The year of MAGAcal thinking

“A narrative wedge is forming between reality-based conservative news outlets and the borderline fan fiction that passes for news on the Trumpist sites.”

Two years ago, I predicted that, freed from Trump’s considerable gravitational pull, conservative media would fragment along sub-ideological lines. Last year, new research proved me wrong, and I posited that anything short of a full-throated rebuke of Trumpism in 2020 would play to the benefit of nationalist conservatives (and the news outlets that appealed to them).

What I failed to predict, and what 2020 (hell year of hell years) has delivered, was a fake split decision. While the 2020 election was by no means close — Biden scored sizeable and unequivocal victories in both the popular vote and Electoral College — Trump has refused to concede, doubling down on increasingly delusional claims of election fraud.

Trump may leave the White House on January 20, but he isn’t going anywhere — much to the chagrin of aspiring 2024 Republican presidential candidates of all ideological stripes.

Trump’s insistence that reality, and his party, bend to his ego-balm fictions has exacerbated two oppositional tendencies within conservative news and commentary.

The first, exemplified by Breitbart, Newsmax, OAN, and Right Side Broadcasting Network, has been a full-fledged embrace of an alternative reality we might call MAGAcal thinking. In this alternative universe, Trump won the election in a landslide. It is unfathomable that he could lose. The election was stolen by the deep state, or communists, or RINOs — you know what? Who cares about the details. Just keep throwing mud at the wall and see what sticks.

These news sites have built their fortunes and relevance off of the Trump presidency and, like Trump himself, they’re clinging to a demonstrably lost cause all the way to the bank. Going forward, these sites will not just continue to seed dangerous disinformation among their die-hard Trumpist audiences — they’ll likely tack on more millenarian messages. Rush Limbaugh’s recent prediction that the U.S. is “trending toward secession” is only a taste of the bellicosity we can expect from these far-right Trump fringe media during the Biden administration.

Another, contradictory, tendency within contemporary conservative news is best illustrated in a recent Tweet by Erick Erickson, former CEO of the conservative blog RedState and founder of The Resurgent: “A clicks and ratings based media is not a truth-based media.”

(Maybe he read Victor Pickard’s latest book?)

While no one had “Woke Erick Erickson” on their 2020 bingo card, his sentiment is consistent with interviews my colleagues Anthony Nadler, Magda Koniezcna, and I conducted with conservative journalists over the past couple of years. Our findings, published as a Tow Center report earlier this year, found that a segment of contemporary conservative news workers hold aspirational values that echo those of mainstream reporters. These conservative reporters and editors lamented the vicissitudes of the click-based news economy and espoused their belief, in measured tones, in fairly representing differing political perspectives and in accurately reporting the facts.

That there are conservative journalists whose values overlap somewhat with those of their “mainstream” counterparts should give us some hope. Fox News called the election for Biden, after all. Sites like the Washington Examiner and Daily Caller have acknowledged that Trump’s false claims lack substance, crafting narratives that harness anger at Trump’s loss without losing all hold of reality. Even if these sites aren’t going so far as to disavow Trump’s false claims, as the National Review and The Bulwark have done, we can draw clear distinctions between their reality-based election commentary and the sort of MAGAcal thinking of the die-hard Trumpist outlets.

While I’d like to predict that these reality-oriented conservative news outlets will win out, it’s worth noting that Newsmax’s Greg Kelly Reports recently beat out Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum among the lucrative 25–54 age demographic. While Fox’s overall viewership for the evening was still four times higher than Newsmax, the Trump-backed alternative cable network is starting to punch above its weight.

The silver lining: A narrative wedge is forming between reality-based conservative news outlets and the borderline fan fiction that passes for news on the Trumpist sites. This contradiction within conservative news will only heighten in the coming year, yielding confusion and infighting among conservative news audiences.

A.J. Bauer is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama.

Two years ago, I predicted that, freed from Trump’s considerable gravitational pull, conservative media would fragment along sub-ideological lines. Last year, new research proved me wrong, and I posited that anything short of a full-throated rebuke of Trumpism in 2020 would play to the benefit of nationalist conservatives (and the news outlets that appealed to them).

What I failed to predict, and what 2020 (hell year of hell years) has delivered, was a fake split decision. While the 2020 election was by no means close — Biden scored sizeable and unequivocal victories in both the popular vote and Electoral College — Trump has refused to concede, doubling down on increasingly delusional claims of election fraud.

Trump may leave the White House on January 20, but he isn’t going anywhere — much to the chagrin of aspiring 2024 Republican presidential candidates of all ideological stripes.

Trump’s insistence that reality, and his party, bend to his ego-balm fictions has exacerbated two oppositional tendencies within conservative news and commentary.

The first, exemplified by Breitbart, Newsmax, OAN, and Right Side Broadcasting Network, has been a full-fledged embrace of an alternative reality we might call MAGAcal thinking. In this alternative universe, Trump won the election in a landslide. It is unfathomable that he could lose. The election was stolen by the deep state, or communists, or RINOs — you know what? Who cares about the details. Just keep throwing mud at the wall and see what sticks.

These news sites have built their fortunes and relevance off of the Trump presidency and, like Trump himself, they’re clinging to a demonstrably lost cause all the way to the bank. Going forward, these sites will not just continue to seed dangerous disinformation among their die-hard Trumpist audiences — they’ll likely tack on more millenarian messages. Rush Limbaugh’s recent prediction that the U.S. is “trending toward secession” is only a taste of the bellicosity we can expect from these far-right Trump fringe media during the Biden administration.

Another, contradictory, tendency within contemporary conservative news is best illustrated in a recent Tweet by Erick Erickson, former CEO of the conservative blog RedState and founder of The Resurgent: “A clicks and ratings based media is not a truth-based media.”

(Maybe he read Victor Pickard’s latest book?)

While no one had “Woke Erick Erickson” on their 2020 bingo card, his sentiment is consistent with interviews my colleagues Anthony Nadler, Magda Koniezcna, and I conducted with conservative journalists over the past couple of years. Our findings, published as a Tow Center report earlier this year, found that a segment of contemporary conservative news workers hold aspirational values that echo those of mainstream reporters. These conservative reporters and editors lamented the vicissitudes of the click-based news economy and espoused their belief, in measured tones, in fairly representing differing political perspectives and in accurately reporting the facts.

That there are conservative journalists whose values overlap somewhat with those of their “mainstream” counterparts should give us some hope. Fox News called the election for Biden, after all. Sites like the Washington Examiner and Daily Caller have acknowledged that Trump’s false claims lack substance, crafting narratives that harness anger at Trump’s loss without losing all hold of reality. Even if these sites aren’t going so far as to disavow Trump’s false claims, as the National Review and The Bulwark have done, we can draw clear distinctions between their reality-based election commentary and the sort of MAGAcal thinking of the die-hard Trumpist outlets.

While I’d like to predict that these reality-oriented conservative news outlets will win out, it’s worth noting that Newsmax’s Greg Kelly Reports recently beat out Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum among the lucrative 25–54 age demographic. While Fox’s overall viewership for the evening was still four times higher than Newsmax, the Trump-backed alternative cable network is starting to punch above its weight.

The silver lining: A narrative wedge is forming between reality-based conservative news outlets and the borderline fan fiction that passes for news on the Trumpist sites. This contradiction within conservative news will only heighten in the coming year, yielding confusion and infighting among conservative news audiences.

A.J. Bauer is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama.

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