How we got Trumpism — A Guide for Progressives

Over the past several years, there have been countless articles written evaluating our society and politics, but none that I’ve read have answered a central question I have: why did we get a Presidency like Donald Trump’s, so radically different from any previous Presidency, at this specific moment in time? Why did he (or someone like him) come now versus decades ago or at some point in the future?

I’m not a historian, political scientist, or sociologist, but I think there’s a straightforward answer.

1. Mainstream media bias — In the modern age, mainstream media has always had a slight liberal bias.

2. Emergence of conservative media — When the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, a conservative media ecosystem with a strong bias emerged, undermining faith in the mainstream media.

3. Entrenchment of conservative propaganda — Over time, this ecosystem became pervasive among Republican voters and organized around a good versus evil narrative.

4. Rush Limbaugh vs. a felon — In the 2016 election, two things happened simultaneously. First, there was a serious candidate for the Republican nomination who was more like a talk radio host than a traditional politician. Second, most Americans believed the Democratic nominee was a criminal.

5. Consolidation of conservative media and politicians — the numerous leading conservative voices critical of Trump have either been sidelined or become Trump supporters, solidifying his hold on the party.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

Mainstream media bias

The twentieth century is a unique period in the history of journalism because news was dominated by professionals. The first school of journalism in the US was founded at the University of Missouri in 1908. Early in the century, many newspapers created “Chinese walls” between editorial leadership and newspaper owners to ensure editorial independence. At the core of this movement was a set of professional standards, such as using multiple sources to verify a source’s accuracy, avoiding emotionally charged language, and presenting multiple perspectives on controversial issues.

However, despite these standards (and in part because of them), journalism maintained a liberal bias. Professional journalism has four innate structural dynamics that make it almost impossible not to have a liberal bias:

1. Reliance on human narratives — Journalists strive to use firsthand accounts when reporting on any phenomenon, and this results in a liberal bias when applied to any type of welfare or public safety net program. It is relatively easy to find a willing interviewee or profile of someone who has benefited from a government program. However, anyone who is exploiting a program or committing outright fraud will understandably avoid journalists. As a result, the faces of actual recipients of government aid in media accounts are overwhelmingly “deserving”.

2. Focus on tangible outcomes — Journalists reasonably focus on clear, tangible outcomes, which creates a bias when reporting on government regulation. It’s easy to get a measure of some carcinogen in a stream, for instance, and show footage of both the stream and the equipment measuring the carcinogen in a news segment. However, the costs of complying with regulations limiting the carcinogen are diffuse, essentially invisible, in the broader economy. Thus, journalism segments on regulation have a structural pro-regulation bias.

3. Avoidance of unverifiable dynamics — Religion is of central importance to many Americans. However, religious claims are definitionally unverifiable. If they were verifiable, they would be scientific claims. Because journalists generally report on verifiable phenomena rather than speculation, they always report less on religion relative to its importance in the lives of their readers and viewers. When they do report on religion, they’re careful to frame the story as “this person believes God did X” rather than “God did X”.

4. Cosmopolitan cultural sensibilities — Like most knowledge industries, media has become concentrated in urban areas, and urban residents have long been less conservative than rural Americans. This has subtly impacted the way the media covers a range of issues from homosexual rights to abortion to many more. One tangible example is immigration language. There’s a long-running debate on what term to use to describe immigrants to the United States without a visa or other documentation allowing them to work here legally. The term most familiar to most Americans is “illegal immigrant”, but over time media outlets have shifted to using terms like “undocumented immigrant” and “undocumented worker”, placing them out of sync with median American news consumers and particularly conservative news consumers.

It’s worth emphasizing the value of journalistic standards. Great journalists work hard to avoid letting biases creep into their work. But these four dynamics are to some degree unavoidable — rigorous journalism will generally, by definition, have a liberal bias.

