The government shutdown over funding for a border wall is over (at least for now). But President Trump has a new problem: His biggest allies in the media are lashing out at him directly.
After Trump announced he would reopen the government for three weeks to negotiate a long-term solution (with no promise of border wall funds), a number of high-profile media personalities on the right were livid, including some of the president’s most prominent supporters.
Right-leaning pundit Ann Coulter, who called Trump a “sociopath” in December while arguing that perhaps only a sociopath could win the fight to build a border wall, tweeted Friday that Trump’s decision made him a “wimp” in the line of late President George H.W. Bush. (It should be noted that for all his faults, President H.W. Bush was not a wimp.)
Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States.— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) January 25, 2019
But Coulter isn’t just a Trump-supportive media personality. Her 2015 book Adios, America, which was full of anecdotes about “Latin American rape culture,” was a Trump favorite when he launched his presidential campaign. Coulter even introduced Trump at a 2015 rally in Dubuque, Iowa, saying, “I love the idea of the Great Wall of Trump. ... Make it a big worldwide tourist attraction and everyday live drone shows whenever anyone tries to cross the border. I have not had this much hope for America since November 7, 2012.” She followed up Adios, America with her 2016 book, In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!
Coulter wasn’t alone in calling Trump out on the carpet. Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, a longtime immigration hawk, said on his show Friday that Trump had been “whipped” by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “This president said it was going to be conditional, border security, building that wall, and he just reversed himself. That’s a victory for Nancy Pelosi.”
Trump attempted to fire back against his critics on Twitter and in interviews, even railing against Fox News for its coverage of negotiations over a border wall by opining that two Fox News reporters “have even less understanding” of those discussions than CNN or NBC. And he spoke out against Coulter specifically, telling a Wall Street Journal reporter, “I hear she’s become very hostile. Maybe I didn’t return her phone call or something.” I reached out to Coulter, but she did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s infrastructure of support is multifaceted, but it depends on reliable and, most importantly, highly visible allies, like Coulter. His recent collapse on funding for a border wall, his signature issue, has pushed some of those allies to the breaking point. He didn’t win the shutdown — and his most vociferous defenders won’t let him forget it.
Trump, Coulter, and the shutdown
When the shutdown began more than a month ago, Coulter and other figures in right-leaning media were central characters. As I wrote in December, Coulter and other prominent media figures on the right turned up the heat on Trump when it appeared he might cave on border wall funds. Coulter even wrote that without a border wall, Trump’s time in the White House “will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people.”
Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said that border wall funding “was worth” shutting down the government over, and that otherwise, Trump would “look like a loser.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said of Coulter and radio host Rush Limbaugh, “We have two talk radio show hosts who basically influenced the president, and we’re in a shutdown mode. It’s just — that’s tyranny, isn’t it?”
And during the shutdown, Coulter said repeatedly that the closure of large government agencies — which furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal employees and put health care access for people living on Indian reservations at risk — was worth the pain.
On Vice News Tonight, she said, “More Americans die from drug overdose every year than died in the entire course of the Vietnam War, and the vast majority of those drugs are being brought in because we have a wide-open border. I care more about that than I care about the Yosemite gift shop being open.”
Visible and highly visited conservative media outlets — including Fox News most prominently — have been critical to both Trump’s rise to the presidency and his continued popularity among Republicans. And Trump and conservative media have developed a symbiotic relationship of sorts; he bases his statements and tweets on what Fox News pundits say on television, while those same pundits, aware of Trump’s viewing habits, aim news coverage of events (like the migrant caravan last fall) directly at Trump with the hope of driving his actions.
But Coulter takes a transactional approach to Trump. Her support for him is based on one single issue: getting a border wall built on the US-Mexico border as part of a crackdown on immigration. And she’s not alone; within conservative media, Trump is viewed by many as a means to an end, whether that’s conservative judicial nominations or deregulation of businesses and corporations. Sure, he might be crude and cruel, but he’s their only option. As conservative writer Kevin Williamson wrote of American Christians supporting Trump, they are “obliged to operate in a secular political system, the democratic realities of which necessitate various compromises and tradeoffs” to get what they want.
Yet Trump caving on the border wall isn’t what Coulter wanted. And by breaking his only real campaign promise, Trump has upended the unspoken pact he made with one of his most visible and prominent supporters — he can do whatever he wants, but he better build the wall.
But many of Trump’s supporters in media are still holding firm
To be clear, many of Trump’s supporters in media aren’t like Coulter. On Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite television show, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich defended Trump and said Coulter “doesn’t know anything about how you put a majority together. She’s off here in some fantasyland where she gets to be noisy, which helps her sell books.” Coulter responded on Twitter that Trump voters could be organized into two factions, “the Tell the Truth faction and the Kiss the Emperor’s Ass camp.”
Trump voters have fallen into 2 factions: The Tell the Truth faction and the Kiss the Emperor’s Ass camp. Newt and I have picked different camps.— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) January 28, 2019
And to be frank, the “Kiss the Emperor’s Ass camp” is a large one. Take Sean Hannity, the longtime Fox News host and Trump confidant. On Friday, Hannity said on his primetime show, “Anyone out there, by the way, thinking President Trump caved today, you don’t really know the Donald Trump I know,” adding that he would secure the border, “one way or another.”
And while covering Trump’s Rose Garden announcement of the end of the government shutdown, Rush Limbaugh and his callers praised Trump’s “rousing” “State of the Union” address and argued that the speech put the onus for action on Democrats to negotiate.
For these Trump supporters in media, Trump himself is the point of being a Trump supporter. That means that anything Trump does — bombing Syria or failing to get wall funding in the midst of an unpopular government shutdown — is worthy of support, because Trump himself is worthy of support. That perspective makes it easier to counter criticisms and remain steadfast behind him.
As J.J. McCullough wrote in National Review earlier this month, while some of Trump’s supporters, like Coulter, have a transactional relationship with the president, much of his base doesn’t. A majority of Republican voters hold Trump in incredibly high esteem, regardless of what his policies result in, or even what his policies are:
There will always be much to say about the practical consequences of what Trump does with his powers of office. He is a politician, after all, and regardless of what motivates his decisions, their outcomes can be judged and measured. What must be conceded, however, is that a sizable chunk of the U.S. electorate does not use this metric to assess the president and instead judges Trump through a prism of predetermined conclusions about the man’s inherent trustworthiness and competence. This deferential attitude solidified quite some time ago and is not particularly shakable today.
But conservative media matters, not just to how non-conservatives make sense of the Trump administration, but to Trump himself. Coulter’s criticism has already drawn his ire publicly, as has tough reporting from his favorite news outlet.
Never thought I’d say this but I think @johnrobertsFox and @GillianHTurner @FoxNews have even less understanding of the Wall negotiations than the folks at FAKE NEWS CNN & NBC! Look to final results! Don’t know how my poll numbers are so good, especially up 19% with Hispanics?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2019
It was criticism from Coulter and others on Fox News that helped push Trump to change course and demand $5 billion for a border wall, launching the government into a partial shutdown. With three weeks to go until the administration’s self-imposed deadline for negotiations over the border wall, transactional Trump supporters in the media could do it all over again.
Correction 1/29: A previous version of this story misstated Lou Dobbs’s network affiliation.