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Sean Hannity called a columnist an asshole. What happened next explains Donald Trump.

Sean Hannity (L) and Bret Stephens.
Veni Markovski/Rob Kim/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

One person calls the other dumb. The second guy responds by calling the first an "asshole" and a "dumbass with his head up his ass." The first guy fires back again, accusing his "thin-skinned" antagonist of throwing a "tantrum."

Is this a middle school playground argument? Two drunks yelling at a bar? A YouTube comments section?

Nah. It’s a war of words between two of America’s most prominent conservative pundits: Fox News anchor Sean Hannity and Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens. The two men are at odds over, what else, Donald Trump. And the fight ended up getting a bit personal:

What’s interesting here isn’t just how nasty the fight is. It’s what the spat tells us about the core divides within the conservative movement in the age of Trump.

The Hannity-Stephens divide is really a fight over how we got to Trump. Hannity argues that Trump’s rise is a logical response to the inability of feckless conservative elites like Stephens to stop Obama. Stephens thinks that Trump is an outgrowth of an anti-intellectual "echo chamber" inhabited by people like Hannity.

This is one of the major cleavages in the conservative movement today. The way the argument shakes out will have a profound impact on the conservative movement’s future, so it’s worth paying attention to.

But the truth is that the debate is taking place under false pretenses. Hannity and Stephens see themselves as opposed, but the truth is that they’re both part of the same "echo chamber" Stephens ironically decries. It’s this broader conservative worldview, defined by a widespread acceptance of unsupportable ideas, that helped give rise to Trump.

People like Stephens can condemn Hannity and Trump all they want. But if they want to understand what went wrong, they need to take a very hard look at themselves.

Stephens versus Hannity previews the conservative civil war over what Trump means

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Erie, PA (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

The Stephens-Hannity fight began with a August 3 radio monologue by Hannity that attacked the Republican leadership. According to Hannity, GOP elites need to line up behind Donald Trump — or they’ll be to blame for Hillary Clinton.

"If in 96 days Trump loses this election, I am pointing the finger directly at people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain," Hannity said. "I have watched these Republicans be more harsh toward Donald Trump than they’ve ever been in standing up to Barack Obama and his radical agenda."

To Hannity, Trump is a perfectly conservative candidate, entirely consistent with what the GOP has been preaching for years. "I don’t think there’s anything about Trump’s agenda that isn’t conservative except maybe with the issue of trade," Hannity argues. "You created Donald Trump, all of you. Because of your ineffectiveness, because of your weakness, your spinelessness, your lack of vision, your inability to fight Obama."

Stephens, who thinks Trump is an affront to conservative values, was quite offended. "Fox News' dumbest anchor had a message for y'all," he tweeted the next day.

This really set Hannity off: He wrote a series of four tweets attacking Stephens. "It's arrogant, elitist, enablers like you that never hold R's accountable that created the opening for Trump!!" Hannity wrote, adding that "if Hillary wins I will hold assholes like you accountable." On his August 5 radio show, he devoted a segment to attacking Stephens, coining the now-immortal "dumbass with his head up his ass" sick burn.

Stephens once again responded via Twitter, writing that "Fox News's Dumbest Anchor is also its most thin-skinned." He then devoted his entire August 8 column in the Journal to attacking Hannity, calling him a Trump enabler and blaming him for the collapse of Republican principles.

"Mr. Hannity’s excuses are even more disgraceful, combining oily self-absolution with venomous obloquy for the very conservatives who have spent the year warning that a Trump candidacy is an epic GOP disaster that all-but guarantees Hillary Clinton’s election," Stephens writes. "The habit of shifting blame and refusing to take responsibility is supposed to be the curse of the underclass and its political hucksters, but Mr. Hannity is giving Al Sharpton a run for his money."

The key question here: Who’s to blame for Trump’s rise?

This guy?
(Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images)

What’s fascinating in this whole dispute isn’t just the childish insults lobbed between two allegedly grown men. It’s that both sides, pro- and anti-Trump, are blaming the other for Trump’s rise.

In Hannity’s telling, Trump’s rise is an understandable response by conservative voters to the weakness of Republican elites. Elites’ failure to attack Obama even more aggressively frustrated those voters, leaving them no choice but to turn to an aggressive populist like Trump. Turning away from Trump now, Hannity argues, would be a betrayal of conservative principles. It would leave the Supreme Court and America’s immigration system to Hillary Clinton’s tender mercies.

In Stephens’s telling, by contrast, Trump is a cancer on conservatism. He’s been supported by an absurd fringe within the conservative movement that, out of contact with political reality, has blamed elites for failing to miraculously stop Obama. These hucksters, either "stupid or dishonest," lie to voters about the elites betraying them and conservatism. In doing so, they whipped up furor against Republican elites, setting the stage for a principle-free huckster to prey on angry voters’ emotions to advance a fundamentally anti-conservative agenda.

"Who might help lead this Unglorious Revolution of the crass, clueless and shoulder-chipped?" Stephens asks. "Those who can make themselves rich by shouting and hearing echoes of themselves even as the GOP loses one presidential election after another."

If, as seems increasingly likely, Trump loses the election, then this is one of the debates that will roil the conservative movement. Was Trump a true conservative, betrayed by the Washington establishment? Or was he a scam, sold by an unprincipled wing of the conservative movement that needs to banished if the Republican Party is to return to power?

