The Cable TV Presidency

The Trump presidency is the latest step in treating commentators like policy experts. It is all a manifestation of how the modern GOP is a populist party.

For some time now I have had the view that part of the problem with the Republican Party has been the merger of its infotainment wing and its governing wing. There was a time when it seemed that, for example, the GOP congressional delegation would try to govern without pretending like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity were policy experts.  However, it has increasingly been the case that talk radio and Fox News personalities have been treated like they actually know what they are talking about by members of the government who have to make real policy decisions.  Now we have moved from politicians taking these individuals seriously, to a president who is now ready to give them major roles in government.

Via WaPo‘s PowerPost:  The Daily 202: Trump may hire multiple cable news personalities as part of shake-up

Trump has decided to remove H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser and is actively discussing Fox News contributor John Bolton as a potential successor.

A leading contender to replace Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is Pete Hegseth, the co-host of “Fox and Friends Weekend.”

The president named CNBC analyst and former host Larry Kudlow to replace former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn as his chief economic adviser on Wednesday.

Heather Nauert, a former co-host of “Fox and Friends,” got promoted on Monday from being a spokeswoman for the State Department to acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

And these are not the only examples:

Foreign policy pros were aghast when Trump named K.T. McFarland as his deputy national security adviser during the transition. She had appeared frequently on Fox as an analyst and anchored her own program called “DEFCON3.” But the last time she’d worked in government was more than three decades earlier, as a junior Pentagon spokeswoman and speechwriter.

McFarland got marginalized after Michael Flynn went down. Then Trump nominated her to be ambassador to Singapore, but her nomination needed to be withdrawn when damning emails implicated her in the Russia scandal and imperiled her Senate confirmation.

Trump initially named another Fox talking head, Monica Crowley, as the senior director of strategic communications for the NSC. He stood by her for more than a week as news stories revealed egregious examples of plagiarism over several years, from a 2012 book to her PhD dissertation and op-eds. Just before the inauguration, under pressure, the president-elect dumped her.

Former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie, 34, was forced to resign two months ago as the chief of external affairs for the Corporation for National and Community Service after CNN uncovered bigoted statements he had made about African Americans, immigrants and gays as the host of an Internet radio show. He got the patronage because he had been a go-to Trump defender on Fox, CNN and MSNBC during the 2016 campaign.

When a country elects man who gets his political knowledge from “the shows” this is what it gets.

The thing is: anyone who knows anything about actually governing would understand that just because someone is on TV does not mean that they really are capable of being in government (or that they even know what they are talking about).  And yes, I know that Bolton served, briefly, in the G.W. Bush administration and Kudlow served in the Reagan administration, but let’s face facts: a key (if not the main) reason that Trump is interested in these guys is because they say things that he likes to hear on television.

Even true experts are going to have to reduce their answers to more digestible bits when on television.  It is nature of the medium (and I have experienced this first hand–TV, or even radio has limited ability to deal with the complexities of real politics and policy).

The convergence of infotainment and governing is actually a manifestation of the increasing, deepening populism that is engulfing the Republican Party. Trump is, in many ways, the culmination of this process that started with conservative talk radio in the late 1980s, grew with Fox News in the 1990s, and had a clear electoral manifestation with the Tea Party in 2010.

Populists promise to be the leader who can both represent a specific, ignored portion of the population and be the personal solution to the problems that population faces.  Moreover, those solutions are simple and the only thing stopping the populist from implementing those solutions are some nefarious actors who are blocking common sense solutions (usually, “the elites” or, perhaps, “the swamp” or “Deep State”).

Here is Trump, at the Republican National Convention, giving a series of textbook-perfect populist statements:

Really, if we just didn’t have such awful trade deals, the forgotten people would all be flush with cash.  It is all so very simple.  So simple, in fact, that facts don’t matter and you can make up whatever reality one likes when talking to a major ally.

Cable TV and talk radio are perfect incubators for this type of politics.  Everyone can be an expert in 5 minutes blocs without having to do more than assert obvious, simple answers to problems that clearly are easy to solve if only the entrenched elites would get out of the way.  North Korea?  Easy.  Iran?  Easy.  Global trade?  Easy.  It is all just so very, very easy and the only reason all these easy fixes haven’t been implemented is because the Deep State or some other bogeyman is getting in the way.

