At Long Last …

After yesterday’s drama I’m ready to relax a bit and enjoy pared-down Thanksgiving week without feeling weighed down by impending doom. Trump isn’t gone — yet — but he’s definitely going. The turkey pardon is this afternoon; we’ll see if Trump shows up. That will make three turkeys looking for pardons.

A development that could end up being beneficial in the long run is that Trump culties are stampeding away from Fox News and big-time social media such as Facebook and Twitter. We might worry that they’ll now all be marinating in an even more insulated crazy sauce, and in the short run that could lead to problems. But in the long run I think this will amount to an act of self-marginalization.

This is coming about because the “mainstream” far-right media finally is moving away from Trump. Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and even Rush Limbaugh are admitting Biden won the election — maybe not fairly — and that Trump’s efforts to prove fraud are failing. The True Believers are shifting to Newsmax and One America News (OAN), with Parler for their social media fix. There are reports that Fox News’s approval ratings among conservatives have dropped, although Fox’s ratings haven’t suffered as much as some have claimed.

Newsmax and OAN have stuck with Trump and are keeping the hope of a second Trump term alive for the faithful. This has been a great ratings boost for them. It’s also dragging a lot of people into an alternative universe, further dividing the nation, and potentially setting us up for more right-wing violence. But the ratings!

So why isn’t Fox News doing the same? Because it has a different purpose.  Rupert Murdoch didn’t set up a media empire just to make money or to raise an army of zombies, although those were solid side effects. He wanted influence. He wanted to push government and mass media to the right. And you don’t maintain influence by staying on The Titanic once it hits the iceberg.

Paul Waldman wrote,

It wasn’t just to inflame their own audiences, it was a political project aimed at “working the refs” — keeping journalists under pressure to alter what they reported and how they reported on it to make the news more friendly to the right.

While it’s an unending battle, working the refs works. Conservatives are very good at raising a stink, and news organizations often respond by changing their coverage. But it only works if those in the mainstream are aware of what’s being said on the right. You can’t pressure someone who is barely aware you exist.

Which is part of the power of Fox News: It’s watched by most Republicans in official Washington, and what happens there is injected into the mainstream conversation. The same congressman who watches Fox News in his office later goes on ABC News and repeats what he heard.

Just to be clear, there are plenty of ludicrous lies and insane conspiracy theories that Fox News spews out on a daily basis. But it remains tethered to, and in conversation with, the mainstream. That’s where its power comes from.

Could Newsmax or One America News do the same thing? It’s theoretically possible, but right now they’re still rinky-dink operations with zero credibility. The only time just about any real journalist pays attention to what goes on at either outlet is to watch a clip shared on social media and say, “My god, look at how crazy this is.”

This is a pattern of prior nativist or other right-wing movements in the U.S. They may gain genuine power for a while, but they last only as long as they are useful to the establishment. Often they self-destruct from excessive fanaticism or lose support because of changing economic or social conditions. You see the same pattern with the Know-Nothings, the 1920s Klan, and Joe McCarthy.

McCarthy was the most powerful man in America for a time; nobody dared cross him. Even President Eisenhower, who seriously hated McCarthy, held his tongue for a time. And then McCarthy imploded, and his fellow Republicans cut him loose. McCarthyism lingered for a while, in part because the fears that fueled it didn’t die, but it lost much influence. By the 1960s mainstream political culture was opening up to more liberal views. I strongly suspect Trump — who shares a connection with McCarthy through Roy Cohn — is about to go down a similar road.

And then the extremists retreat to the fringe for a decade or two, and when the movement emerges later it will be under a new name and with new leadership and talking points. But for a while the nation gets a reprieve. It’s a cycle. We may be near the end of a cycle. I sincerly hope we are.

Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. New York Times photos.