Inquiry to test power of ‘fully operational’ right-wing media machine

Rush Limbaugh, the popular right-wing personality who is widely regarded as the king of conservative talk radio, was on a fiery rant.

“The whole thing is a sham,” Limbaugh told his listeners on Friday, speaking about the whistleblower complaint that has ignited a political firestorm which could ultimately imperil the presidency of Donald Trump.

“Bottom line, there isn’t anything really new here,” Limbaugh said. “This is just the next phrase of ‘Get Trump.’ This is the next phase of the operation to overturn the election results of 2016.”

Limbaugh’s comments, while extraordinarily misleading, were largely representative of how the right-wing media machine has reacted to the deepening scandal Trump finds himself in over his dealings with Ukraine.

A complaint filed by a whistleblower in the intelligence community, made public this week, alleged the White House engaged in a cover-up after Trump pushed the president of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential contender. A rough transcript of a July phone call released by the White House this week confirmed Trump had, indeed, asked the Ukrainian president to “look into” Biden.

Now, as Trump faces an impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-led House of Representatives, right-wing media, which grew out of talk radio in the 1990s into a cultural behemoth in the 2000s, will be crucial to his survival.

President Bill Clinton may have had a war room full of lawyers and press aides when he stared down Republicans during his impeachment in the 1990s, but Trump has a hulking force of eager soldiers who have demonstrated zero willingness to abide by any traditional rules of engagement.

Trump has a network nearly totally devoted to him in Fox. He has a cluster of loyal right-wing websites like Breitbart. He has a network of conservative talk radio hosts like Limbaugh. And he has an army of trolls who will seek to hijack the online discussion.

“It’s fully operational,” said Charlie Sykes, the editor-in-chief of the Bulwark, a conservative website highly-critical of Trump. “The right-wing machine is fully operational.”

The next few months will test the power of this right-wing media machine. To succeed, it will not only have to suspend reality for its audience, but also feed the millions who watch, listen, and read a counter-narrative to fill actuality’s void.

“It’s not so much important if it’s true,” said Sykes, “It’s whether it’s plausible enough for partisans to believe it. There are storylines that have no truth whatsoever, but they are echoed on social media and talk radio, and given plausibility on Fox.”

During the Russia investigation, that tactic seemed to prove successful. Right-wing media figures like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson decried Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe as a partisan “witch hunt.” Carlson, Hannity, and others sought to delegitimize news organizations reporting on the developments which were overwhelmingly less-than-good for Trump. And right-wing media figures and outlets showed little, if any, qualms about promoting conspiracy theories that aided their cause.

And, at the end of the process, the repeated attacks seemed to have had an effect. Republicans, who tend to rely on organizations like Fox for news, largely considered the investigation to be akin to a “witch hunt.”

But, unlike the Russia investigation, which unspooled over the period of nearly two years, the Ukraine scandal is developing in real time. Democratic lawmakers are moving swiftly to conduct their investigation, and some even hope to bring articles of impeachment for a vote in November.

Moreover, unlike the Russia investigation which featured a multitude of storylines that were difficult to keep track of, the Ukraine scandal is simple to understand: Trump, using the power of the presidency, asked a foreign government to investigate a political foe. Then, according to the whistleblower complaint, the White House tried to cover it up.

That said, it appears the right-wing media machine will draw from the same playbook as the Ukraine scandal risks enveloping Trump’s presidency and reelection efforts.

Despite however damning the information the investigation might uncover, John Ziegler, a conservative talk show host who writes regular columns on conservative media for Mediaite, said he is “supremely confident” that right-wing media will “come up with some contorted rationale for why what Trump did is not an impeachable offense.”

Indeed, the right-wing media machine has already sprung into action, aiming to not only clear Trump of any wrongdoing, but also project what he has been accused of onto Biden.

Such coverage, Ziegler said, is motivated by what the consumers of channels like Fox and websites like Breitbart want.

“Their customers are invested,” Ziegler said. “This is our first modern base presidency. It’s not just a base, it’s a cult-oriented operation. Trump understands one member of a cult is worth four or five people who are slightly favorable to you.”

“The Trump cult is very much like a child who believes in Santa Clause,” Ziegler continued. “The media outlets that the Trump cult provides their consumership is not going to tell them there is no Santa Clause. It’d be like the Disney Channel telling their audience there’s no Santa Clause. It’s the same concept with regard to Fox and the rest of the right-wing media.”