None of this is to say that populistic tendencies can’t be seen on the Democratic side of the ledger, as Bernie Sanders clearly illustrates.  But, for the Democrats there is a populist current that has not taken over the party, while on the Republican side populism is becoming dominant. Indeed, HRC ran as a technocrat–basically the opposite of a populist. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have fostered this evolution for decades.  Bill O’Reilly used to refer to his audience as “the folks” and both he and Limbaugh would typically bloviate in such a way as to treat the audience as if they were all in the know, and the problem was that those boneheads in Washington who simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t see the obvious truth.

It should be noted that populism tends to end poorly.  First, it cannot deliver over the long-haul (and often can’t the short term, either).  Second, it tends to leave damage in its wake because it further weakens social trust in government.  On that latter point consider:  the supporters of populism see the failure of the promises as more proof that the system is stacked against them, thus further eroding support and confidence of the institutions of governance.  This makes real change very difficult.  Keep in mind that it can be true that our system needs reform and that our institutions have problems while at the same time stating that Donald Trump and his allies have no clue how to fix them (or, really, are even interested in fixing them).

We, as a country, have been lucky to date insofar as the economy has been strong and global politics has been relatively stable.  However, history tells us that such stability runs out (especially when we consider that the trends in question have all be in a positive places for years).  We already have only a semi-staffed federal government and the president is seeking to further drain the place of expertise, turning to TV hucksters.  What could possibly go wrong?

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve commented before that we’re moving from the generation of Republicans who lied on FOX to the generation who believed them.

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  2. MBunge says:

    How does someone write something like this in 2018 without at least a passing reference to the TOTALLY AWFUL JOB done for the last several decades by “anyone who knows anything about actually governing.” And no, writing “it can be true” doesn’t qualify.

    North Korea? Iraq? Syria? Iran? Economic inequality? Stagnant wage growth? Countries restricting U.S. trade while we do nothing? A pathetically broken immigration system? Who exactly has been running the United States while those and a bunch of other problems have festered, sometimes for an entire generation?

    Just about everyone who knows anything about the rise of populism agrees that it is the result of failure by non-populist political elites. We end up with Donald Trump because people like Steven L. Taylor not only suck at their civic duty but are utterly oblivious to how much they suck.

    When you cause a problem or refuse to fix a problem, what do you think is eventually going to happen?

    Mike

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  3. charon says:

    @gVOR08:

    They have been developing a culture of either lying or believing that which they wish were true. It’s been developing for a long time, Trump is just the logical culmination of the trend.

    Every episode of Rush Limbaugh instructs the faithful to disregard CNN and NYT etc.

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  4. charon says:

    Populists promise to be the leader who can both represent a specific, ignored portion of the population and be the personal solution to the problems that population faces. Moreover, those solutions are simple and the only thing stopping the populist from implementing those solutions are some nefarious actors who are blocking common sense solutions (usually, “the elites” or, perhaps, “the swamp” or “Deep State”).

    That is a pretty esoteric definition of populism.

    Here is one of my first Google hits:

    https://www.britannica.com/topic/populism

    The term populism can designate either democratic or authoritarian movements. Populism is typically critical of political representation and anything that mediates the relation between the people and their leader or government. In its most democratic form, populism seeks to defend the interest and maximize the power of ordinary citizens, through reform rather than revolution. In the United States the term was applied to the program of the Populist Movement, which gave rise to the Populist, or People’s, Party in 1892. Many of the party’s demands were later adopted as laws or constitutional amendments (e.g., a progressive tax system). The populist demand for direct democracy through popular initiatives and referenda also become a reality in a number of U.S. states

  5. Franklin says:

    That picture is disgusting, not due to where Don’s placed his tiny hand. But because the free press is supposed to be a check on the government.

    /yes, I just pretended that Fox & Friends has something to do with journalism

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  6. @MBunge: This is where I point out that I have tried on several recent threads to sincerely engage with you, and where I note that you do not reciprocate. I am now back to skipping comments you post.

    For example, here.

    There are several other examples that I am not going to bother to dig up.

    I am back to what I have said before: you are not an honest discussant. And I not sure why you think you should be taken seriously.

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  7. Kathy says:

    IMO, it would be grand idea to add some amendments to the US Constitution:

    A) No one can be elected president if they haven’t served in at least one elected office at any level. Not appointed, elected. This way you don’t get someone utterly unfamiliar with the political process.

    B) A mechanism for holding a recall election of the sitting president, after 18 months in office. I realize this would be hugely complicated, and very prone to abuse.

