How Trump's Candidacy Has Divided Conservative Media
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This presidential campaign has not only divided American voters. Donald Trump has divided conservative media. My guest, Robert Draper, has written a new article in The New York Times Magazine titled, "National Revolt: How Donald Trump's Candidacy Set Off a Civil War Within the Right-Wing Media." He writes about the right-wing bloggers, authors and talk show hosts who oppose Trump and those who support him, including media figures who are actually advising Trump's campaign. Draper is a writer at large for the magazine and has been covering the presidential campaign.
Robert Draper, Welcome back to FRESH AIR. So do you consider this division within conservative media to be very unusual, very atypical?
ROBERT DRAPER: Yes, it's never happened before. I mean, there will be some disagreements in the primary season about who would be the best candidate in terms of electability or who would be the most conservative candidate. But, in my memory, at least - and I'm 58 years old - there has never been a Republican nominee who has split the party and its media personalities. They have all tended, sometimes with reluctance, but nonetheless, have still fallen behind a John McCain or a Mitt Romney or a Bob Dole. No one has said, in the past, this party nominee of ours, this Bob Dole is antithetical to our principles and will shatter our party. No one has, in turn, said to others, if you're not supporting Mitt Romney or you're not supporting Bob Dole, then you are a traitor. This is a truly unique set of circumstances that we're seeing in this election cycle, Terry.
GROSS: So give us a sense on who's on which side.
DRAPER: Sure. On the side that supports Trump, we see people like Laura Ingraham of Fox News, who has her own very popular talk radio show, Ann Coulter, longtime conservative firebrand and author. And as I mentioned, Sean Hannity, perhaps more than anyone else in Fox News. There are several in Fox News who've thrown their support behind Trump, but no one quite to the degree that Hannity has, and it's worth noting as well that Hannity has a radio show that is immensely popular, too. That comprises the side of people who are behind Trump. There are others such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin who are big conservative radio talk show personalities, who have not formally endorsed Donald Trump, but who have said that they will vote for him. They are clearly not wanting to get ahead of their audience, most of whom are behind Trump, but not all of whom are.
On the other side of the spectrum, the never-trump types are led by conservative columnist for The Washington Post, George Will and someone who is very different from Will, but finds himself a strange bedfellow on this particular matter, Erick Erickson, a conservative activist who helped found redstate.com and who has his own radio talk show.
There are also a number of important regional talk-radio types such as Charlie Sykes in Wisconsin and Steve Deace in Iowa, who have been against Trump from the outset. And there are columnists who have written disparagingly of Trump, Kathleen Parker, Charles Krauthammer and, of course, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, in addition to the National Review, which published an entire issue in January of this year called Against Trump.
GROSS: George Will who's one of the senior conservative columnists and pundits is no longer a registered Republican. What was, like, the last straw for him?
DRAPER: There were a series of steps. I mean, this was indeed a process, Terry. He had been chagrined for some time that Trump was even a contestant for the Republican nomination, and I've used the word contestant advisedly because this guy, you know, after all, was a reality TV show star. And Will didn't take him seriously, then realized by the end of last year that he should be taken seriously because Trump was ahead of the polls just before the Iowa caucus.
Will, at that point, wrote that the Republican Party's number-one priority should be to deny Trump the nomination. He didn't say this explicitly, but when I pressed him, he said that, yes, by that he meant number-one priority, even if it cost the Republicans the general election. Once Trump actually managed to win the nomination, Will was deeply chagrined by this. But then another series of circumstances occurred, which I write about in my story, that ultimately compelled him to move away from his party.
He had a dinner party at his house. Will often has these. They're off the record functions with a guest of honor. In this case, it was Ted Cruz one week after Cruz had bowed out of the primaries, in effect, giving the nomination to Trump. There were several people at this dinner party. One of them was the conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham. And though, generally, these are meant to be genteel affairs, and in this particular case, was meant to be one because Cruz had just come off a really brutal and humiliating experience.
Ingraham, nonetheless, took this opportunity to harangue Cruz saying that he needed to throw his support behind Donald Trump right now. She said to him, you know, what kind of conservative leader will you be if you don't do this? Will was really despondent as a result of what took place at this party, and then a couple of weeks later, Speaker Paul Ryan threw his support behind Donald Trump. The day after that happened and after an evening of drinking martinis at home, George Will walked into his office and instructed his assistant to de-register him from the Republican Party saying to his assistant, this is not my party anymore.
