For the last half-century, conservatives have styled themselves champions of law and order. When Democrats called out police excesses or intelligence gathering tactics, Republicans steadfastly backed law enforcement at all levels.
Which is why it has shocked many (and dismayed some) to see conservative commentators almost reduced to hysterics in recent weeks over purported scandals at the FBI. With minimal evidence (even some right leaning analysts have questioned whether anything untoward occurred), they have lashed out at the bureau in a way that has many Americans thinking that politics have been turned completely on their head.
We shouldn’t be baffled though. Conservative media has always depended on having a good villain.
These days, however, a villain is far harder to come by because Democrats — the natural long time villain in conservative media’s story about the battle for America — have no power as Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress, and most state houses.
Enter: the FBI. While no one would have suspected it, the bureau has turned out to be the perfect villain for commentators like Sean Hannity because trashing the FBI creates compelling radio and TV.
In fact, doing so is a win-win politics and business wise for conservative commentators: it gives viewers and listeners a reason to tune in every day — which boosts hosts’ bottom line — and it pleases fans who want to see a full throated defense of President Trump. But it’s the former that truly drives conservative media calculations and dictates pounding the FBI, regardless of how flimsy the facts.
Conflict makes for good radio. When Democrats hold power, listeners are angry and worried about the latest perceived outrage or excess. They rely on their favorite hosts to channel these grievances and to be their voice.
Which is why the Trump administration poses a unique challenge for conservative broadcasters: for most of the talk radio and cable news era (Rush Limbaugh ushered in modern conservative talk radio in 1988 and Fox News debuted in 1996), Democrats have controlled the White House, Congress, or both. Only for four months in 2001 and from 2003 to 2007 did Republicans have unified control of government.
And Trump — with his ripped from Fox and Friends and Hannity tweets — offers even less for conservative commentators to criticize than the average Republican president.
While the mainstream media and so-called RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) still routinely get pummeled in conservative media, these figures lack intrigue. A host can only expose the latest media outrage so many days in a row before it becomes boring — the one thing no host can afford to be.
However, suggestions by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee — detailed in a memo publicly released on February 2nd — that the FBI behaved improperly in obtaining a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to conduct surveillance of Trump campaign aide Carter Page offered up a new target, one with a much deeper, juicier plot attached.
Sean Hannity called the memo’s findings “Watergate times a thousand” and raged, “The FBI misled and personally deceived a Federal court while using an unverified, completely phony opposition research, bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton, to spy on an opposition campaign during a Presidential election… Now, that type of abuse of power, that type of corruption, that shredding of the Constitution, it is unprecedented in America history.”
The alleged FBI conspiracy fit perfectly into conservative media’s tale of us vs. them. In this narrative of America, liberals and their allies who scorn the average conservative media consumer work each day to drag American down, destroy traditional values, and deprive people of freedom. They try to sabotage strong conservative leaders like President Trump and weaponize government.
If anything, the employment of the FBI to further these ends represents an alarming display of the durability of liberal might even when Republicans have unified control of government. This new villain also allows viewers angry at what they perceived to be unfair treatment of Trump a new target and new ammunition with which to defend him.
In the weeks since the Intelligence Committee memo was released, the assault on the FBI has only grown. When the world learned that the FBI had received a tip warning about the Florida school shooter, conservative media pounced.
Fox’s Tucker Carlson contended that federal agents were too busy to stop school shootings because “they’ve been chasing down bad Facebook trolls.” Carlson derisively asserted that had someone simply told the FBI that shooter Nikolas Cruz “was talking to Vladimir Putin, they would have been on it.”
The clamor has grown to such an extent that the extreme right wing site Gateway Pundit attempted to discredit one of the students who survived the Parkland shooting and has taken to gun control activism by noting that his father was in the FBI.
Politically, the storyline helps explain away any possible unpleasant findings from the Mueller investigation, not to mention that it distracts from the Trump administration’s foibles and struggles.
At its root, though, commentators care about this storyline because it advances talk radio and cable news’ bottom line: putting on the best show possible, which, in turn, maximizes revenue. A sober, nuanced assessment of the facts wouldn’t make for engaging, emotional radio or TV. A hyperbolic assault on the FBI and discussions of the largest scandal in American history does. And it forestalls the possibility of hosts getting outflanked on the right — a potential danger to the bottom line.
The story also provides people a reason to tune in every day. As Hannity explained, the liberal mainstream media had wasted a year “holding this country hostage on a false narrative based on a conspiracy theory that President Trump colluded with the Russians.” By contrast, he explained, everything that his show had exposed about the plot to undermine President Trump had been proven true. Conservative shows offered an exclusive opportunity for their viewers and listeners to understand what was really going on.
This context makes it tempting to write off the conservative media crusade against the FBI as people preaching to the likeminded in pursuit of the almighty dollar or much ado about nothing. But that would be a mistake. Today, these commentators carry significant weight at the highest echelons of power.
A day after Carlson tied the FBI’s failure to prevent the school shooting to the Russia investigation, President Trump tweeted: “Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!”
Trump and other fans of conservative media must understand what these programs are: good political soap operas, not journalism. Failing to recognize that they aim to engage the audience more than ferret out facts (even while promising to do so) misinforms the public, fuels polarization and leaves Americans without a common set of facts from which to discuss issues and try to build bridges. These developments threaten our democracy — far more than anything the FBI did in investigating Carter Page.
Brian Rosenwald, a fellow and instructor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, is writing a book on the development of talk radio and its political and policy impact. He is the co-founder and co-editor of The Washington Post’s new perspective page, Made by History. You can follow him on twitter at @brianros1.