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Beer Track and Meth Track
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Beer Track and Meth Track

Right-wing media is preemptively whitewashing a second Trump presidency.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon speaks during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center on March 3, 2023, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

There are two Republican primaries happening, not one, wrote Tim Miller of The Bulwark this past summer. There’s the fantasy primary in which right-wing donors and conservative legacy media obsess over whether Ron DeSantis is outpolling Nikki Haley, or vice versa, and how the latest Potemkin debate might affect that.

And then there’s reality, in which Trump leads by 48.3 points.

It’s embarrassing that a fantasy primary would exist in parallel to a real one, but that fantasy serves a purpose, Miller noted. It reassures traditional Republicans that there’s still a place for their kind in a party now led by capital-A Authoritarians and populated by the lowercase-A variety. Normies may be a minority on the right in 2023, but their continued support is crucial. The GOP can’t win without them.

One can view Kevin McCarthy’s elevation to the speakership as a fantasy in the same vein. If you’re the sort of voter who worries about the party becoming something qualitatively different and ominous under Trump, all you had to do for the past five years was remind yourself that a guy on the cover of Young Guns was nominally a leader of the GOP.

The modern Republican coalition has always required a healthy fantasy life to hold itself together. Those 20-plus women who’ve accused Trump of sexual conduct? Liars, all of them. The 90-plus felony charges that have been filed against him? Baseless, all of them.

The weirder Trump gets, the more robust the fantasies need to be in order to soothe normies and keep them in the fold. What else are the moronic conspiracy theories around January 6—it was a false flag by antifa or the FBI, or by antifa and the FBI—but an attempt to sow doubt among voters so that they won’t hold the insurrection against Trump next fall?

The latest hard reality for right-wing media is a raft of inconvenient reporting about Trump’s illiberal plans for a second term. He craves “retribution” against his enemies; his cronies are recruiting yes-men for important government positions to exact that retribution; even rumblings about using the military in, shall we say, unconventional ways have been heard. “This is all from his own mouth and/or from his close allies or his advisers,” the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman recently stressed. It’s not left-wing fanfic, in case the occasional public vows from the candidate to root out “vermin” haven’t made that clear.

Traditional Republicans won’t be comfortable voting for a man whose autocratic ambitions are overt. Even lowercase-A authoritarians, nagged by a vestigial sense that such things are un-American, might pause at the prospect. The task for right-wing media between now and next November will be to construct a new fantasy for those voters that the talk about Trump wanting to be a dictator is much ado about nothing.

It’s already begun.

The parallel reality of the presidential primary reflects a parallel reality in right-wing media. There are “respectable” outlets aimed at mainstream America that seek to reassure average voters that the GOP is still a normal party, or at least more normal than the Democrats are. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal (any Murdoch property, really) are obvious examples.

Then there are the post-liberal populist outlets that seek to reassure the grassroots that the GOP isn’t the normal party that it was before Trump. Tucker, Steve Bannon’s podcast, Gateway Pundit: That’s where you go for “war” talk and conspiratorial fantasies that Fox refuses to provide. (Well, usually.)

The dichotomy between the two isn’t so much “wine track” versus “beer track” as “beer track” versus “meth track.” And as you might imagine, the two tracks approach the topic of a potential Trump autocracy differently.

The meth track is all-in:

“I’m down for a Trump dictatorship,” Grace Chong, the COO of Bannon’s “War Room” outfit, recently declared. That will be the unspoken ethos of the meth track throughout the campaign, no doubt, although as the election nears I expect they’ll become more circumspect about admitting it publicly. Capital-A Authoritarians understand how chatter like that risks going viral and spooking the lowercase-A cohort. Team Trump has been keen to distance him from the sinister plotting that New Right institutions have undertaken in his name and Bannon lately has sounded grumpy about Trump being asked to address the subject in interviews.

There’ll be plenty of time to talk openly about a Trump dictatorship once he’s been reelected and returned to office; it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission, as the saying goes. Until then, broadcasters and publishers in the meth track will wink at the idea and speak in fashy euphemisms about “knowing what time it is” and “doing what must be done” or whatever. They won’t deny their autocratic intentions—their audience wouldn’t like that—but neither will they confirm them too visibly.

The more respectable commentators of the beer track will happily deny having autocratic intentions of their own. More importantly, they’ll deny that Trump has autocratic intentions—or, if he does, that he stands any realistic chance of acting on them successfully. Again, the point of the beer track is to soothe normie voters about the state of the Republican Party. From now until Election Day, their task will be to persuade the persuadables that a second Trump term would be less dangerous to America than a second Biden term.