GROSS: There were some people in conservative media who have used social media to say, you know, some pretty crude or nasty things about their opponents, and they're kind of famous for that. And, you know, Ann Coulter's on TV all the time saying very provocative things. She's a professional provocateur. And right now, we're seeing people within the conservative movement turning against each other in a way that is sometimes kind of vicious. And I often wonder what it feels like to be - for them to be on the receiving end of some of that.
DRAPER: Well, a good case in point of that is Erick Erickson, one of the early members of redstate.com, the person who popularized that. And, you know, Erickson has been, you know, something of a schoolyard bully, himself, on social media. So this was a guy who knew how to use Twitter and social media as a whole as a blunt object. It surprised Erickson then when, after Trump, very early in the campaign - in fact, after the first debate - had referred to Megyn Kelly having blood coming out of her whatever.
And Erick Erickson, believing that Trump, who was invited to this big RedState gathering that Erickson hosts every year of conservative activists would prove to be too much of a distraction, disinvited Trump from it. It surprised him, not so much that Trump went after him on Twitter. Trump, after all, does that sort of thing. But then Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and other conservative media personalities would follow in line behind Trump battering Erickson. On top of which then, Erickson began to receive death threats. Thirty-thousand people unsubscribed to RedState. And so he ultimately found the spear that he had used so effectively jabbed at him for the first time ever.
GROSS: And you say he had to hire personal security after people came to his door and threatened him.
DRAPER: That's correct, yeah. He was receiving letters from people who discussed how he might be shot. His children were approached in a grocery store by strangers and saying, you know, you need to know that your father is the person who is going to cause the election of Hillary Clinton. And one night a couple people showed up at the doorstep of the Erickson household in Macon, Ga. and said something Erickson would not describe to me precisely what it is, but it was sufficiently threatening that he hired security. And I know we were going to photograph Erickson at his household in Macon, and his wife put the kibosh on that, basically because of ongoing security concerns.
GROSS: So with Erick Erickson, he's very anti-Trump right now. But it's not like he's pro-Hillary. He doesn't want Hillary to run. He feels, as you describe it, like a man without a candidate.
DRAPER: That's right. After all, Erick Erickson, though, he believes himself to be a conservative absolutist, very much, you know, a man of the conservative cause, he also is a Christian and tries to follow his conscience as best he can. Having said that, he has an Atlanta-area radio talk show that caters primarily to white, male conservatives, and he does not wish to go broke. So he's essentially adopted two strategies. One of them is to find whatever opportunity he can to bash Hillary Clinton. And, by the way, he does that - he comes by that bashing sincerely. He has always believed Hillary Clinton to be a bad choice for president and certainly antithetical to the conservative cause. At the same time, talk about Donald Trump as little as possible since it's an unpleasant subject and since bashing Donald Trump on the air is not the way to good ratings.
GROSS: OK. So how do you think ratings are figuring, if at all, into the positions that conservative media people are taking about Trump and the way that they state those positions?
DRAPER: Well, Terry, we could consult an expert on the subject, Donald J. Trump...
DRAPER: ...Who when I talked to him on the phone a couple of weeks ago, said to me about Sean Hannity that, yes, they're friends, but he said most of all, he wants me on his show because of the very good writings I provide to him. I take Trump at his word that - and, in fact, I think it's documentable that ratings for shows like Hannity's have gone up coinciding with the emergence of Donald Trump. I don't think that that's all of it though. Some of it has to do with the fact that Trump is - if not ideologically in lockstep with these guys, temperamentally, he is. There's no more pugilistic candidate we've seen in quite some time than Donald Trump.
He's very much the personification of the guy who will not only bash the Clintons to smithereens, but come in and bash Washington to smithereens. That's a part of it, too. There's an additional factor that I think is more having to do with the egos of these media personalities, and they turn out not to have altogether small egos. Trump, to them, also represents an opportunity. He has this gift, Donald Trump does, for flattering people for making them feel like he really, really is interested in their advice.
I speak, by the way, from personal experience because I've spent a lot of time with Trump including at his resort in Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago where Trump squints intently and listens and asks lots of questions and how do you think I'm doing here and what do you think I should be doing? It was never altogether clear to me whether he really wanted to know the answer because he might make use of it or if he was just sizing me up or if he was just trying to make me feel good.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper, who's a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine. And his new article is called "How Donald Trump Set Off A Civil War Within The Right-Wing Media." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Draper. He's a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his new article is called "How Donald Trump Set Off A Civil War Within The Right-Wing Media." So you write about how conservative media people like Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity have had various kind of advisory roles within the Trump campaign. And Ann Coulter's role in counseling him on a - advising him on immigration policy - like I'll say that she wrote a very anti-immigration book called "Adios, America" and she also now has a book called "In Trump We Trust." That's obviously very pro-Trump. How directly does his anti-immigration position come from her?
