President Biden may have called for unity but he’s also trying to quickly dismantle Trump’s legacy. How has his busy first full week gone down with conservative media?
“They are coming for us,” Newsmax’s Greg Kelly warned his viewers this week.
Joe Biden and the other liberals in Washington were trying “to cancel us and what we stand for”, Kelly explained, just like Donald Trump said they would.
For those unfamiliar with the conservative media landscape, his warning might have sounded melodramatic.
But Kelly knows his audience – and how to tap into their deep unease about where Biden will take America, economically and culturally.
People in places like Kansas, Oklahoma and other Republican-leaning states worry openly about the government trying to control their lives, and to take away their livelihoods.
And in Biden’s flurry of executive orders – he’s signed more than three dozen already including ones on LGBT rights, racial justice, immigration and the environment – the president has provided his critics on the right with plenty of ammunition.
Biden is trying to “radically change the nature of the country”, said conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. He warned listeners about a coming “dictatorship”, one that could be orchestrated through his presidential orders.
Shapiro took aim at the president’s push for racial equity, and a decision to revoke an order, signed by Trump, that prohibited federal funding for workplace training that urges employees to acknowledge concepts like white supremacy and white privilege.
Shapiro described the workshops as “pathetic struggle sessions in which you are called before some sort of human resources, quote, unquote, expert”, and then told you have to learn how not to use offensive language.
The actions from the new administration in the White House come at a moment when conservatives feel attacked from all sides. The former president has been silenced on Twitter and they allege that the social media companies are censoring conservative voices on their platforms.
As Fox News’ Tucker Carlson explained to Axios, many in Trump’s base feel as though the “combined forces of global power have turned on them and are cracking down hard – hilariously, in the name of democracy”.
“It’s a running theme,” says Howard Polskin, publisher of a newsletter, The Righting, that monitors conservative media. “They say there’s going to be massive oversteps by big government, and re-education camps. So many Americans feel their liberties are at stake, and it’s patently false.”
Polskin believes these outlets deliberately exaggerate the threat to play to the audience’s fears – but he argues it’s vital for moderate and liberal America to understand the conversations taking place.
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Some of these conservative Americans get their news from Fox, the Washington Times and other more established brands.
But many rely on upstart media organisations such as Newsmax and One America News, outfits that sometimes veer into conspiracy. Newsmax made unfounded claims of election rigging in the autumn and aired stories about flawed voting machines.
Later, they were threatened with lawsuits from election-machine manufacturers and forced to issue “clarification” notes.
Trump promoted the work of these outlets, and denigrated the mainstream media as “fake news”. Meanwhile, his ardent critics in left-leaning media have spent the past four years trying to bring him down.
What Republican voters think
The percentage of conservatives who felt they could trust traditional media dropped from 25% in 2015 to 13% in 2020, according to Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Conservatives began to turn increasingly to right-wing outlets to hear news in line with their world view, and are relying on them now as their guide to Biden’s Washington.
Biden made national unity a central message during his campaign. In his inaugural address, he called on Americans to come together and listen to each other, “not as adversaries but as neighbours”.
His message of harmony has inevitably run up against the reality that he also needs to deliver on the promises he made to the voters who gave him victory. So he is now dismantling much of what Trump did while president, a move that has hardly endeared him to conservatives and Trump supporters.
But elections have consequences, as the Republicans frequently reminded Democrats over the past four years, while Trump was in office – and as President Obama said to his Republican rivals before that.
In some ways, this is the natural cycle of politics. Power changes hands and the other side – the politicians, the media, the voters – switch roles from cheerleaders to complainers. But might this year be different?
Biden knows that the people who live in these parts of the country, “forgotten America”, as it’s sometimes called, are the ones who rose up and backed Trump, helping to overturn his and Obama’s legacy.
Democrats now have a majority in Congress, but it’s a thin one, and Biden will need the support of Republicans to get major legislation passed. He’ll have a tough time winning over the ultraconservatives. But some moderate Republicans, even in the “forgotten” parts of the country, may be open to his ideas. He cannot afford to ignore their voices today.
Away from the culture wars – arguments over race, sexuality, religion and freedom of speech – and unfounded claims about the election being rigged, conservatives have practical concerns about the economy, now and in the future. What are pandemic restrictions doing to businesses and schools? Will a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy really protect jobs?
For most conservatives, the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline project to transport oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico was not a good start.
While liberals applauded his attempt to fight climate change, conservatives warned workers will get hammered.
“In seven days, this dirt clod of a president has lost more jobs than he’ll ever create,” the Texas-based radio host, Rick Roberts, said earlier this week.
Others warned his efforts to boost wages for hourly workers would hurt small businesses.
Jackie Taylor, the publisher of Linn County News, a conservative newspaper in Kansas, says she was incensed about his order regarding wages for federal workers, laying the groundwork to raise the hourly rate to $15.
It feeds into a greedy mindset, a “gimme, gimme” mentality, she says, and will hurt small businesses and their employees. “I’ll end up laying people off.”
There is also concern about Biden and his new Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s policies on China. They have said the US will stand up to Chinese aggression, in much the same way Trump officials had done. In contrast with their predecessors, though, Blinken said they would work closely with allies to achieve their goals.
Conservatives see it in a different light: that Biden and his cabinet officials will be soft on China and may not be willing to extend the kind of tough sanctions that Trump imposed.
Many of those who live in Trump country are concerned about China’s rise, and about their own prospects in Biden’s America.
Industrial cities and rural communities in the Midwest have been hit hard by the economic downturn, and are unlikely to recover as fast as digital hubs on the East and West coasts.
“They are going to be left out of the American dream in 2021,” says Polskin, the former journalist who now monitors conservative media.
As they see it: “They’re not on that gravy train.”