On Friday morning, the president of the United States announced that America was suffering from a national emergency, that invaders were pouring across its southern border — and that Rush Limbaugh is a “great guy” who can “speak for three hours without taking a phone call; try doing that some time!”
That last declaration wasn’t nearly as much of a non sequitur as one would hope. Donald Trump’s decision to override the will of Congress — and unilaterally fund his border wall through a fictitious emergency — was the direct product of his affection for conservative media personalities. On Tuesday night, Sean Hannity told his viewers that he could tolerate Trump signing a bipartisan spending bill that lacked funding for “the wall,” so long as the president simultaneously used an emergency order to unilaterally finance his signature policy. Three days later, Trump did exactly that.
Some have interpreted the president’s obsessive interest in – and deference towards — right-wing media as strategic. According to this view, the president believes that his reelection hopes hinge on maintaining the enthusiasm of his base. Therefore, he strains to please the right’s most trusted infotainers.
But this assessment isn’t quite right. Trump doesn’t use Fox News merely as a thermometer for his base, but rather, as a window onto the entire world. Our president has access to the most powerful intelligence apparatus ever assembled by humankind — but still gets much of his of his information about foreign affairs from Fox & Friends.
In truth, the primary reason Trump pays such meticulous attention to far-right media — and so little to more reliable sources of information about political and empirical reality — is that nothing is more real to him than what he sees on television.
The mogul built his entire career around the premise that how a thing is perceived is infinitely more important than what it “actually” is. If enough people believe that your name is synonymous with business success, you can turn that perception into best-selling books, lucrative licensing agreements, and hit TV shows — no matter how much inherited wealth you wasted on misbegotten enterprises. In this sense, Trump’s faith in the supreme importance of spectacle might look savvy. But by most accounts, it’s less of a strategic choice than a helpless compulsion: The man is obsessed with seeing his reflection in mass media, and prizes publicity as an end in itself.
In the 1980s and 1990s, this obsession led him to court headlines in the tabloids and mainstream press. In the new millennium, like so many others in his demographic, Trump began ditching the vegetables (or at least starches) in his media diet for Fox News’s red meat. The mogul ceased living in a world that revolved around high-society gossip, CNN, and the New York Times, and began occupying a universe populated by knockout gamers, Kenyan presidents, and murderous illegals. Trump seamlessly adapted to his new ecosystem. Advertising his sexual exploits might have earned him attention in his old tabloid habitat; but he recognized that, in these new confines, promoting racial paranoia was the ticket. The mogul adopted the birther cause with an eye toward winning the adulation of his new community. He designed his presidential campaign around the same objective.
And in the peculiar context of a Republican primary, campaigning for a government of the Sean Hannity superfans, by the Sean Hannity superfans, and for the Sean Hannity superfans was indeed politically wise. Most aspects of Trump’s putative populism were transparently fraudulent. But he was a more authentic member of the Fox News–addict community than any presidential candidate in history. Other Republicans might have been fluent in the language of the far-right fever swamp, but only Trump was a native speaker. Jeb Bush read white papers, and gave speeches at D.C. think tanks. Trump watched Hannity and shouted at his television. The billionaire might have lived in material conditions more opulent than his supporters could ever imagine. But in one small — but real and visceral — sense, Trump and the Republican base lived in the same world.
And yet, if Trump’s narcissistic obsession with studying his own face in the mirror of right-wing media helped him win the presidency, it might very well cost him a second term. And for a very simple reason: Sean Hannity is not actually the voice of the Republican base, he just plays one on TV.
There are some conservative voters who trust Hannity and Limbaugh more than they love Trump. But such true believers are much louder than they are numerous. As Nate Silver demonstrates, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans remained (essentially) steady throughout the entire shutdown affair. When it looked like the president was going to acquiesce to a wall-less continuing resolution in December — and the right-wing media was throwing daily tantrums — roughly 88 percent of GOP voters approved of his job performance. When he did what the television told him to, and shut down the government, roughly 88 percent of GOP voters approved of his job performance. When he blinked before Nancy Pelosi did, reopened the government, and broke Ann Coulter’s heart, roughly 88 percent of GOP voters approved of his job performance.
Which is to say: One of the defining characteristics of Donald Trump’s base is that it is strongly disinclined to revise its views of Donald Trump, in response to new information. His concern with losing his base’s affections, on the basis of a critical monologue from Sean Hannity, is utterly irrational. Not only does he stand to lose little from the cable host’s critiques, but he is sure to have Hannity’s support when he actually needs it. In 2019, right-wing infotainers need to mine intra-Republican divisions for drama. In 2020, their guns will all be pointed squarely at whatever communistic, cop-hating, flag-disrespecting, reverse racist the Democratic Party chooses to nominate.
Trump doesn’t need to worry about mobilizing his base in 2020. He already proved as much last year: Republican turnout in the 2018 midterms was remarkably strong, particularly for a party with full control of the federal government. It just wasn’t strong enough to overwhelm the Democratic Party’s 12-point advantage with independents.
And unlike the Trumpen proletariat, independent voters’ views of the president do actually vary in response to his actions. His approval among that cohort declined sharply during the government shutdown, and then rebounded in its wake.
Now that figure is poised to decline once again. Declaring a national emergency in order to build a monument to American xenophobia may play well with Limbaugh listeners, but roughly 65 percent of the public opposes the idea in opinion polls. And the fact that many prominent Republican lawmakers are unwilling to endorse the move will likely fortify swing voters’ opposition.
To be sure, if voters forgave and forgot a five-week shutdown in a matter of days, they probably won’t remember this national emergency in November 2020. But Trump’s biggest problem isn’t that he might permanently squander his existing support among independents; it’s that his existing support among independents is too low to win reelection. If the president wished to put crass political self-interest above all else, he would have declared victory on “the wall” the minute Pelosi offered him some bollard fencing, and then pushed to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour, and to pass the infrastructure package that Hillary Clinton ran on in 2016. Which is to say: He would have forced Democrats to help him pass very popular, modestly progressive policies that do not threaten the core interests of the GOP donor class.
But our president would rather take orders from Sean Hannity. And in the long run, we may all be better off for it.