On the advice of my doctor and my waistline, I've started spending more time at the gym over the last month, usually on an elliptical machine, which is wholly uninteresting to you except for one thing: While I'm gliding or stair-climbing or whatever, I can watch several cable news channels at once on the flat screens. And that has afforded me a window into the alternate reality of the Trump propaganda machine.
Take last week. The news – the real news – was consumed with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictments against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an aide, Richard Gates, as well as the guilty plea of former national security aide George Papadopolous, who admitted to trying to arrange a meeting with the Kremlin and lying about it to the FBI. There was also further evidence that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to the Senate about his knowledge of the campaign's Russia contact, the president demanding that the man who killed eight people in Lower Manhattan be executed and toying with sending him to Gitmo, Politico's insightful profile on John Boehner and the Republican Party's descent into madness, the cancellation of a shady contract to restore Puerto Rico's electrical grid, and the GOP's new tax bill – all undeniably major stories, especially that first one.
The duplicity and distraction so obviously at play would be funny, were it not so threatening to American democracy.
And yet, watching Fox News, you'd get the sense that the real story was the imminent downfall of President Trump's vanquished political rival, Hillary Clinton, over the Steele Dossier and the Uranium One deal. Neither of these conspiracies stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Of course the Democrats continued funding oppo into Trump's ties to Russia after Republicans stopped; of course hiring an ex-British spy to do the research is not at all like arranging a meeting with people tied to the Kremlin to get dirt on your opponent. Of course the Uranium One deal is a nothingburger: Clinton wasn't involved in approving the deal, which wasn't that important anyway, and the guy who gave her foundation money a decade ago sold his stake in Uranium One long before the deal went through.
But the fact that these stories are easily debunked hasn't stopped Fox and similarly conservative news media from harping on them ad nauseam, like they're just as bad if not worse than collusion between the Trump campaign and a hostile foreign state.
A more real story that has also become a Fox fixation is former interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile's claim that the DNC did in fact rig the election for Clinton, through a joint fundraising agreement that gave the Clinton campaign control over some DNC operations. Here, too, the truth is a little more complicated – the DNC was deep in debt, Clinton bailed it out and, as part of the deal, had some say in the DNC's staffing, messaging and budgets – but this at least is a real thing. The DNC was behind Hillary Clinton from the get-go and assumed she'd win; the Bernie Sanders crowd have every right to be pissed, and they are.
Still, it's jarring how closely Fox News' priorities align with Trump's spin. On Twitter, he complains almost daily about the Justice Department not investigating Clinton on the Steele Dossier funding (not illegal), the Brazile revelations (not even remotely illegal) and the Uranium One deal (not illegal either). (Five times within a 24-hour span last week, Trump took to Twitter to urge the DOJ to prosecute his former political rival, a practice that we tend to criticize when it happens in third-world countries.) This is the real collusion, he says. And that's the line that Fox's more credulous hosts, particularly Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, parrot.
There's a symbiosis here, too. Trump is an avid watcher of the depressingly dumb morning show Fox & Friends, and the half-baked nonsense and conspiracy-mongering they channel every morning often becomes grist for Trump's Twitter tantrums. And in exchange, Trump and his supporters are given fawning interviews to expound upon the president's greatness.
It's not just Fox, of course. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page has recently taken a turn for the embarrassing too, especially with an editorial calling for Mueller to resign and an op-ed urging Trump to issue blanket pardons for everyone involved in Russia, including himself. There's also the execrable Breitbart, the cesspool that gave aid and comfort to white nationalists and is doing its level best to scrape away the last strains of sanity from the GOP.
The duplicity and distraction so obviously at play would be funny were it not so threatening to American democracy. What these media outlets, led by Fox, are doing is establishing an impervious feedback loop between Trump supporters who want to believe the best about him and what is effectively state media that tells them what they want to believe, facts be damned. Excepting some of its straight-news programming, Fox has become every bit a naked propaganda shop, twisting and distorting the news and selling it to people who don't know any better. (This isn't to say that liberals don't gravitate to liberal media outlets; absolutely they do. But there can be no legitimate equivalence between Fox News and MSNBC, or especially between Fox News and the New York Times. Anyone who tries to sell you that swill is a hack at best.)
And that's a big reason Trump still has an 81 percent job approval among Republicans, propping up his otherwise flatlining support.