The relationship between the right’s favorite cable news network and the right’s soon-to-be favorite politician was obviously more significant than it seemed at the time. Trump had reinvented himself as a TV star with “The Apprentice” and had begun to dip his toes into the political world largely by echoing narratives that were popular in right-wing media: questions about Barack Obama’s birthplace, alarmism over the Ebola virus, the dangers of immigration. The Fox News gig established him firmly in both worlds at once.
When Trump announced his candidacy in mid-2015, he did so by elevating things that most Republican politicians wouldn’t say — but that right-wing media personalities couldn’t stop talking about. The Republican establishment tried to maintain a firewall from the rhetoric of the base, out of concern about the electoral repercussions. Trump ripped the firewall apart, bringing along just enough consumers of that rhetoric to squeak into the White House.
What he showed, more than anything, was the value of echoing conservative media’s rhetoric back to its audience. He coddled Fox News hosts and various radio personalities, rewarding them with access that Republicans had previously been far more wary to extend. His administration plucked staffers from conservative media — Fox in particular — and Fox hired various staffers to fill corporate or on-air positions. The Trump White House was often indistinguishable from Sean Hannity’s show on Fox both in terms of rhetoric and in terms of visible faces. The two had largely fused.
It’s certainly not the case that Trump was the first president, much less the first Republican, to leverage media for political value. What was different about Trump was that he clearly thought that the media standing was at least as important as his political standing, if not more so. It seemed at times as though he had become president to become more famous, not the opposite.
Last fall, voters in North Carolina elected to the House of Representatives one of the youngest people in history. Madison Cawthorn, who turns 26 this year, parlayed a photogenic mug and compelling (if heavily inflated) life story into a seat in the U.S. Congress. He, like other Republican freshmen, embraced Trump’s habit of prioritizing attacks on his political opponents over crafting legislative solutions to problems. In an email to his Republican colleagues obtained by Time magazine, Cawthorn was direct: “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.”
His focus on Capitol Hill was messaging, not legislating.
To be fair, there’s not much chance for a freshman legislator from the minority party to really shape policy. But it’s rare for a legislator to explicitly prioritize the spotlight of Congress over its constitutional function.
Cawthorn was also simply being frank where others are more subtle. House Republicans such as Rep….