Donald Trump’s Megaphone
Fox News news hosts knew that Trump’s lies were lies—and they amplified them anyhow.
I’ve shown a good deal of restraint since news broke that I left Fox News.
I haven’t done any TV about it, and I’ve let a lot of nonsense go by without a response.
A major reason I chose to leave with more than a year left on my contract was that I felt conflicted about speaking freely. Fox understandably doesn’t like to pay people who criticize Fox or its talent, and there is something unseemly about it.
So that was one reason why I left.
Another was that I didn’t want to be complicit in so many lies.
That’s the thing. I know that a huge share of the people you saw on TV praising Trump were being dishonest. I don’t merely suspect it, I know it, because they would say one thing to my face or in my presence and another thing when the cameras and microphones were flipped on. And even when I didn’t hear it directly, I was often one degree of separation from it. (“Guess what so-and-so said during the commercial break?”) Punditry and politics is a very small world—especially on the right—and if you add-up all the congressmen, senators, columnists, producers, editors, etc. you’ll probably end up with fewer people than the student population of a decent-sized liberal arts college.
Yes, yes, some people started to drink the Kool-Aid and actually came to believe their own lies, but that’s a subject for another time. Suffice it to say, however: Just because you’ve come to believe a lie that doesn’t make that lie true.
I never deliberately lied on Fox, but over time I felt like I was becoming complicit in a series of lies of omission. I’ll come back around to explain that in a moment. But let’s start with the news of the day.
The Meadows texts.
Too much and too little has been made of the Meadows texts released this week. On the one hand, we already knew that lots of Trump boosters were horrified by what they saw on January 6. Heck, I suspect that the vast majority of pro-Trump Republicans were horrified. Even Lindsey Graham, who spent much of Trump’s presidency as the Renfield to his Dracula, famously said he was done with Trump from the well of the Senate that very day. We know that Kevin McCarthy, a political homunculus who makes Lindsey Graham seem Churchillian by comparison, was outraged and expressed his outrage directly to the president during the riot—because he knew the president was responsible.
So it’s no surprise that Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Brian Kilmeade were aghast at the spectacle. (It is a bit surprising however, that Donald Trump Jr. was appalled.) The only person who we know for sure wasn’t appalled by what Trump had wrought was Trump himself.
The significance of those texts isn’t that they recognized the truth of that day. What’s relevant is the contrast of that private behavior with their public behavior over the 11 months that followed.
Last night, Laura Ingraham made a huge deal of the fact that she condemned the violence on her show on the evening of January 6. And she did. Although she sprinkled it with all sorts of fan service nonsense about Antifa provoking the violence and insinuations that the mob was right to be angry about the allegedly rigged election. But she did say, “Political passions boiled over today, and it will only serve to make the lives of MAGA supporters more difficult and even imperil this movement they fought so hard for.”
What she didn’t say is that the mob’s passions boiled over because of Donald Trump’s lies—and the megaphone she and her colleagues gave to those lies. From her texts it’s reasonable to assume that she believed—rightly—that this mob was Trump’s to command because the mob believed it was doing Trump’s bidding.
But that truth is what she left out that night—and, as far as I can tell, every night since. In other words, the central truth of the texts isn’t that what the mob was doing was condemnable, but that Trump was responsible for the condemnable behavior. By the time the cameras went on, Laura was still willing to condemn the president’s mob, but not the president. And if you read the transcript, much of the show was dedicated to rationalizing the mob’s behavior, with various GOP congressmen changing the subject to the supposed real outrage of the stolen election. “Laura, this is bigger than the president of the United States,” Rep. Lee Zeldin explained. “This is bigger than 2020. What we saw in this administration of the 2020 presidential election, rogue state actors, state elections officials, secretaries of state, courts, they usurp state legislative authority. They decided to administer elections however they see fit. And we need to have that conversation today.”
Yes, that was the pressing conversation we needed the day a mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” and bludgeoned cops with flag poles.
Laura spent the next 11 months cleaning up the president’s mess.
“No reasonable person thinks that what happened on January 6 was, as Biden said, the worst attack on the Capitol since the Civil War,” she said last July. “Come on, guys. Buffalo head guy was poised to take over the U.S. Government? Are you kidding me? We’ve had many protests, many riots in American history. We had many last year that were far worse than this.” When Capitol police testified before Congress, she dismissed it all by giving out “Best Performance” awards like they were all actors. And she said the police had “no one to blame but themselves” for letting the mob inside the perimeter.
That’s not what she was texting Mark Meadows.
For months, many hosts and guests on Fox prime time focused on exonerating Trump, condemning liberal hypocrisy, and disseminating rumors that Antifa was really responsible.