Emergence of Conservative Media

Despite this bias, for most of the 20th century, most Americans had a high degree of trust in the news media. Media coverage was critical in leading to the impeachment proceedings and eventual resignation of Richard Nixon. In 1976, Gallup asked Americans how much they trusted mass media, and 72% responded either “a great deal” or “a fair amount”.

That perception was in the heyday of the “fairness doctrine”. Starting in 1949, this FCC doctrine required holders of broadcast licenses (both radio and television) devote air time to discussing controversial matters of public interest and do so in a way that was honest, equitable, and balanced, specifically requiring broadcasters to air contrasting views on those issues (though not requiring both sides be given equal time). In 1987, the FCC abolished the fairness doctrine, opening up the airwaves to one-sided news for the first time.

Almost overnight, a conservative media ecosystem untethered to journalistic standards began to emerge as a counterweight to mainstream media, first with talk radio. Rush Limbaugh became a radio personality in 1971, but it wasn’t until after the rescission of the fairness doctrine that his show (then locally in Sacramento) become overtly conservative. His message found an eager audience, and on August 1, 1988, The Rush Limbaugh Show entered national syndication out of New York. By 1991, Limbaugh was the most syndicated radio host in the country, and the next year he published his first book, The Way Things Ought to Be.

The contrast with mainstream media was stark. To Limbaugh, policy issues were not complex with pros and cons on each side. Every policy and cultural question had a clear, unassailable answer. “Government giveaway programs” hurt people more than they help. “If there were capitalism everywhere, you wouldn’t have food shortages.” The way to protect animals is to “make sure some human being owns them.” “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.” Freed from journalistic standards, Limbaugh and his peers did not have to provide contrasting arguments or even real evidence to support their assertions. Limbaugh could simply assert his views as fact. In the crucible of his show, these views seemed compelling, even obvious.

However, they also raised a question. If these policy views are so obviously right, why do so many people have opposing views? In the early years, Limbaugh had two answers. First, liberals may be well intentioned, but they’re too ignorant to realize their ideas are wrong. Even ones with advanced degrees miss the most obvious basic truths. “Liberals sit from this lofty perch of pomposity, but they are the champions of ignorance. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” “Liberals get credit for good intentions, and that’s about it, because everything they do fails.” “The cookie-cutter liberal, the standard operating procedure liberal, is really a giant ignoramus.”

Second, many liberal leaders are actually self-serving, focused on their own good rather than the country’s. “Militant feminists are pro‐choice because it’s their ultimate avenue of power over men.” “Liberals have created, and the minority leadership has exploited, a community of dependent people.” In this reading, liberal leaders seek power, influence, and status, and they pursue policies that advance their personal goals.

Though Limbaugh’s portrayal of liberals as alternately ignorant and self-serving seems almost quaint when compared to today’s conservative media rhetoric, such a stark message being continually broadcast and absorbed by a large audience was a sea change in the early 1990s. And his portrayal of the media was also groundbreaking, even taking aim at the professional standards that bound others but not him.

  • “In the old days, the media is who held people accountable when they lied in politics. That isn’t happening anymore.”

As a reminder, when Gallup asked Americans how much they trusted mass media in 1976, and 72% responded either “a great deal” or “a fair amount”. By the time Gallup asked the question again, in late 1990s, trust had fallen to around 55% overall, and a 15% gap between Democrats and Republicans had emerged.

Entrenchment of Conservative Propaganda

From its origins in the late 1980s, conservative talk radio became a powerhouse. According to talkers.com, an array of conservative talk personalities now command audiences in the millions. All of these audiences are larger than that of Thom Hartmann, the leading progressive talk radio host.

Chart 1: Weekly Conservative Talk Radio Audiences, Millions (fall 2019)

Though conservative talk radio was the first component in the conservative media ecosystem, over time three other powerful branches emerged to reinforce it: Fox News, email forwards, and online fake news and memes.

