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Donald Trump never learned the first rule of Republican politics: Don’t believe right-wing media
Republican elites aren’t supposed to believe their own propagandists, Trump did and it's why he's in trouble
“Never believe your own propaganda” has long been a catchphrase in foreign policy circles, a warning that materials distributed to the masses are not designed to correspond with reality.
This has long been the attitude of national Republican elites toward right-wing media outlets, whom they saw as useful partners, good for attacking opponents and motivating reactionary citizens to get out and vote. Deep down however, figures like Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes believed that Republican leaders rightfully deserved the upper-hand and that the information presented to GOP voters was not a full picture of reality. Top Republicans got their news from the same places their Democratic counterparts did, via television networks and big newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post.
Besides serving as loyal attack dogs for Republican elites, however, right-wing media performed another useful function which has not often been noticed: they helped party elites understand what the base wanted. Each day’s edition of the talk shows of Rush Limbaugh and his legions of imitators served as in-depth focus groups, providing critical insight into what reactionary Republicans wanted.
As a life-long publicity hound, Donald Trump understood this dynamic far better than any of his Republican predecessors. It’s why, before he ran for president in 2015, he hired a lawyer named Sam Nunberg to listen to “thousands of hours” of talk radio for a year and create summaries of what the hosts and callers talked about.
Knowing what the Republican base wanted was also apparently Trump’s motivation for becoming the most prominent supporter of the “birther” conspiracy theory that former president Barack Obama was not actually born in the United States.
“He doesn’t really believe it,” Trump’s advisor-in-law Jared Kushner said according to former colleague Elizabeth Spiers. “He just knows Republicans are stupid and they’ll buy it.”
Sure enough, in the closing days of his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump abruptly abandoned the birther claims. “I don’t talk about it because if I talk about that, your whole thing will be about that,” Trump told reporters at the time. “So I don’t talk about it.”
But Trump’s fondness for birtherism was not entirely instrumental. As has been well-documented over the years, he has always had an innate appetite for conspiracy theories and fringe characters like Roger Stone, the veteran Republican operative and long-time business partner of professional lunatic Alex Jones. Nonetheless, his celebrity, wealth, and connections from hosting NBC’s “The Apprentice” provided Trump with at least some anchor in reality.
The former wrestling sideshow’s connection to reality was also further bolstered by the fact that he was openly at war with most right-wing media outlets, especially Fox, throughout 2015 and most of 2016 as he sought to reorient Republican policy away from international trade and slashing government spending toward an isolationism built upon White Christian identity politics.
Once Trump won the presidency, however, the entire right-wing media phalanx closed behind him in support. But instead of resuming the previous Republican presidential behavior of using reactionary media partisans as helpful assistants, Trump began relying on them for information about policy and news. Instead of trusting the opinions of the generals and agency heads he had appointed, he turned to far-right commentators for advice.
Trump’s decision likely owes in part to the fact that he is addicted to television. During his presidency, Trump would often tweet along as his favorite Fox hosts ranted and raved for their audience. They soon noticed and would often personally address him in their scripts: “If you’re watching, Mr. President,” the refrain often went. Over time, he seemed to be in a mind-meld with Fox’s anchors.
Likely another reason why Trump gravitated naturally toward reactionary media as a trusted source of information was that they favored the same hard-hitting and angry approach to public relations that he always has. Trump will never share Mark Levin’s mania for budget cuts or Eric Metaxas’s Christian fanaticism, but he loves their approaches to attacking Democrats 24/7.
Trump’s reorientation of establishment Republicanism toward far-right media served him immensely well for mobilizing aggrieved fundamentalist Christians (he got more votes in 2020 than any Republican ever has), but his preferred advisors’ extremism keeps failing Trump politically in general elections. While Fox and talk radio hosts know intimately what animates Republican-leaning voters, they have little ability to appeal beyond their perpetually shrinking pool of elderly superfans. Despite Trump receiving unanimous support from all the biggest right-wing media figures in 2020, now-president Joe Biden swept to a popular vote majority and 306 votes in the Electoral College. The same thing happened in congressional races in 2018 and 2022 where Trump’s preferred candidates breezed through the primaries only to go down in flames against Democrats.
During his single term, the one area of his public life that Trump did not heed the siren songs of his belligerent right-wing media advisers was in legal matters, where he was propped up heavily by highly competent White House Counsel’s Office attorneys and white-shoe lawyers like Ty Cobb who were interested in the hefty paychecks on the offing for defending Trump from Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Since being ejected from the presidency, however, Trump has lost his top-flight legal advisers, in part because he often tries to stiff his attorneys, but also because his most prominent legal advisers like Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis have faced disciplinary proceedings for filing frivolous and false lawsuits.
With greatly reduced access to high-quality attorneys, Trump has been leaning heavily on right-wing media figures for legal advice, none more so than Tom Fitton, an activist and media commentator who heads Judicial Watch, a far-right group that specializes in filing lawsuits against Democrats. Yet despite his involvement with many legal cases over decades, Fitton is not actually an attorney.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from taking advice from the flamboyant Republican activist, who is as infamous in Washington for his constant muscle flexing as he is for frivolous legal cases. As the Washington Post reported Wednesday, the ex-president has relied extensively on advice from Fitton as he has continuously refused to cooperate with legal demands from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Department of Justice to return thousands of documents prepared by various federal departments during his former administration.
“Trump time and again rejected the advice from lawyers and advisers who urged him to cooperate and instead took the advice of Tom Fitton, the head of the conservative group Judicial Watch, and a range of others who told him he could legally keep the documents and should fight the Justice Department,” the Post’s Josh Dawsey and Jacqueline Alemany write.
The main source of disagreement between Fitton and the actual lawyers Trump has managed to retain on the document controversy has been the Judicial Watch head’s insistence that under the Presidential Records Act, chief executives are allowed to designate any document owned by the federal government to be a personal document and therefore exempt from being owned by NARA. As legal affairs commentator Liz Dye writes at Above the Law, Fitton’s contentions are entirely without merit and are even contradicted in the ruling of the case that he has been obsessively citing as authoritative.
Even though presidents do have nearly unilateral authority to declassify or reclassify documents, they still must follow formal declassification procedures. But don’t take my word for it. Trump’s own administration took this position in a case decided in 2020 in which it argued that even though Trump had publicly spoken about alleged CIA projects, that did not make documents pertaining to them subject to Freedom of Information Act disclosure requirements. The Second Circuit Court agreed. “Declassification cannot occur unless designated officials follow specified procedures,” Judge John M. Walker ruled, citing an executive order that Trump had declined to repeal when he took office.
None of these contradictory facts seems to have been persuasive to Fitton, whose Judicial Watch organization lost the lawsuit that he now falsely insists gave Trump untrammeled authority to purloin documents at will.
“Where is the conspiracy? I don’t understand any of it,” a defiant Fitton emailed the Post’s Dawsey and Jacqueline Alemany when asked about the advice he’s given. “I think this is a trap.”
Fitton’s response comes as no surprise. It’s why conventional Republican elites like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pay him no respect whatsoever. Never believe your own propaganda.