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7

A fork in the road for conservative media

“While conservative media often seem to control of the national narrative, the Trump era has reiterated they are, in fact, limited by the perceived boundaries of acceptable public discourse.”

Last year, I predicted the impending fragmentation of the conservative mediasphere. Without President Donald Trump as its center of gravity, I reasoned, conservative news and commentary outlets would resort to sub-ideological sorting — with different outlets competing for different sub-groups within the constellation of single-issue and philosophical dispositions that comprise the modern conservative movement.

In the intervening year, my colleagues Anthony Nadler, Magda Konieczna and I have had the opportunity to interview nearly two dozen online conservative newsworkers, as part of a study funded by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Our findings, forthcoming in early 2020, have raised doubts about my clairvoyance.

As it happens, few conservative news outlets impose strict ideological standards when hiring reporters and editors. While at times an outlet might champion a particular cause or candidate — Breitbart’s paleoconservative push for Trump in 2016, for example, or The Bulwark’s ongoing anti-Trumpism — in general, we found little sub-ideological sorting among conservative newsworkers. That is, most online conservative news outlets employ conservatives of various ideological stripes. Sorting outlets into fusionist, neoconservative, neoliberal, and paleoconservative niches would require considerable shakeups within extant digital conservative newsrooms, which seems unlikely.

While Trump’s removal by impeachment seems similarly unlikely, he still faces an uphill battle in the 2020 election. Even if he manages to thread the Electoral College needle once again, the inevitable end of the Trump era will necessarily impact a conservative mediasphere that has already been fundamentally reshaped by his presidency.

There are two likely trajectories for a post-Trump future of conservative media — a reckoning or a reformation.

A one-term Trump presidency would precipitate a wave of infighting within both the modern conservative movement and the Republican Party. If he loses in a landslide, he risks dragging paleoconservative ideals — such as trade protectionism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and white nationalism — back into ignominy (good riddance).

Such an outcome would likely cause tumult among conservative newsworkers. Those who staked their reputations defending Trump will be forced to denounce him or else face the recriminations of fellow conservatives who publicly held their tongues during the height of the Trump personality cult.

A resurgence of anti-Trump conservatism would create new opportunities for Trump apologists (i.e. Breitbart) to again corner the market on paleoconservative commentary and news. But I suspect most conservative outlets will return to their fusionist roots, in search of a viable post-Trump conservative vision.

On the other hand, if Trump wins reelection, or only loses by a small margin, the main beneficiary will be the nascent Nationalist Conservatism movement. As artfully profiled by the Know Your Enemy podcast this summer, nationalist conservatism is an effort to reproduce Trumpism without the cult of personality. Without a clear imperative to denounce Trumpism outright, many conservative news and commentary outlets will face considerable pressure to hew to the tenets of nationalist conservatism — their audiences will be expecting a worldview similar to the one espoused during the Trump years and will have little incentive to consider where or whether Trump led them astray.

While conservative media often seem to control of the national narrative, the Trump era has reiterated they are, in fact, limited by the perceived boundaries of acceptable public discourse. From William F. Buckley’s founding of the National Review through the Tea Party era, conservative media figures were highly attuned to shifts in public opinion — softening their racial appeals and employing dog whistles, for example, when overt white supremacist rhetoric became perceived as unacceptable to the public at large.

Trump’s brash white supremacism has stretched the tensile boundaries of conservative respectability politics to near their breaking point. Only a strong electoral backlash in 2020 can impose respectable boundaries on the conservative mediasphere. Absent that, with a few principled exceptions, I fear conservative media will venture beyond self-regulation for good.

A.J. Bauer is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU.

Last year, I predicted the impending fragmentation of the conservative mediasphere. Without President Donald Trump as its center of gravity, I reasoned, conservative news and commentary outlets would resort to sub-ideological sorting — with different outlets competing for different sub-groups within the constellation of single-issue and philosophical dispositions that comprise the modern conservative movement.

In the intervening year, my colleagues Anthony Nadler, Magda Konieczna and I have had the opportunity to interview nearly two dozen online conservative newsworkers, as part of a study funded by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Our findings, forthcoming in early 2020, have raised doubts about my clairvoyance.

As it happens, few conservative news outlets impose strict ideological standards when hiring reporters and editors. While at times an outlet might champion a particular cause or candidate — Breitbart’s paleoconservative push for Trump in 2016, for example, or The Bulwark’s ongoing anti-Trumpism — in general, we found little sub-ideological sorting among conservative newsworkers. That is, most online conservative news outlets employ conservatives of various ideological stripes. Sorting outlets into fusionist, neoconservative, neoliberal, and paleoconservative niches would require considerable shakeups within extant digital conservative newsrooms, which seems unlikely.

While Trump’s removal by impeachment seems similarly unlikely, he still faces an uphill battle in the 2020 election. Even if he manages to thread the Electoral College needle once again, the inevitable end of the Trump era will necessarily impact a conservative mediasphere that has already been fundamentally reshaped by his presidency.

There are two likely trajectories for a post-Trump future of conservative media — a reckoning or a reformation.

A one-term Trump presidency would precipitate a wave of infighting within both the modern conservative movement and the Republican Party. If he loses in a landslide, he risks dragging paleoconservative ideals — such as trade protectionism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and white nationalism — back into ignominy (good riddance).

Such an outcome would likely cause tumult among conservative newsworkers. Those who staked their reputations defending Trump will be forced to denounce him or else face the recriminations of fellow conservatives who publicly held their tongues during the height of the Trump personality cult.

A resurgence of anti-Trump conservatism would create new opportunities for Trump apologists (i.e. Breitbart) to again corner the market on paleoconservative commentary and news. But I suspect most conservative outlets will return to their fusionist roots, in search of a viable post-Trump conservative vision.

On the other hand, if Trump wins reelection, or only loses by a small margin, the main beneficiary will be the nascent Nationalist Conservatism movement. As artfully profiled by the Know Your Enemy podcast this summer, nationalist conservatism is an effort to reproduce Trumpism without the cult of personality. Without a clear imperative to denounce Trumpism outright, many conservative news and commentary outlets will face considerable pressure to hew to the tenets of nationalist conservatism — their audiences will be expecting a worldview similar to the one espoused during the Trump years and will have little incentive to consider where or whether Trump led them astray.

While conservative media often seem to control of the national narrative, the Trump era has reiterated they are, in fact, limited by the perceived boundaries of acceptable public discourse. From William F. Buckley’s founding of the National Review through the Tea Party era, conservative media figures were highly attuned to shifts in public opinion — softening their racial appeals and employing dog whistles, for example, when overt white supremacist rhetoric became perceived as unacceptable to the public at large.

Trump’s brash white supremacism has stretched the tensile boundaries of conservative respectability politics to near their breaking point. Only a strong electoral backlash in 2020 can impose respectable boundaries on the conservative mediasphere. Absent that, with a few principled exceptions, I fear conservative media will venture beyond self-regulation for good.

A.J. Bauer is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU.

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