President Donald Trump and Fox News host Sean Hannity are more than just political allies. For all intents and purposes, Hannity has become one of Trump's most trusted advisers. That, at least, is the impression one gets after reading this recent report by New York Magazine.
It describes a White House in which Trump's advisers, left perpetually exhausted and fearful by his early tendency to hate-watch shows on CNN and MSNBC, managed to steer the president toward Fox News so that he would be less temperamental ("Like all other ideas, this had the highest chance of implementation if Trump believed he’d thought of it on his own.") Although this has spared America the once-frequent outbursts against specific personalities on those networks (or at least reduced the number of said outbursts), it has done little to make Trump less reliant on television for his worldview. Instead, it has simply elevated his favorite TV news star, Sean Hannity, to a sanctified realm within Trump's power circles.
More than most politicians, Trump abides by the Groucho Marx law of fraternization. He inherently distrusts anyone who chooses to work for him, seeking outside affirmation as often as possible from as vast and varied a group as he can muster — but Hannity is at the center. “Generally, the feeling is that Sean is the leader of the outside kitchen cabinet,” one White House official said, echoing other staffers (current and removed). I was told by one person that Hannity “fills the political void” left by Steve Bannon, a statement Bannon seemed to agree with: “Sean Hannity understands the basic issues of economic nationalism and ‘America First’ foreign policy at a deeper level than the august staff of Jonathan Chait and the fuckin’ clowns at New York Magazine,” he said. The White House official assessed the influence of White House officials and other administration personnel as exactly equal to that of Fox News.
The report also describes the budding bromance between Trump and Hannity, who, despite their massively different economic backgrounds (Trump was born rich, Hannity as a member of the working class) are similar in that they are New Yorkers, competitive and prone to viewing the world in black-and-white right-wing terms.
On the phone, he and the president alternate between the “witch hunt!” and gabbing like old girlfriends about media gossip and whose show sucks and who’s getting killed in the ratings and who’s winning (Hannity, and therefore Trump) and sports and Kanye West, all of it sprinkled with a staccato fuck … fucking … fucked … fucker. “He’s not a systematic thinker at all. He’s not an ideologue,” one person who knows both men said of Hannity. “He gives tactical advice versus strategic advice.”
The article also explains how Hannity managed to survive the revelation that he was one of three clients being represented by Trump's former attorney and political fixer, Michael Cohen. Although other journalists would have been destroyed by the news that they had a close personal relationship with a major news figure they'd been covering, the report on Hannity barely ruffled his feathers because he doesn't answer to Fox News' leadership.
Today, a year into a very harmonious relationship with the president and despite being something like the face of Fox News, Hannity doesn’t entertain calls from network leadership, according to a source, though they rarely try to call him anyway. He’s only met James Murdoch once, at a baseball game. His relationship with Fox News management is nonexistent, according to the source. (A Fox News representative says Hannity has an excellent relationship with management.) If he wants to defend the president’s lawyer every night without telling anyone the president’s lawyer is also his lawyer, he can do it. And if he wants to broadcast from inside his own house, a few feet away from a golden retriever and a White Russian, he can do that, too.
The article also explained how Hannity, who had once been generically pro-Republican rather than specifically boosting one figure within the party, had become a shill for Trump.
But almost as soon as Trump announced his candidacy, in June 2015, Hannity’s reputation changed: “I think it was just the star angle. He was just wowed by Trump’s star factor more so than anything else. Sean Hannity’s the world’s biggest starfucker. It was just kind of crazy how he went from being someone who everyone tried to have at their launch events to have a full-hour puff piece to someone who people were like, Oh, we can’t really go on. We’re not gonna get a fair shake because he’s so pro-Trump.”
That fandom may also explain Hannity’s otherwise inexplicable “legal” relationship with Cohen — an unlikely counsel for someone of Hannity’s wealth and status. “Why would anybody be nice to Cohen?” asked a person close to the president. “Because he was ‘Trump’s lawyer,’ so Hannity sees that and he assumes, If Trump thinks he’s smart, then he’s smart!” The person who knows Hannity and Trump agreed. “I think the obvious answer is the answer: He’s a total suck-up. It’s almost like getting a lock of Elvis’s hair or something.”
When it first came out that Hannity and Trump were using the same lawyer, my colleague Heather Digby Parton speculated that this could explain Hannity's reluctance to criticize Trump in much the same way that Trump's connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin could explain his unwillingness to speak too harshly about the despot. While there may be truth to this, there is another possible (perhaps even likelier) explanation that is no less sinister:
Trump and Hannity are incredibly close because each man, in his own way, realizes that he is manipulating the same group of people in order to gain power.
Hannity has been doing it for longer, of course, as he has been a constant opponent of immigration, gay rights, civil rights for racial minorities and all forms of economic progressivism since his earliest days at Fox News. Trump hasn't been political for nearly as long as Hannity, but he is the president, which automatically gives him considerable clout. And both men professionally rely on the bitter hatreds of Americans who are moved by race-based, gender-based and sexual orientation-based prejudice when forming their political opinions.
This may not be the same thing as a criminal conspiracy, but in terms of the future of American democracy, it is no less ominous.