This debate will help determine the lasting influence of Trumpism on Republican politics. If the Hannity wing wins out among Republican voters, then expect to see a wave of primary challenges and an overall shift in Republican policies towards Trump’s white populism. If the Stephens wing wins, then expect a purge of the Trump supporters from the party’s ranks and a return to unbending movement conservative orthodoxy.

The irony: Stephens is complicit in Trump’s rise, and he has no idea why

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Erie, PA (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

The obvious question at this point is who’s correct? Is Trump part of the conservative movement or an anomaly? As you might guess, neither Hannity nor Stephens gets it quite right.

As a matter of policy, Stephens is right that Trump is really different from the way conservatives present themselves. Trump doesn’t really talk about deficits or abortion, and he’s a skeptic of nation building and American alliances abroad. In that sense, Trump isn’t an authentic product of the conservative movement. He’s a challenge to the idea that Republican voters actually support conservative ideals.

But as a matter of politics, Hannity is closer to right. Stephens and his ilk really did help create Trump — and they’re completely blind to the way in which they did it.

The really telling moment is an MSNBC interview with Stephens on August 8. In the interview, Stephens bemoans the way that "too much of the Republican Party became an echo chamber of itself":

If you spend your time listening to certain cable shows all the time, listening to nobody else, if you're prone to the kind of conspiracy theories that whiz around on Twitter or certain fringes of the internet, you end up having this kind of conversation that's just increasingly divorced from reality.

This reads like a devastating indictment of Hannity and the rest of Fox News. But it functions equally well as an indictment of Stephens himself.

Stephens wrote an entire book called America in Retreat, attacking Obama for bringing on a "new isolationism" in American foreign policy. This — there’s no way for me to say this kindly — is an utterly ludicrous thesis.

We know what a "new isolationism" looks like: It’s Donald Trump, with his skepticism of the bipartisan commitment to NATO and alliances in East Asia that have formed the bedrock of American foreign policy since World War II.

By contrast, Obama has maintained roughly 800 military bases worldwide, as well as a military presence in about 76 percent of the world’s countries. He has pledged to defend NATO and East Asian allies repeatedly. He has intervened in several foreign conflicts, toppling Muammar Qaddafi and launching a major air campaign against ISIS. The idea that this is some kind of "isolationism" is laughable.

Yet Stephens wrote a whole book premised on the idea that "America’s retreat ... is the central fact of this decade." He wasn’t criticized for this inside the conservative movement. In fact, his book was widely praised by his peers.

That’s because its core argument wasn’t especially original. It was a repetition of the constant refrain among conservatives writers and politicians that Obama was withdrawing from the world because he refused to intervene in every conflict. As if America’s globe-spanning military commitments would disappear if the US weren’t incrementally more involved in the Syrian civil war.

This is hardly the only time that Stephens has said something like this and been praised for it. Perhaps the most infamous example (there are many) is a 2013 column about the interim nuclear deal with Iran. Stephens called it "worse than Munich," a reference to the 1938 accord that ceded part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.

Three years after Munich, Hitler had conquered the bulk of the European continent. SS killing squads on the Eastern front were slaughtering thousands of Jews, and Nazi scientists were beginning to experiment with gas chambers. It’s nearly three years after the interim Iran deal, and Iran has conquered exactly zero countries.

Stephens’s column was, at the time, praised by conservative foreign policy elites. The "worse than Munich" line proved so popular that Commentary writer Rick Richman recycled it last year, calling the final Iran deal "much worse than Munich." (A year after Munich, World War II had begun. We are not in World War III).

Stephens himself is in the echo chamber he decries. No scholar of international relations outside the conservative bubble thinks America is in retreat. In fact, the hot academic debate is between people who are angry America isn’t withdrawing and defenders of the status quo. Likewise, no credible expert thinks the Iran deal is a disaster on par with appeasing Hitler.

But in conservative land, opinions like these are perfectly acceptable to hold. Outside criticism is dismissed as a product of liberal bias in media and academia, or as rank apologism for the Obama administration. This is the environment in which climate change denial flourishes, and the idea that cutting taxes on the rich decreases deficits can remain a respectable thing to say.

There is no bright line between Bret Stephens and Sean Hannity. They can both only exist in a conservative informational environment where independent intellectual authorities are disregarded and a certain set of politically convenient but indefensible ideas are treated as catechisms. The key difference is that Hannity is less pretentious about it.

Conservative politicians were all too happy to cater to these institutions — after all, they help them win. Several academic studies have found that Fox News has had statistically significant (if occasionally overstated) effect on Republican vote share in presidential elections.

This Faustian bargain is biting conservative elites in the ass.

Rank-and-file voters bought into movement conservatism as an expression of cultural grievance and racism, not deep commitment to limited government principles. When someone better at manipulating those grievances came along, conservative elites couldn’t stop him by calling him out of touch with the expert policy consensus. They had spent years delegitimizing that criticism.

Not every conservative is complicit in this, of course. But what we’re seeing now is a lot of purveyors of crank ideas, like Stephens, wondering how a purveyor of a different set of crank ideas could hijack their movement.

During his MSNBC appearance, Stephens hoped that a Trump defeat "might be a wake-up call to those Republicans who have existed in this little thought bubble." The irony is inexpressible.

The political science that predicted Trump's rise

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