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There’s an old conservative idea behind Donald Trump’s threat to regulate Google

- September 4, 2018
The logo of Google is pictured during the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit. (Reuters/Charles Platiau)

Nicole Hemmer is an assistant professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia. Her book, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, examines the history of conservative anger at mainstream media. I asked her about the history of President Trump’s recent feud with Google.

HF — President Trump and other Republicans like Kevin McCarthy are complaining that Google is demonstrating liberal bias and preventing conservative voices from finding an audience. Of course, this isn’t the first time that this has happened. What happened when radio broadcasters decided not to carry Clarence Manion’s conservative radio show in the 1950s?

NH — Any time broadcasters chose not to carry his show, Manion saw an opportunity to reinforce two core conservative ideas: liberal media bias and conservative persecution. Manion learned this lesson early on. His radio show began in late 1954, and by 1957 he was embroiled in a controversy over a labor strike in Wisconsin. The network that carried his program, Mutual Broadcast System, was the most conservative of the four national radio networks in the 1950s, but even they were wary of carrying Manion’s interview with Herbert Kohler, who owned the plant involved in the strike. They worried the network would be sued for defamation or otherwise drawn into what had been a pretty litigious conflict. As a result, they refused to broadcast that episode.

So what happened? Manion cried censorship, and not only got significant press coverage — the Kohler interview ended up getting far more national notice than it would have if the episode had actually aired — but also had a case to point to in order to bolster his argument that conservatives were blacked out of the national media. And he raised a ton of money, too.

Which is not to say he was wrong. Mutual made a pretty questionable call, one that avoided broadcasters’ obligation to cover controversial issues. But Manion was able to take that censorship framework and apply it to everything.

HF — You describe how conservatives created a narrative about an “epic, high-stakes struggle between the coordinated forces of oppression and the embattled, noble right.” Where did this narrative come from?

NH — That narrative started quite early on — I trace it back to 1939 and 1940, when many of the people who would build the Cold War conservative movement were active in the America First movement, opposing U.S. involvement in World War II. The anti-interventionist movement wasn’t confined to the right — it actually spanned the political spectrum — but the experience of promoting a political viewpoint not represented in either major party or in the established media fueled a sense of exclusion that would become a key feature of Cold War conservatism. That oppositional identity hardened in 1952 when their standard-bearer, Robert Taft, lost the GOP presidential nomination to political neophyte Dwight Eisenhower.

It’s impossible to overstate how central this notion of oppression has been to modern conservatism. Conservative activists felt excluded from the mainstream and blamed liberals for their exclusion. Their diagnosis wasn’t entirely correct: While they were often relegated to the fringe — they didn’t represent a majority in either party — they weren’t excluded from politics, certainly not to the extent that those on the left or people of color or women were.

But they felt they should have far more influence than they did. After all, the conservative movement was filled with professors and lawyers and Ivy League alumni and party insiders and corporate leaders. That sharpened their sense of exclusion, because they believed they were precisely the demographic who deserved power. And because so many of these activists were elites, they had extensive resources to challenge their exclusion. I call this “elite populism,” and it remains a key characteristic of conservatism.

HF — American media has changed dramatically over the last five decades: For example, the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine has disappeared, in part because of conservative pressure. How does President Trump’s implied threat of government action against Google fit and/or not fit with the conservative understanding of media that you describe?

NH — Today’s media environment is so radically different from 1987, when the Fairness Doctrine was scrapped, that in some ways it’s difficult to compare the two. The Fairness Doctrine was a regulation for an era of media scarcity, when the government could offer only so many broadcast licenses because there was limited space on the airwaves. That’s no longer the case: digital cable, satellite radio and the Internet have ended the scarcity problem.

But some things remain the same. Conservatives still see the world divided between “the media,” liberal sources dedicated to silencing conservatives, and “our media,” like Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and countless online outlets. Trump’s media criticisms fit very much in that tradition (although he divides media slightly differently, between outlets that are friendly to him and “fake news”). The growing conservative criticism of Google, Twitter, Facebook and others as sites of liberal bias fits neatly into this tradition.

As far as Trump’s implied threat of government action: That actually fits into a conservative tradition, as well. Though the right has presented itself as an ardent opponent of media regulation, especially the Fairness Doctrine, plenty of conservatives supported the doctrine, which I wrote about for The Washington Post last week. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the right was gaining more national influence, conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and National Review publisher Bill Rusher all supported the doctrine as a way of getting more conservative voices into the conversation. When power is flowing in their favor, conservatives have embraced media regulation — and polls suggest they’ll likely do the same under Trump.

HF — Your book argues that liberals and other outside commentators have not appreciated the deep historic roots of conservative media activism. In what ways did this activism shape the current relationship between President Trump and the media?

NH — People who date the origins of conservative media activism to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News miss how central media criticism has been to American conservatism from the start. Since the 1950s, conservatives have been developing an ideological understanding of media, a belief that all media outlets are engaged in explicitly political projects whether they acknowledge it or not. In its simplest form, that translates to the belief that media are either conservative or liberal. So if an outlet isn’t explicitly conservative, then it must be left-leaning.

One consequence of this understanding of media is that conservatives are encouraged to judge the trustworthiness of an outlet by its ideology rather than its accuracy. And in that environment, Donald Trump has flourished.

It’s important to remember that Trump gained his political authority in the conservative movement not through the Republican Party but through conservative media. He was a mainstay on Fox & Friends during the early 2010s. He took the outsider, anti-establishment posture popularized by conservative media since the 1950s and turned it on Fox News itself during the 2016 campaign. Notably, he wasn’t the first candidate to try this — both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, Fox News contributors prior to their presidential bids, attacked Fox during the 2012 primaries, a sign that even conservative media aren’t immune to the attitudes and ideologies they foster.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.