Children Of Pod Mr. Troll Goes To Washington
Mother Jones|July/August 2021
How Congress became a gop hype house
By Tim Murphy

I’VE SEEN MANY THINGS at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the years, including many things I wish I hadn’t. But until Ted Cruz spoke to a ballroom of activists from the main stage in Orlando in February, I had never seen an elected official interrupt his own speech to promote a podcast.

“Please go subscribe,” barked the Texas Republican, sounding more like a street performer with a SoundCloud than a second-term senator. “Verdict With Ted Cruz! Verdict With Ted Cruz! Click on ‘subscribe.’ Five stars, please!”

One week earlier, Cruz had left his constituents and his poodle behind to wait out his state’s deadly grid failure at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun. It was the sort of PR disaster that would leave many politicians reeling. Cruz tried to monetize the controversy instead, printing a line of Barstool Sports–chic “spring break” tank tops with a caricature of his nascent mullet. He may never lead the Republican Party, but Cruz always knows its temperature, and in the space of a few minutes in Orlando, between jokes about his ill-advised Mexican vacation and plugs for his side project, he managed to distill this conservative moment to its essence. Increasingly, as world-historical crises unfurl all around them—often exacerbated by their own policies and actions—the GOP's most ambitious officials view their primary responsibility less as public servants than as content creators, churning out an endless stream of takes, memes, stunts, and podcasts. So many podcasts.

The Republican Party has long been infused with an irrepressible hustle, what the historian Rick Perlstein calls “mail-order conservatism.” Talk radio and direct mail were not only effective at peddling reactionary politics to voters; they were also perfect vehicles to sell products, such as gold and home security systems. For decades these conjoined strains of politics, entertainment, and marketing have eroded trust in public institutions and the media and provided a template for self-aggrandizement and enrichment. There is nothing really like this on the left; Infowars and Goop sell the same pills, but Gwyneth Paltrow is not fomenting rebellion.

The way conservatism manifested itself over the airwaves has shaped what rank-and-file conservatives expect to be told and how they expect to feel about it. The late Rush Limbaugh’s listeners called themselves “dittoheads,” eager to nod along with everything. Newt Gingrich used to distribute tapes of himself talking so that candidates could emulate his language. In the 1980s, he weaponized C-SPAN’s new House cameras—where members previously addressed each other, Gingrich and his allies began speaking past them. They turned the Capitol into a studio and made politics into a product. Donald Trump easily won the Republican base because it had been primed for someone who could provide both the programming and the commercial breaks, sometimes all at once; in conservative politics, after all, you’re always being asked to buy something.

But Trump’s presidency blew past the old frontiers: The performance of politics became the purpose of it, and the grind of governance became secondary to the responsibilities of posting. It was as if, after years of awkward but largely profitable power-sharing between conservative politicians and conservative media, the Republican Party at last stumbled upon the ultimate efficiency: What if both roles could be played by the same person? Trump once dreamed of spinning a losing presidential bid into his own media entity. During the pandemic, in lieu of crisis management, he turned briefings into a variety show, assembling a rotating cast of characters, and plugging an array of sponsors—MyPillow, Carnival, Pernod Ricard. You would not necessarily get good medical advice, but you would learn that Hanes is a “great consumer cotton products company” that’s being recognized more and more.

There was no issue grave enough to take seriously and no controversy too petty to weigh in on. Anything could be resolved via tweet, precisely because nothing really can; the ephemerality was the point. And a rising generation of politicians learned an important lesson about what conservative voters wanted. If Limbaugh taught them all how to talk, Trump taught them how to govern. His enduring gift was a caucus of content creators.

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