Fans of big fictional universes — Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Simpsons — often speak to each other in references. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” “BortaSnIvqu’ ‘oH bortaS’e’.”
These in-group references can sometimes be exclusionary—or even seem rude to casual fans. But they can also be a lot of fun, letting hardcore fans have faster, deeper conversations about stories they love.
In-speak has taken hold in right-wing media, too. Peruse Conservatism Inc. these days and you’ll see it’s become so dependent on inside references and shared fictions, that it’s inaccessible to the general public, even as it’s more thrilling to fans.
Except instead of “radiation can give you superpowers,” it’s stuff like “Donald Trump won the 2020 election.”
This closed system of conservative media didn’t start in 2021. For example, in September 2018, former president Barack Obama gave a speech arguing against “appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another.” By way of response, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro dismissed this idea by noting, among other things, that Obama “declared that a slain black teenager could have been his son.” That was it, no further explanation. Shapiro was referencing the Trayvon Martin case — over six years old at that point — and his audience had to both (a) know that and (b) already have internalized the conclusion that expressing empathy about it in the past was a bad thing.
In 2019 David Roth coined the term “Fox News Cinematic Universe” (FNCU) to describe the reference-heavy style of Trump tweets, such as those that mention, without context, “the very dumb legal argument of ‘Judge’ Andrew Napolitano” and “low ratings Shepard Smith.”
It’s not new, but the universe — which includes Fox, Newsmax, OANN, various websites, podcasts, and Republican officials — has gotten even more insular in recent months. The main reasons include:
(1) COVID, which led the Trumpified FNCU to downplay the virus’s severity, push a false miracle drug, and treat even mild mitigation measures as assaults on freedom.
(2) The 2020 election, which led right-wing media to push the Big Lie that Trump won but was somehow cheated out of victory (despite no evidence and over 60 losses in court).
(3) The Biden presidency, which Republicans have found hard to attack.
The result is an alternate reality that manufactures grievances and celebrates lost causes that you can’t really understand unless you’re already a fanboy.
A good example of this phenomenon came after Biden’s speech marking the anniversary of the pandemic on March 11. It was a short address, barely 25 minutes long, during which the president lamented all we’ve lost, outlined where things stand now, and explained his plans for vaccine distribution. He implored everyone to get vaccinated, and set a target for something close to normal life. Here’s part of what he said:
If we do all this, if we do our part, if we do this together, by July the 4, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends, will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day. That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together.
After this long hard year, that will make this Independence Day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.
To most people this was a fairly no-nonsense assessment laced with hope and cautious optimism.
To members of the FNCU, it was a horrific threat of government oppression that required immediate defiance.
“This is a free people, a free country. How dare you tell us who we can spend the Fourth of July with,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson demanded.
“I’m thinking massive party,” Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw wrote.
And Ted Cruz tweeted this:
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) March 12, 2021
For Cruz’s Tweet to make any sense, you have to already believe that Biden saying he hopes people can gather safely for barbecues on July 4 was actually a threat to forbid them from doing so. You have to believe that the president has the power to do such a thing. (He doesn’t.) Basically, you have to be steeped in FNCU canon.
Or in this case, cannon. Cruz’s post is a reference to a makeshift flag from the 1835 Battle of Gonzales, where Texan revolutionaries resisted the Mexican army’s effort to take back a cannon.
“Come and take it” goes back to ancient Sparta’s Battle of Thermopylae against the Persian army, and the original phrase, molon labe—along with its English translation—are popular among gun-rights activists. So to really grok everything going on with Cruz’s tweet, you have to believe Biden was threatening Texans’ barbecues, think it’s similar to Democrats’ supposed efforts to “take your guns,” and then understand that Ted Cruz is suggesting any such government assault on freedom will be opposed by his band of Great Patriots with force.
This isn’t a one-time thing. Here’s Cruz using the same meme last Thanksgiving:
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) November 22, 2020
These two calls for resistance highlight the increasing disconnect between the FNCU and reality. Because in case you’ve forgotten, here’s what happened in November 2020:
Public health officials, such as Anthony Fauci, implored Americans not to gather for Thanksgiving, lest they spread the coronavirus. There was no order from the federal government forbidding gatherings. But enough people got together anyway that Thanksgiving 2020 took the pandemic to new heights. Three weeks after Thanksgiving we had 2,500 Americans dying from COVID per day.
But none of that really registered for Cruz and the FNCU fanboys. Because the entire conceit of their expanded universe is that in every situation they are the victims. Asking them to view thousands of sick and dying as victims deserving protection is like asking a Star Wars fan to embrace Star Trek. Or a Marvel fan to switch allegiances to DC.
Back in 2018 I argued that during the Obama years, the right had geared up to oppose a left-wing radical. When Barack Obama governed as a liberal centrist, conservatives didn’t bother to change their narrative. They just plowed ahead with their pre-written attacks, reality be damned. With Biden, it’s the same. But worse.
The new president soundly defeated both economic and cultural progressives in the Democratic primary. He opposes single-payer healthcare and calls for increasing police funding. He displays a moderate disposition, advocates unity, and stays out of the culture wars. At a town hall in February, he refused to cancel $50,000 of student debt. You’re welcome to dislike Joe Biden, but a left-wing radical he is not.
Biden is an old, white Catholic. The bigoted attempts to other him, which worked to some degree with Obama or Hillary Clinton, aren’t available. Attempts to attack him indirectly, via his son Hunter, have fallen flat. And accusations that Biden is not of sound mind set a low bar he has easily cleared over and over—in debates, town halls, and speeches.
Yet the Republican party and right-wing media are committed to opposing Biden, to pushing the Big Lie that his election was illegitimate, and to casting their supporters not as people who disagree with the president, but as perpetual victims living under existential threat. So they retreat further into their bubble, fixating on hyperbolic dangers posed by, for example, Hasbro slightly rebranding Mr. Potato Head (they still sell Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, but the whole line is now called “Potato Head”).
That’s as unimportant as it sounds, but GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz goes around lamenting that Mr. Potato Head “got canceled,” Fox News host Greg Gutfeld claimed Mr. Potato Head got “neutered,” and Sean Hannity put together a panel to discuss the “controversy and confusion.”
Because their base is so deep in this bubble, and so committed to the Big Lie about mass voter fraud, the Republican party has essentially given up on winning a majority of voters, and is trying instead to restrict voting. GOP legislators in Georgia, Arizona, Texas, and other states are attempting to pass bills reducing early voting, creating new hurdles for mail-in voting, and even banning passing out water to voters waiting on long lines. The intention is unmistakable: fewer voters casting ballots.
The right-wing media bubble isn’t new, but it’s gotten deeper, more self-referential, and less accessible to outsiders. With a fictional universe, that can make for a fun fan experience, allowing more complicated storytelling with a greater variety of characters.
With the Fox News Cinematic Universe, it’s a danger to democracy.