Opinion | Scandalize! Minimize! Repeat as Necessary – The New York Times

Opinion | Scandalize! Minimize! Repeat as Necessary – The New York Times

Right-wing media have been laying the groundwork for Trump’s acquittal for half a century.

Fox News

If you tuned in to Fox News to watch the opening arguments of the impeachment trial on Wednesday night, you were out of luck. Oh, the trial was still technically being broadcast on the network, but it had been reduced to a muted box on the side of the screen, while Sean Hannity assured viewers, “None of this will matter.”

This was the purest representation so far of conservative media’s efforts to minimize not just impeachment but the full array of President Trump’s misconduct. But minimization is only half the strategy to protect Republican control of the White House. The other half is scandalization: an effort to create an air of nonstop scandal around previous Democratic presidents and presidential hopefuls. In a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove argued that Democrats were hypocrites for impeaching Donald Trump. After all, he wrote, President Barack Obama once asked for “flexibility” from Russian leaders during the 2012 campaign and Democrats neither censured nor impeached him for it. (And, he mused, they likely wouldn’t have impeached a President Hillary Clinton for using an opposition research firm that relied on Russian sources either.)

These twin tactics are not inventions of the Trump era. They are part of a decades-long strategy by the right to secure political power — a strategy originating in conservative media. In that sense, right-wing media have been laying the groundwork for Trump’s acquittal for half a century.

Conservative media have been scandal-mongering about Democratic presidents ever since modern conservative media began taking shape in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some of the earliest books from conservative publishing houses blamed President Franklin Roosevelt for the attack on Pearl Harbor: George Morgenstern’s “Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War” and Robert A. Theobald’s “The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor,” both put out by the conservative publishing house Devin-Adair, as well as “Admiral Kimmel’s Story” from Regnery Publishing.

President Harry Truman received the same treatment. In 1956, Regnery published Jules Abels’s “The Truman Scandals,” which claimed to reveal “the record of the most corrupt Administration in American history.” A review of the book in National Review concluded, “Compared with the moral degeneracy of the Truman regime, the scandals of the Grant and Harding Administrations are reduced to the semblance of quaint and venal peccadilloes.”

But it was President Lyndon Johnson who came in for the most brutal attacks, primarily for the sin of running against the conservative darling Senator Barry Goldwater. Books that centered on Johnson’s advisers — like Bobby Baker, caught up in a series of bribery and tax evasion charges — had trouble gaining traction, even though Mr. Goldwater brought it up regularly on the campaign trail. One book, though, found an avid conservative audience: “A Texan Looks at Lyndon.”

J. Evetts Haley, a Texas rancher, self-published the book in 1964. In it, he offered unsubstantiated accounts of bribery, stolen elections and even convenient deaths that helped pave Johnson’s road to the White House. As I wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, Mr. Haley’s conspiracy theories could have easily been pulled from a 1990s anti-Clinton screed. He called Johnson an “inordinately vain, egotistical, ambitious extrovert” and claimed that Lady Bird Johnson mirrored “Lady Macbeth’s consuming ambition for the growth of her husband’s power.” About the presidential assassination that put Johnson in the Oval Office, he hinted darkly, “What a strange coincidence.”

Bettmann, via Getty Images

This was exactly the kind of book conservative donors and readers wanted. With a boost from bulk purchases — the kind that often propel right-wing books onto best-seller lists — some seven million copies of “A Texan Looks at Lyndon” were in circulation by September 1964.

Johnson won the election in one of the largest landslides in American presidential history. But the scandal-mongering mattered. In the early 1970s, when the next Republican president was under investigation for corruption and abuse of power, the monstrous image of Johnson that conservative media helped to paint became part of President Richard Nixon’s defense.

Conservative media figures did their best to downplay Nixon’s crimes, especially in relation to Johnson’s. Nixon himself called Watergate “a crappy little thing” in his private (but secretly recorded) Oval Office conversations. Henry Regnery dismissed the accounts of Watergate, writing, “I can see no grounds for impeachment, or even to get worked up about.” National Review called the crimes “objectively trivial” and dismissed “the media’s daily spasms of moral indignation” as “a gleeful put-on.”