And they’re not waiting for him to clinch the nomination before starting that project.

“I don’t think in a second term Trump would have much luck even if he tried to drive the country toward dictatorship,” Brit Hume said earlier this week on (where else?) Fox News. “He’s more likely to drive the Republican Party into defeat at the hands of Joe Biden than he is to drive the country toward dictatorship.”

Another Foxie, Bret Baier, conceded in an interview with Hugh Hewitt that Trump has said “troubling” things on the stump this year. But no worries: “We saw four years of Donald Trump. Were there issues that crossed lines? Yes, they raised all kinds of questions. But did people for the most part live their lives and were there checks and balances? Yes, there were.”

On Thursday Baier repaid the favor by hosting Hugh Hewitt as a panelist on his Fox News evening show. When the subject of a Trump dictatorship came up, Hewitt scoffed. “Hysteria has broken out among our friends in the Beltway media on the left,” he sneered, referencing the reporting on what Trump is planning. “There won’t be a dictatorship. Breaking news. It won’t be a tyranny.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board chipped in its own reassurances in a piece published Thursday titled “The Real Trump Risk to Republicans.” The “real” risk turns out not to be power grabs or invoking the Insurrection Act or contriving an excuse to remain in office when his term runs out in 2029, it might surprise you to learn. The real risk is that he won’t keep his promises on cutting spending:

Mr. Christie chided his Republican rivals for failing to take on the former President directly, which is true to some extent. But the former New Jersey Governor’s warnings that Mr. Trump is a threat to the republic won’t persuade GOP voters who remember Democrats saying the same in 2016.

The more potent attacks during the debate were on his record as President. Ms. Haley gamely noted that he added $9 trillion to the national debt in four years, “and we’re all paying the price of that.” Mr. Trump spent like a Democrat on domestic programs, and there’s little reason to think he would show spending restraint during a second term.

“We think American institutions are strong enough to contain whatever designs Mr. Trump has to abuse presidential power,” the editorial breezily concludes, blissfully oblivious to the fact that a motivated coterie of proto-fascists have anticipated that problem and are working very hard to solve it in advance.

It’s not just Murdoch media that’s rushing to soothe jittery voters as major news organizations go about exposing Trump’s plans. At The Messenger, Joe Concha assured readers on Thursday that hysteria about a Trump autocracy is old wine in new bottles, little more than scare tactics from the left to blunt the decline in Joe Biden’s pitiful polling. “We’re told democracy is at stake. It’s the most overplayed song on the political dial,” he confidently declared.

It can’t happen here. Ignore the fact that Trump tried to make it happen here less than three years ago.

Many of the themes of the coming campaign in respectable right-wing media to convince Americans that Trump poses no threat are apparent in the quotes above. We’ll see them in print and on the air many times before Election Day.

It’s all academic because he can’t win. He can, though. If the election were held today, national polling indicates he would.

Democrats have cried “wolf” about a Trump autocracy before. That’s true, and it’s also true of Never Trump conservatives like me. Guess what: The wolf was real. If Mike Pence had capitulated to pressure from Trump on January 6, it’s anyone’s guess what America would look like today. In beer-track conservative media, the insurrection essentially doesn’t exist. Insofar as it does, there’s no information to be gleaned from it about how Trump might behave in a second term.

Our institutions will hold next time because they held last time. Again, Trump’s lackeys have already begun preparing to hollow out those institutions and then to co-opt them after he returns to power. They learned a hard lesson in 2020 that coup attempts are as successful as the willingness of apparatchiks in key positions to assist them. Somehow, the people currently minimizing the threat he poses failed to learn the same lesson.

He won’t be a literal dictator. This is also true, strictly speaking. Even a pessimist as staunch as me finds it hard to imagine Congress being dissolved and Trump promulgating new laws in the form of dank memes on Truth Social.

But so what? There’s a solid chance that his party will control both houses of Congress in 2025. If they do, he won’t need dictatorial power. Cowardly Republican lawmakers will rubber-stamp his plans as needed. And if they can’t muster the votes for him in certain situations, he’ll act on his own and claim dubious extant legal authority to get his way.

Our friend David French recently pointed out that Trump could shatter the norm that prevents presidents from using soldiers to keep order in American cities while remaining well within the bounds of federal law. If tanks roll on Broadway, his right-wing apologists will remind us that Congress gave him that power via the Insurrection Act, and they’ll be right. Would it make you feel better in that moment to know that Trump’s actions weren’t “dictatorial” in the technical sense of the word?

