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White paranoia, white rage, and Fox News

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Kevin Drum has a long and very interesting essay on why political division in the USA has gotten so much more intense over the past 25 years or so. The polling data on this are strikingly symmetrical: according to Pew the increase in the percentage of Republicans who have a “very unfavorable” view of Democrats is a mirror image of the increase in the percentage of Democrats who have a very unfavorable view of Republicans (the numbers have gone from 16/17 percent in the late 1990s to 52 percent today).

Drum considers and rejects three hypotheses as to why: he argues that the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking in American society has not measurably increased over the past 60 years; that social media have had little if any effect on the prevalence of political polarization or the accuracy of political beliefs; and that material conditions have not in fact gotten worse for working class and middle class Americans over the past few decades.

According to Drum, what has gotten far worse is public trust in government, and he identifies a basically monocausal source for this: Right wing media in general, and Fox News in particular. Indeed Drum makes the striking claim that Fox News, in and of itself, is pretty much the source of the current crisis of American liberal democracy. Here’s his summary of that argument:

To an extent that many people still don’t recognize, Fox News is a grinding, daily cesspool of white grievance, mistrust of deep-state government, and a belief that liberals are literally trying to destroy the country out of sheer malice. Facebook and other social media outlets might have made this worse over the past few years—partly by acting as a sort of early warning system for new outrages bubbling up from the grassroots that Fox anchors can draw from—but Fox News remains the wellspring.

What makes this even worse is that many Republican politicians no longer respond to ordinary political incentives. As former Republican House Speaker John Boehner put it, it’s now all about appealing to Fox News and fending off primary challenges from right-wing fanatics. Referring to the first-term House class of 2010, he wrote in his recent memoir that “they didn’t really want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.” Modern Republicans, raised on a diet of Fox News, “were just thinking of how to fundraise off of outrage or how they could get on Hannity that night.”

And this is likely to get worse. After Brian Stelter, cnn’s chief media correspondent, recently updated his book Hoax, a history of the relationship between Trump and Fox News, he gave an interview to the New Republic that spoke to this point:

The Fox of 2021 is different even than the Fox of 2019…I had a commentator say to me, “Fox is a really different place than it was preelection.” This person has seen changes even in the last six months, in terms of how radical, how extreme the content is. I had a Fox staffer, as I was writing the last page of the paperback, say, “The Biden team has no idea what they’re up against.” Maybe in three years, we’ll say that Fox was immaterial to the Biden presidency. Maybe we’ll say that Fox barely made a dent. But it won’t be for lack of trying.

The Fox pipeline is pretty simple. Fox News stokes a constant sense of outrage among its base of viewers, largely by highlighting narratives of white resentment and threats to Christianity. This in turn forces Republican politicians to follow suit. It’s a positive feedback loop that has no obvious braking system, and it’s already radicalized the conservative base so much that most Republicans literally believe that elections are being stolen and democracy is all but dead if they don’t take extreme action.

I understand that this is not an exciting conclusion. Liberals have been fighting Fox News for years with little to show for it. It’s more interesting to go after something new, like social media or lunatic conspiracy theories. But the evidence is pretty clear: Those things act as fuel on the fire—and they deserve our opposition—but it’s Fox News that’s set the country ablaze.

For the past 20 years the fight between liberals and conservatives has been razor close, with neither side making more than minor and temporary progress in what’s been essentially trench warfare. We can only break free of this by staying clear-eyed about what really sustains this war. It is Fox News that has torched the American political system over the past two decades, and it is Fox News that we have to continue to fight.

It’s a striking argument, that I don’t want to oversimplify: Drum acknowledges that the rise of both Fox News and Donald Trump has deep roots in modern American culture and politics:

As we all know, Donald Trump isn’t the cause of the Republican Party’s descent into madness. He’s merely the result of decades of evolution that started when Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, Rush Limbaugh picked up a microphone, and Newt Gingrich reinvented modern conservatism. But these were just warm-up acts. It wasn’t until Fox News was up and running that we started to see permanent changes in the electorate.

Trump took explicit advantage of that by offering the simplest possible fix. The federal government, he said, was full of idiots. It was that simple. He’d appoint smart people who would make commonsense policy and repair everything in a jiffy.

At the same time, he defended Christianity with the power and intensity of a tent revival preacher. Never mind that Trump showed about as much interest in attending church as he did in reading a book. Finally, here was a man who promised that he could revive religion in the public square. White evangelicals almost literally swooned.

And there’s one more thing: As we saw earlier, the past couple of decades have seen a steady increase in the belief among white people—particularly Republicans—that anti-white bias is a serious problem. Fox News has stoked this fear almost since the beginning, culminating this year in Tucker’s full-throated embrace of the white supremacist “replacement theory” and the seemingly 24/7 campaign against critical race theory and its alleged impact on white schoolkids. This is certainly not all that Fox News does, but it’s a big part of its pitch, and it fits hand in glove with Trump’s appeal to white racism.

Drum’s point is that the centerpiece of everything Fox does is to stoke white rage and resentment, and in particular that of the white evangelicals that make up the core of both Trump’s base and the Fox News audience, by constantly claiming that “America” is being overwhelmed by both metaphorically and literally alien forces — think Frankfurt School plus Caravans basically.

There’s a lot to this; and Drum argues that it has gotten a lot worse very recently, as Fox has made a hard turn toward pure conspiracist white rage mongering in just the last year or two, in response to market threats from outlets like Newsmax and OAN. All this culminated in the network’s current framing of the 1/6 insurrection as something between an overblown minor event and a positively praiseworthy protest by First Amendment patriots in the finest American tradition.

I do have some quibbles with Drum’s specific argument, that I’ll save for another post, but I believe his basic thesis here is largely correct — at least if we treat Fox News as a synecdoche for the American right wing media ecosystem, of which it is without doubt the most important single part.

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