Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Power Center in the GOP Isn't Just Trump, It's the Conservative Media

Donald Trump is still the Republican Party's spiritual leader in exile. Most other Republican politicians don't dare express criticism of Trump in public, ambitious candidates troop to Mar-a-Lago to seek his endorsement, and his style of resentment politics continues to gain adoption even among former detractors in his party. But Trump's repeated denunciations of the infrastructure legislation being developed in the Senate by a bipartisan "gang of 20" do not yet seem to be having much of an effect on its amount of Republican support; the bill survived its first test vote on Wednesday evening when the motion to begin consideration passed with the votes of 17 Republican senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell.

This reflects something important about the nature of Trump's internal power within the GOP. The main conduits through which Trump exerts control over other Republicans are the conservative media outlets with which he has maintained a close alliance ever since his 2016 nomination. Trump is much more effective at imposing his preferences on the party when the Republican electorate is made aware of those preferences by the informational sources they trust the most.

When Trump was president, and before he was banned from social media, we often heard about how he had uniquely harnessed the power of Twitter. But it wasn't his tweets themselves that were especially powerful (only a small slice of the American public would have seen any of them directly), it was his tweets as amplified by other media platforms with much larger popular audiences. Republican members of Congress enjoyed much more political leeway to reject or ignore President Trump's policy proposals than they did to explicitly disapprove of his personal behavior, because substantive differences with Trump did not usually receive much attention from the media—including the conservative media—while personal differences could turn into headline news.

Trump is no longer allowed to tweet, but he still issues statements that resemble his old social media posts. Now, however, his goal of attracting widespread attention for these messages is even more dependent on the decision of others with louder bullhorns to give them publicity.

Some of the Senate Republicans participating in the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, have already survived confrontation with Trump or his conservative media allies. Others, like Rob Portman and Richard Burr, are not planning to seek another term and may not care much what the Fox News audience thinks about them. But a few Republican members of the "gang of 20," like Todd Young of Indiana or Mike Rounds of South Dakota, might well be made uncomfortable if their names and faces repeatedly led off the top of Tucker Carlson Tonight broadcasts as accused enemies of Trump and the conservative cause.

Fortunately for them, the infrastructure bill simply hasn't been promoted to Republican supporters in the electorate as a critical test of ideological purity. The attention of Carlson and his fellow conservative media personalities is mostly trained elsewhere these days, on the various cultural concerns that have come to dominate the agenda of the popular right. This may cause Trump some frustration. But if the energy of conservative activists and voters has indeed shifted in recent years from opposing increases in government spending to fighting the contemporary culture war, Trump—as well as his friends in the right-of-center media world—surely bears considerable responsibility for encouraging this change in priorities.