It’s a new moment of change for conservative media in America. Back in the 1980s, the radio host Rush Limbaugh pioneered a form of right-wing talk radio that connected with millions of listeners, fueled resentment toward political and cultural liberalism, and helped elect Republicans across the United States. Fox News debuted in the 1990s, bringing a new televisual force to the American right while casting itself as an alternative to mainstream media dominated by left-wing bias. In the following decades, conservative media increasingly shaped the style and substance of Republican politics—eventually epitomized by the brash and brawling former President Donald Trump, a one-time reality-TV star. Throughout Trump’s presidency, these media outlets championed him—and with him, a populist form of right-wing politics increasingly in tension with traditional conservative ideas. With Trump out of office, how is the conservative-media ecosystem adapting?

As Brian Rosenwald—a historian of politics and media, and the author of Talk Radio’s America—sees it, these institutions are becoming, if anything, more Trump-like. They show sympathy for Trump’s supporters and no mercy with his detractors. In the meantime, they continue to portray Biden as a senile stooge of socialist radicals and it will, in all likelihood, continue to oppose him no matter what he says or does. They might struggle at times to portray elected Democrats as villains, Rosenwald says, but will then reliably pivot to cultural coverage, decrying a “woke” left-wing tendency that they, traditional conservatives, and others see rising in schools, workplaces, and the corporate world. Right-wing media may eventually not need Trump but, to Rosenwald, it will indefinitely need in business what Trump has always needed in politics: threats and enemies.

Graham Vyse: How did conservative media help the Republican Party arrive at this moment?

Brian Rosenwald: Conservative media drove distrust in mainstream media. If you listened to Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s, the people calling into his show might have been reading The Wall Street Journal, because it was the most right-leaning newspaper, but they were also probably watching the nightly news, because they didn’t have a lot of options. They were getting a steady diet of facts in addition to their conservative perspective. Then the new conservative media proliferated. By the 2010s, the Limbaugh audience wasn’t consuming mainstream media. If they heard something from mainstream media, they wrote it off as biased leftism out to get anyone who would fight for them and their values.

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