Comment: What works for Trump and Fox is poison for the GOP

Trump gets attention. Fox gets ratings. But Republicans think they can say any fool thing and still win.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

The relationship between Donald Trump and the Republican-aligned media is symbiotic; and dysfunctional, at least for the Republican Party.

Trump had a bad day on Wednesday, with the state of New York filing suit against him for inflating the value of his properties and a federal appellate court ruling against him in his battle with the federal government over his possession of classified documents. So what did the former president do? He went on Sean Hannity’s prime-time show on Fox News to complain. He had a completely bizarre diatribe about, among other things, how he could declassify things while president just by thinking it (uh, no) and his even goofier theory that the FBI may have been looking for Hillary Clinton’s emails at Mar-a-Lago.

What Fox News gets out of all this is clear: viewers. What Trump gets out of it is also clear: the attention he craves, which also helps him remain the most prominent Republican in the nation, which helps his chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 if he wants it.

What the Republican Party gets out of this is … well, nothing good. To begin with, boosting the chances of a candidate who may well wind up under federal indictment, and remains unpopular except with the most intense Republican voters (and, given his many scandals, is likely to remain so), doesn’t help the party. Most of the time, when its candidate loses a presidential election, a political party moves on; and that’s with a candidate untouched by scandal.

As for the long-term effects on the party and its voters; well, that’s nothing good, either. Think about what Republican-aligned media — not just Fox News, but other TV, talk radio and online outlets — are teaching Republican voters. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted after watching Trump’s performance on Hannity, what viewers are experiencing is the “hermetically sealed-off Fox News universe, where actual legal arguments against him were treated as if they simply don’t exist.”

But the worst effects may be on Republican politicians. The lesson they’re getting is that, within the party, anything goes. They don’t have to come up with strong arguments to defend themselves or their ideas; they can just say any fool thing, and party-aligned media will treat it as if it’s brilliant. They are also learning that, especially on Fox News, it’s dangerous to speak out about even very obvious wrongdoing by anyone in the party.

(The exception that proves the rule was the case of Madison Cawthorn, the young House Republican that Fox News turned against; and who then lost his primary.)

The problem comes when this closed information loop collides with the rest of the world. For Trump, that collision is taking place in the judicial system, which is not impressed with his bluff and bluster.

For the Republican Party, however, the problem is manifesting itself in the form of a historically poor crop of candidates. Just this week, two House Republican candidates ran into trouble, one for having campaigned on combat experience in Afghanistan that was reported to be fiction.

As the political scientist Brendan Nyhan points out, this is an expected consequence of nominating inexperienced candidates. But it’s more than that: It’s what happens when one of the core beliefs of a political party is that nothing matters; not just experience, but policy and maybe even truth itself. If that’s the case, then not only are qualifications irrelevant, but so are policy positions that are unpopular with swing voters.

It’s hard to say how much all of this will matter this November, but it certainly is putting what should be a great year for the party — with an unpopular Democratic president in office — in serious danger. The Senate and gubernatorial races are already more competitive than anticipated, and now it appears the House is as well.

Of course, ratings for Fox News and for Republican-aligned talk radio will probably be higher if Democrats do well in November, as Trump and other Republicans go on the air to rail against the continued outrages of President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress. Now that’s what I call symbiotic.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.

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