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  8. MarkedMan says:

    This dumbification of the Republican Party isn’t “in process”. It’s over. To be honest, I think the last time the Republican Party could have pulled out of this dive was when Reagan ran. Instead, Gingrich rose to power, made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of congress and implemented the 50% + 1 vote strategy. At that point, the Republicans were done. Incumbency kept a few sane voices in the party until 5 years or so ago, but they are gone. The last man (sort of) standing is McCain, and in any other era he would not be considered the conscience of the party. To paraphrase an old business expression, the horse had been dead for a while, the body just hadn’t hit the dirt yet. The clamor of Trump’s presidency? That’s the sound of the body hitting the dirt.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am now back to skipping comments you post.

    The original definition of an internet troll was someone who had no intention of engaging in legitimate argument but was only making comments to get people riled and angry and arguing. Think of someone dropping pebbles in a pond full of carp to watch them go into a feeding frenzy.

    If someone is indistinguishable from that original concept, does it make any sense to treat them as something else?

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  10. @MarkedMan: Indeed, not. I have a professional predisposition to engage, but some people clearly don’t want to do so.

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  11. charon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    The target demographic for Fox News and most of the rest of the Conservative Infotainment Complex is elderly poorly informed white people. (And now, the GOP also).

    Donald J. Trump is practically the “Type Specimen” for that demographic.

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  12. James Pearce says:

    Trump is a shallow TV guy; that’s why he’s got so many shallow TV guys.

    We already have only a semi-staffed federal government and the president is seeking to further drain the place of expertise, turning to TV hucksters. What could possibly go wrong?

    A lot yet. This is the second year of his first term. You thought year one was interesting? Buckle up for years 2-8.

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    BooMan had a pretty good column a few days ago,

    This is a reflection of a long period of dysfunction in Washington DC that has been brought to us mainly through the aggression of the conservative movement. For a long time, they had a weird advantage where the worse they were at governance, the more it justified their anti-government stance. …
    What really explains this drift, however, is the impact Washington’s dysfunction has had on American communities. It’s easy to say that neoliberalism is at fault, or NAFTA, or the corporatism of both major parties, but it really comes down to the conservatives having enough power to block the Democrats from taking action to address problems that arise. We can’t even keep our roads, bridges and airports up to code, let alone figure out how to protect our small-towns from the ravages of corporate consolidation, automation and globalization. We can’t put a dent in the opioid crisis or even protect our kids in their schools, and we probably won’t be able to do these things even if we win the midterms in a tsunami and put a Democrat in the White House in two years. And that’s because the conservatives will maintain enough power, even in the minority, to prevent sweeping changes.

    Republicans have had amazing success running as “populists” against “Washington”and “elites”, all the while being Washington and the elite. It’s an amazing testament to the Mighty Right Wing Wurlitzer. And as long as they have 40 seats in the Senate, as Booman says, they can continue to obstruct and then run against dysfunction.

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  14. matt bernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And I not sure why you think you should be taken seriously.

    For shame Steven! Cearly, MBunge’s constant reminders that he’s the smartest, most free thinking person here are falling on deaf ears. No wonder you constantly get so much wrong!

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  15. @gVOR08:

    Republicans have had amazing success running as “populists” against “Washington”and “elites”, all the while being Washington and the elite.

    Indeed, populists tend to be elites.

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  16. @matt bernius:

    For shame Steven! Cearly, MBunge’s constant reminders that he’s the smartest, most free thinking person here are falling on deaf ears. No wonder you constantly get so much wrong!

    Indeed.

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  17. Kylopod says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I have a professional predisposition to engage, but some people clearly don’t want to do so.

    If I see a commenter make an egregiously wrong statement, I don’t mind providing a rebuttal, regardless of how he chooses to deal with it. Just because he thinks that by ignoring me he’s accomplishing something other than getting his handed to him doesn’t mean it isn’t worth responding to him. I am not here to necessarily persuade whoever I’m arguing with; I’m here to express my point of view to whoever may be reading.

    That’s why I don’t agree with the DFTT idea. First of all, I don’t think it ever works. Once someone says, “DFTT!” that usually means it’s already a lost cause. More importantly, though, I think there’s value to debunking someone’s arguments instead of just letting their arguments stand unchallenged. It’s true that trolls often have a way of dragging everyone down a rabbit hole, and I’m not suggesting you should just compulsively try to debunk every ridiculous remark dropped here (“Someone is wrong on the Internet!”). But I also think that, with some discretion, there is value to providing a rebuttal just to make sure it’s out there. If the troll chooses to ignore it, that’s his problem, not ours.

