The right's Sean Hannity problem: Conservatives loved the Fox News host until he became Trump's hatchet man

"Nobody calls Sean Hannity" — but everyone fears him. How a right-wing media icon became Trump's towel boy

Published October 1, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Sean Hannity, Donald Trump   (Jeff Malet, McDermid/Photo montage by Salon)
Sean Hannity, Donald Trump (Jeff Malet, McDermid/Photo montage by Salon)

It’s amusing to see portions of the conservative world recoil in horror at the behavior of Sean Hannity. The mega-popular Fox News host, one of the biggest stars of the right-wing media, has been absorbing sustained criticism from certain pundits and radio hosts for his overt and unseemly activism on behalf of Republican nominee Donald Trump. Hannity’s critics view Trump (correctly) as a threat to Republican politics, the health of the conservative movement and the country itself, and for Hannity to devote his energies and influence to electing him is, in their view, beyond the pale.

As Robert Draper writes in the New York Times Magazine this weekend, Hannity’s boosterism has made him the chief target of conservative media criticism over Trump, and Hannity is responding to the attacks with defiance in equal measure. He name-checks #NeverTrump conservative pundits and warns that he’ll blame them should Hillary Clinton win the presidency. Hannity has hosted town halls for Trump, has appeared in a Trump campaign ad, and has reportedly been offering pro-bono strategic and communications advice to Trump’s team. Every time Trump makes a sexist or racist gaffe, Hannity throws open his studio doors to give Trump the safe space he needs to get his talking points out.

When Trump’s not on the program, Hannity takes it on himself to do the spinning. The candidate spent most of this week lashing out at former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, which meant Hannity, the good foot soldier, was also on the attack against the beauty queen. “She may have starred in an adult film, and available apparently on multiple free porn websites,” Hannity told his radio audience (falsely).

What’s amusing about all this conservative criticism of Hannity’s vitriol and nonsense is that nothing Hannity is saying is out of character for him, or appreciably worse than what he’s been saying for years. Hannity’s brand of venom used to be met with approval or determined silence from the same people who criticize him now. The difference this time around is that Hannity’s behavior is damaging to their own interests, so they’re finally saying something in protest.

The quintessential Hannity moment, in my opinion, came eight years ago as Barack Obama was on his way to winning the presidency. In keeping with the broader conservative attack on Obama’s allegedly radical secret past, Hannity cobbled together a special weekend program that purported to examine all the dangerous extremists who supposedly occupied Obama’s circle of friends. One segment of the show explained how Obama’s past as a community organizer was actually part of a “grand scheme" perpetuated by former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers. The guest Hannity had on to explain this was Andy Martin, a crank conspiracy theorist and fringe figure in Chicago politics who had once argued in official court documents that “Jew survivors” of the Holocaust were “operating as a wolf pack to steal my property.”

It was conspiratorial, soaked in discredited innuendo and without question one of the worst things Fox News has ever aired. But it did nothing to tarnish Hannity’s reputation within the conservative movement or the right-wing media -- because he screwed up in the right direction (according to their worldview). Conservatives kept silent because ultimately they either agreed with what Hannity was saying about Obama’s supposed radicalism or they figured that even if he was crossing lines and behaving reprehensibly, it was in the service of taking down their shared enemy. The movement had no incentive to stop Hannity from shooting wildly, because he hadn’t hit anyone inside the tent yet.

That same dynamic was at play in 2011, when Donald Trump was on his quest to force Obama to release his birth certificate. There was no greater enabler of Trump’s birtherism in the media than Hannity, who hosted softball interviews with Trump and gave him all the challenge-free airtime he needed to expound on whatever conspiratorial angle he had mined from a far-right chain email that day. It was counterfactual and deeply embarrassing, and the political clout Trump gained from it ultimately did great damage to the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Again, it was aimed at a common nemesis — Obama, of course — so no one on the right protested or thought twice about what Hannity represented.

To put it simply: Hannity is just being Hannity. He’s an influential cog in the conservative media machine, and he got where he is in part because other influential conservatives blessed the noxious product he creates through their active support or salutary neglect. His shameless embrace of Trump, and his attempts to kneecap anyone on the right who puts up any faint resistance, are all part of the same package.

By Simon Maloy

MORE FROM Simon Maloy