These are tough times for pundits. Congress is in recess. The major organs of political reporting are understaffed and churning out take fodder at a tepid rate. Other than the rapidly worsening mass-death event that’s threatening to capsize the nation’s hospital system and economy, there isn’t much news to report.
So, I’m going to branch out a bit here and try my hand at “women’s-daytime-talk-show analysis.”
ABC’s The View has long been a dominant player in that space. Originally created by Barbara Walters, the show aims to bring four to five women of divergent backgrounds, generations, and interpersonal styles into lively, intelligent conversation about the news of the day. The show’s lineup has never been anywhere near as demographically or ideologically diverse as the American public. But it’s been especially homogeneous since this past July, when it lost its resident conservative, Meghan McCain. In the months since, The View has cycled through a parade of conservative guest co-hosts — including libertarian commentator S.E. Cupp, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and ex–hypothetical Ted Cruz presidential running mate Carly Fiorina — but has failed to settle on a new, permanent representative of red America.
This week, Politico reported that three of the show’s longtime co-hosts — Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sunny Hostin — issued the producers an ultimatum before their holiday break: They’re tired of adjusting to the rotating cast of token Republicans, and they want a permanent hire pronto.
But the higher-ups are struggling to find the right candidate. The basic problem is that the producers want a conservative who credibly represents the views of Republican news consumers. But they also want one who is not “a denier of the 2020 election results” or “seen as flirting too heavily with fringe conspiracy theories or the MAGA wing of the GOP.” Put differently: They don’t want another NeverTrump Republican who will chummily respond to the liberal hosts’ musings with “yes, but” qualifications (their focus groups suggest that viewers like clash). But they also don’t want an unvaccinated authoritarian who’s going to spit venom in Joy Behar’s face.
Alas, the show’s producers aren’t having an easy time finding a conservative who’s so much as willing to abide by New York’s public-health laws. As the Daily Beast reports, The View was in talks with Fox News contributor Lisa Marie Boothe earlier this year. But their discussions came to halt when Boothe made it clear that she would not, under any circumstances, vaccinate herself against COVID-19.
The basic challenge currently confronting The View has been flummoxing other mainstream-media enterprises since Donald Trump’s election. During the Reagan-Bush era, when country-club Republicans enjoyed pride of place in red America, it was not difficult to find conservative commentators who evangelized for the party’s animating objectives and honored the norms of cosmopolitan media elites. There is no irreconcilable conflict between advocating for regressive tax cuts and treating your liberal colleagues with basic courtesy while everyone respects the bedrock conventions of a liberal democracy. But today, “owning” liberal cultural elites and denying the legitimacy of elections that Democrats win are more central to Republican politics than supply-side economics or neoconservative foreign policy.
Even before Trump’s ascent, the voting base for old-style respectable Republicanism was steadily declining. But the demagogue’s conquest of the GOP accelerated the preexisting movement of (predominately) college-educated, pro-Establishment voters into the Democratic coalition and working-class, low-trust, illiberal voters into the Republican one. Trump also made this realignment more conspicuous by ending the Bushites’ dominance of the party’s commanding heights. Before Trump’s election, the New York Times could reserve column inches for David Brooks and Ross Douthat and tell itself its “Opinion” page gave voice to all of the nation’s dominant ideological tendencies. Afterward, the paper was forced to confront the choice between mainstream editorial standards and ideological inclusion. Ultimately, a combination of institutional norms and financial incentives — principally, the need to retain the good graces of an overwhelmingly liberal subscriber base — has kept the Times from adding an unabashed Trumpist to its stable of columnists. (Meanwhile, education polarization has transformed Brooks into a de facto “Biden Democrat.”)
To be sure, the discontinuities between the pre- and post-Trump GOPs are often exaggerated; the Brooks Brothers riot was nearly as audacious an assault on democracy as January 6 and much more effective. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the bow-tied libertarian Tucker Carlson of yesteryear was easier to integrate into a mainstream cable network’s panel discussion or liberal newspaper’s op-ed page than the red-faced proto-white nationalist Tucker who now owns Fox News’s eight-o’clock hour.
To a large extent, conservative media drove the GOP’s illiberal transformation. But this was not an entirely top-down affair, in which reactionary propagandists dictated the desires of the Republican faithful. Rather, conservative media and its audience mutually radicalized each other in a feedback loop. Just as problem drinkers provide the alcohol industry with the majority of its sales, so the most ideologically extreme Republicans provide right-wing media with the bulk of their everyday viewers and listeners. Most Republican voters will be more engaged by paranoid conspiracy theories and unhinged grievance-mongering than by lectures on the (dubious) disemployment effects of minimum-wage hikes. This is especially true of the subset that’s most interested in watching political talk shows.
Thus right-wing media has reflected and amplified the illiberal impulses of the conservative base back to it, undermining trust in the Republican Establishment and cultivating an appetite for a more vicious and authoritarian style of conservative politics. In 2016, Fox News briefly tried to domesticate the monster it had created, assuming an unabashedly adversarial posture toward Trump at the first 2016 GOP primary debate. It found that it could not herd its viewers.
After the 2020 election, the network relearned this lesson. Initially, Fox News resisted a full embrace of Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of Biden’s victory — and suddenly found itself bleeding audience share to Newsmax, One America News Network, and other conservative channels willing to affirm Trump’s big lie.
All of which is to say: The View can’t greatly expand its appeal among conservative political-infotainment junkies while shunning fringe conspiracists or “the MAGA wing of the GOP.” Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. The party’s most highly engaged supporters are so distrustful of established expertise and credulous of conspiracy theories that they’ve led conservative state governments and media outlets to become objectively pro-COVID. In 2021, to be a true Republican is to broadcast contempt for cosmopolitan elites and the formal political process. That’s mainly a problem for our democracy. But it’s also a challenge for producers of some women’s daytime talk shows.