About that: I’ve never understood the moral logic that says the riot was bad if Antifa or the deep state provoked it, but no big deal if it was just a spontaneous uprising. If Antifa or the deep state were the real culprits, that would be very bad. But they weren’t. And how was the riot just a tourist visit gone awry if they weren’t pulling the strings? Either it’s bad to bring bear spray, zip ties, and paramilitary gear to storm the Capitol, smear feces around its halls, chant “Hang Mike Pence,” and look to take hostages—or it’s not.
Similarly, if you are very angry about the BLM riots—and I am—how does that make January 6 okay (as Hannity intimated just last night)? Violent mobs are bad, period. A “law and order” conservatism that says, “As long as liberals fail to condemn thuggish violence for their side, we feel no obligation to condemn thuggish violence on our side,” cares neither about law and order nor conservatism.
Moreover, we now know that the January 6 mob was orchestrated as part of a larger effort to steal the election on behalf of Donald Trump. As Kevin Williamson brilliantly puts it, “A riot that is part of a coup d’état is not very much like a riot that is part of a coup de Target.”
I have no idea if Hannity and Ingraham knew what Trump was trying to do with John Eastman and all that. But given how chummy they are with the administration, I see no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. And we do know that prior to January 6, they and their colleagues stoked the very passions that “boiled over.”
Okay, about me.
During the Trump years a lot of people found safe harbor in changing the subject or playing tu quoque games. It only makes sense. If you can’t defend something indefensible, bring up something the other side did that’s not defensible either and talk about that. To any inconvenient charge or fact about Trump, his defenders would respond, “What about …?” the Democrats, Antifa, Hillary, the New York Times, Barack Obama, Hunter Biden, the designated hitter rule, whatever.
There are three chief advantages to such rhetorical tactics. First, we live in an idiotic age where people believe that the alleged hypocrisy of a critic nullifies the merit of criticism. A parent who smokes is a hypocrite for telling his kid not to smoke—but that doesn’t mean the kid should therefore smoke.
Second, it’s what the audience wants to hear. And no “principle” explains cable news opinion shows more than “the customer is always right.” The Fox audience craved permission to be saved from its own cognitive dissonance and whataboutism as an exit ramp from having to confront the actual facts.
Finally, it lets you avoid explicitly lying. You just don’t answer the question that matters by pointing out the flaws of the other team.
The problem, at least for me, is that if you follow this approach too long you’ll eventually become complicit in a larger deceit. And that’s where the lie by omission comes in.
For example, let’s say someone asks you, “What do you make of the credible evidence that Donald Trump is a sexual predator?” And you answer, “What about Bill Clinton!?” (Forget that this is not actually a defense of Donald Trump in the same way the smoking parent’s hypocrisy isn’t an affirmative case for smoking.)
Asking “What about Bill Clinton?” can be—and often was—an indictment of the questioner’s double standard. After all, plenty of people in the mainstream media smugly dismissed attacks on Bill Clinton’s predatory priapism as nothing more than prudish partisan nonsense. It’s a fine point to make—and I’ve made it many times. Here’s the difference, though: I believe both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump should be held to account for their behavior. But if all you’re ever allowed to say is the stuff about Bill Clinton without referencing Donald Trump, you’re left sounding like all you care about is the other side’s hypocrisy.
The whole point of these whataboutist games is to exempt yourself from consistency. If your only goal in pointing out this double standard is to let Trump off the hook for arguably worse behavior, you’re adopting the same double standard you claim to be condemning.
This kind of thing has been the overriding ethos of Fox opinion hosts and pundits for five years (with a few honorable exceptions). It wasn’t always explicitly whataboutist. Sometimes the whataboutism was simply implied. Don’t talk about Trump’s lies, mistakes, or misdeeds, just focus on the hypocrisy or hysteria of liberals who point out Trump’s lies, mistakes, or misdeeds. Sometimes the technique becomes so ingrained there’s no double standard at all, simply a ridiculous non-sequitur. “Democrats are arguing that Trump welcomed and incited a violent incursion into the Capitol,” Laura Ingraham once fumed, “when it is they who are enticing illegals to bust through our borders, exploit our resources, and commit crimes.” Uh, what?
For most of the Trump years, when I was invited on Fox it was to talk about anything but Trump. And as a conservative, I was perfectly willing to criticize Democrats and progressives. But opportunities to criticize Trump were studiously avoided. (Though sometimes I managed.)
With one exception, I was never told by anyone what I should or shouldn’t say. But—outside of Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday—I was really only welcome to train my fire leftward. Eventually, I felt like a cog in the whataboutist machinery. And as a conservative who passionately believes the conspiracy-mongering, demagogic, populist, personality cult nonsense that defines so much of prime time Trumpism is not conservatism rightly understood, or even conservative in any meaningful sense, I felt I couldn’t associate myself with it. Perhaps I waited too long, but because I consider myself a writer, not a TV personality, I consoled myself by telling the fuller truth in print.
Regardless, while I will miss many decent people who try to do what they can where they can at Fox, I am utterly content with my choice. Let me repeat my favorite line from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”