DRAPER: It comes very directly from "Adios, America." He received an advance copy of the book which was published, I think, about a month and a half before he announced his campaign on June the 16th of 2015. And, in fact, while Ann Coulter was on the book tour to promote "Adios, America," she was on the radio talk show of Charlie Sykes and began talking about, you know, Mexican rapists. And he found that quite alarming at the time, and then fully a month later heard Donald Trump saying the same thing and realized, wow, that's where that came from.
Now, I actually have spoken to people inside the Trump campaign who provided me with copies of the text that Trump actually had. He had a prepared text for that announcement, which he utterly ignored. Instead, he ad libbed his 50 minute or so speech, and it sounded far more like Ann Coulter's book than it did his prepared text, which only contained two sentences relating to immigration.
Corey Lewandowski, the campaign manager, at that time for the Trump campaign had reached out to Coulter for advice relating to immigration, and, ultimately, to the formulation of Trump's immigration policy, which they put on their website. So her role in that has been concrete. She has also frequently been in contact with him via social media, on the phone and from time to time in person, including a meeting that I memorialized in my story that took place in Mar-a-Lago in which during the course of the primaries she advised him not to be talking anymore about the size of his manhood, instead, to behave in a more presidential fashion.
GROSS: Do you have any idea why people in the Trump campaign told you that he'd basically abandoned the prepared comments and that the things he'd said about Mexican rapists and that they're not sending the good people to us is stuff that he improvised?
DRAPER: Yeah. I mean, it's - this is something a part of an ongoing dynamic in the Trump campaign, and that's that Trump has surrounded himself with individuals who will earnestly try to, quote, unquote, "professionalize" the campaign, make Trump to be something other than what he actually is. They write stacks and stacks of policy memos. They will write speeches. They will craft messaging strategies - all of which Trump will summarily ignore. There were - and I've seen I think maybe five successive drafts of the the Trump announcement speech. And they are laughably at odds with what he ultimately said.
I mean, they have to do with him as a builder and they have to do with his vision for America. There is nothing about Mexican rapists both in tone and in content. They are completely different. This was the fruit of campaign staffers trying to sort of harness Trump, and this, of course, is a continuing narrative in the life of the Trump campaign in which the harnesses are not coming out ahead.
GROSS: In talking about Ann Coulter's role in inspiring some of Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric and policy, she tweeted - and I'm not sure if this was after his campaign announcement announcing that he was running - she tweeted (reading) I don't care if Donald Trump wants to perform abortions in the White House after this immigration policy paper.
And I've just been trying to imagine somebody like William F. Buckley or George Will tweeting something like that or ever saying something like that. It's just inconceivable, like the rhetoric has changed so much within the right-wing media. And...
DRAPER: Well, you're not the only one who thinks that, Terry. The conservative talk show host - and in a lot of ways intellectual godfather in conservative talk radio Mark Levin tweeted back after Ann Coulter's tweet, which, indeed, was immediately following Trump's announcement speech. Levin had said this has to be one of the more pathetic statements that I've ever read.
So a lot of people who are horrified, of course, Ann Coulter has made a career out of horrifying people. And she - among her many gifts, understatement is not one of them. She also had said that that speech was the greatest thing written since "Magna Carta." But, of course, this was self-glorification, too, since Ann Coulter recognized the rhetoric as her own.
GROSS: So I want to ask you another Hannity question. During the debate last week, Donald Trump said, you know - reiterated that he opposed the Iraq War, and he said that he told that to Sean Hannity. And you coincidentally had asked Sean Hannity about that the week before the debate. So what did Hannity have to say to you?
DRAPER: Sure. Sean Hannity actually volunteered to me that he had been recently reminded that Trump used to go on his show in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and they would have these arguments. Trump being anti-invasion and Hannity being very vigorously pro-invasion. And he said that these were on the air, and then he said to me, unfortunately, we switch syndicators. And so it's very hard to find the archives of those, meaning there was no evidence that this sort of thing existed.
