When the Republican National Convention kicked off Monday night, millions of viewers nationwide saw Charlie Kirk stride to the podium as the first speaker.
It’s possible, even likely, that most people had no idea who he was. But avid consumers of right-wing media, from viral Facebook content to the Fox News Channel, would have easily recognized the young man who proceeded to deliver a rallying cry that dubbed President Donald Trump the “bodyguard of Western civilization” who was “elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life, our neighborhoods, schools, churches and values.”
Kirk, a frequent Fox News guest, filled his address with references that are steeped in right-wing media outrage. He condemned alleged tech censorship and “kicking doctors off social media,” falsely insinuated activists had forced the arrest of pastors, and said the American way of life means “church is more essential than a casino.”
Kirk’s speech was vaguely understandable on its own, but like much of the RNC, it only really made sense within the world created by Fox News and pro-Trump media outlets. It exists as part of a right-wing media ecosystem that has elevated divisive voices like Kirk’s who push the narrative that white America is under siege and only Trump can save it ― a message that has so far defined the Republican National Convention.
The speakers at the RNC this week have at least 3,171 combined appearances on Fox News since August 2017 alone, according to analysis from nonprofit group Media Matters for America. Some have made hundreds of appearances on the network, while others would not be public figures at all without right-wing media’s embrace.
It’s a reflection of how right-wing media has shaped the modern GOP, turning right-wing activists such as Kirk and fringe politicians into Trump World celebrities who now command center stage at the party’s marquee event.
Handout . / reuters Charlie Kirk speaks by video feed during the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention broadcast.
On Monday, Mark and Patricia McCloskey appeared at the RNC. The St. Louis couple, both personal injury lawyers, gained national prominence last month after they pointed guns at anti-racism protesters marching past their palatial mansion in a gated community. The McCloskeys are facing felony charges for unlawful use of a weapon and became the subject of widespread derision as the image of Mark McCloskey in a pink polo shirt and white pants holding a semi-automatic rifle made him into a symbol of affluent white panic.
Right-wing media covered the incident differently, misleadingly portraying the McCloskeys as a sort of typical suburban couple under attack from unruly radicals and Democratic officials. On Fox and other right-wing outlets, the McCloskeys have been unfairly persecuted merely for defending their home, with the implication to viewers that a leftist horde could come for them next. Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed last month that the couple had become “folk heroes” for confronting a “dangerous mob,” and both right-wing media and the White House have lined up to defend them against their felony charges.
The McCloskeys appeared on “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning, claiming that the St. Louis Dispatch newspaper had run “character assassination” articles on them for accurately reporting their long history of conflict with neighbors and their aggressive litigation of minor disagreements. Their speech at the RNC later that day was a fear-mongering warning to the suburban voters Trump has tried to court during his campaign.
“Make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America,” Patricia McCloskey said, repeating Trump’s claim that Democrats want to “abolish the suburbs.”
Republican conventions have for decades featured conservative celebrities and activists like the McCloskeys as accessories in service of the candidate’s talking points. In 2008, the RNC gave a platform to conservative activist “Joe The Plumber,” an Ohio man who became a right-wing media sensation after confronting former President Barack Obama about taxes. Family members of those killed by undocumented immigrants spoke at the 2016 convention to lend a sense of legitimacy to Trump’s draconian anti-immigration policies.
But years of the Trump administration and the increasingly far-right leanings of conservative media have pushed these personalities to the forefront and made the entire convention resemble a pro-Trump media production. Many of the speakers at the RNC are purely creations of the right-wing media ecosystem, whose viral moments or relevance would have quickly faded if it wasn’t for their utility to conservative media and their white grievance politics.
Clint Eastwood may have bizarrely talked to an empty chair at the 2012 RNC, but at the end of the day, he was still Clint Eastwood. Who are the McCloskeys without Fox?
Handout . / reuters Patricia and Mark McCloskey, who confronted protesters outside their home while holding weapons, speak by video feed at the Republican National Convention.
Other speakers to come from the right-wing media roster of culture war celebrities include Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann, a MAGA teen who sued news outlets that reported he harassed a Native American activist; anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, whose story was turned into the 2019 movie “Unplanned” that spread dangerous falsehoods about abortion and received an endorsement from Vice President Mike Pence; and congressional candidate and former NFL player Burgess Owens, who has made numerous right-wing media appearances condemning kneeling during the national anthem and criticizing Black Lives Matter.
The politicians and political activists speaking at the convention are, similarly, conservative media favorites and frequent guests. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) do not wield any notable power in the House of Representatives, nor are either from competitive districts, but they received prime speaking slots Monday. Both have appeared on Fox News over 200 times in recent years, according to Media Matters.
Speakers Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and former acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell are both frequently celebrated in right-wing media, and Grenell spent years as a Fox News contributor. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News host who appeared on Monday, brought the talking points of her former network as she warned of a “socialist Biden-Harris future for our country.”
Fox News and right-wing media’s integration with Trump’s Republican Party extends far past whatever traditional influence media outlets have in shaping politics. Right-wing media stars have abandoned any semblance of journalistic standards to become deeply intertwined with the subjects they cover, and often play the role of political operatives.
Gaetz, for instance, privately consulted Fox News host Sean Hannity after tweeting an attack against former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that resulted in a House Ethics Committee investigation. Texts between the two show Hannity asking Gaetz to “Run this shit by me!!!” and offering advice on how long to “lay low,” the Ethics Committee report revealed.
Fox Host Laura Ingraham has privately met with Trump to lobby him about the use of hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19, an anti-malarial drug that clinical trials have so far proven is ineffective against the virus. Carlson drove to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in March for a private meeting with the president about coronavirus in an attempt to shape his response. Reporter John Solomon and far-right network One America News have been instrumental in laundering conspiracy theories from Rudy Giuliani ― Trump’s media-obsessed personal lawyer who is also a speaker at the convention ― that accuse Democrats of improperly interfering in Ukrainian politics to harm Trump.
These are not the roles of journalists, but they are indicative of how tightly connected the right-wing media ecosystem is with the Trump administration. The Republican National Convention this week is emblematic of that co-dependence: Speakers are media mainstays, MAGA celebrities and Trump family members who right-wing outlets have spun into a funhouse-mirror version of the Kennedys.
Trump, who will speak each day of the convention, is also partly a creation of that relationship. His rise within the party is inextricable from the way right-wing media pushed his nativist message, and since his election, an entire ecosystem of partisan media has thrived by spreading misinformation to support him.
Right-wing media has reached record audiences with this model, but it’s not one that requires Trump to continue. As long as right-wing media is able to retain its power as the Republican Party’s mediator and kingmaker, the future of the party will be a parade of Kirks and McCloskeys.
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