally, or a Trump rally can tell you that the folks who show up are there to feel, not to think.
Which is why the Great Debate Debacle now playing out before our eyes is so illuminating.
Trump does scare the hell out of Fox News, as my colleague Heather Digby has pointed out.
But Trump’s decision to pull out the debate does far more than just demonstrate his ability to alpha male Fox News. It exposes the Big Lie at the very heart of the network.
Because it turns out that Fox News, like the party whose bidding it does, has never been about conservatism. Not deep down. What the network does is use ideology as a Trojan horse. The real product, all along (and as with the GOP) has been emotion. They retail hate and resentment and grievance.
Every day, they tell mostly older, white, culturally dislocated Americans who they should be angry at, and who they should fear. And because they do it so well, they make hundreds of millions of dollars.
Up until Trump came along, they were the best in the business. There was no politician who could stand up to them.
But Trump isn’t a politician. He’s an entertainer and a businessman. Whatever his reasons are for pulling out of the debate (he hates the moderator, Megyn Kelly; he doesn’t like Fox baiting him) Trump understands precisely what Fox wants: a profitable entertainment product. A loudmouth in the middle of the stage who can generate conflict and controversy and get the rest of the media buzzing and make the masses out there in TV land feel.
This is why Trump can be so blunt in his comments about the debate. He knows Roger Ailes is in the business of ratings and profits, not public service. He knows that Fox needs him more than he needs the network.
And he knows that the exact same thing is true of the GOP. Heck, if we’re being totally honest, Trump has hijacked the party. Or, more precisely, he’s engineered a palace coup by the rousing the mob.
The Republican establishment knows that he’s too popular and powerful to alienate. And Fox knows that he’s too profitable.
The crowning irony here is that both the GOP and Fox News have spent the past four decades laying the groundwork for Trump’s rise.
They have sought to create an electorate that is ill informed and disenfranchised, angry and impotent, susceptible to propaganda, and disengaged from the practical effects and moral necessity of governance.
They have reaped remarkable political and monetary rewards for the wealthiest Americans by urging the poor and middle class to vote based on indignation rather than their own interests.
Trump is the logical byproduct of this sustained campaign: an isotopic nihilist who could care less about conservatism, who feeds off the adulation of the enraged, self-victimizing masses bred by the conservative movement.
If the Tea Party was the beginning of this revolution — the ascent of overt and angry know-nothingism in the guise of conservatism—then Trump marks its apotheosis. He is the unyielding authoritarian redeemer that conservative dittoheads have been awaiting for years.
In this sense, Trump is the politics of resentment come back to roost. He delivers the same intoxicating drug as Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh, only at a much higher dosage, one undiluted by ideological pieties. He makes the uneducated feel smart. He makes the unemployed feel destined for riches. He makes those betrayed by our economy feel empowered. He makes those mired in despair feel hope.
And he makes the folks at Fox News feel something worse than scared: he makes them feel expendable.