Cymothoa exigua is a terrifying creature.
The parasite enters a fish through its gills, attaches to its tongue, consumes the tongue, and then becomes a sort of new tongue. For the rest of the fish’s life, it swims around with the “tongue-eating louse,” as the isopod is known, operating its mouth.
At first, seeing a photo of it made me recoil. Then, I realized it seemed oddly familiar: It reminds me of the relationship between what’s loosely defined as “conservative media” and the GOP.
For a long time, most influential right-leaning media figures were content to swim alongside the GOP, flowing along in the same general direction. Until Donald Trump came along. Then they saw an opportunity to burrow deep inside the GOP and wield real power.
It worked. So well that the GOP, as an institution, no longer controls its tongue and its craven media parasites are the only thing keeping it alive.
Ask yourself, “Who are the actual leaders of the GOP?” Who truly influences Republican voters?
It’s not whoever the Republican National Committee will nominate as its next chairman. It’s not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for God’s sake. It’s the Fox News primetime lineup, the large galaxy of radio and digital outlets clamoring to place their personalities and stories on Fox News, and their vast array of fringy lower-tier knockoffs.
All day, every day, these talkers, writers, producers, and editors set the party agenda. They act as the Republican party’s “war room.” They give favored politicians airtime to solicit donations from their viewers. They go negative on their political enemies. Their stars even headline campaign events to rev up the base and get out the vote.
The ones who are good at it get paid far more by the likes of the Murdoch and the Mercer families to carry out the political agenda than any mere senator or congressman. These talkers, not the elected officials stuck grubbing around shaking hands and campaigning in the streets, are the party’s real leaders.
Donald Trump is almost an afterthought in this context. After all, where is Trump without the glow of the TV camera and his Twitter handle? Nowhere. Long before he announced his candidacy in 2015, Fox primed the GOP base for a candidate like him; the network gave him more airtime than other candidates, including a longstanding call-in segment on Fox & Friends; no one blinked an eye when Fox head Roger Ailes, who had a quarter-century friendship with Trump, began advising the Trump campaign soon after Ailes’s ouster from the network. And beyond and before Fox, the media—news, talk, and entertainment—always have been and always will be Trump’s source of political strength. That will only become more true after he leaves office. He will continue to seek out ratings, somewhere, as sustenance for relevance and survival.
The only question is what channel and whether he appears on the network, owns it, or licenses his name.
Knowing this dynamic within the GOP, it’s no wonder that (to name just one ambitious pol) Sen. Ted Cruz has adopted the posture of an online Twitter troll instead of the constitutional scholar-turned-statesman of the most Republican of the big states. One doesn’t amass a rabid grassroots following by passing bipartisan legislation, delivering on constituent services, or even acting to protect the homeland during a pandemic. The demands of leading and governing in the public interest have never meshed well with the demands of winning and keeping office, but they have never before been so contradictory.
Propaganda Party rules dictate that “owning the libz” and generating likes, retweets, and reactions online are the key to success. In the absence of any policy platform, a new party operating philosophy has emerged among politicians and media figures alike: present Trump-friendly figures in the best light possible and depict anyone who stands in their way as some variation of a socialist, child-eating, Satan worshipper.
Plenty of deep-pocketed investors are down for it; they’re looking to fund more media that will do exactly this. In a piece published last night, New York Times media reporter Ben Smith found a healthy appetite among media investors eager to “convert Mr. Trump’s political profile into cash”:
“There are a lot of well-capitalized people circling,” said Michael Clemente, a former executive at ABC News and Fox News and former chief executive of Newsmax, who has been part of conversations as a potential leader of a new venture. . . . The noisiest effort is led by Hicks Equity Partners, the family business of a Republican National Committee co-chairman and friend of Donald Trump Jr., Thomas Hicks Jr. The Hicks group has sought to lead buyouts of both Newsmax and its smaller and stranger rival, the One America News Network. . . .
Other possibilities for the president to cash in on his stature include creating a new Trump TV network from scratch, either as a television broadcast channel, a package of online video or even a way to direct cash into the Trump family political operation.
Dollar-for-dollar it’s a much better bang for their buck than funding candidates or ads. It sure beats abiding by pesky campaign finance rules, too.
The only problem is, people outside of the GOP bubble are starting to think that publishing and promoting disinformation shouldn’t be so easy. Hence, the GOP obsession with “Big Tech”—or what Tucker Carlson dubbed the “censorship cartel.” This is practically the only policy discussion that universally animates a major sect of top 2024 GOP presidential candidates, among whom, at least according to one poll, Carlson could be a plausible contender.
Makes sense. The prospect that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram might enforce rules to bar politicians from dumping disinformation online is probably the biggest threat to their political model.
What happens next?
It is said that when the host fish dies, Cymothoa exigua will release itself from the oral cavity and can be seen clinging to the fish’s head or body. But, no one wants to be seen clinging to the husk of Trump’s dead Republican party.
Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo did her best to heave life into Trump’s dead 2020 prospects in his first post-election interview on Sunday. The Trump campaign has lost dozens of court cases contesting the election, yet she told Trump, “The facts are on your side.” Without any evidence she claimed, “This is disgusting, and we cannot allow America’s election to be corrupted.” In the age of Trump, the former Money Honey has turned into a propaganda princess.
Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy straight-up says that Trump’s baseless election lies are working out well for Ruddy. He told the New Yorker, “The news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute, according to Nielsen, tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good.”
He added, “We have an editorial policy of being supportive of the President and his policies.” Whatever those may be. It doesn’t really matter. He’ll swallow it.
Because people like Ruddy and the talk radio personalities and the Fox primetime hosts have only one primary function now: Keep Trump’s GOP alive, no matter what. They feed themselves and feed the political machine at once. And, without them, the GOP in its current form will wither and die.
The propaganda is the party and the party is propaganda. Sink or swim.