The most visible part of the conservative news ecosystem, Fox News, launched on October 7, 1996, almost a decade after conservative talk radio hit its stride. Though overtly conservative from the outset, in the early days Fox News was much more mainstream than today’s iteration. Daytime programming adhered to the same journalistic standards as mainstream media outlets. Evenhanded reporters like Brit Hume, Shephard Smith, Catherine Herridge, and Carl Cameron worked to deliver news with a slight conservative bias that in many ways mirrored the slight liberal bias of other networks (all are now gone). And even the prime time opinion line up, which did not have to adhere to the same journalistic standards, was less overtly propaganda. Bill O’Reilly was full of righteous fury but less one-sided than today’s hosts, and Sean Hannity was paired with the (weaker) liberal Alan Colmes to offer a veneer of both-sides-ism.

Even in its more temperate days, Fox News clearly moved public perception. A University of California analysis, by comparing voting patterns in areas with access to the network to those without, concluded that Fox News effectively shifted 200,000 ballots to Bush in the 2000 election. But over time, the network became more overtly partisan and less tethered to facts. As Barack Obama was running for President, Steve Doocy asserted Obama was “raised as a Muslim” on Fox & Friends, echoing language from email forwards circulating widely.

Email forwards have existed almost since the dawn of email, but conservative propaganda emails really began picking up steam in the early 2000s. In 2001, an email began circulating falsely claiming then Senator Hillary Clinton was the only Senator who refused to meet with a pair of gold star mothers (she did meet with them). Despite the women posting an item on their web site noting that the email was false, it continued to circulate for over a decade.

Email forwards surged over the ten years, sometimes evolving in a world devoid of fact checking — an email describing Senator Al Gore dismissing Oliver North’s concerns about Osama Bin Ladin later became an exact copy but substituting John Kerry for Al Gore. Email forwards accelerated further during the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama, often claiming he was a secret Muslim schooled in an extreme madrassa or that his health care plan was designed to deny people care. Though mostly text, some contained blood-boiling imagery like that below.

There are far more email forwards discussing Democrats than Republicans, and those emails are also overwhelmingly negative and overwhelmingly false. The viral nature of email forwards, with no clear source, makes them difficult to police.

That viral nature is central to the final cog in the conservative media machine: online fake news and memes. These are now pervasive on social media, particularly Facebook. Researchers from NYU and Princeton found individuals defining themselves as “very conservative” were roughly ten times as likely to share fake news stories from sites like libertywritersnews.com or abcnews.com.co (as opposed to abcnews.com) as those defining themselves as “very liberal”.

Chart 2: Mean Number of Fake News Stories Shared by Ideological Self Placement

Creators of fake news sites, such as the Arsov brothers in Veles, Macedonia, quickly took notice, publishing articles like “Obama’s Ex-Boyfriend Reveals Shocking Truth That He Wants To Hide From America”. Trajche Arsov first tried to use liberal content, but he quickly pivoted to conservative content. “We found that the names of the groups where we could stay longer, where our profiles were not removed, were related to conservatives, to Republicans, to Trump. If you found 100 groups for conservatives, you could only find 10 for liberals.” A mutually reinforcing ecosystem of demand for fake news from American conservatives and supply of fake news from places like Macedonia emerged, and continues to exist now.

But memes are even more viral than fake news. Memes have been created by ordinary citizens, activists, foreign governments sowing discord, and foreign citizens looking to make a quick buck. Catchy memes spread like wildfire — in 2016, only 5 percent of Breitbart’s posts were images, but those accounted for half of the site’s shares on Facebook. And memes are often incredibly incendiary. Here’s a sampling that showed up in my newsfeed one week while I was writing this article.

