There is no story that I wrote about more in the last couple of years than President Donald Trump’s effort to build an unprecedented right-wing messaging machine wedding platforms like Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group to his presidency.
But in my worst fears about what that would look like and how it might affect our democracy, I never thought I would see what I did Monday night on Fox News, starting with the propaganda performance of Sean Hannity.
The Fox News star was telecasting his show from Cape Girardeau, Mo., where he came to interview the president who was holding an election eve rally there.
The problem was not so much that Hannity was part of the rally, doing his opening monologue in the hall filled with thousands awaiting the arrival of Trump.
Hannity had done his show as part of a Trump spectacle before in September at a rally in Las Vegas when the president was launching his prime-time media effort to win Senate confirmation for Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. You can read my column on it here.
As our politics move from crazy to crazy and fevered with the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh totally on and midterms just around the corner, it is fascinating to watch the Trump propaganda machine gear up. Enter stage right: Sean Hannity and Boris Epshteyn.
And Hannity had been mixing his show up in political events for years. Here’s my account of him being scheduled to do his show from a Tea Party event in Cincinnati in 2010, and Fox News cancelling his appearance after heavy criticism from mainstream media.
Who knew that would look like the good old days with Fox News giving at least lip service in 2010 to the standard that a news channel should not abandon all notion of balance to become the propaganda arm of a political movement?
What was so disgusting about Fox News on Monday night was the way Hannity operated straight out of the propaganda handbook using techniques to mock and vilify opponents that had been used by the publicity machines of fascist leaders since the 1930s in Europe during the early days of electronic mass communications.
Hannity’s opening monologue, as he calls it, took place inside the hall in front of cheering Trump supporters and a stage decked out with large banners saying “Promises Made” and “Promises Kept” behind him. Right-wing radio star Rush Limbaugh and Trump would later speak from the stage — speeches that would be shown in part on Fox News.
Hannity used the campaign theme of “Promises Made” and “Promises Kept” as a rhetorical hammer in his monologue underscoring Trump accomplishments and linking himself totally to the campaign.
“The Trump agenda is paying massive dividends,” Hannity said. “Four hundred thousand new jobs: Promise made. Promises Kept. … He pulled out us out of the job-killing Paris Accords: Promises made. Promise kept.”
And so on. And, I mean, so on. It went on and on with claims of Trump’s greatness flying so fast and furious they could never be fact checked in real time.
And then Hannity directed viewer attention to what he described as an “op-ed on Fox News” allegedly written by Trump, which essentially said, according to Hannity, “If you want continued prosperity, continue this administration” and vote Republican on Tuesday.
As shameless as that kind of partisan cheerleading is for a channel with “news” in its title, I would not be writing this column if that was all Hannity and Fox News did Monday.
But Hannity was just warming for the darker message of his monologue: If you don’t vote Republican Tuesday, Democrats like Maxine Waters and Adam Schiff are going to take over in Congress, and they will try to destroy Trump with endless witch hunts, smears, attacks and impeachment.
And here the message was illustrated with a photograph of Schiff with his eyes bugging out and the words “Shifty Schiff” on the screen. There was also video of Waters talking about impeachment in a way that was characterized by Hannity as proof that impeachment is at the top of a secret Democratic agenda if they win the House.
“They’re hiding their agenda from the American people,” he said.
“They will be investigating Trump,” Hannity added. “’It never ends. … They want endless investigations into Trump. They don’t want investigations into Hillary.”
Shiff, Waters, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama were the names he used to scare the audience about what would happen if the Democrats won the House Tuesday.
Hannity referred to former President Obama as Barack Hussein Obama.
The interview with Trump came with only eight minutes left in the hour and was held in what appeared to be a backstage area of the hall. It was lap dog as only Hannity can do lap dog with the interviewer nodding and feeding lines about Trump’s greatness and accomplishments to the president — as if our narcissist-in-chief needed any help on that score.
He gave Trump a free lane to say how “thousands and thousands” of people had turned out at his rallies Monday and had to be turned away because halls couldn’t hold them.
“There is something happening,” Trump told Hannity and the millions watching at home. “There’s an electricity that feels like 2016.”
That talking point was repeated regularly throughout the rest of the night on Fox News — accepted and repeated mainly because Trump said it.