Here’s a Doonesbury cartoon by Garry Trudeau from 1974:
Things never change, do they—or do they? In 1974, of course, there was an expectation that if Richard Nixon were impeached and put on trial in the Senate, there was a chance that at least some Republicans would vote to remove him from office—which is why Nixon resigned when it looked like impeachment and a Senate trial were a certainty.
In 2019, of course, few see any likelihood at all that a Republican-dominated Senate would ever vote Trump out of office, regardless of what charges the House might impeach him with—even if he knocked over a bank, say, or shot the proverbial “somebody on Fifth Avenue.”
What’s changed between 1974 and 2019? The biggest transformation was the realization of the longstanding Republican dream—perhaps first articulated in a memo drafted by Roger Ailes for the Nixon White House (Gawker, 6/30/11)—of a right-wing media network that would do an end-run around what was seen as a media establishment hostile to the GOP: “It avoids the censorship, the priorities and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators,” Ailes’ GOP TV proposal promised.
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The idea that the media establishment was inherently hostile to Republicans was largely a delusion; newspapers endorsed Nixon over Democratic challenger George McGovern 753 to 56, after all. But merely not having the selling of conservative policies as their primary motivation made corporate media an obstacle and therefore an enemy—and Ailes worked tirelessly to create a parallel media system that would deliver the news as the right wing wants it to be seen—”The Way Things Ought to Be,” as the title of a book by Ailes protege Rush Limbaugh put it.
The main value of Fox News, the cable behemoth launched by Ailes on behalf of right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch, is that it teaches conservative viewers that no facts or logic can force them to believe anything they don’t want to believe. Much as the tobacco and fossil fuel industries created their own realms of pseudo-scholarship where smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer and greenhouse gasses don’t warm the planet, Fox creates a parallel universe where conservatives are always victims, never villains, and any evidence to the contrary is simply—as the shopworn saying goes—”fake news.”
The corporate media establishment is devoted to the peculiar notion of “objectivity” (FAIR.org, 7/20/12)—which, somewhat counterintuitively, rejects the idea that there is an objective reality that journalists can meaningfully describe, and instead limits reporters’ role to repeating claims made about reality by various sources. On matters of national importance, these sources mostly consist of powerful government officials, including representatives of the major opposition party. This system allows reality as described in the most prestigious media outlets to be defined by the leadership of the two-party establishment—which turned out to be a good recipe for a stable, self-sustaining political class (one whose policy proposals could be counted on not to threaten the profits of media owners or sponsors).
Stable, that is, until one party figures out that the system allows them to say whatever they want. The rise of the right-wing media machine allowed Republicans to create their own self-serving fantasy world—and the rules of the centrist establishment meant that that bizarro version had to be incorporated into the consensus media reality. When the president is accused of a crime, he need not disprove the allegations, but merely needs to put forward a version of events in which he is the one fighting crime, and his accuser a traitor working on behalf of a shadowy cabal. This becomes the unquestioned reality of the right-wing parallel universe—and an on-the-other-hand option offered by the centrist press.