Over the past twenty years, not only have conservative media channels proliferated, but the message has also changed. First, there’s a relentless focus on negativity, no matter how trivial the subject matter. The Daily Show ran a revealing segment on Obama “scandals”, including wearing a tan suit and ordering a hamburger without ketchup. Second, no longer are Democrats simply idiots or self interested. In the conservative media narrative, they now hate America. Daniel Flynn authored a book Why the Left Hates America in 2004, but that view remained niche until recently. Last year Fox News personality Tucker Carlson said Democratic Rep. Omar “hates this country”, and conservative radio host Mark Levin has said Democrats are the “Hate America First Party”. Now, after decades of repeated attacks on Democrats, the message that they hate America has found a large, receptive audience. This message also shows up in memes.

Meanwhile, mainstream media continued to portray the two parties as having different policy ideas about how to make the country better. The contrast with conservative media messaging is enormous, and conservative faith in mainstream media has cratered. By 2016, the Democrat/Republican trust gap in media had grown to 37% and expanded further during the Trump presidency.

Chart 3: Trust in Mass Media over Time

The 2016 Election: Rush Limbaugh versus a Felon

Which brings us to the 2016 election, which was dramatically different from prior elections. Trump and Clinton were the least popular candidates in modern history. On election day, 42% of Americans viewed Donald Trump as highly unfavorable, and 39% of Americans viewed Hillary Clinton as highly unfavorable. For comparison, the next highest highly unfavorable rating for any major party nominee since 1956 was Barry Goldwater at 26% in 1964.

Chart 4: % of Survey Respondents with “Highly Unfavorable” Views of Candidates at Elections

Relatedly, in early November only 36% of Americans viewed Donald Trump as honest and trustworthy and only 32% viewed Hillary Clinton as honest and trustworthy. Progressives may be surprised on both counts — that only a third of Americans trusted Clinton and that, despite his frequent obvious whoppers, there were a third of Americans that did trust Trump. I think both have clear explanations.

First, Clinton. It’s helpful to remember that Clinton had 25 years of image-tarnishing scrutiny that played out in both mainstream and conservative media. Whitewater. Troopergate. Paula Jones. Travelgate. Vince Foster’s suicide. Paid speeches. Uranium One. Benghazi. The email server. Though the actual outcome of these investigations ranged from complete exoneration to noncriminal bad judgement, the narrative around her was criminal. In conservative media, any exonerations were the result of a corrupt government that needed to be torn down. Even Americans who consumed mainstream media were left with a “where there’s smoke there must be fire” sense given the media outlets treated all the investigations as serious rather than spurious.

Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy created what used to be the definition of a scandal in Washington — accidentally telling the truth — when responding to Sean Hannity’s attacks that the Republican-controlled House had not accomplished much. “And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” He revealed the point of the hearings wasn’t to identify mistakes so we could better protect our diplomats or even uncover actual evidence of malfeasance. The point was to reduce trust in Clinton. And it worked. In July 2016 polling, a majority (56%) of all Americans believed Hillary Clinton should be charged with a crime related to her email server despite there being no real evidence the FBI could use to bring an indictment.

So why did one third of Americans consider Trump honest and trustworthy despite his constant and obvious lying? There have been lots of psychological theories on this. I don’t think they’re wrong, but I do think they’re missing the point. In a complex world, we all struggle to determine who we can trust, and we develop our own heuristics for deciding who is and isn’t trustworthy. For 30 years, consumers of conservative media were told that politicians of both parties were selling them out. Over time, the speech patterns of politicians — measured, precise, full of detailed policy proposals, avoiding outright belligerence and name calling — became markers of dishonesty rather than honesty for conservative media consumers. In contrast, the speech patterns of conservative media hosts — bombastic, attacking, full of broad policy judgments that make no sense once you get a few inches below the surface — became indicators of trustworthiness.

Two critical dynamics converged in the 2016 Republican primary. First, after decades of programming by conservative media, a large portion of the Republican electorate was primed to trust a politician who sounded like a conservative media personality. Second, for the first time, there was a candidate who did in fact sound like a conservative media personality when he spoke. His policy proposals were outlandish (and obviously nonsensical when considered seriously). Build a wall to stop illegal immigration. Scrap the Iran nuclear deal and get a better deal. Repeal Obamacare and replace it with something much better. He made fun of almost everyone. And he never apologized.