Even after Nixon had resigned, the magazine still argued that he had been persecuted for actions far less serious than Johnson’s. Hedging even as they accused, the magazine’s editors pointed to “the belief, though not the proof, that Lyndon Johnson greatly surpassed Nixon in venality.” After running through the litany of Johnson’s sins, the editors expressed hope that one day people would look more kindly on Nixon “as the shady deals of previous presidents become known.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, the conservative media sphere was quite small: a handful of publishers, magazines and radio programs. The activists behind those outlets could influence politics, but they did not have the totalizing power that would allow them to ignore the world outside of the conservative movement. They could not persuade the vast majority of Americans that Johnson was notoriously corrupt, nor shrink Watergate hearings into a small box on the screen and propagandize over it.

The rapid expansion of conservative media in the 1990s and 2000s, and the conservative scandal machine that powered it, transformed American politics. During the Bill Clinton era, new scandal-mongering magazines and websites made up what Hillary Clinton accurately called a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” What followed was a cynical, partisan impeachment that treated the serious constitutional remedy as just another political game. In so doing, Republicans diminished the significance of impeachment, making it less likely the public would take the current impeachment crisis seriously.

The Clinton impeachment showed that the Republican Party was fully on board with the conservative media’s scandalization project. The whole thing was tawdry, and yet two years later the Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. Scandalization worked, so they returned to it again and again. Even Republican presidential candidates got in on the act, as when President Trump led rallygoers in chants of “Lock her up.”

Soon it was not just presidents but candidates getting the scandal treatment. Regnery Publishing put out John E. O’Neill and Jerome R. Corsi’s “Unfit for Command” in 2004 to discredit the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry. The accusations that Mr. Kerry had exaggerated his service to accumulate medals aired across conservative media and surfaced at the 2004 convention, where delegates wore bandages with purple hearts drawn on them to mock Mr. Kerry’s war service.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor, via Getty Images

Thrilled with the success of that book, Mr. Corsi followed it in 2008 with “The Obama Nation,” a mash-up of anti-Obama conspiracy theories. “The goal is to defeat Obama,” he told The Times in an interview that year. But even before that book hit the shelves, conspiracy theories about Senator Obama had already taken flight. Conservative media treated everything from his birthplace to his religion to his work as a community organizer as a career-ending scandal. The pace rapidly escalated once he took office, as shown by the endless, expensive Benghazi investigations (which, as a bonus, also damaged the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton).

Even as right-wing media tried to brand the Obama presidency as the most corrupt administration in the history of the United States, a cottage-industry of scandalmongers had already popped up to attack future Democratic nominees. Dinesh D’Souza followed his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” with a documentary called “Hillary’s America,” which depicted Mrs. Clinton as radical, racist and corrupt.

The Breitbart contributor Peter Schweizer followed “Clinton Cash,” a book that helped spread the Uranium One conspiracy, with “Secret Empires,” which targeted Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. Mr. Schweizer’s most recent book, “Profiles in Corruption,” provides building blocks for scandals involving a number of 2020 Democratic hopefuls, like the daft tidbit that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s son-in-law produced a film with support from two Iranian organizations. The investors, Mr. Schweizer wrote, “might appear at first glance to be innocuous cultural organizations — but they are not. Both are funded and controlled by the Islamist Iranian government.” It may not seem like much, but as the birtherism conspiracy shows, scandals have been rooted in less.

These ginned-up scandals have real implications for Donald Trump’s impeachment. Evidence abounds that the president and his team not only attempted to solicit Russian interference in the 2016 election but sought to coerce Ukraine into interfering in 2020. But if every politician is indelibly corrupt, then Mr. Trump deserves no real punishment.

To write off Mr. Trump’s wrongdoing as run-of-the-mill politics, then, requires both minimizing what he has done and scandalizing what other politicians do. As an added bonus, the strategy damages Americans’ faith in government and public service, bolstering the Republican Party’s anti-government agenda. As such, it’s a powerful, effective political strategy — and a deeply nihilistic one.

Nicole Hemmer (@pastpunditry) is an associate research scholar at Columbia University and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.”

A version of this article appears in print on , Section SR, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: Scandalize! Minimize! Repeat as Necessary. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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