Commentary: Trump’s failures leave conservative media figures, acolytes exposed

President Trump at the ceremonial swearing-in of James N. Mattis as secretary of Defense in 2017.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

Tucker Carlson took a sudden “long-planned” vacation.

New York Times columnist Bari Weiss resigned.

Rush Limbaugh floated cannibalism as a pioneer coping mechanism to learn from.

The COVID-19 pandemic has us all rattled, but the cultural equivalent of an 8.5 on the Richter scale shook conservative media last week when center-right columnists and hard-line radio and TV personalities alike lost their footing, their will or, in Limbaugh’s case, their minds while trying to defend their views.

Carlson blamed liberal ghouls for another racist scandal associated with his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Weiss pointed to the newsroom’s liberal “cancel culture”as her reason for leaving the New York Times. Limbaugh blamed milquetoast millennials’ fear of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 for the troubling state of the union.

But none of the usual imputing helped pivot their arguments away from the true reason fissures are opening under their feet: President Trump’s deadly mishandling of COVID-19 and his key role in stoking a resurgence in white nationalism.

The Karen meme sends up a laughable, often feckless symbol of racism in America. But it’s cold comfort against the violent truth of white nationalism.


The U.S. is approaching 150,000 pandemic deaths with at best flailing federal oversight, crowds are still protesting in the streets over the killing of Black Americans like George Floyd and Trump has responded to crisis after crisis with more lies, lighter fluid and lighted matches.

Vitriol over “unpatriotic” Colin Kaepernick and “alarmist” infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci may help boost ratings, but they’re no competition for today’s No. 1 destabilizer of the conservative media ecosystem.

Trump’s refusal to meaningfully address rising infection rates, while politicizing the actions of those who try to contain the virus, is challenging for columnists and commentators to defend or spin without ending up on the wrong side of history, or worse, agreeing with Rachel Maddow.

Equally fraught for those like Carlson is railing about “Antifa terrorists” and “police haters” while Trump is retweeting a supporter’s chants of “White Power!” and tactical squads deployed by the federal government are throwing demonstrators in Portland, Ore., into unmarked vans or, in the case of critically wounded 26-year-old Donavan La Bella, shooting them in the head with “impact munitions.”

Polls indicate that the majority of Americans now believe COVID-19 is a deadly crisis that needs to be taken seriously despite Trump’s efforts to convince them otherwise. Last week, the White House sent reporters a background statement that included the “number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things” during the crisis. It was clearly meant to discredit the good doctor, who’s countered Trump’s downplay campaign in order to save lives. The nerve.

Americans also agree with the aims of Black Lives Matter and support police reform. That schism between public opinion and the reactionary madness of a leader who’s fumbled on both fronts has created a perilous path for the media’s right-leaning voices, not to mention Trump’s steadfast acolytes.

Their increasingly untenable position — out on a limb in support of a president whose reelection hopes are in steep decline — was thrown into sharp relief Sunday when Fox’s Chris Wallace pushed back on Trump’s comments about crime in cities “run by liberals” during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s gotten totally out of control, and it’s really because they want to defund the police, and Biden wants to defund the police,” Trump said. He contended that Joe Biden had “signed a charter” with Sen. Bernie Sanders to defund the police.

After Wallace corrected him, Trump turned to his staff: “Get me the charter, please.”

Tucker Carlson, host of "Tucker Carlson Tonight."
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Perhaps it was filed in White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s binder, which a Reuters photographer captured in a viral image — replete with tabs with subject headings like “Absurd,” “Golf,” “Lies” and “Win.” Low-hanging fruit for an election-year word scramble.

“Hate” was also a tab in the binder, which didn’t surprise anyone. It underpins several conservative and “alt-right” movements that helped Trump win in 2016, sold as part of a principled resistance to liberalism and brushed with a libertarian veneer: It’s about personal liberty, not about race. Powered by feelings of “disenfranchisement,” it offered permission to embrace the same old racism, sexism and homophobia under the guise of a new political ideology.

Now there’s little to no veneer left.

During a live radio show Saturday, former Trump political operative Roger Stone used a racial slur while speaking with the show’s Black host, Morris W. O’Kelly. Speaking over the phone on “The Mo’Kelly Show” about the president’s recent commutation of Stone’s prison sentence, O'Kelly asked, “There are thousands of people treated unfairly ... how [did] your number just happen to come up in the lottery? I am guessing it was more than just luck, Roger. Right?”

When Stone responded, it sounded as if he were caught talking to someone else who was in the room with him. He mumbled, then said, “...arguing with this Negro.” O’Kelly asked him to repeat what he said, but Stone remained silent for nearly 40 seconds, then denied he’d said what he said. Later, O'Kelly commented on the interview: “All of my professional accolades, all my professional bona fides went out the window, because as far as he was concerned, he was talking and arguing with a Negro.”

The Lincoln Project and other “Never Trump” Republican groups are taking on the president. Like Sarah Cooper’s web videos, they are as much comedy as politics.

For his part, Carlson, who took off for a sudden trout fishing vacation after a scandal broke involving his lead show writer, Blake Neff, appears most concerned about his own livelihood. The Fox host has continually stepped over the line, only to pull his toe back when things get too hot. A month before Neff resigned after the discovery of racist and misogynistic posts he’d contributed online under a pseudonym, Carlson was boycotted for proclaiming that the BLM movement “certainly isn’t about Black lives, and remember that when they come for you. And at this rate, they will.”

COVID-19 is Limbaugh’s current hot potato, though he’s resigned to eating human flesh to get through the pandemic if need be. It’s the best the radio host could come up with after he and his peers continually dismissed the virus as a common cold and turned mask-wearing into a liberal-shaming tool.

“It was so bad that they had to turn to cannibalism to survive,” he told listeners last week. “They didn’t complain about it, because there was nothing they could do. They had to adapt. This is what’s missing. There seems to be no concept of adaptation. There seems to be no understanding in the millennial generation that we can adapt to this, and that we’re going to have to.”

As the last week has shown, though, it’s conservative media figures and Trump acolytes whose inability to adapt has left them twisted in knots. And with even GOP moderates jumping ship on the president, there’s no telling what extremes they’ll turn to for survival.