Trump outperformed his competitors in the Republican primary, but not by much. In the first 27 primaries and caucuses, Trump only cracked 40% of the vote six times. But given how broad the field was initially and how delegates were awarded, his delegate lead was virtually insurmountable by early March.

Trump remained deeply problematic for many Republican and independent voters throughout 2016. But faced with a choice between Trump, whom they found distasteful, and Clinton, whom they believed was literally a criminal, millions of them ultimately voted for Trump. It’s worth remembering that Clinton did in fact win the popular vote 66M to 63M. But that’s not how US elections are decided, and Trump became President.

In hindsight, the election of Trump feels like a sort of political inside straight in terms of probability. He ran in an incredibly crowded Republican field, and he was the only candidate who had the sensibilities of conservative media. His opponents split the traditional politician vote while he had an angrier segment to himself. He then ran against a Democratic opponent most Americans believed was criminal. Finally, because of our electoral system, he could get significantly fewer votes and still win the election. While this specific set of unique factors allowed Trump to win in 2016, I would argue the macro dynamics of the past 30 years had already made the election of a candidate like Donald Trump highly likely by 2040.

Conservative media and political consolidation

Though Trump’s overall approval rating has been low since his election, one defining feature of his Presidency has been high approval among conservatives. I believe this is largely due to a consolidated conservative media and political establishment. In 2016, it was perfectly acceptable for prominent conservative leaders to oppose Trump. In some circles, it was even somewhat fashionable to position yourself as a critic before his inevitable election day drubbing. But after Trump won the 2016 election, everything changed. The consolidation of his support was swift, and critics either became cheerleaders or faded away.

The most obvious impact was on major Republican politicians, particularly members of Congress. Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker — both strong critics of Trump — chose not to run for reelection, recognizing they would likely lose in the Republican primaries to candidates more overtly pro-Trump. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who was never overtly critical of Trump but clearly disenchanted with him, announced his retirement in April 2018.

But more entertaining is the transformation is some of Trump’s former opponents in the race for the Presidency. Here are two examples:

Lindsey Graham

  • December 8, 2015: “[Trump] is a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot… I don’t think he has a clue about anything… You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”

Ted Cruz

  • March 24, 2016: “Donald, you’re a sniveling coward.”

These dynamics have not been quite as pronounced in conservative media, but they still exist. Mark Levin, the third highest rated conservative talk radio personality after Limbaugh and Hannity, offered tepid criticism of Trump in 2016. In early April he stated, “I’m not voting for Donald Trump. Period… These bully, dirty tricks, Nixonian tactics, they’re only going to backfire. So, count me as never Trump.” Later that month he added, “But should he win. Many of you are going to be very disappointed. He will resort to the deal making. And deal making without principles is a very dangerous thing.” In 2016, Glenn Beck described Donald Trump as “an immoral man who is absent decency or dignity.” Both men have avoided that type of criticism since the election. Beck’s web site, theblaze.com, still today generally steers clear of overt criticism or praise of Donald Trump today, and its web traffic is now a fraction of that of the Washington Times and Washington Examiner despite having substantially more readers early in Trump’s presidency.

The net result of these departures, transformations, and ratings shifts is massive. Individuals who relied on conservative media and leading Republican politicians to help them make sense of the world in 2016 were hearing very mixed messages on Trump. While many were laudatory, many were highly critical. Today, that’s not the case. Criticism of the President is virtually absent in today’s conservative discourse, leading folks who rely on it reasonably conclude any criticism is made in bad faith by left-wingers. More succinctly, Donald Trump has consolidated his standing with committed conservative voters over the past three years.