But Hannity was nonetheless insistent that such conversations took place and not just once, but more than once in which Trump also said, look, if we are going to go in, we should take the oil. But we shouldn't be going in. Now, this is something of a curiosity because seven months before Hannity volunteered this information to me, Andrew Krazinski (ph) of BuzzFeed managed to unearth the September 11, 2002 radio interview that Trump did on Howard Stern's show in which Stern asked Trump do you think we should go in or do you support going in to invade Iraq? And Trump's answer was, yeah, I guess so. And between that point and the invasion in March of 2003, never was heard a discouraging word from Trump about invading. So what Hannity is saying is that actually he was all the time agitating against war, and Trump has said that himself. But Hannity for whatever reason has not brought this up beforehand. I also later asked from Fox News to - I wanted more information about the efforts to locate archives whether or not these interviews had been digitized, and they would not respond to me.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Draper. After a short break, we'll talk about his article - we'll talk more about his article on the civil war within the right-wing media that's published in this week's New York Times Magazine. Also, Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "The Wonder" by Emma Donoghue who also wrote "Room" which was adapted into a movie last year. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review two albums by drummer Andrew Cyrille. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Robert Draper. We're talking about his article in this week's New York Times Magazine titled "National Revolt: How Donald Trump's Candidacy Has Set Off A Civil War Within The Right-Wing Media." It's about the rift between conservative talk show hosts, pundits, bloggers and columnists about whether Trump is good or bad for the Republican Party and the country. Draper is a writer at large for the magazine and has been covering the presidential campaign.
Donald Trump has basically been saying, you know, I'm intentionally, like, not mentioning the adultery stuff. You know, but I can. And in doing that, he's kind of reintroduced that into the conversation. And I'm wondering what the conversation is like within conservative media about whether that belongs in the debate now, about the presidency and about whether that will be good or bad for Trump if the discussion about Bill's infidelities keeps going.
DRAPER: Well, Terry, I think that that conversation can be just summed up in a single groaning sound. People in the conservative media, and conservatives who I know writ large, basically feel like this is a subject that has been litigated. And while there still may be memory of this and a distaste for Bill Clinton because of it, ultimately, this was prosecuted in impeachment hearings. He was not convicted. And I think that a lot of people would like to see the debate move on from that.
Also, it's become pretty clear that Hillary Clinton is not going to play ball - by the way, I do think that, though, this is a very familiar gambit on Trump's part to say, I could've done ABC, but I decided not to, while still naming ABC - or to often say that, well, some people say ABC, but I'm not necessarily saying that's so. He did that in the case, of course, of Ted Cruz's father perhaps being somehow associated with Lee Harvey Oswald and, by extension, the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
So I do expect that Trump will, perhaps, be a little bit more direct in the next couple of weeks. It's clear that he wants to talk about it. It's clear that - however, that conservative media does not really want to play along.
GROSS: Do you think that the impact of talk radio and cable news is changing in terms of politics in America?
DRAPER: Well, what's clear is that talk radio could dictate, basically, the tenor of the electorate. And I don't think that that has taken place in this election cycle. The numbers show that talk radio is still a very healthy phenomenon. Though, it does not own a monopoly on conservative activism the way it did in the 1990s when Rush Limbaugh ruled the roost. Because of social media, because of Breitbart, because of Drudge - they are not the only voices that count.
But I think, what's remarkable about this election cycle is that while a lot of these talk radio shows have said to me, and I think - and I believe them when they say it - that, look, we've known for some time that there was a rising disgust with Washington, a belief that Washington is broken.
I don't think any of them quite predicted the rise of Donald Trump. Ann Coulter really does stand alone among major conservative media personalities who predicted, straight out of the gate of Trump's candidacy, that he might very well become the Republican nominee. Almost none of them took him seriously. Almost all of them saw a Marco Rubio as a better choice for the party, a more plausible choice for the party. They jumped aboard the Trump train. They weren't the drivers of the train.
GROSS: So we've been talking about the right-wing media. There was a time, not too long ago, when it seemed that the Republican Party establishment and Fox News were pretty much on the same page. And now I'm not sure that the Republican establishment and their presidential candidate are at all on the same page, let alone where Fox News is. So where do you see the Republican establishment being on Fox? Do you see the establishment being split in the same way that the media is?
DRAPER: Well, I think that no area of the overall Republican family has had such an awkward time with the Trump candidacy than Fox News. I mean, I think even more than the Republican National Committee. And you can actually see, on the air at Fox News, people who have made a choice to throw themselves utterly behind Trump and others who have been skeptics and others who have been vigorously opposed to him.
In conservative medium throughout the 1990s, in the advent of Rush Limbaugh and of Matt Drudge and of Fox News, they were sort of like rowdy cousins to William F. Buckley and then later to George Will. But they didn't challenge conservative principles.
Trump is the one who has forced people to say, well, you know, maybe it's really not too important to be talking about tax cuts anymore. Maybe instead we should be talking about building a wall or, you know, maybe it's not so important to throw our weight behind every opportunity to have a foreign adventure as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe it's better to in fact pull back from our allies and our partners such as NATO.
