There’s a ritual in Republican politics known informally as “Hannitization.” The term was defined by journalist Dave Weigel back in 2011, and it means: “To clean up a messy situation with a softball interview, typically one conducted by Sean Hannity.” The process is rather straightforward: you’re a prominent Republican official and you do/say something irredeemably stupid that attracts unwelcome press attention, so you escape the glare of the media spotlight by heading over to Fox News, where Sean Hannity will provide a safe, confrontation-free environment for you to give your side of the story and not worry about being interrupted or challenged in any way.
Some of the biggest names in Republican politics have been Hannitized over the years, and Hannity is up front about the fact that he conducts softball interviews with Republicans because he believes “the Republicans represent, and have a far better vision, one that I agree with.” He’s not an official organ of the GOP, but he partners with them to offer emergency clean-up services to its members.
That brings us to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who made a hell of a mess for himself with his racist attacks on federal judge Gonzalo Curiel and then showed up on Fox News this week for the deluxe Hannitization package. Trump spent the earlier part of this week being denounced by Republicans and Democrats alike for insisting that Curiel’s Mexican heritage renders him incapable of impartially judging the Trump University fraud lawsuits, but Hannity has been defending him, arguing that while Trump may have been “inarticulate,” but “there are some real questions about whether or not this judge is radical, has an agenda.”
Here’s the transcript of the questions Hannity asked Trump about Curiel and Trump University during their interview:
Mr. Trump, I know you released a lengthy statement today as it relates to the whole Trump University case. Included in that is a website where people can look at the comments, the approval of all the students that liked your course. Two questions regarding this: one, do you think you should have stuck to the politics of the case, where the judge clearly has a political agenda? And do you regret that at all?
In my investigation, I found out that Bill Clinton got paid $16.5 million as being the chancellor of Laureate University, which is a worldwide, mostly online university, with many complaints in Rio, many complaints in Chile, many complaints in Latin America. He got paid this money, Hillary invited and included is group at a State Department dinner. $16.5 million is a lot, and as many, if not more, complaints than what you have gotten. But I don’t think most people have heard of Laureate University. So I’ve got to believe that’s frustrating for you.
I watched Republicans attack you in the last 24 hours, and I’m thinking I haven’t heard some of these Republicans attack Barack Obama, who was able to pass his entire agenda because they wouldn’t fight him, as hard as they’re fighting you. Is that a feeling you have?
This is fascinating to me, and not just because the questions from Hannity were impossibly soft and, for the most part, not even technically questions. It’s intriguing because this might be the first recorded example of a Republican going in for Hannitization because he was attacked by other Republicans. Hannity is as reliable a partisan actor as you could imagine – he’d tell you that himself – but in a split between high-ranking Republican officials and Donald Trump over some obviously racist comments from the nominee, Hannity sides with Trump and chastises his fellow Republicans for not being loyal enough.
There are a number of reasons why it would go down like this. Hannity is a company man, and Fox News has firmly thrown its weight behind Trump’s candidacy. Also, Hannity and Trump have a history of softball interviews regarding Trump’s racial controversies – just watch this clip from 2011 in which Trump discusses his “investigation” into Barack Obama’s birth certificate while Hannity politely smiles and offers a few helpful interjections. But more than anything, Hannity understands where the old and cranky Republicans who make up his audience fall on issues like these. According to a new YouGov poll, damn near two-thirds of self-identified Republicans don’t view Trump’s attack on Curiel as racist, compared to 51 percent of total respondents who did think it was racist.
So now, thanks to Trump, we’re in this weird space where Hannitization, once a vehicle for fostering GOP unity and tamping down controversy, has itself become a symptom of Republican division.