Postscript: Looking Forward to the 2020 Election

So what does all this mean for the 2020 election? I’m reluctant to attempt an answer because I was SURE Hillary Clinton was going to win in 2016. Thus, my opinions are pretty suspect. But it feels like an unavoidable question in this context, so here goes.

First, I’ll reiterate one point from above — Donald Trump has much higher support among conservative voters than he did in 2016, so we’d expect him to do significantly better than he did last time. However, Joe Biden is a much stronger opponent than Clinton. He’s had one major “scandal”, his son’s seat on Burisma’s board and his pressure on Ukraine’s President to fire its chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin. In polling last month, 53% of respondents rated Biden as honest and trustworthy compared to 38% for Trump, a sizable gap at 15 points. And Biden’s rating on that front is 21 points higher than Clinton on the eve of the 2016 election.

Those two dynamics obviously offset to some degree, and I don’t know which is greater. But I think there’s a third dynamic that is even more important. Years ago I knew senior leaders at my employer were about to make a mistake, and I tried everything I knew to show them that. But I was unsuccessful. My very wise boss said, “You have to let them fail.” All my arguments weren’t going to change their minds. The leaders were going to make the same decision regardless of what I said, and my consistent opposition to that decision was just alienating me from them.

I think we’re in a similar moment with the Trump presidency. Many of us worried in 2016 that a Trump presidency would make Americans’ lives demonstrably worse. For all the frustrations in Trump’s first three years in office, the lives of most Trump supporters were essentially the same or better. But that is starting to change — Trump is failing the American people, including his supporters, in a way that is very visible. First, the coronavirus continues to spread. Early hot spots were concentrated in dense urban areas and largely African American pockets of rural poverty, where social distancing was difficult. I suspect over the coming months, it will spread more in parts of the country that are taking social distancing less seriously, which will skew toward consumers of conservative media. We’re starting to see rising case counts more concentrated in exurban, largely white parts of Alabama, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Also, I think our economic situation is likely to deteriorate between now and election day. Despite the headline unemployment number of 13.3%, which is dramatically higher than at any time since the Great Depression, many Americans have been insulated from the downturn by the stimulus bill. The Paycheck Protection Program distributed $530 billion to 4.5 million companies. In order for these loans to be forgiven, employers must continue to employ their workers for 8 weeks. Thus, we’re only now beginning to reach the point where employers benefiting from the PPP will have an incentive to lay off employees. Similarly, the airline bailout prohibited airlines from laying off most employees until October 1. Finally, the original stimulus legislation included an extra $600 per week on top of normal unemployment benefits, which means many unemployed people are actually receiving more money from unemployment than their previous salaries. That benefit ends July 31, and it’s unclear if it will be extended.

Collectively, these measures amount to a sort of economic methamphetamine. Our economy, despite feeling weaker than normal, still feels much stronger than it actually is because of all the stimulus. Demand won’t fully recover until Americans feel like it’s safe to continue life as normal, and it’s likely most Americans won’t feel that safe any time this year. Thus, when we reduce the economic stimulus this summer and fall, our economy is likely to get worse rather than better.

I want to be clear. Hundreds of thousands of people dying from COVID is a tragedy. Millions of Americans losing their jobs is a tragedy. While most consumers of conservative media will likely accept the President’s blame shifting, I think a sizable minority will see this as the President’s failure, turning on him and perhaps conservative media with him. I have an old high school acquaintance who voted for Trump. His logic at the time essentially boiled down to, “We’ve had traditional politician Presidents from both parties, and things have gotten steadily worse for the past 25 years. Trump is different, and if things are going to get better, we have to try something different.” I often heard this perspective from other Trump voters interviewed by the media in 2016. Some people who hold views like that, faced with a reality that their situation has gone from steadily worse to dramatically worse will abandon the President.

Thus, I think we’re headed toward a wave election in the fall that could potentially have long-term impacts on our country’s political makeup. Unfortunately, that sea change will be paid for by the suffering of millions of American families.