During the 1990s, no one had a run quite like The American Spectator. The conservative magazine’s clout grew after a series of critical investigations into Bill and Hillary Clinton on topics like Troopergate and Paula Jones. Circulation jumped from roughly 150,000 in late 1993 to nearly 300,000 a few months later. Its high-profile reporter, David Brock, became a veritable star.
In cahoots with wealthy Republicans, the editors conceived of a way to capitalize on the magazine’s success. They dubbed it the “Arkansas Project” ― named after the state which Clinton had governed. But as quickly as prosperity came, it began to dissipate. As documented in a lengthy piece for The Atlantic by Byron York, the magazine began dabbling in conspiracies. It was accused of paying off a key witness to the Whitewater investigation. Credibility began to vanish, circulation slipped and the magazine’s financial stability became less certain.
Decades later, the Spectator remains alive. But its influence is felt more as a cautionary tale than a mover of news and opinion. On the day it was announced that the CEO of another envelope-pushing, conspiracy-peddling conservative outlet ― Breitbart News ― was heading over to run Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the parallels were inescapable.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen something happen when a conservative media outlet destroyed its credibility,” Mark Hemingway, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard, said of Breitbart.
Even Brock, now a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter, couldn’t escape the similarities. Breitbart “is the tip of the spear for lunatic anti-Clinton pseudo-scandals and conspiracy theories, [and] has perfected the style of writing propaganda under the guise of ‘reporting’ like an electronic Arkansas Project,” he said. But whereas his old haunt respected some traditional boundaries, he couldn’t say the same of the current incarnation.
“Imagine the Spectator taking over a GOP presidential campaign?!!?” he wrote.
The success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, accompanied by a civil war within conservative media over his candidacy, was bound to produce a post-election reckoning. Breitbart’s Steve Bannon’s ascension from anti-establishment bomb-thrower to head of the Republican presidential campaign ― essentially the establishment ― has only accelerated the process.
“There are a lot of people who will forever be tarred by their support for Donald Trump, and certainly Breitbart News is going to be part of that campaign,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former top staffer to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and a CNN commentator. “In one way, I hope that these alt right websites all jump on board the Trump campaign so we can have a clear referendum on who has real credibility and who doesn’t.”
Added Hemingway: “There are elements of the entertainment wing of the Republican Party that need to be dealt with. The Sean Hannitys of the world would not be missed if they had a less large platform than they do now.”
Few could express sincere shock over the Bannon news. The site has long been a Trump cheerleader (though its founder felt a bit differently). And Trump has rewarded it in kind with leaks, interviews and a mimicking of its self-described “populist, nationalist” style. The concern, instead, lies in the legitimization that Breitbart and others like it receive by being granted the head seat at the proverbial table.
“There are a lot more racist and ignorant people in America that are now on the Internet,” said Kurt Bardella, a Republican operative who served two years as a Breitbart spokesman before quitting over the site’s allegiance to Trump. “I’m not saying all people from a certain ideology are racist or ignorant. What I’m saying is that if you’re racist or ignorant you are probably a Breitbart reader.”
The alt-right media movement, embraced on Breitbart, certainly has dabbled in conspiracy theories and racist tropes. And that hasn’t gone unnoticed by conservative writers who fret about a broader stigmatization of their craft. But what concerns them too is that the alt-right has created what is in essence an un-reality ― in which their candidate of choice is only hampered by squishy Republicans and not his own foibles.
“Steve Bannon really, truly seems to believe this idea that we’re on this cusp of this transformative political awakening. There’s this nascent national populist movement out there that is going to supplant traditional limited government conservatism and be the next sort of great awakening, the next great political movement,” said National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg.
“He believes it, or at least I take him at his word he believes that stuff,” he continued. “Trump certainly has a lot of followers who believe that stuff. I think it is all bullshit. Which is not to say some of the things that motivate Trump supporters are illegitimate or not worth paying attention to. But this idea that there is a majority party in this country that is going to be nationalist of the sort of Le Pen variety, I just think is nonsense.”
This idea that there is a majority party in this country that is going to be nationalist of the sort of Le Pen variety, I just think is nonsense. National Review's Jonah Goldberg
But if traditional conservative media is hoping for a reckoning, there is concern that the conditions might not be ripe. Unlike when William F. Buckley wielded the National Review to purge the Republican Party of members of the John Birch Society half a century ago, there is no authority figure to bring about the cleansing this time around. If anything, TV and radio hosts with some of the largest audiences in the conservative media universe are largely Trump allies. And unlike when the Spectator saw its readership decline, the modern media landscape ― with its easy points of access and low bars for entry ― makes it harder today to punish perceived bad actors.
“There is nobody who has either the statutory authority or the moral authority to police the right,” said Matt Lewis, who examined the conservative media echo chamber and where the Republican Party had strayed from the Reagan era in his recent book, Too Dumb To Fail. “And so that’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to be suddenly the adults show up and take over and take the bad actors and force them to sit in the corner. That person doesn’t exist, and if he did exist, nobody would listen.”
The incentives “are all perverse,” Lewis added. There may be a place for the “last honest man on earth” to call out the alt-right, but that job is “not incredibly profitable.”
Not everyone is pessimistic about what the future has in store for the conservative press. Even with the ascendance of Breitbart, there remain highly capable outlets and respected reporters within that universe. And if the campaign ends in a fashion that most expect ― with a loss of massive proportions for the Republican nominee ― the biggest Trump cheerleaders will be called to task. Some, like Hannity immediately after the 2012 election, may explain how their views evolved. But even then, those who want to purge the movement of the people they believe have coopted it will have a bit of ammunition.
“I look forward to that fight after the election,” said Goldberg. “I think it’s going to take place in a thousand different places. It’s going to take places in magazines, and in talk radio, and on college campuses and all the rest. And that’s a fight. And if you’re conservative and you’re not willing to have that fight, you might as well hang up your cleats and go home. That’s sort of why we’re here.”