And, I mean, this has caused a rethinking of conservative ideology that - and it's been rather remarkable, I think. My own view is that it's not unhealthy for the conservative movement, but it has been a very public display of awkwardness and of disagreement that, again, we've not seen over the last 25 years.
GROSS: So, as a reporter yourself, what challenges have - has the Trump candidacy posed for you?
DRAPER: Sure. I've been now a lot of time in the proximity of the Trump campaign over the past year. And I've spent a fair amount of time one-on-one with a candidate beginning with March of this year. I've done a number of interviews with him one-on-one, most of them in person, a few of them by phone. Occasionally, he's called me to complain to me about my coverage.
But it's notable to me that Trump, while continually denouncing the media, is in his own way accessible to a number of us. He's been talking to reporters from The New York Times, including myself, constantly for months and months now, where Hillary Clinton, for example, notably has not. And now, I've been at rallies where we are confined to this media pen and where Trump makes a big exercise out of pointing out to everyone in the audience that there is the disgusting, dishonest media. Lots of booing ensues. I've, you know, been a journalist for several decades so I've not ever been concerned that this is going to rise to a level of violence. I hope that I'm not proved wrong on that.
But to me, this is not the civil rights era and being cursed at by people in the crowd is not the same thing as what our colleagues endured 50 years ago going down to the Deep South. But it can be alarming for the uninitiated. And - but my view is that it's for show.
I mean, Trump very much sees himself as an entertainer whose foremost job is to keep people listening. And he has said as much, that when it looks like he's losing the crowd he'll start talking about building the wall and having Mexico pay for it.
GROSS: You must be finding it very interesting to cover this campaign.
DRAPER: Yes. I am. It's - I mean, there's - there are aspects of it that are disquieting. I mean, the sheer vehemence on both sides - this story that I've written in The New York Times Magazine has already gotten a lot of comments, mainly from left-of-center readers from The New York Times. And, though, there's no violence in them, the sheer hatred towards all of these conservative media personalities is unsettling to me. I've come to know a number of them, and I don't find them particularly, you know, hateable. I've encountered this, of course, as a member of the media, and the antipathy that conservatives in particular have expressed towards us.
That aspect of this is very unsettling and I think what particularly concerns me, Terry, is that a lot of us had hoped that maybe this election - I'm saying we hoped this a year or a year and a half ago - that this election might actually provide an opportunity to sort of build at least a rickety bridge between both sides that there'd be some healing after the divisiveness of the last really 16 years or some, perhaps longer.
But there's no end in sight to this. I think that if Trump becomes president and he abuses his authority, there will be articles of impeachment. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, the House Republicans, already lying in wait due to the Benghazi and email server situation. We'll also be contemplating articles of impeachment. I simply do not see a way in which things become better, that the temperature gets lower. And for all of the interest level that this campaign season has provoked in readers and as non-stop entertaining as it is, what comes after this is - amounts to a disquieting prospect.
GROSS: You mentioned that Trump is good at flattering people, and that's - your implication is that that's kind of a tool that he uses.
DRAPER: Well, I have personal experience with him, going back to my first encounter with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago when he walked in, saw me and said nobody told me he was such a handsome guy.
DRAPER: And then throughout what turned out to be about a four-hour evening, Trump, you know, was constantly asking me what I thought about certain members of the media, what I thought about his chances in a particular - the state of Wisconsin, what I thought about particular commercials that other candidates were putting up. And I - as I mentioned, really couldn't tell whether or not he was acutely interested in my opinions or wanted me to feel like that he was interested in my opinions or if he just wanted to hear my opinion, so he knew where I stood, not so that he would follow my opinions.
But, nonetheless, to be around a guy who is a billionaire and has achieved a lot, I think, you know, would probably - that would be like a momentous thing for someone. I can see how for individuals who have not been asked their opinions before by major political figures that Donald Trump doing so would make them feel like, wow, I'm a Donald Trump consultant. And my my own view is that - and I mentioned this in the story - that lest I would have had any kind of illusions that Trump really valued my insights relating to his prospects that just a few days later, I saw him on the campaign rope-line, you know, asking the very same question to total strangers. So this is just something that Trump does.
GROSS: Robert Draper, thank you so much for talking with us.
DRAPER: Sure. It's my pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: Robert Draper's article on the civil war within the right-wing media is in this week's New York Times Magazine. After we take a short break, Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review two albums by drummer Andrew Cyrille. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.