An underrated component of Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 Republican primary was that he acted as a megaphone for the fringier elements of conservative media. Sites like Stephen K. Bannon’s Breitbart were elevating various far-right theories and stories, scooping up an audience that Fox News, then more constrained, was leaving on the table. Trump was a Breitbart reader and looped the site’s claims into his speeches and interviews. The right-wing fringe of the party — who also read Breitbart — responded by blanketing him with support.
Why? In part because they were frustrated that sitting elected officials and more mainstream outlets like Fox weren’t saying the things Breitbart was. There was an obvious reason for that: Much of what Breitbart offered was false or overheated or otherwise dishonest. And in the Republican establishment of 2015, when Trump announced, there was still a lingering belief that elected officials shouldn’t simply peddle conspiracy theories or misrepresent reality. That belief had eroded in the post-tea-party era, certainly, but it lingered.
Until Trump showed that abandoning it entirely offered a different set of rewards. In the same way that Breitbart and even fringier sites like Infowars gobbled up attention by appealing to people’s anti-institutional and conspiratorial sensibilities, candidates for office began doing the same. The nonsense trickled up and is now pervasive.
It’s not framed this way, of course. Consider Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program Monday.
Carlson asked Lake why Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) had cut an ad opposing Lake’s candidacy. This is a question with a known answer: Lake’s candidacy has been powered by elevating false claims about the 2020 presidential election, and since the U.S. Capitol riot Cheney has made combating such misinformation the center of her political activity. But Carlson is often dishonest and is sympathetic to Lake’s rejection of the election results, so he pretended it was a mystery.
Cheney was going after her, Lake said, for “the same reason I’m being attacked by the media: I’m speaking the truth.”
“I mean, you talked about it in your monologue tonight,” she continued. “We can’t talk about all these issues because the media has told us they’re prohibited. You can’t talk about vaccines. You can’t talk about elections. You can’t talk about Paul Pelosi and now you can’t talk about Nancy Pelosi. And you can’t talk about the elections, and you can’t talk about covid, and I’m talking about all those things because I still believe we have a little bit of the First Amendment left —”
“That’s true,” Carlson nodded.
“— but I’m dangerous to people like Liz Cheney and the folks that she hangs out with,” Lake said, “and they want to stop people like me.”
When Lake says “you can’t talk about vaccines,” of course she means that elevating false claims about the dangers of coronavirus vaccination and downplaying the obvious benefits (like staying alive) yields pushback or condemnation. When she says “you can’t talk about elections,” she means that she can’t make unfounded claims about the election results being tainted without scores of actual experts and objective observers pointing out that she’s wrong. When she says “you can’t talk about Paul Pelosi” — the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who was bludgeoned with a hammer in their home last week — she means that elevating grotesque, unfounded conspiracy theories to turn the attack into a political ding for the left results in similar condemnation.
What she’s doing is conflating criticism of speech, a central part of democracy, with restriction on speech. That’s in part because she experiences more firsthand criticism than other candidates thanks to doing something a lot of candidates (like Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano) don’t do: engaging with the mainstream, objective media. She has contentious exchanges because she at least subjects herself to some scrutiny (in part because she’s an old hand at television news). But her framing — These things are banned! There’s no First Amendment! — is obviously false. I mean, Carlson elevates this nonsense every night and thrives.
Again, though, consider why Lake and Carlson think it’s important or useful to elevate these claims. In the days of yore — a decade ago, though it seems longer — each would have faced opprobrium for, say, riffing on unfounded claims about a hammer attack on the 82-year-old spouse of the House speaker. But neither they nor their supporters think any such boundaries do or should still exist. No one in the Republican establishment is spending a lot of time speaking out against Carlson’s repeated dishonesties because 1) it’s not worth incurring his wrath and 2) it’s not worth incurring the wrath of the audience.
Thanks in part to the fragmentation of communications systems, there’s been an arms race — particularly but not exclusively on the right — toward outrageous assertions and conspiracy theories. Outlets like Fox News or CNN or The Washington Post still have reach that random Twitter accounts or fake-news blogs don’t, but each of us nonetheless is in competition against anyone who says anything anywhere that it can be read.
The theory a decade ago (or a bit further back, really) was that this would be democratizing. Instead, it’s proved to generally yield a massive toxic cesspool that consistently disadvantages those who are cautious about drawing conclusions. It’s driven people who once may have operated from a sense of responsibility about what they were saying to their large audiences to compete for attention without vetting what they’re saying — or without even worrying about vetting it.
This is how you get Elon Musk, enormously wealthy and the new owner of a massive social media platform, sharing obviously unreliable claims on Twitter without a second thought. Allies rushed to defend his First Amendment rights, as though he bears no more responsibility for sharing accurate information than user @conspiracy2930204, who has two followers. The assumption that he should have more responsibility — that a host of a cable news show or a gubernatorial candidate should — seems hopelessly archaic.
My writing this will be dismissed as ignorant of my own biases or as ignoring that, in their view, The Post similarly elevates false claims. But this simply isn’t true. The Post and other mainstream outlets hold ourselves to account for mistakes and strive to present information fairly and responsibly. The effect of this is often simply to expose ourselves to more criticism. The media is judged on the rare occasions when it gets something partially wrong. The conspiracy theorists insist on being judged on the rare occasions when they get something partially right.
You may be curious what Lake was referring to when she praised Carlson’s monologue. It was, in part, this riff:
“When you question, say, covid protocols or drag queen story hour or the war against Russia, you are effectively smashing an 82-year-old man in the head with a hammer,” Carlson said after he’d raced a bit further down that path. “They’re” — the left, the elites, etc. — “making that argument.”
No shame, no qualms, no expectation of anything better.