The core fallacy in all of these rationalizations about the allegedly low risk of a second Trump term is that he’s the same guy as he was in his first term. He didn’t do anything too nutty policy-wise back then. Why would we think he’d do something nutty policy-wise next time?

The answer: Because he’s not precisely the same guy as he was in his first term.

By and large, he is that same guy. That’s how Democrats and Never Trumpers were able to see the wolf coming the first time. Trump is Trump is Trump. You don’t need a degree in political history to recognize his type.

But he’s worse now than he was then. He’s old, and age takes away some self-restraint. He’s terrified about going to prison and enraged at those trying to send him there. He’s gorged himself for years on lavish right-wing propaganda about his own greatness and the depravity of his enemies. He’s cocooned in a thick bubble of slavish yes-men who treat him like a king. He’s en route to a much more decisive primary victory than he enjoyed in his first run and presides over a party in which there’s no longer any meaningful dissent to his leadership.

In 2016, Trump had an actual political program. In this cycle, his program is personal revenge. Implicitly and eventually explicitly, the highest purpose of his presidential campaign will simply be to place him beyond the reach of the law. If he wins on those terms, he’ll interpret it as a mandate from the people to indulge his “retribution” instincts. A country willing to hand him a “get out of jail free” card is willing to let him do anything, he’ll reason—not unreasonably.

And because he’ll be term-limited as president (in theory!), he won’t care if it turns out that he misunderstood that mandate.

Take it from those of us who spotted the wolf approaching once before: It’s rabid this time.

To which the beer-track conservative media replies, “Wolf? What wolf?”

Years ago the conservative writer Rod Dreher proposed something he called “The Law of Merited Impossibility.” It described left-wingers’ propensity to deny any adverse consequences from their culture-war policies—and then, if those consequences appeared, to turn on a dime and insist that their political enemies had it coming. In Dreher’s formulation: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

If Trump becomes president again, we’re destined to get an extended demonstration of The Law of Merited Impossibility from beer-track conservative media: A Trump dictatorship will never happen, but when it does, the right’s enemies will deserve it.

When, not if, he lives down to the expectations I’ve set for him in this newsletter, not one of the pollyannas mentioned earlier will admit they were wrong to have downplayed the threat he posed. They didn’t do it after his first term; why would they start now? None will say they’re sorry because, truthfully, they won’t be. The core conviction of right-wing media is that the worst Republican is preferable to the best Democrat. If Trump ends up behaving in the way I’ve described, that’ll still seem better to them than having an ancient generic liberal as president.

For the beer-track types like Hume and Hewitt, covering his second term will be an exercise in rationalizing why the latest hair-raising action taken by the White House isn’t technically dictatorial, isn’t all that different from something some Democrat once did if you squint hard, and/or is lamentably justified morally because it’s for the good of the country. No matter what he does, be it deploying the military against protesters, ignoring court rulings, or making Stephen Miller emperor of California or whatever, the fact that he’ll be acting in the right’s interests against the left in each case will temper their outrage. They’ll never regret that he defeated Biden.

And the meth-track types will be thrilled with all of it, which is no small thing in an industry like right-wing media. You know how it goes by now: Whatever The People are adamantly for, the propagandists who serve them must not be against. That includes Fox, also needless to say.

You know what the most interesting thing is, though, about mainstream conservative media types asserting that Trump won’t try to seize power? None of them insist that it would be an unthinkable break with character for him to do so, as they assuredly would have for any Republican president in American history to this point.

No one claims that he’s learned his lesson from January 6 and has since reformed. How could they? He babbles about the “rigged election” of 2020 to this day. He’s promised to pardon a “large portion” of the insurrectionists if he returns to office.

“Respectable” right-wing media personalities are so fanatic in their partisanship that they can’t resist defending a candidate whom even they don’t presume to be too civic-minded to try to end the American experiment if given the chance. Eventually all of their reassurances to voters that “it can’t happen here” will be in the vein of “he won’t succeed,” not that he won’t try.

Something like 80 million people, if not more, will end up voting for that. Given the option of an underwhelming but sane Democrat, they’ll roll the dice instead on a guy who plainly prefers to govern like a fascist and has shown some serious intent of purpose in the recent past but might—might—not be able to build the institutional muscle to make it happen next time.

This is who we are now, to borrow a point from a memorable essay by Mark Leibovich. Why shouldn’t the influential figures in our media be as contemptible as we are?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.