Right-wing media already bored with bashing Biden over Afghanistan, return to the culture wars

The right-wing media doesn't share the Beltway press' faith that Afghanistan will hurt Biden with voters

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 18, 2021 1:21PM (EDT)

Brian Kilmeade, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Brian Kilmeade, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The mainstream press — motivated by a combination of infatuation with foreign policy hawks and a desire to prove they're equally "tough" on President Joe Biden as they were on Donald Trump — is absolutely certain they have a live one with the supposedly "humiliating" loss of the war on Afghanistan. Never mind that Biden didn't lose the war because it was lost long before he got to office. He was just the guy willing to take the media fallout by admitting it. Never mind that many of the people pointing fingers at Biden are doing so to avoid the fingers being pointed, correctly, at themselves. Never mind that the people who are outraged over this don't have the guts to they're calling for forever war because victory was never an option. Never mind that no one can counter Biden's basic argument: "One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference." The airwaves are filled with noise and outrage, and the headlines are dominated with 48 point fonts. 

The Beltway press may be dead certain that this Afghanistan retreat is a huge political black eye for Biden — or that they can make it one, anyway — but there's starting to be telltale signs that right-wing media is not quite so sure. After all, if conservative pundits thought Biden had really stepped in it with this messy, depressing (but likely inevitable) end of the Afghan war, they'd surely be pressing their advantage with all their might. But, as it stands, there are indications that right-wing media would rather get back to their regularly scheduled calendar of race-baiting, concern trolling about "cancel culture" and general whining about "wokeness," all of which will be much more salient for their voters heading into the 2022 midterms. 

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As I write this Wednesday morning, the top headline at Breitbart is not about Afghanistan, but the usual "cancel culture" nonsense, this time with Fox News host Tucker Carlson equating people who mock and scorn racists with living in a "Soviet society."

The Federalist, which also has its finger on what right-wing readers really care about, has some articles about Afghanistan on their front page, but the first headline when you open the page is some more nonsense about Hunter Biden and a laptop. Other front page stories include griping about students being required to wear masks to school and an article titled "How To Stop People From Falsely Accusing You Of Racism," which is practically begging for the "my t-shirt has people asking a lot of questions already answered by my shirt" meme. 

There is no doubt that Afghanistan is, at this moment, the big news story and so of course right-wing media wants a piece of it. But how they're injecting themselves in the conversation is another hint that conservative media barons aren't exactly sold on this notion that Americans are ready to turn on Biden because he's the guy who finally pulled the plug on a failed war. Instead, they're largely trying to reframe the Afghanistan story in culture war terms, making it less about the actual war and more about their usual whining and race-baiting. 

As Salon reporter Jon Skolnik detailed, from the moment the Afghan government fell, conservative talking heads were trying to make story an occasion to grouse about "wokeness." Thus, you have Donald Trump Jr. and Tucker Carlson using the loss to take potshots at "woke generals" and "gender studies symposiums," trying to frame this in terms they actually care about: how much they hate it when other people make them feel bad for being bigots. 

Sean Hannity had Trump on his Fox News show to talk about Afghanistan, not because Trump has anything useful or important to say about it, but mostly as a forum for Trump's continued victim-tripping about how unfair it is that people keep treating him like the clown he clearly is. The desperation to find some culture war angle even got to the point where Brian Kilmeade of Fox News was trying to compare the "plight" of unvaccinated people who aren't allowed in New York City bars to people trying to hide from the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

But the main pivot to the culture war that the right-wing media has landed on, due to their depressingly predictable sociopathy, is a big ol' racist freakout over the possibility of Afghan refugees being relocated to the United States. As Salon's Zach Petrizzo detailed, right-wing media has been wall-to-wall hysterics over this matter, with hosts claiming the U.S. is being "invaded" by "millions" of refugees, and falsely implying that terrorists will pretend to be refugees to gain entrance to the U.S. 

These attempts to hijack the Afghanistan story for a culture war narrative are gross, but, politically, make a lot of sense.

The mainstream media may believe that this is a make-or-break moment for the Biden administration, but polling suggests that actual voters have different priorities. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from Monday shows, for instance, that Americans are all over the place in their opinion, with 50% saying that the U.S. should send "combat troops back into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban" but 61% saying America should complete "its withdrawal of troops on schedule." Similarly, 68% agree the war "was going to end badly, no matter when the U.S. left" but 51% think it "would have been worth it for the United States to leave troops in Afghanistan for another year." Which is to say, a significant chunk of Americans appears to believe that the U.S. should simultaneously be both in Afghanistan and not in Afghanistan. (To be fair, this also appears to be the position of the mainstream punditry that claims not to want forever war, but also never to pull out of Afghanistan.) This kind of incoherence shows that people don't really think much about the issue and tend to just agree with whatever sounds good at the moment and that they will likely stop thinking about it much at all once the withdrawal is complete. 

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More to the point for right-wing media, the polling shows no strong partisan opinions on the matter.

Nearly half of Republicans still think withdrawing from Afghanistan is a good idea, which is only a few percentage points below GOP approval for the move in the spring. Republican voters can be counted on to reflexively reject anything Biden supports, which is why ICUs are filling up with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients in red states. If even that knee-jerk "screw Biden" attitude can't be leveraged to gin up faux outrage over the Afghanistan withdrawal, it's unlikely anything else will. It doesn't help, of course, that most conservatives probably remember that it was Trump who first announced the withdrawal and that Biden is just following through on Trump's plans. 

Obviously, only time will tell if the Beltway press is right to be so confident that the American people are just at outraged at Biden pulling the plug on forever war as they are. One thing that is known is that the right-wing media often has a better sense of what kind of stories will effectively tickle the lizard brains of the American people against a Democratic president. Their eagerness to get back to talking about culture war stuff suggests that they don't think the Afghanistan story has legs as a major political hit on Biden.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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