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  18. @Kylopod: I generally take this attitude, but some people hit a point wherein I am not convinced they are trying to make an honest argument, so it gets to the point where my energies are best used elsewhere.

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  19. charon says:

    @Kylopod:

    Except the purpose of DNFTEC is often to prevent the discussion from veering off to an off-topic sidetrack. Seems pretty valid to me.

  20. @charon: I’ll be honest, I think it is a pretty straight-forward definition.

  21. grumpy realist says:

    I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but this is exactly what is happening with Brexit over in the U.K. The “experts” have been pointing out the problems with the U.K. going its merry way (particularly without realistic planning to create the infrastructure necessary) and the contradictory set of red lines England has created around the Irish border (consistent with the GFA, out of the EU and the Common Market, and consistent with WTO rules.) Not to mention the “what do you expect to happen April 1, 2019 if we don’t have trade agreements in place, particularly since we import 40% of our food” problem.

    From what I’ve been reading from comments of the hoi polloi, 90% or more of the Brexiter population has its head in the sand, simply burbling about how wonderful everything will be and expecting that all the difficulties are Someone Else’s Problems. All the contradictions will be magically vanished away at some point–if there are any problems, Britain simply has to “stand firm” and continue to bluff.

    At some point, real effects are going to kick in, both in the U.K. and the U.S. It will probably involve the crashing of the economy and the stock markets, empty stores followed by rationing in the U.K., and a lot of riots in both locations.

    And you know what? I’m at the point that I don’t even care. Let the Chinese take over–they’ll probably screw up everything in their own way, but I’m tired of screaming about obvious dangers that people want to ignore.

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  22. Tyrell says:

    “Cable tv”: fairly obsolete, right in there with cd’s, dvd’s, print magazines, print newspapers, ties, weight sets, and sets of encyclopedias. My $600 set of World Books can’t even bring $80. I guess people don’t even want them as a shelf decoration.

  23. @Tyrell:

    “Cable tv”: fairly obsolete,

    You might want to the tell the President.

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  24. CSK says:

    I’m tellin’ ya:

    Judge Jeanine will be the next attorney general of the United States.

    Sean Hannity will be the next chief of staff.

    2
  25. Charon says:

    @CSK:

    Sean Hannity will be the next chief of staff.

    His motivation to give up a lucrative sinecure to take a temporary gig would be???

    It is becoming clear few if any people last long in this White House, that’s an aspect of Trump’s NPD syndrome.

  26. MarkedMan says:

    @Kylopod:

    there is value to providing a rebuttal

    Agreed. But FWIW, one slightly more effective way of doing this is to put a “Just to set the record straight …” in a new comment, or to bury in with something else you were going to say. But actually replying, downvoting or any other acknowledgment is counterproductive.

    As Charon said above the purpose of a Troll is to disrupt the conversation and drive it into a shouting match. It doesn’t really matter if that person is a capital T troll or just some basement dwelling all caps conspiracy theorist. The result is the same.

  27. MarkedMan says:

    @Charon: I have to admit that two years ago I would have agreed with what you said about it being ridiculous to think Hannity would give up his grift for a position with Trump. But I’m the genius who kept on saying that Trump would drop out of the primary if he ever had a chance of winning because, dim witted as he was, he wasn’t so stupid as to risk his shaky and half-criminal business dealings to be exposed. So what do I know?

  28. charon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    But I’m the genius who kept on saying that Trump would drop out of the primary if he ever had a chance of winning because, dim witted as he was, he wasn’t so stupid as to risk his shaky and half-criminal business dealings to be exposed.

    Your error was thinking Trump to behave rationally. His personality disorder interferes.

    Go through some of the old tweets at this site for a discussion of NPD behavior:

    https://twitter.com/HoarseWisperer

  29. CSK says:

    @Charon:

    Given Hannity’s absolute slobbering devotion to Trump, why wouldn’t he?

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  30. An Interested Party says:

    …they can continue to obstruct and then run against dysfunction.

    Although our government and politics have many problems, this, by far, is the biggest problem going on right now…what kind of people vote for charlatans who spew nothing but hate for the government and yet want to be elected to the government over and over again…

  31. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Heads up – the MF’ker Temporarily in Charge just had his Keebler Elf fire Andrew McCabe – two days before his retirement. Based on his prior tweets, it seems clear that the intent was to deny him his pension.

    That, friends, is Classic Trump.

    4